Maybe most people don’t care about Trigger Warnings?

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158 Responses

  1. Christopher Carr says:

    “This raises the question about why so many people who have been out of college for decades are concerned about trigger warnings and the alleged coddling of the mind. Vox theorizes that we are nervous about trigger warnings because it represents the consumer power of students and this is somethings students previously lacked. Popehat seems to see it as the rise of a censorious and illiberal left.”

    I’m more in line with Popehat here, in that I see trigger warnings as an unnaturally powerful tool for special interest manipulators to use at their discretion – a la that Christian student at my alma mater who refused to read the required summer reading because it had gay sex.

    FWIW, I support students who are paying a lot for their tuition to have some power over content, within reason of course, and in general deferring to the wisdom of the elders, as is practical. It’s been said on the wards that the students are the only ones actually paying to be there, so they better get an education.

    A third reason though, and my principle opposition to trigger warnings, comes from the fact that, at least in my experience, the things that have made me the most uncomfortable have catalyzed the most personal growth and maturation. I was thinking just the other day that if some young person were to ask me what they should study, I might respond with: “study what scares you the most”.

    At least with medicine, the intellectualization of the horrific has been liberating, in every sense of that word – this is something I’ve been trying to get across in my writings here lately. I worry that the trigger warning generation will not be truly free for this reason and ill-prepared to deal with the ugly realities of the adult world.Report

    • Saul Degraw in reply to Christopher Carr says:


      Go Tar Heels!!!!


      More seriously, I think that Popehat is involved in a bit of a fever dream/wishful thinking that his free market solution (and dig at Brown University) can solve the Trigger Waring v. Free Speech debate. My theory is that this is not a primary concern for most 18 year olds. It might be one of many issues that they think about when selecting a college or university but it is probably far from the primary reason for the vast overwhelming majority.

      As to paying, I concede what you are saying up to a point. I am not opposed to some tuition and expenses for a college education but we are passing into absurd levels of expense right now with many colleges and universities and nothing seems to break the rise in tuition at paces far beyond inflation.Report

      • greginak in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        The generation of college students has grown up with the intertoobz. They were seeing people called worse then Hitler in forums about pokemon cards. I’d bet most of them have seen some porn that would make Caligula blush and heard more than few rape threats. I doubt most 18 year olds care about TW’s and if they do they aren’t’ looking to stab free speech in its heart.Report

        • Troublesome Frog in reply to greginak says:

          That’s a really good point. This should be just about the least shockable generation since the days when it was normal to see piked heads on city gates. Which implies that for a chunk of that population, being outraged about general offensiveness is less about genuinely being upset and more about having a hefty rhetorical cudgel to smack people around with. I’m starting to really like South Park’s idea of a political correctness frat whose members call people out to earn social status points rather than because of any genuinely held belief.Report

          • greginak in reply to Troublesome Frog says:

            Well i agree i had a good point. I don’t’ have any reason to believe the hypersensitive are any less genuine then any other crazy kid out there. I don’t’ think the “PC” kids are any much different from the legions of religious conservative kids out there doing there censorious morally righteous thing. PC is a garbage term mostly in any case but also the signaling argument proves to much. Every body signals and everybody has genuine beliefs. I don’t think Ben Carson is just signaling with all the talk about his beliefs, so i don’t’ typically doubt other peoples sincerity. I’m more than happy to doubt their common sense and wisdom though.Report

            • Troublesome Frog in reply to greginak says:

              I don’t’ think the “PC” kids are any much different from the legions of religious conservative kids out there doing there censorious morally righteous thing.

              I think you’re right, but not quite in the way you mean it. I think they have a tremendous amount in common, which is why I wonder how many of the people working hard to do the censorious morally righteous thing would be working so hard to do it if they didn’t have a “home team” of co-believers cheering them on and giving them high fives for it.

              I’m sure there are people who really do believe that gay stuff is ruining the world and we need to keep people from reading books that mention it, and those people would probably act alone if they had to. But I’m betting there’s a very large cohort who, if they were the only person saying it, would probably drop the whole issue and move on to something more meaningful to them. They’re not standing up for something they think is really important so much as publicly declaring an affiliation and enjoying the thrill of striking a blow for their team.

