Trigger warning: this piece deals with sexual violence.
Trigger warnings are relatively new to the popular discourse. Some people don’t understand them, but as a former peer counselor, now part of a psychiatric team, I’ve seen strong evidence that they support emotional health and intellectual development. This is mostly a personal essay, but I’ll launch into some obligatory context for a moment.
The broader debates about the balance of power in higher education, from sexual assault to racist Halloween costumes, from online activism to recent campus protests, have been repeatedly misunderstood by cultural critics and the media. Since avoiding triggers is a symptom of trauma, many journalists (including this Atlantic cover story), argue that trigger warnings aren’t a healthy way of dealing with PTSD; even President Obama has concluded that they “coddle” students. Yet in making these arguments, all these folks miss a fundamental point about the balance of power (and another one about the nature of trauma, but I’ll get to that later). If statistics told you that one in four students were likely to have been traumatically attacked by spiders and that some developed serious arachnophobia, we would hope that classes dealing with spider attacks would do so with tact and compassion. A trigger warning is a tactful, compassionate nod to student experience. It allows students who have been denied agency by an oppressive experience to choose if they are interested in engaging with it, and to engage with it knowing what it entails, and taking the necessary steps to care for themselves as they do. Yes, the ongoing effects of trauma may involve avoidance of something deeply feared; that’s due to a difference in the individual’s ability to extinguish their fear response. The best place to confront deep fear is in therapy, not in a classroom. To subject such students to assignments or public discussions about the subject of their trauma without warning is to re-enact oppression, denying them time to assemble their courage. I know a little about this from my own experience.
Like 105 other colleges nationwide, my undergraduate institution is under federal investigation for mishandling sexual assault cases. I was an undergrad about two years before the epidemic of rape on college campuses began to make national headlines, but it was happening all around me. I walked into my bathroom a few weeks into my freshman year to find a hallmate in tears: she’d been raped. I was a survivor myself, but I was speechless in my shower sandals outside of the stall where she sobbed. “It’s going to get better,” I told her through the stall door, ardently wishing I had clinical crisis management skills. When I learned of a peer counseling program for sexual assault survivors a few weeks later, I signed up. The two-week training earned me a turn carrying the hotline phone. I started a support group for survivors and led meetings for a group of women attending school alongside men who had raped and abused them. (Shout out to those kickass women; this issue overwhelmingly affects women and queer or transgender people, but it’s important not to forget that it affects men, too.) That woman who had sobbed in the bathroom never reported her rape.
Rape is often dismissed as “a gray area,” a disagreement about consent. But even in cases of deliberate drugging and rape, cases of premeditated entrapment, of group rape, cases where rapists climbed into the beds of sleeping women, our college did not respond with expulsion. The administration, at the time, had a “zero tolerance” policy for plagiarism; more than one of my classmates packed their bags for good within 24 hours of a reported copied answer or uncited source. I knew a lot of women who had had traumatic sexual experiences in college, but all of their abusers graduated. While I was a student, I never learned of a student expelled for sexual assault. (The administration has since claimed that this did happen, without citing any examples.) I knew who these student rapists were, and it dampened my allegiance to my alma mater, where I was also receiving a truly great education. To me, it was clear that the administration prioritized academic integrity over bodily integrity, and its reputation over the wellbeing of its students, specifically a group of mostly female students.
Since it did not qualify among punishable offenses, sexual assault, a federal felony, was implicitly condoned. As part of a sociology course I took as a junior, I conducted an informal survey about rape culture, comparing the responses of female students at my own coed college and a nearby women’s college. I initially presented my inquiry as a crime survey, and survey respondents reported that there “wasn’t really any crime” on either campus, and generally felt safe in the abstract, as well as in some specifics: do you worry about leaving your laptop unattended in the cafeteria? Nope. But when I got to “do you worry about sexual assault” many women in my college did: they knew someone who had been raped, and they watched out for their female friends at parties. Meanwhile, students at the women’s college said they only worried when they came to coed campuses, like ours. Notably, this didn’t come up in their initial assessment of “crime” on campus because there was a disconnect between the public and private discourses about sexual violence in our community; sex was a private topic, and thus sexual violence was, too. This disconnect was to the advantage of the institution; the school was able to maintain the façade of being a safe space while, in reality, it did little to protect students from sexual predation. (In fact, two years later, those headlines got going when a student, depressed by the constant presence of her unpunished rapist, was institutionalized and then told that she would not be allowed to study abroad. Administrators told her that they were so concerned about her mental health that they needed to keep her on campus. She withdrew from the college.)
