February 12, 2018

AGORA | Trigger Warnings

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This article represents the first in a hopefully long series of articles which aims to address controversial topics in an open and civil manner here in Sunspots. The name was chosen carefully: the agora, the marketplace of ancient Athens, was at once a place where material goods were exchanged and where ideas and conflicting viewpoints could be expressed in the open air for all to hear and criticize. This is therefore the goal of Agora, a bi-weekly column for which writers in Sunspots meet in person and compose a conversational piece in which they summarize their own take on difficult topics, and contribute to conversations that need to be had. This week, two Sunspots writers turn their attention to the issue of trigger warnings.

By now, it has become a staple of online writing, a boldfaced prefix to harrowing subject matter: the cw, content warning, or its functional Doppelgänger, tw, trigger warning. These two abbreviations exist as warning flags to the unwary. Caveat lector. They differ, however, in one very important way from the standard “Viewer discretion is advised” voice-over common on TV: by alerting the consumer to sensitive content, they aim to avoid trigger-ing relapses of PTSD or otherwise debilitating anxiety and distress. Therefore, unlike everything from movie ratings (“PG-13 for frightening images”) or “explicit” labels on music releases, their scope is considerably narrower and more focused. They are not meant merely to direct the consumer away from anything potentially unpleasant; instead, trigger warnings often preface material dealing with sexual assault and rape, prejudice or particularly disturbing instances of violence.

The issue of their usage, however, is by no means cut and dry. If anything, the messy and polarizing debate over the appropriateness of trigger warnings has become a key theater in the Kulturkampf of the 2010s. On the one hand, trigger warnings are welcomed for presenting readers, students, web-surfers and others with the choice in advance to engage with content as they see fit. If someone is seriously affected by a subject broached in any given material, the trigger warning allows him or her to leave before needing to engage with it, and all the pain that might cause, at no inconvenience to anyone else for whom that is not the case. On the other hand, trigger warnings are decried by others as the equivalent  of a college-age hue and cry. Rather than protecting mental health, they effectively create policed thought-bubbles, and contribute to a culture of skittishly avoiding offense and controversy, as practical as sticking one’s head in the sand. Rather than protect the vulnerable, they are apt to be used excessively. What, then, should we think about trigger warnings? Which of the opposing views has more merit, or does the issue resist strict dichotomy? Jacqueline Quach ’19 and Griffin Smith-Nichols ’19 hope to find out.

Griffin Smith-Nichols ’19: I think a great deal of the furor surrounding trigger warnings has more to do with a misunderstanding of their import than anything else. To me, their purpose is simple: they are the 2010’s Internet equivalent to yellow caution tape. They exist to steer vulnerable readers along a safe path on the off chance they come upon something that echoes a serious trauma from their own lives. It’s easy to see why the controversy around their usage is outwardly very troubling: the people who stand to benefit the most from trigger warnings, that is, women, racial minorities and those struggling with mental illness, are also the easiest targets for critics prophesying the end of Western civilization on the basis of a bit of Internet lingo.

Jacqueline Quach ’19: While I do appreciate and support the sympathetic motive behind the widespread adoption of trigger warnings, I do think that its application has gotten a little out of hand. That should be readily apparent from how the word “triggered” has become the butt of jokes for liberals and conservatives alike. People are all too familiar with mercilessly sarcastic “triggered” memes, like the one below:


In my mind, jokes like this show that our culture as a whole is aware that there are situations in which the trigger warning does not belong. One specific example is a Tumblr blog dedicated to trypophiliacs, those who love to see clusters of small holes. If you click on the hyperlink provided and visit the page, you can see that quite ironically, the web address of the page is twtrypophobia.tumblr.com, so that the “tw” functions as a trigger warning for those with trypophobia, a fear of patterns of small holes. However, a quick Google search will inform you that trypophobia is not a phobia; it is not recognized by the scientific community and was popularized through social media. This and other gratuitous applications of the trigger warning are due perhaps to the fact that it costs nothing to issue a trigger warning (as opposed to the cost of dealing with possible grievances from those who felt a trigger warning would have been appropriate).

GSN: Certainly there is a tendency to overuse trigger warnings. What I’m concerned about, however, is the hyperbole that people resort to when they express their unease with trigger warnings. Too often under that mentality, one person’s very real distress at, for example, a graphic depiction of rape or of a racially-motivated lynching in a film is dismissed as weaponized hurt feelings, or what Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt famously dub “vindictive protectiveness” in their 2015 article “The Coddling of the American Mind.” With this phrase, they refer to the alleged over-eager drive on college campuses to police speech, enforce conformity of opinion and curb free expression to systematically avoid offending anyone ever. Trigger warnings have thus become a regrettable byword for the forcible carving-out of safe spaces for chronically fragile millennials, particularly those belonging to marginalized groups, and I think that people should focus on the gravity of their intent instead.