              I think a lot of it is just a stroking of the same part of our brain that gets involved in sports riots. There’s something about taking a thing of minor importance that you share with your team of co-believers, whipping it up into something major and taking over-the-top action about it that’s a big time thrill. Being a mob is no fun without a mob around you.Report

          • Christopher Carr in reply to Troublesome Frog says:

            There’s a big difference between watching a video of ISIS beheading a journalist on the other side of the world and having your baby sister die of tuberculosis.

            This argument could just as easily have been made for the cold war generation living in the shadow of the atomic bomb.Report

            • Guy in reply to Christopher Carr says:

              No, it’s a different statement. You could easily say that the cold war generation was the generation most correct to be existentially afraid. You could not call them unshockable, in the same sense that @troublesome-frog means above. Not to say that I agree or disagree with @troublesome-frog.*Report

    • “study what scares you the most”.

      That would be one hell of a lift for the math departments.Report

    • Trigger warnings per se don’t give students any power over content. A warning that X text contains Y (that’s what a trigger warning is, folks) is not permission not to be responsible for that material. Such permission, (or, I’m guessing more commonly, making available alternative ways to cover it) may ome along with trigger warnings, but I don’t think they necessarily or most commonly do.Report

  2. greginak says:

    I’ve never been convinced the furor over trigger warnings isn’t much more then a minor moral panic by free speech supporters. Sure some of the TW supporters appear to put the “hyper sensitive” in the “OMG you the most hyper sensitive person in the world.” But some of the examples of TW’s that have floated around are either overblown or lacking context. Basically a few horror stories are acting as the proof of some wave of terror sweeping the country. It’s college students, they are usually immature. If it was college students binge drinking and wearing their underwear backwards and in full school color body paint most people would just laugh and reminisce. But a few hypersensitive loudmouths is the end of freedom. Well compare the number of the hypersensitive to the number of college kids binge drinking or just being immature jerkweeds in their relationships.Report

    • Saul Degraw in reply to greginak says:

      Yeah, the libertarian side seems to be involved in a moral panic along with some older liberals. I have friends in academics who are far from being conservative/libertarian but are also caught up in having a moral panic over trigger warnings.

      They seem to see it as a vast warning that authoritarian government will be put into place.Report

      • greginak in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        One of the odd things about this debate is the actual talking about TW’s. Just having some announcement that the book to be discussed has rape scenes is a giant nothingburger topped with who cares sauce. That isn’t going to do squat; it’s innocuous. Some of the other examples are little more significant. But i’d bet having a trigger warning in class will wake up and titillate more students then who feel protected.Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        Academics have a good reason to worry over trigger warnings because it represents another way the administrators could exercise power over them and tell them what to do. They represent just another way college professorships are being downgraded along with the ever disappearing tenure track.Report

    • El Muneco in reply to greginak says:

      I don’t think it’s TW per se, but that there seems to be a general momentum towards removing even the appearance of a challenge to the intellectual status quo on today’s campuses. “Free Speech Zones”, heckler’s vetoes on campus speakers, manifestos to dictate the editorial content of student newspapers…

      TW are, I believe, a good thing when properly used, and any furor over them is indeed an overreaction. But the reaction itself isn’t necessarily unwarranted. FIRE is way busier than it should be, and it doesn’t seem to be winning, just fighting a holding action.Report

      • greginak in reply to El Muneco says:

        Some of the things you mention are concerns. I don’t like the hecklers veto, but that isn’t all that new. There is the occasional thing that seems more about shutting down speech which i agree is wrong. Trigger warnings themselves aren’t any of that and talking about them muddles the discussion. Are things worse now then previously? I don’t know. I know what we hear about about in the news but that is a poor representation of reality. And again these are college kids, they are immature, so i don’t think they are the harbinger of doom. I don’t see the evidence that the examples of actual shutting down of speech represent even a sizable minority of college students.Report

    • Oscar Gordon in reply to greginak says:

      While I think TWs are silly beyond reason in most cases (I think there is a legitimate use for them, but that use has to do with people diagnosed with & in treatment for PTSD), I also wonder if a lot of this isn’t a product of the internet & twitter/viral/click bait media.

      I recall my college days, and I remember the near constant drumbeat of ‘special snowflakes’ wanting special treatment, etc. But it was almost always confined to the campus & the campus papers. The local papers didn’t print it, local TV didn’t bother, and it was never more than a campus thing.