At times, sexual assault was explicitly condoned, too. A biological anthropology professor was teaching that rape was “natural, given men as they are.” Professor Z. was part of a white-haired old guard; he had been educated in all-male environments where these ideas went unquestioned. To Professor Z., there was a rightness to the idea that men inherently take what they can and deserve what they get from women. He was an affable, easy professor; he was popular with the affable, promising straight white men on campus, men who enjoyed the suggestion that they were entitled to access women’s bodies whenever they wanted to by “nature.” There was, behind this view, a justification of the historical balance of gender power, the “natural” erasure of women’s volition and personhood.
To me, then, college was not a safe space, though I know it seemed safe to peers of mine who didn’t question their own relationship to the power structures at work there. As Roxane Gay points out, people who mock the idea of safe spaces are likely to be those who can take those spaces for granted. To be a true safe space, it would need to be safe not just for wealthy white men, whom the college had historically been designed to serve, but also for people of color, for women, for gay, lesbian, transgender and genderqueer students, for students who were the first generation to college in their families, and for students from the wide range of backgrounds any college is expected to include.
When I read Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s Atlantic cover story, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” in which they attempt to make a psychological case against trigger warnings, my response was really? There’s a nationwide epidemic of sexual assault and intimate partner violence, so you’re concerned about “coddling”? They used a picture of a small child in a college sweatshirt on the cover.
Trigger warnings are not intended to end conversations, but to begin them by acknowledging all of the unspoken experiences that could be in the room: to indicate that the conversation is intended as a “safe space,” which operates with the stated intention of honoring the feelings of others. Used correctly, trigger warnings foster sensitivity in conversations about sensitive topics. Rather than cultivating “distorted thinking,” as Lukianoff and Haidt suggest, trigger warnings embrace a multiplicity of possible perspectives, and prioritize emotional reality, a topic which makes Americans incredibly uneasy because it is touchy-feely, subjective, abstract, and, yes, feminine. So much of the language of “objectivity” is predicated on a white, masculine perspective that such topics, though worthy of study, have often been devalued, like the groups they are associated with.
Students learn best in environments in which they are treated with respect, and when their experience is honored. It’s not just what’s fair; it’s the law. Under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, students are entitled to equal access to education, regardless of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin; Title IX prohibits sex discrimination in education. Lukianoff and Haidt argue that trigger warnings are bad preparation for “the adult world,” but I would argue that they have not considered what it would feel like to be a traumatized survivor or a racial minority whose perspective is only recognized in certain communities. Nausea and despair rise in me when I foresee sexual assault in a movie I’m watching with friends. Often I get up and leave, pretending to need to pee, or close my eyes and plug my ears and ask them to tell me when it is over.
Trauma is not irrational; it is the result of an experience that shatters the illusion of safety. I have been shown that I am vulnerable to attack, and that there are real interpersonal terrorists in the world who enjoy such attacks, people who take pleasure in other people’s terror and pain. I am wary, and try avoid or question people who want to bully me or others, overtly or obliquely. A trigger warning in class represented, to me, that I and my experience were included, that a professor was not obliviously introducing material that I would find sadistic, and did not implicitly or explicitly condone or promote cruelty. What I feel when I confront graphic images of sexual assault is the despair, again, that I have no power to change what happened to me, what could happen to me again, what happens to people all over the world.
Many of us know that American culture is inundated with violence, but some of us can forget how tolerant of it we are, how quickly we retire from inquiry about it, how much of it we consume in music, video games, movies—not me. Like many traumatized people, I have found reminders of my trauma in the world. In college, I knew who some of the rapists were, and I could not shake the knowledge of the injustice of that. And the women in my group, and the other students who did not come forward because they knew the administration would not support them, students trapped in school with their rapists, are very much in the “adult world,” and cannot avoid what they fear. They have far less agency than that; traumatically little, in fact. They deserve, simply, to be recognized as part of the audience and addressed as if they, too, exist.
