What is a Trigger Warning?

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I really love Brittany Cooper over at Salon. She’s challenged me to think about race and gender politics in new ways, and I almost always find myself informed in new ways when reading her work. So I was extremely disappointed to find this (admittedly slightly outdated) article in which she argues against the use of trigger warnings in the classroom.

Cooper says of difficult topics like violence and race “learning about these topics are all necessary forms of education. And trigger warnings won’t solve or ameliorate the problems that open, frank, guided discussion by well-trained, competent instructors can.” But just a few paragraphs before she mentions “Those of us who teach about traumatic material – say, war, or the history of lynching, or rape and sexual assault, or domestic violence – usually alert students if they are going to encounter violent material.”

Perhaps I have drastically misunderstood what trigger warnings are (which seems weird because I spend a lot of time reading about them, thinking about them, and also getting triggered by stuff that doesn’t have a warning), but it sounds to me as if Cooper actually does give verbal trigger warnings to her students but is simply against labeling them “trigger warnings”. As I’ve said before (many, many times), a trigger warning is simply a heads up to a reader to let them know that there is potentially triggering content.

By triggering, I don’t mean upsetting, new, uncomfortable, or difficult content. I mean content that causes someone to have an intense and uncontrollable emotional reaction, often with flashbacks, physical symptoms (sometimes exclusively physical such as a seizure for someone whose epilepsy is triggered), or impairment of their functioning. It usually involves a mental illness and the symptoms and difficulties associated with that mental illness taking center stage for the individual who is triggered.

A trigger warning is NOT censorship. It is not saying that the content is bad. It is very similar to a content note in that it alerts readers to what’s coming up. Generally it does so to allow someone who might be triggered to take care of themselves. Online that might mean choosing not to read the piece. But I know of almost no teachers who believe that trigger warnings exist to allow students to opt out of certain conversations.

Instead, it’s there to allow the student to choose how they’re going to read the piece. Maybe they won’t do this piece of homework in a coffee shop, maybe they’ll give themselves extra time so they can engage in self care, maybe they’ll ask a friend to be around while they read it. If a particular trigger is especially bad, it opens the door for them to discuss with their teacher if there is another way for them to cover the same material. But in no way does telling someone “hey, take care of yourself” mean the same thing as “you don’t have to grapple with this issue.”

Cooper suggests that the way to handle these sensitive topics is to have a well trained teacher who can help students deal openly with their feelings. Hear hear! I absolutely agree that educators should be well schooled in how to address topics that might provoke intense emotions from students. But what that doesn’t deal with is the fact that students generally do the reading that contains these topics on their own, outside of class with no one to support them or walk them through a nuanced discussion.

I have yet to see a clear articulation of how a trigger warning impedes honest discussion and engagement with a variety of ideas. I have yet to see anyone point out how a trigger warning might keep a student from being exposed to new viewpoints or from dealing with difficult subjects and new concepts. Some have suggested that a trigger warning will give a student a preconceived notion of what the text will be like, or will label the content as “bad”, but again, this seems to fundamentally misunderstand what it means to be triggered.

Yes, I suppose giving someone a heads up on the content in material will give them some preconceived ideas of what will be in the text because someone has just told them what will be in the text. This seems no different from a teacher giving a short overview of what to look for or guided reading or discussion questions. And if the wording of “trigger warning” seems to imply something negative about the reading, a content notice would perform the same function nicely without any baggage.

I’m worried that the vitriol against trigger warnings is just another case of neurotypical needs being prioritized over those of people with different brains. Students should be given accommodations that facilitate their ability to learn, whether that means presenting material in a variety of different forms, getting extra time on tests, or helping them engage with material without sending them into a panic attack or flashback. If teachers really want to facilitate strong engagement with new ideas, having students who are absolutely flooded with emotions is not conducive to that goal.

Speaking from experience, those are the times I am least likely to be able to process new information or calmly test out new ideas and viewpoints. While Cooper says that without trigger warnings she has been able to take her class through a variety of difficult pieces of media, I do wonder how many students felt they had to stay quiet or simply weren’t capable of speaking up because they were overwhelmed with emotions.

Again, from personal experience, when a triggering topic comes up unexpectedly, I am not able to speak up or participate in discussion. Ignoring the realities of triggers actively bars students from being able to participate in class when they are suddenly exposed to things that send them spiraling. It does a disservice to the vulnerable students in class.

So again, probably not for the last time: trigger warnings are not the same as censorship. They do not require anyone to change what they’re saying. They do not give students a free pass to opt out of difficult discussions. They simply let students take care of themselves while engaging with difficult material. And sometimes knowing that a topic is coming up is enough to keep it from causing serious distress and setbacks in someone’s recovery.