      Now with a few tweets, it’s a national friggin crisis.Report

      • greginak in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

        I think the big difference is we hear about all the weirdness in the world now. Why do people think crime is rising and going to overwhelm us despite the facts. We often get a distorted view of the world from the media so it’s hard to tell what is really spreading and what is just a few weird apples. Most of the TW stuff is either innocuous or a few weird apples. There are things beyond TW’s that are a concern but they are still not wildly spreading phenomenon.Report

      • dragonfrog in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

        How do you propose to provide trigger warnings to people with PTSD, but not to everyone else? Should those with PTSD have to wear some kind of special badge at all times?

        This isn’t very hard. “TW: rape scene” is just shorthand for “Heads up: this course involves watching/reading a rape scene, discussing the scene, and possible writing assignments involving the scene. If you have PTSD around rape and decide to take the course knowing this, you may speak with the instructor to find out what day this will happen, so you can prepare yourself as you need to.”

        The horrified objection to the idea that maybe we should offer people the decency of a heads-up to things that could send them into panic attacks for the next week if they were sprung on them is, I think, pretty mendacious.Report

        • Oscar Gordon in reply to dragonfrog says:

          dragonfrog: The horrified objection to the idea that maybe we should offer people the decency of a heads-up to things that could send them into panic attacks for the next week if they were sprung on them is, I think, pretty mendacious.

          Don’t be disingenuous, that is precisely NOT what I am saying. If you are having panic attacks over X, then a Trigger Warning about X is legitimate. What I am saying is if you need a Trigger Warning, you should take a moment to talk to the instructor about it, or the department head, or the college, and they should be considerate & understanding & give you a heads up about any instances of X in the material while maintaining confidentiality.

          You should also be in treatment for your PTSD.

          If you aren’t in treatment, or have no diagnosis, then why do you need a TW?Report

          • dragonfrog in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

            The fact that you’ve already had to go the the instructor / department and disclose your medical condition, is already an unnecessary violation of confidentiality. That most institutions will probably manage to handle the process of obtaining TWs without extending that violation of confidentiality (except for the odd case where they FUBAR the whole thing and half the student body finds out) doesn’t figure.

            Do you demand to know the details of a person’s accident and treatment regimen before you install wheelchair ramps? Or do you just do it because ADA?

            (EDIT – weird, now I don’t see the comment I was initially responding to. Maybe it will reappear?)Report

            • Oscar Gordon in reply to dragonfrog says:

              I don’t need to know the details of a persons accident & treatment, because I can see that they are in a wheelchair.

              Let me repeat that, I can SEE that they are in a wheelchair. It’s obvious.

              Non-obvious issues that require accommodation need to be expressed somehow. I’m not interested in the whole country engaging in some variation of the theme of CA Prop 65 Warnings just because a minority of people are uncomfortable talking about a personal medical issue (see my comment elsewhere about an alternative approach).

              Also, as I’ve been talking with Chris hereabouts, there is a distinct difference between a real Trigger Warning and general disclaimers about material that some may find upsetting. One is something that should involve doctors, the other is just a general bit of courtesy.Report

              • dragonfrog in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

                If you run a shop or restaurant, you don’t wait for someone to show up in a wheelchair to begin construction – you don’t have to see them to accommodate them. But maybe that was a bad example on my part, I’m OK with dropping it.

                What do you consider to be the material difference between real trigger warnings, and general content warnings?

                Obviously, you can’t have trigger warnings for everything that could be triggering – “Warning, classroom floor has the same tile pattern as the room you were trapped in when your apartment caught fire” is impossible.

                But that’s not what anyone is talking about. If you prefer to call them content warnings, that’s fine I guess – but I think that simply removes you from the discussion that’s actually happening, as everyone else is calling the same things “trigger warnings,” albeit apparently incorrectly.Report

              • Oscar Gordon in reply to dragonfrog says:

                Actually, that is what some of us were talking about, how there is a difference, and the term Trigger Warning is being grossly misapplied in many cases.Report

              • Lenoxus in reply to dragonfrog says:

                The difference between a trigger warning and a general content warning is like the difference between country music and folk music. If the singer has conservative values and a Southern accent, it’s a country song. “Trigger warning” carries connotations of SJW, whereas content warnings are simple common sense.