JQ: Well, there’s a difference between being offended and being triggered, a difference between being insulted and being uncontrollably affected by something when you have PTSD, a difference between a controversial topic and an unbearable one. I am troubled by the trigger warning’s application to each of the former of the aforementioned situations, as it could possibly stifle opportunities for people (especially students) to encounter, interact with and respond to different ways of thinking.

But even in situations where I think the trigger warning is appropriate and needed, such as mention of rape, there still exists conflict surrounding its use. Jeannie Suk Gersen, a Harvard Law School professor, wrote an article for The New Yorker, in which she expresses her concerns about how law students are becoming increasingly wary of learning about or being tested on rape law lest they be triggered. Suk Gersen recounts how some of her own students responded to her showing of a documentary that explores a case of child sex abuse by expressing that they wished she had given them a trigger warning or hadn’t even screened the film. Not only would professors teaching rape law issue trigger warnings, which usually include allowing students not to take part in discussion of rape law, they might not teach rape law at all, so as to preemptively avoid student objections, as some of Suk Gersen’s colleagues have chosen to do. Covering the history of rape law, Suk Gersen delves into how it didn’t become part of law school curricula until the 1980s, after feminists called attention to and successfully challenged the sexist treatment of rape complainants at the time. It seems to me that law professors are faced with the choice between potentially triggering students who are sensitive to or have experienced sexual assault or rape, or potentially allowing certain students in a class to neither discuss nor learn rape law when it is becoming increasingly relevant as rape reports increase.

GSN: If anything, I think that the example you have provided only shows why a clearer sense of purpose is necessary in the way trigger warnings are used. One prominent counterexample comes to my mind: when Stephen Spielberg’s masterpiece of a war film Saving Private Ryan hit theaters in 1998, critics and audiences could not have imagined the brutality of its first twenty minutes. The film depicts the invasion of Normandy on D-Day in all its deafening, bloody chaos. A shaky camera follows the action at eye-level, drawing the audience into one of the most unrelentingly intense portrayals of combat in cinema. It did this so effectively, in fact, that many veterans of both the Second World War and the Vietnam War reportedly had to leave screenings of the film. A hotline specifically set up for veterans whose PTSD had been triggered by viewing the film received more than 170 calls just two weeks after the film’s release, and many “psychologically vulnerable” veterans were advised to avoid seeing the film.

Short of slapping the dreaded “tw” on the screen, this is the thinking that goes into trigger warnings in their purest sense. No one in their right mind would be so naive as to question the legitimacy of the suffering of wartime veterans, and how strongly seeing that suffering on the big screen can impact them. Why, then, is it acceptable to discredit the suffering of victims of sexual assault, violent crime or egregious prejudice? I really do think that calling the trigger warning a symptom of a burgeoning campus culture hostile to free speech does just that; a statement like that is belittling to the trigger warning’s purpose.

JQ: To clarify, I do think that issuing a trigger warning, in Suk Gersen’s situation is clearly appropriate, though the writer herself may disagree. I just don’t wholeheartedly agree with students’ and student organizations’ expectations that such a trigger warning extend to allow students not to discuss or learn rape law because there is a distinction between preparing yourself to discuss a topic and not discussing the topic at all. As for your Saving Private Ryan example, I totally concur with the application of the trigger warning there. The difference between Saving Private Ryan and rape law, however, is that while viewers with PTSD can decide whether or not they’d like to see a film, professors often include certain topics in their courses for an important reason, and when students do not want to learn rape law in case they are triggered, law teachers are presented with a much more complex decision to make. What may work in cinema does not easily translate to campus culture, though we can agree that there are plenty of situations in which trigger warnings in college classes are obviously appropriate.

With both sides of the discussion taken into consideration, both of us generally support the use of the trigger warning and what it represents. We both feel that it is liable to be overused, and while Griffin emphasizes the unfair attacks made against it, Jacqueline chooses to discuss some of the complications and more wide-reaching implications that the trigger warning can have. If anything, we hope that our discussion has encouraged our (mostly collegiate) readers to reflect on the trigger warning’s presence in their own lives.  How has it affected your college experience? What role do you see it playing in the future, not just of online communication, but of speech and free expression in general? Let us know in the comments section below!