CW: Trigger Warnings – Kristen Johnson

For those who have suffered from trauma, a trigger/content warning (verbal or otherwise) is not indicative of emotional sensitivity or an inability or unwillingness to engage with difficult content, but, rather, an unfortunate necessity born from a desire to have some measure of control over one’s emotional/psychological response to a stimulus that, for most, may be unpleasant, but, for trauma survivors, crosses the boundary from unpleasantness into emotional re-victimization. For someone who has had the misfortune of experiencing trauma, a trigger warning is not a luxury that is intended to “coddle” the individual, but, rather, a small “burden” that they can only hope others are willing to carry–a slight inconvenience that others must bare, which pales in comparison to the burden of living in a world in which an expectation of sensitivity towards one’s trauma is viewed as weakness on the part of the trauma survivor. Some would argue that once this respect for the trauma of others is recognized there will be no end…that everyone will demand a trigger/content warning for everything. Sexual trauma, though, is not like “everything else.” A grade-A trauma (i.e. Sexual assault/rape) is characterized by, and indeed defined as, being beyond the realm of normal human experience. Thus, how can we treat the discomfort created by this type of trauma as comparable to a more “normative” form of discomfort that fails to meet the clinical standard for psychological trauma? When we ask for content warnings we are not asking for censorship, we are not asking for a revision of the curriculum, we are not asking for a world free of uncomfortable content. No, all we are asking for is an acknowledgment of the part we all play (willingly or unwillingly) in creating a society in which some experience more pain than most; an acknowledgment of the small part we can play in making this world more friendly for those who have experienced a pain we may or may not be able to understand. Those who bravely face every new day and every new experience with a burden that they unwillingly received, but carry with grace and dignity. I think a trigger warning is the least we can do to lighten that burden.

4 thoughts on “CW: Trigger Warnings – Kristen Johnson

  1. I really don’t have any patience with this… As I understand the research, it is unhealthy for someone who has suffered trauma to avoid experiences that remind them of the trauma. Avoiding traumatic reminders just lengthens the natural healing process. Ultimately, overcoming trauma is an individual’s responsibility. We don’t have any right to demand that others participate in our healing process…especially if they disagree regarding what’s best for us.

    • I think you are misunderstanding the argument being made here. The intent of a trigger warning is not to prevent one from engaging with its contents, but rather to warn of content that may trigger responses where one may relive horrific lived experiences. Someone who’s lived through a traumatic experience is inevitably going to encounter things that may remind them of it just by living their lives, so it’s really impossible for someone to avoid these reminders altogether even if they tried to. Providing a trigger warning is simply a sympathetic thing to do as a good member of society who cares about the well-being of others.

      • As I understand it, what JCD is saying is that if we really “care about the well-being of others”, we shouldn’t include trigger warnings given that most studies conclude they do more harm than good. While I often disagree with JCD’s arguments, he’s spot on here.

        “Trigger warnings aren’t much help in actually overcoming trauma — an analysis by the Institute of Medicine has found that the best approach is controlled exposure to it, and experts say avoidance can reinforce suffering.” from NYMag, “Not a Very P.C. Thing to Say” http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2015/01/not-a-very-pc-thing-to-say.html

  2. The instructor of the course should list the course content on the syllabus. The burden should then be on the student to investigate whether they are likely to find any of the material disturbing (can ask friends, read synopses, or even the professor if the question is specific). Obviously if the instructor has found that certain material consistently triggers victims of trauma, then they would be inconsiderate not to mention it proactively. But a lot of topics lie in a gray area and the burden shouldn’t be on the instructor to study this and accommodate. It is relevant to point out that almost no one else will do this the rest of your life, so it’s not clear that it has solved any problem, but it seems like a reasonable response to such a request.

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