                (No, I didn’t intend to actually clarify, just express my opinion that there isn’t much actual significant difference.)Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Lenoxus says:

                To the extent that one word has baggage and another does not have baggage yet (or different baggage, anyway), maybe we should ask what kind of baggage we want?

                Because “content warning” sounds like something the babtists would have on a flier for one of their evenings where they showed Black Sabbath album covers, read us rock lyrics, and played Stairway backwards. It sounds square. Only retrograde and repressed people need to be protected from “content”.Report

  3. Kazzy says:

    FWIW, the issue isn’t trigger warnings versus free speech. In fact, the only examples of free speech coming into conflict with trigger warnings is when schools attempt to enact rules preventing teachers from using them.

    Trigger warnings are a form of speech and the call to use them is not intended to curtail the use of certain sources but simply to inform readers of their content.Report

  4. aarondavid says:

    I am with @christopher-carr above, in that I lean more toward Popehat than Vox for the reasons behind this. I don’t think many of the students going to these (or any) uni’s are really thinking about the cost and what they specifically get for that money re: control of content. I would say that they push back against perceived whatever, and the uni at that point gives. In other words, the uni’s aren’t curating any more, they are letting the students pick what and how they learn a la carte. This cheapens the value of the degree, but not the cost. Most students are looking for a party(cool school) to respect (degree will get them a good job) ratio as high as they can be accepted into.Report

  5. Brandon Berg says:

    Never mind that there is no real way to make Brown University (or any other university) adopt a snowflake badge without violating the Free Speech rights of said University. Unless you want to imply that Corporations don’t have Free Speech rights but that would be all against the First Amendment and whatnot.

    FTFY. Anyway, no one’s proposing the the Brown be forced to do so. The idea is that they might benefit from doing so, because it would a) attract the kind of students who are into that sort of thing, and b) make themselves less attractive to troublemakers who don’t like those rules.

    the whole Trigger Warning v. Free Speech debate…

    I don’t see trigger warnings as in opposition to free speech. The whole point of trigger warnings is that you’re not self-censoring, so you’re putting the onus on listeners/readers to avoid your speech if they don’t want to be exposed to it. I don’t like that trigger warnings have become emblematic of the anti-free-speech left, because that’s the least objectionable thing about them.Report

    • I agree, @brandon-berg . Also, if the suggestion is “sarcastic,” then it’s not meant to be taken literally. And even the “sarcastic” statement says that Brown could adopt the snowflake symbol, not that adopting it should be required.

      ETA: I also wouldn’t be surprised if Popehat agrees that only a few people like or want trigger warnings. That’s why he proposes the “sarcastic” solution of making it a market choice.Report

    • LTL FTC in reply to Brandon Berg says:

      Trigger warnings bump up against free speech when they start to include value judgment. First, it’s rape and acts of violence, which seem to be the uncontroversial start, and certainly the most common examples used.

      But out in the real world, I see TW-creep into more topics that reflect the value judgments of the warning-giver. Colonialism, “denial of bodily autonomy” on discussions of abortion law and “rape culture,” which can mean anything from discussions of the standard of proof to lads mags – I’ve seen them all.

      Antis like me are mainly concerned about institutionalizing those value judgments. If making a political argument well within the American mainstream gets you a TW, do you think anyone would dare write a paper advocating that position?Report

  6. Burt Likko says:

    To the extent that a college student is more mature than the stereotypical single, childless, early 20’s proto-adult, such people are, well, more mature, and more experienced at life. Trigger warnings seem aimed at (in all but a few cases) people of lore levels of maturity and life experience.Report

  7. Jaybird says:

    When I was in school, I took one of those 200 or 300-level classes on the evolution of political philosophy: Socrates, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Marx, Rawls. One of our readings was a little essay from the Marquis de Sade and the professor said something to the effect of “some of you might not want to read his work on principle, I’ll find you something else if that’s the case, see me after class”.

    It struck me as odd that someone who was studying political philosophy might say “oh, I don’t want to read that essay… it was written by someone odious.”

    The professor was hip, though. She came out and said that if you don’t want to read it, she’d give something else.

    If all trigger warnings meant was something like “gird your loins, there’s going to be some particularly bad stuff in this reading and if you’re not ready for it, it might really upset you”, I’d be 100% down with trigger warnings. (It’s like the MPAA for essays!) People might read an essay and be upset by it. It’s fair to warn them first. Heck, give them the option of reading something else instead.

