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In Defense of Trigger Warnings: A Trauma Survivor’s Perspective
by Kristance Harlow
Another day, another university embarrassing itself by making light of trauma. A professor from Loyola University in Maryland, John McIntyre, recently released a video in which he jokes about victimhood and insults all of his former students.
The white haired, bow-tie wearing McIntyre could easily be played by Steve Martin in a frustratingly humorous family film. McIntyre, also an editor at the Baltimore Sun, calls his video a “trigger warning” so students will be aware his class will be hard. Someone needs to remind McIntyre what a trigger warning is (although I appreciate the ample warning to never take one of his classes — not just because he is a self-declared jackass, but because I wouldn’t trust his ability to edit). As a professional purveyor of words in all their complexities, he should know that impact is everything in writing, and editing clarifies impact.
I get it. Trigger warnings make some people roll their eyes, and the idea of safe spaces makes them gag. They just don’t get all these overly sensitive people who need to grow thicker skins and get over it. Being asked to consider the content of speech carefully and to let people know if you are going to be discussing sensitive subjects can feel overzealous. After all, what is a “sensitive subject,” and what is the purpose of a trigger warning?
If you think the use of trigger warnings on college campuses coddles students and stunts intellectual growth, you don’t understand trigger warnings. A trigger warning is not censorship and it is not topic avoidance. Trigger warnings, or content notes, are a simple way to respect other people’s boundaries without intruding on their privacy.
Consider this hypothetical scenario between co-workers Charlie and Jamie: Jamie’s partner recently killed themself. If Charlie knows about Jamie’s loss, it would be cruel to nonchalantly strike up a conversation about suicide attempts. Even if Charlie doesn’t know about Jamie’s loss, Charlie is aware that tragedies happen to everyone and thus it would still be insensitive to discuss self-harm in a brainstorming session without first letting all attendees know it was on the agenda. That courtesy is a trigger warning.
Knowing that life can be traumatic for all sorts of reasons, Charlie puts a note on the top of an office-wide memo with information about the week’s editorial ideas. “Content Note: self-harm, violence.” Another person in the office, Stevie, experiences suicidal ideation and has attempted suicide twice. Stevie might choose to continue reading the message, or might decide to skip the message and instead ask another co-worker for a summary. The content note provided both Stevie and Jamie with a moment to practice personal autonomy. They get to decide how to move forward.
In 2015, the Atlantic published an article titled, “The Coddling of the American Mind.” The authors make some dangerous claims conflating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and phobias. They say trauma sparks phobias and that, to combat the phobia, people should slowly expose their friends to the things they’re afraid of.
That isn’t how it works. First, let’s nix the suggestion that friends should become de facto therapists and push their pals into panic attacks in an effort to cure them of their fears. Leave exposure therapy to the professionals.
Next, let’s recognize that PTSD and phobias are not the same thing, although they often overlap and both are anxiety disorders. I experienced a number of traumas in a short period of time and have since been diagnosed with PTSD. It can be a debilitating condition, but in my case I did not also develop any phobias. Someone jumping out from behind a corner to jokingly scare me used to make me laugh, but now I freak out. I am not afraid of being scared for laughs, but I have an immediate primal response to being surprised in that manner.
If this happens, usually I will scream and begin crying uncontrollably. Sometimes I experience a break in the time continuum and am hellishly thrust back into the original trauma. It is as terrifying as it sounds. These are called flashbacks. In an instant I could be sent back to January 2013, when I was trapped in my house as it burned to the ground. My brain has been rewired by trauma, and when encountered with certain stimuli, my reactions are so instinctual I have no control over them.
My flashbacks can be tripped when I read about another family losing their home to a fire, but a content warning helps me calm my hypervigilant brain and stay present. A trigger warning is a buffer for people like me, a necessary reprieve from the onslaught of triggers we can’t avoid — like the hellish time travel triggered by the sound of a high pitched alarm, the sudden slamming of a door, the smell of a freshly kindled fire or cracks of thunder.
I would never think that the world should cater to my needs, but when I’m in the comfort of my home I want to be able to put down my defenses and just be. Not everyone has the same defenses or tolerance for being provoked.
I am in therapy and continue to gain more skills to manage this psychological challenge. I do not need some jackass professor trying to tell me how to learn to cope with my condition. I certainly don’t have patience for former classmates on Facebook who refuse to preempt their post about out-of-control wildfires with a simple content note. If you step outside of that self-centered perspective of what is or isn’t sensitive, it becomes clear that anti-trigger warning memes are more like pro-jerk memes.