How the Trigger Warning Debate Exposes Our F*cked Up Views on
One of them was physically injured in the incident. In order to return to class, he asks to have space around his desk to allow him to stretch, because sitting still for too long would aggravate his injury.
How would you feel about his request? Would you understand why such an accommodation would help him heal? Expect his professors to oblige?
Now, the other students pain isnt visible its emotional.
He wasnt physically hurt, but he lost a loved one, and hes traumatized. Certain reminders have resulted in panic attacks, and hed rather not experience that again especially not when hes trying to move on with his life and get an education.
So he also makes a request, asking his professors if they can give him a warning before covering material that relates to the type of violence that took away his loved one.
How would you feel about this students request?
What hes asking for is a content warning, also commonly called a trigger warning. And its a huge source of debate.
You may have come across some of this debate recently after the University of Chicago dean of students sent out a letter to tell incoming freshman not to expect trigger warnings.
People actually dismiss the needs of people with chronic illnesses and physical and visible disabilities quite often, so I dont want to take away from that.
But it is noticeable that when it comes to an able-bodied person experiencing a temporary injury and needing support to heal, theres usually not much debate about whether or not they should be allowed in class with crutches, a cast, or extra space around their desk.
The sharp contrast between this acceptance and common attitudes towards trigger warnings reveals something disturbing about our societys approach to trauma and mental illness.
Just like its normal for the body to need healing after physical violence, its perfectly normal for someones mind to need healing after a traumatic event.
Thats why a diagnosis like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) exists not because somethings wrong with someone whos struggling after trauma, but because its natural for trauma to have an impact on ones mental health.
But we dont seem to understand that as a society. People like that dean and all of his supporters think that accommodations for traumatized students are unnecessary, and even wrong.
Ive been through both sexual violence and intimate partner violence, and my recovery is an ongoing process.
I dont experience panic attacks from reading about rape or partner abuse, but I do feel the impact when people are disparaging survivors of trauma. And Im sure as hell not going to criticize other survivors for needing a warning.
Thats because Ive also worked with many other survivors, and if theres one thing Ive learned about healing, its that its different for everyone. Theres no one right way to feel or respond to trauma.
But if youre opposed to the use of trigger warnings, clearly youve taken the side that states there is such a thing as a wrong way.
So lets not make the mistake of thinking this debate is only about trigger warnings. Lets dig into how people really feel about trauma and mental illness when they decide that trigger warnings are wrong.
1. We View Mental Illness as a Weakness
On most college campuses, theres a group of people who require protection from injury on a regular basis.
But we dont call them weaklings we call them athletes.
And you can bet that your school administration doesnt complain about having to coddle your star football players by giving them helmets and padding before they take a hit.
But when a survivor wants to protect their mental health by getting a warning before they face a difficult topic, people frequently use the word coddling to refer to their needs.
Just read some of the recent comments on an Everyday Feminism article about trigger warnings:
I cannot stand the wussification of American society.
If people are too fragile that a mere mention of their symptoms may bring back their trauma, they are certainly not good enough to engage in the academic world.
These are common sentiments among those who oppose trigger warnings. They conflate being affected by trauma with being weak, and decide that those who need trigger warnings arent good enough to be among those who are unfazed.
This, in spite of the fact that so many survivors on college campuses arent there to avoid sensitive topics. Theyre there to learn, just like everyone else, and theyre determined to do this in spite of their personal obstacles, just like everyone else.
Some people need to work full-time while theyre in college in order to attend school. Some need scholarships. Hell, everyone needs to pay for it somehow, so some rely on that parental trust fund that will get them through debt-free.
I hope you wouldnt judge someone for having different financial needs than you do. Mental health needs are similar accommodating them simply allows different people with different sets of circumstances to access the same opportunities that you have.
Facing difficult topics sure doesnt make you weak. Facing them after directly experiencing trauma takes strength even with the help of a warning.
You know what could also help people face difficult topics? A lifetime without ever being personally affected by trauma.
But I wouldnt call you weak if thats the reason you dont need a warning.
2. We Define Strength as Emotional Unavailability
Strength and healing can show up in so many different ways. Nothing has taught me this important lesson more than working with other survivors of violence.
For instance, while I did peer advocacy counseling with Community United Against Violence (CUAV), the oldest LGTBQIA+ anti-violence organization in the US, I met survivors who needed to face their trauma head-on, survivors who needed more time before they could talk about it, survivors who checked out emotionally at the mention of their trauma, and more.
None of them were wrong. Each was on their own unique path of learning to cope with what theyd been through.
Consider what it means that many of us are so eager to have engagement with disturbing topics in settings like college classrooms, but dont want to actually acknowledge that these topics might disturb us.
Im one of those who strongly believes that we should be engaging with issues like sexual violence, abuse, and violent oppression. Thats why I write about them so much.
So my support of trigger warnings doesnt mean avoiding them altogether. I believe we should engage with them in a way that acknowledges their real impact.
If you think we should all approach traumatic topics with as much emotional engagement as wed have for a math problem, then what youre really asking is for people to disconnect from the emotions that naturally arise around emotional topics.
Theres nothing wrong with acknowledging that something is painful. But society says that people deserve to be punished for being delicate if they do.
Ive heard people compare survivors needing trigger warnings to military combat veterans, saying that veterans dont whine about society not taking care of their feelings.
But they say this as if veterans arent also suffering as if they dont have high rates of PTSD and suicide. Clearly, something needs to change if we believe that people are only strong if they endure painful feelings without support.
3. We Accept Suffering as Normal But Healing Is Asking for Too Much
The idea that survivors who need trigger warnings cant handle the real world is a common accusation. People say that weve all been through hard things, but the rest of the world is unfazed.