    It feels like there’s some little motte-and-bailey going on here, though. Because that’s not all that trigger warnings are.Report

    • Jaybird in reply to Jaybird says:

      One of the things that still happens for me (and I have to fight back every time it does) is the assumption that “trigger warnings” are a call for action on my part.

      I go from reading that there are trigger warnings to assuming that these trigger warnings imply that I need to do something. Then I get irritated because of my assumption that there is now a social assumption that I now have a bunch of norms that I have to follow because of the trigger warning that would not have been there had the trigger warning not been present.

      When I slap that down and say “okay, this trigger warning is nothing more than a warning to people that they might want to avoid the following content if they suspect that it’ll inspire a PTSD flashback. This isn’t telling me to do anything. It’s telling them to be careful”, I have no problem with that.

      There remains a small voice in the back of my head, though, that says “we’re going to move from trigger warnings implying that people should leave to someone arguing that it’s shaming behavior to force people who want to avoid bad things to leave and we should avoid shaming behavior therefore everybody should do the following things and engage in the following prior restraint: A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, K…”

      That voice still shows up quite regularly, even though it gets slapped down a lot.Report

    • Glyph in reply to Jaybird says:

      If all trigger warnings meant was something like “gird your loins, there’s going to be some particularly bad stuff in this reading and if you’re not ready for it, it might really upset you”, I’d be 100% down with trigger warnings. (It’s like the MPAA for essays!)

      I think this distinction is where I struggle. A general, oblique warning of “hey, this is kind of heavy/R-rated” seems entirely appropriate and courteous – it’s the sort of thing that you’d probably do when loaning a friend a book, especially if that friend has shown themselves to be a little squeamish or prudish or sheltered.

      OTOH, getting into any specifics, at all, starts to move into, for lack of a better word, “spoiler” territory.

      The reason people get upset about spoilers, is because spoilers can prevent them from being fully engaged, emotionally, with the work of art in question – they are waiting for THAT MOMENT to arrive, and when it does, it comes pre-loaded with their own conceptions, and the conceptions of the person who spoiled the moment.

      It cannot be experienced “fresh”, which is how these things land hardest and heaviest. The fact that TW’s are specifically intended for PTSD sufferers has an irony here, because what we ideally want from our art and education is Truth and Insight Bombs, detonating in brains.

      IOW, a trigger warning that may protect one group from unpleasant intense emotional engagement, also protects another group (presumably much larger) from the very kind of intense emotional engagement we should be seeking from our art and education.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Glyph says:

        But we’re not in spoiler territory, I hope, when we’re discussing the evolution of Western Political Thought. (Spoiler: It led inexorably to this very moment.)Report

      • LTL FTC in reply to Glyph says:

        they are waiting for THAT MOMENT to arrive

        This reminds me of when the 8th graders told the 7th graders that the dirty part of the Epic of Gilgamesh was on page 32 (or wherever) so we all skipped forward to it and read it out of context on the bus to much giggling.Report

      • Maribou in reply to Glyph says:

        @glyph Apologies in advance for this comment being so long and rambly – this stuff is really hard for me to write about.

        FWIW I don’t experience triggered flashbacks as “unpleasant intense emotional engagement”. I most often experience them as being thrown apart into fragmented pieces of myself and finding one or more of those pieces “stuck” back 30 years ago, caught in a freeze-frame and needing to be internally rescued from whatever it’s stuck in. They are really NOT like the unpleasant intense emotional engagements that I have otherwise experienced. I will often throw up over and over, or find my heart going 50 miles an hour and not be able to slow it down, or have intense physical pain all over as all my muscles tense up into years worth of fight-or-flight, or find myself, without conscious memory of doing so, having fled or thrown things or screamed or … just have no idea AT ALL what happened for the last 30 minutes of my life other than that it must have been NOT GOOD since I am currently hunched in a fetal position on the floor sobbing. Meanwhile, simultaneously, I’m reliving something awful, one of a host of awful somethings I experienced as a small child, something which I might or might not have thought about in decades. Not remembering it like I normally remember things, but actually, in some part of my brain, going back through it – the way we remember things in a dream, or (so I’ve been told) a hallucinatory trip. Sometimes (not always), that reliving experience crowds everything else out for minutes or hours. Sometimes I just get brief flashes of it. Sometimes those brief flashes recur over and over for days.