Critical thinking is absolutely the basis of the liberal arts education; Lukianoff and Haidt are right about that. However, their arguments about trigger warnings “teaching students to think pathologically” fail to take into account that trigger warnings aren’t censorship or a free pass for students to skip their homework. Rather, these writers fail to consider all of the ways in which an obsessively masculinist perspective might be ingrained in the structure of our universities; I argue that trigger warnings are a way to acknowledge other perspectives. Even beyond the gender or racial breakdown of the faculty or the authors most widely cited or taught, the very idea of what is other, what is female, is often derided or omitted. When I took a course on the evolution of organ systems, my professor went through the male reproductive system and then skipped the female altogether. I wrote him an email, frustrated that my peers were being instructed in the lack of importance of female systems, and that his omission was perpetuating the myth of female systems as enigmatic and formed by default (views which are handily dispatched here). Because Professor C. was an excellent, compassionate teacher, he emailed the class validating my critique. I’m grateful for men like him who are willing to think critically about the balance of power; I wish that Lukianoff or Haidt would do the same. Instead, they appear completely ignorant of the culture of violence they address, writing
What exactly are students learning when they spend four years or more in a community that polices unintentional slights, places warning labels on works of classic literature, and in many other ways conveys the sense that words can be forms of violence that require strict control by campus authorities, who are expected to act as both protectors and prosecutors?
It’s not that words are forms of violence; it is that we exist in a sea of violence, hierarchically organized such that it is less visible from above. If you can’t see it, you’re likely on top. Lukianoff and Haidt go on to argue for a parallel between formal education and cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT:
cognitive behavioral therapy teaches good critical-thinking skills, the sort that educators have striven for so long to impart. By almost any definition, critical thinking requires grounding one’s beliefs in evidence rather than in emotion or desire, and learning how to search for and evaluate evidence that might contradict one’s initial hypothesis. But does campus life today foster critical thinking? Or does it coax students to think in more-distorted ways?
CBT is, to state the obvious, a form of therapy, based in a therapeutic setting, which allows a patient to fully express and question emotions that would be inappropriate in other settings. Formal education, especially in universities, works only if it functions in a way that is physically and emotionally safe for every student, and that does mean thinking critically about how to be inclusive, and how to explicitly indicate that respect, not the status quo, dictates the parameters of the conversation.
CBT consists of identifying and dismantling cognitive distortions, which are irrational thought patterns that perpetuate states such as anxiety or depression. Lukianoff and Haidt, who clearly believe campus protests are irrational, use the language of CBT to classify students’ concerns as manifesting cognitive distortions such as “emotional reasoning”:
Emotional reasoning dominates many campus debates and discussions. A claim that someone’s words are “offensive” is not just an expression of one’s own subjective feeling of offendedness. It is, rather, a public charge that the speaker has done something objectively wrong. It is a demand that the speaker apologize or be punished by some authority for committing an offense.
Yet this claim poses a false dichotomy between emotion and reason, and, if true, would invalidate all impassioned positions. CBT is not intended to invalidate cognitions that have a basis in emotion—just those that aren’t evidence-based. Yet Lukianoff and Haidt here appear to assume that many campus debaters’ and discussants’ positions can be discounted simply because they are emotional. It’s refreshing to see this common bias laid out so nakedly, but its implications should not be overlooked. Our cultural prejudice is to discount those who have some personal stake, some skin in the game, which gets them emotional: usually, these are the parties with less power and privilege, the very people who are silenced by the status quo in the first place. People who are asking for additional respect likely fall into this camp, as they feel disrespected.
What is truly offensive about Lukianoff and Haidt’s argument is that it implies that these students seeking justice have perspectives that are pathologically distorted; that, in short, they are crazy or making this up. This is gaslighting, pure and simple. To state the obvious again, you can be emotional about your situation and entirely correct, and completely sane. You can see truly and be truly angry with your college at the same time. If you are the calmer party in an argument, consider that the other party is likely in more pain than you are. Ask yourself why that might be, and attempt to listen to what they are saying. Other people’s humanity should not be a reason to discount their perspectives or their sanity. Doing so is a low tactic, a passively aggressive stance—and in service of what? The right of professors not to consider saying a few words that acknowledge student perspectives? Or is it that like Professor Z. and so many others, these authors feel that their paradigm is so divergent from an inclusive one that even discussions of inclusivity are deeply threatening?
Like Professor Z., the world of higher education tends to make assumptions about its audience that are both antiquated and potentially discriminatory. Just as professors must be aware that not everyone in the room has had a stereotypical cis male white upper-middle-class heterosexual experience, so they must also consider how to make people of all experiences explicitly welcome and comfortable, as our culture already does so much work to provide that privilege to the current elite.
Marina Weiss lives in East Harlem. She works as an administrator and research assistant at the Women’s Program in the Department of Psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center, where she helps run a program providing free psychiatric services to survivors of intimate partner violence and sex trafficking, and runs a research study about the effects of prenatal lullabies on infant development. She lives online at marinaweiss.com and on Twitter as @marinaweiss.