Its pretty sad that we can acknowledge that theres so much suffering in the world, but get angry at people who have the nerve to cope with that suffering in a way that others can see.
The attitude goes something like this: The rest of us have unhealed trauma, so why shouldnt you?
Are you using edgy humor to talk about painful issues without acknowledging that theyre painful? Thats cool, bro.
Are you breaking down only when nobody can see you cry? Fine, as long as you never admit to it.
But admit to needing support to face something without being re-traumatized? How dare you be so entitled.
One guy in the Everyday Feminism comments said that he used to have night terrors after being bullied but he got over it without needing trigger warnings, so he didnt see why anyone else should need them, either.
But he had just as much control over his night terrors as someone would over daytime panic attacks as in, not much control at all.
Do you know what it feels like to have a panic attack? Find out from Patrick Roche, then ask yourself if trying to avoid such a terrifying experience really amounts to being entitled.
Nobody should have to suffer through the impact of trauma without support to heal and the fact that its the norm for people to feel like they just have to suck it up and get over it does not make it okay.
Its okay to ask for what you need. But if you dont personally take that route, dont shame others for doing so.
4. We Think Trauma Defines Someone or Something
The way some people talk about opposing trigger warnings, youd think we were talking about something much more significant than a few words in front of a text.
According to them, its censorship! Its the end of free speech! Its destroying an entire generation! Its the downfall of society!
Lets cool down for a second and think about what this means.
Our society seems to think theres something wrong with identifying as a victim.
If youve been through something hard in the past, but you got over it, thats fine but acknowledge that it still affects you, and youre said to be doing a bad thing by victimizing yourself.
And some people say they oppose trigger warnings not because theyre against survivors, but to protect the integrity of the classroom. They say that warning that a text contains disturbing material could influence students to focus only on that disturbing material, making them think thats all the text is about.
This feeling makes sense if you think trauma is so significant that acknowledging its impact defines all of who someone or something is.
We think that being a victim means youre permanently broken, and that being a perpetrator of violence means youre not human, but a monster.
And thinking of violence this way means we dont have to face the fact that its an everyday part of our world instead, its such an unusual thing that acknowledging its impact means being unable to acknowledge anything else.
But I promise you thats not the case.
I can recognize that trauma has an impact on me without having it define the whole of who I am. I can say that one aspect of a text might have an emotional impact on its readers without claiming that that aspect is all there is to it.
A trigger warning is just a few words out of the entire course of a survivors day, one line to read over the course of their entire lives.
It doesnt define them. And we dont have to be so averse to victimhood that we cant even talk about it without it taking over everything.
5. We Think the Way We Handle Things Should Be the Only Way
As a society, we sure do love to judge people who do things differently than we do.
Find out someone has a different kind of culture, sex life, or relationship style than you do? Judge away!
And this unfortunate habit comes up in trigger warning debates, too.
Its interesting how our society has such a stigma against going to therapy, but bring up trigger warnings, and suddenly everyones a tireless advocate for exposure therapy.
Exposure therapy involves gradually facing reminders of your trauma in a safe, controlled environment under the supervision of a specialized therapist. It can help retrain your brain to face your triggers without being re-traumatized, but it doesnt force people to face things without their consent and it uses other coping techniques to avoid re-traumatization.
Having someone with PTSD toughen up to just deal with their triggers at any given time is not the same as exposure therapy.
For me, the fact that Im used to hearing stories of survival is part of the reason I can read reminders of my trauma without being thrown into a panic attack.
But am I going to tell everyone else that they need to go lead support groups and counseling sessions about the things theyve been through in order to heal? Hell no! Its not for everyone, and thats okay.
The fact is that what works for one person wont work for everyone. And believing that everyone should heal like you do doesnt make you an expert it kind of just makes you an asshole.
Do you know what happens when people decide their wellness practices are the only valid wellness practices?
They judge people who take medication for not trying yoga instead, or judge people who go to therapy for not just trying prayer, or judge people who cry in public for not keeping their tears behind closed doors.
See a pattern here?
Every single person has a different set of needs so there will always be someone who needs something you dont.
If directly facing difficulties has helped you, thats great. But youll save yourself and others a lot of trouble if you drop the idea that anyone who doesnt heal like you do deserves to be judged.
Maybe a trigger warning seems silly to you because you dont need it. Luckily for you, that means the presence or the absence of a trigger warning doesnt have an impact on your life.
So youll be just fine if you step back from this debate and let people ask for what they need without being judged.
All of this shows that we as a society really need a shift in how we understand emotional needs, mental health, and responses to violence and trauma.
The status quo says that we should all suck it up, get over it, keep moving forward without ever acknowledging the impact that trauma can have.
And we can learn a lot about our culture by noticing how controversial it is to suggest changing the status quo.
Welcome to the real world, youd say to someone whod like a warning before they face a sensitive topic.
Id like to invite you to face reality, too. The reality is that trauma affects many different people in many different ways.
Its okay to acknowledge painful feelings, to approach sensitive topics not only as sources of new ideas, but also sources of deep emotional reactions, and to accept that traumatic events affect our emotional and mental health.
A trigger warning wont stop you from facing painful realities but itll definitely help some people face them, and continue healing from the impact of them, too.
Maisha Z. Johnson is the Digital Content Associate and Staff
Writer of Everyday Feminism. You can find her writing at the
intersections and shamelessly indulging in her obsession with pop
culture around the web. Maishas past work includes Community
United Against Violence (CUAV), the nations oldest LGBTQ
anti-violence organization, and Fired Up!, a program of California
Coalition for Women Prisoners. Through her own project, Inkblot Arts,
Maisha taps into the creative arts and digital media to amplify the
voices of those often silenced. Like her on Facebook or follow her on