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. Continue reading