“Students with unusually intense responses to academic cues should be referred to student-health services, where they can be evaluated and receive evidence-based treatments so that they can participate fully in the life of the university.” — Sarah Roff, fourth-year resident in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington Medical Center, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Trigger warnings as they are being used in higher education and the humanities should be put back on the shelf, chalked up a failed experiment in empathy.

Before I unpack that argument, let me briefly summarize the trigger warning kerfluffle for those who aren’t knee-deep in the humanities culture.

The idea of a trigger warning this: If you are introducing a topic that might include material likely to cause someone to experience a trauma, you are ethically required to include a warning so that people won’t experience or re-live a trauma.

The idea gained popularity on feminist blogs, where authors would let readers know if they were writing about a topics such as rape or sexual violence. It was, by and large, a courtesy that individuals who were so inclined would give their readers.

On the surface, this idea of warning people about potentially disturbing content felt right. I know very few people who want to be surprised by a violent rape scene in a movie, or a gory death in a television program, or a discussion about debilitating addiction.

The problem came when the feeling that came from the courtesy of individuals became dogma accepted as a scientific truth. Today a growing number of voices, including several student bodies, are pushing for universities to include trigger warnings in all course material.

Professors, writers, and other artists are rightfully concerned about the impact of trigger warnings on academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas. However, there’s a bigger problem: trigger warnings don’t work.

“I am also skeptical that labeling sensitive material with trigger warnings will prevent distress,” Roff wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education. “The scientific literature about trauma teaches us that it seeps into people’s lives by networks of association.”

Understanding the Trigger Warning Argument, or My Addiction to Triggers

Before I go forward it’s important to take a moment to clarify that while I don’t think trigger warnings are being used in a scientifically sound way, I do believe that triggers exist.

Triggers are oftentimes discussed in two types of medical situations, illustrated in this Reddit AskScience discussion. The first is with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and the second is with addiction recovery. While I can’t speak for PTSD, I can discuss how triggers have been described to me as a recovering addict.

In general, triggers are physical experiences that recall past events, creating a connection between the past emotional trauma and the current situation. Those triggers, I was told, wouldn’t necessarily lead to immediate reactions, such as drinking, but  they might set in motion an emotional response that would culminate in my destructive behavior.

What triggers destructive behavior for addicts spans the range of human activities. It’s distinctly personal and based upon the emotional or physical trauma that inspired the initial drinking.

So I’ll reiterate that I absolutely believe that triggers exist. The science is pretty clear on this, and my own anecdotal experience would suggest that as well (although my personal experience is a weak evidentiary model for proving my case.)

Here comes the twist.

I can also tell you that the idea of watching movies or television programs about addicts makes me wildly uncomfortable. In many cases I can’t sit through an experience.

Years ago during one of my brief sober moments, I had to talk myself out of leaving Ben Stiller’s excellent biopic Permanent Midnight.Its heroin scenes and the way it explored the devastating human impact were simply too real. I found myself wincing, shifting, and turning my body away from the screen. Sixteen years later, I still get uncomfortable thinking about that experience. (And don’t even get me started on Trainspotting, which I have long refused to watch.)

You see the conundrum. My own personal experience with Permanent Midnight seems to undermine my argument about trigger warnings.

However, my experience with actual triggers and the ill-at-ease feeling I get when watching movies about addiction are different emotions that aren’t connected.

I avoid movies such as Permanent Midnight and Trainspotting because I’ve seen first-hand the devastation of heroin and other drugs. As I watch, I am reminded how lucky I have been. I experience a great deal of survivor’s guilt.

What I’m not experiencing is my drinking trigger. These movies aren’t triggers for me because addiction on the screen doesn’t induce within me the emotional and physical traumas that lead me to the bottle.

For those who care about me, it’s difficult to differentiate those emotions. My ill-at-ease seems like a trigger, an experience my loved ones want to mitigate as much as possible. If that means skipping movies about addiction, they are all for it.

In other words their trigger warning relieves them of the discomfort of dealing with my emotional experience even though the experience has nothing to do with my actual addiction triggers.

The Trigger Warning Slippery Slope

The question, though, is whether PTSD and addiction comparisons are analogous to surviving rape or sexual assault in terms of triggers? (I say this because much of the trigger warning debate has been around these two topics.)

If the science finds that rape and assault create a different post-traumatic experience than PTSD and addiction, then my initial comparison wouldn’t necessarily prove my argument about trigger warnings. A finding such as that would necessitate both that I re-evaluate my stance and that the scientific community continue its search for answers about the necessity of trigger warnings.

In blogs and trade publications, the trigger warning debate suggests that the wrong word, lecture, or discussion will trigger an emotional and physical response for victims of rape and sexual assault, which is a much lower threshold than those who suffer PTSD and addiction.

