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Trigger warnings in the class room / by Freddie Francis, Chris Lee, and Stephanie Rihannon Bird

For years trigger warnings have been a commonplace in radical spaces, but only recently have trigger warnings come into the mainstream. Earlier this year, several universities implemented policies recommending or requiring trigger warnings in response to students’ urging. Oberlin College’s new trigger warning policy in particular has generated controversy: not only does it encourage professors to be aware of “racism, sexism, classism, ableism, and other forms of privilege and oppression,” it recommends making triggering material optional, or removing it from the curriculum entirely.

Most media coverage I've seen is polarized, reduced to a simple binary: right-wingers (and yes, I’ll say it, cisgender straight white guys) are unsympathetic to others who've experienced trauma, scoffing at the possibility that a classroom discussion could be emotionally disturbing. Meanwhile, many bleeding heart lefties and “social justice warriors” (that’s a perjorative now!) push for catch-all trigger warnings across the board. I think both of these arguments are simplified.

All of us who contribute to the Media care about supporting survivors of trauma, whether that trauma takes the form of a single occurrence of violence or whether it's daily microaggressions rooted in one's racial, gender, sexual, or class identity. But our conversations around trigger warnings show it's not as simple as demonstrating compassion or indifference toward someone who has experienced trauma. Chris Lee (CL), Stephanie Rihannon Bird (SRB), and I (FF) spoke about the experiences and questions the trigger warning conversation brings up for each of us.

FF: Let’s start by talking about where we’re coming from. Although I think the issue has a lot of complexities, I’m feeling a little defensive of the purpose and use of trigger warnings because of the whole “grow a thicker skin” attitude that a lot of us survivors of violence experience. Some folks liken trigger warnings to censorship, which it's clearly not. As this conversation spread, my initial feeling was that people opposed to trigger warnings are blatantly disregarding those of us who've experienced sexual, racist, or gender-based violence. I'm starting to understand it's more complicated than that. Still, my feeling is, why not take the extra moment for a trigger warning if it could potentially make the conversation slightly more manageable for someone who's already been through traumatic violence?

SRB: I'm a survivor of rape, assault and domestic abuse. I sometimes use trigger warnings when dealing with specific content. But I'm concerned that they, as I know and experience them, undermine the nuance (and thereby the extensive reality) of trauma.

CL: My feeling is that there can be a place for discomfort in pedagogy -- in part because so much radical theory stems from engaging thoughtfully with what makes us uncomfortable. While I'm not into catch-all 'trigger warnings' for traumatic subjects, I am definitely for greater contextualization and intentionality. I think it's the responsibility of the educator to facilitate, if not a method of opting out, then at least an elastic approach to honoring people's different realities. Basically I wonder if trigger warnings are equipped to handle the very real possibility of people being emotionally wounded in class settings, or if we also need to radically reconsider the educator's roles in caring for students when these things happen.

Part of negotiating a debate on trigger warnings means figuring out what triggering means, because while in some cases these refer to specific forms of violence, commonly sexual assault or intimate partner violence, which, when triggered, bring about physical and emotional distress, triggers have also been recommended for war, colonialism, for shitty dudes, etcetera.

FF: One important distinction my friend Antonia made is that lots of people who are arguing against trigger warnings are conflating being triggered with being upset or offended. Being triggered looks and feels different for different people and can involve dissociation, panic attacks, or anxiety severe enough to prevent one from being able to communicate or otherwise function. While trigger warnings aren’t a catch-all prevention for these effects, they can definitely help.

SRB: Something I’d add to that is that a trigger warning itself has also been "triggering", in that whenever I see "trigger warning: rape", I process my rape. So the trigger warning doesn't necessarily offer me the choice I presume it's aiming for.

FF: We can't eliminate the long-term effects trauma has on people, but we can do our best to make tiny accommodations and let people with past trauma make their own decisions about what they can presently handle. Sometimes that means sitting something out, and sometimes it's as simple as taking a deep breath before launching into something that could cause further mental or emotional damage.

CL: One way I think trigger warnings limit us is that they shift attention to the types of media assigned to students, instead of focusing on the ways teachers can communicate with their students, and how students can talk past each other. As a student mainly of critical race theories, gender and sexuality, and religion (hewing to fields traditionally rich with trauma) I’ve seen a number of discussions get heated, combative, or fractured to the point that people have left the room, broken out into tears, or torn up class up materials. Yet these experiences have generally arisen, in my mind, out of a teacher’ inability to lead a discussion, or a student taking up too much rhetorical space.

As someone who is all about negotiating binaries, I do think it’s okay to be both wary of trigger warnings in the classroom and advocate their practical usage. In the case of Professor Brittney Cooper, who wrote a piece for Salon called “No Trigger Warnings in my Class,” -- she admits to using trigger warnings in her own internet presence, while not using them on her syllabi. She also accommodates some students with alternative assignments, and attempts to engage others when she and they see space for that. Because education can be a site of growth and, ideally, patience and flexibility, teaching needs to be handled contextually, and not administratively.

FF: Okay. But regardless of what accommodations an educator makes, students who have experienced trauma are at risk for being triggered, which affects their education and more importantly, their overall wellbeing. Aren’t trigger warnings a part of acknowledging students are also whole people with diverse life experiences beyond the classroom?

SRB: I see trigger warnings everywhere and I wonder if they're inhibiting the kinds of conversations we need to have in order to empathize openly with each other and be responsible for each others lived experience. I wonder if they effectively function like a hashtag to encourage us to archive our traumas as very personal histories instead of process them as collective reality.

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