However the science on the merits of the trigger warning is dubious at best.

Roff, who wrote the essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education, said that scientific students about triggers haven’t made that link. As well, I came up empty on a perfunctory search of peer-reviewed, academic journals looking for any science that found a causal link between media effects (literature, history, words) and traumatic responses from rape and sexual assault survivors.

Neither of these proves that the science hasn’t been done. It simply means neither of us has found it in the literature. If that science exists, this argument stands in error. (My argument isn’t a philosophy to which I cling. If the science contradicts this, I will happily alter my stance. This is how the scientific process works.)

The problem I found was that several pieces took for granted that the causal link Roff said doesn’t exist in the scientific literature is, in fact, real.

Yurie Hong’s (2013) paper “Teaching Rape Texts in Classical Literature” argues that adding trigger warnings to readings and discussions are a “powerful, yet low-stakes, ways to to support survivors and raise student awareness,” which seems like a statement with which few could find fault. The problem comes from the source of this argument. It’s not based upon science, instead it come from the “Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), the nation’s largest anti-sexual assault organization.”

Even the popular press struggles with presenting the trigger warning discussion within a scientific frame.

Karen Seidman (2014) Montreal’s The Gazette piece argued trigger warnings at the very least shield rape and victims of sexual violence from experiencing an unnecessary trauma. Seidman’s piece again references no particular science. Instead, it treats the matter as if the idea is true.

While I absolutely believe this discussion about trigger warnings comes from a place of honest caring, that doesn’t make the argument for trigger warnings correct.

Worse, I’m concerned that trigger warnings actually do more harm than good by retarding the medical help available to people who have experienced traumas.

Priming not Trigger Warnings, an Educator’s Talk

If you’ve gotten this far, my argument is in three parts:

  1. triggers are real, medically-proven problems;
  2. trigger warnings aren’t scientifically proven to reduce post-traumatic responses; and
  3. using trigger warnings retards the healing process.

Before I explore my third point in greater depth, I want to clarify an idea. While I find trigger warnings concerning, educators should discuss content with their students before and after assignments.

Students learn best when they have been primed, which means they are given some framework in which to experience new information. Without that priming, information processing and cognition is slower. If I’m going to ask my students to think about topics that ask them to expand their own experiences, I need to prime them for that activity.

Students should be engaged on topics before and after a lesson so that a teacher can guide the learning process.

This isn’t a trigger warning in the way it has been presented, but it functions in a similar way. Plus it gives the teacher the opportunity to help students learn how to understand a text.

More importantly, it enables teachers to gauge whether students need help beyond the classroom.

On more than one occasion, I have recommended students to health services because of conversations about addiction, eating disorders, sexual assaults, and suicide attempts just to name a few. None of this would have happened had I not primed my students and then invited open discussions.

Coda: Professional Help, not Trigger Warnings

As a writer and a recovering addict, I have an absolute aversion to triggers.

I understand why some people believe we need for movie rating systems, parental advisory labels for music, and other such warning systems in our society. Parents don’t have the time to read, watch, and play every piece of media that their children may experience. The various ratings systems allow parents to regulate media that they may not want a minor to experience.

As an artist, my job isn’t to mediate the experiences of people.

When I write, I want to evoke within people a sense of something. Maybe it’s questioning a paradigm, maybe it’s understanding a concept differently, or maybe it’s experiencing a piece of the world they didn’t know existed. Stories, by definition, are meant to evoke.

If a reader (or a student) is concerned that evocative stories or media might cause harm or if they experience trauma based upon classroom discussions, I would suggest you follow Sarah Roff’s advice and do what I did when I stopped drinking: find help.

I don’t say that in a pejorative sense.

When I quit drinking, I was broken beyond conception. I was unable to interact with the world in any rational way. As such, I sought out groups and doctors who helped me. Without them, I was destined to relapse because I couldn’t keep the every trigger at bay. Anyone who believes they can just “get through” a trauma without help is likely setting themselves up to fail.

I’m a big believer in attacking the root cause. It takes great strength to face those demons, and it is the most empowering thing you will ever do.

As Roff pointed out: There are medical solutions to PTSD and triggers, but trigger warnings aren’t one of them.

Works Cited

Hong, Y.(2013). Teaching Rape Texts in Classical Literature. Classical World 106(4), 669-675. The Johns Hopkins University Press. Retrieved May 25, 2014, from Project MUSE database.

Seidman, Karen.(May 12, 2014 Monday ). Academic freedom is a sensitive subject; Trigger warnings, which aim to limit students’ exposure to traumatizing material, ignite a debate. The Gazette (Montreal), Retrieved from www.lexisnexis.com/hottopics/lnacademic
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