        Conveniently enough, I have a controller on my brain that limits the outward show of these reactions in front of people I don’t know well and trust. So if I was triggered in a classroom, I’d just dissociate completely. I’d still be putting on an outward show of functioning (I’ve gotten really good at that – the “not-fucked-up persona” part of me can joke, argue, analyse, etc, without me having to pay any attention to it), and the “me” part of me would fuck off somewhere else entirely. Sometimes the “me” part of me comes back just enough to demand I stay in bed, read novels, and otherwise ignore life. Sometimes for days, in the days before I lived with someone, and before I had developed a “We Must Function” persona to keep me going through the motions. Usually when it’s that bad, I can’t even identify what the problem is or what happened until I come back out of the magic universe where none of that bad stuff happened to me. (The magic universe is kinda nice, but, no one else I love lives there. And there’s the whole “not actually real” issue.)

        Also conveniently for me, the sorts of things that trigger me are rarely textual – I’m much more likely to be knocked arse over teakettle by a visual image, a smell, a voice, or worst of all a scene in a movie or on TV.

        If I’ve been warned – if I am expecting that that sort of thing might happen – I can ride out the trigger, and even take deep meaning and psychological benefit from the experience. If I haven’t been warned, and I’m in a vulnerable state, it’s not just unpleasant – it fucks up my life.

        I can reasonably see why this information wouldn’t change your position or make you see it as less of a “me vs them” situation, but it still seems important to distinguish between “triggered” and “upset”. They really don’t bear comparison, in my experience.

        (FWIW I’m not sure trigger warnings even would have helped me when I was in college, because I was in such a deep denial phase that the part of me that freaked out in a triggering experience and the part of me that went to classes and talked to people were pretty much not communicating with each other. (Treatment, @oscar-gordon , was not even on the horizon, and I am pretty sure that most PTSD sufferers go untreated.) Then again, I remember the few times a professor DID bring up that people might be unable to deal with such a graphic or shocking visual experience – usually in a class like history – and the profound relief I felt at being *warned*, even though I never actually left. These days? They are a profound help. And “this gets dark / violent” really doesn’t help at ALL, because, like, 90 percent of the stuff I like gets dark / violent. The gory parts of Daredevil were no problem for me. And the potentially triggering parts of Daredevil were no problem for me because they were presented in such a way that I had plenty of warning of what was going to happen. Whereas the random this-episode-arcs on shows that are usually never about that? Fish me up big time. If they said “hey, yo, this episode is DIFFERENTLY dark than the usual, brace yourself.” that would probably be enough for me.)Report

        • Glyph in reply to Maribou says:

          @maribou – No apologies necessary, that’s valuable perspective and information to bring to the debate. I am so sorry that happened to you, and in some sense continues to happen to you. It sucks beyond belief that we can be so betrayed by strangers; as well as the people who are supposed to be looking out for us; and even, completely-counterintuitively, by our own brains and bodies.

          I’m glad you said what you did, and it was not my intention to minimize what PTSD sufferers go through (I’ve related before that I didn’t really realize the difference between a panic attack and just being afraid/anxious/nervous, until I had a few panic attacks.)

          I also didn’t intend, exactly, to make it an “us v. them” situation, though I can see how I kind of framed that way; and in fact I *am* trying to articulate a potential tradeoff that I see, since the majority opinion around here seems to be “what’s the harm in adding a TW, especially if it really really helps some people?”

          When I think of works of art that have really blown my mind, they are often not the ones that I approached with a clinical detachment and intellectual/emotional preparation. Often, I had little-to-no idea what I was really in for. At most, maybe I had seen a trailer, or a friend had told me “I think you’d really like this book”, with no more details.

          And in those works, it’s sometimes some of the more extreme or outre or unexpected moments that really spin your head ’round, and make you reconsider what you think you know and believe, or look at the world differently. I remember walking out of Trainspotting, having understood very little of the dialogue (between the thick brogues, and the terrible soundsystem in my local art theater), but feeling like I had been somehow dosed with a drug myself. I had allowed strangers – FOREIGN strangers – to reach into my mind and manipulate it, and I liked it.

          Chris mentioned that he finally saw Fury Road, and he liked it but didn’t love it, in part perhaps because he had already seen so much of it. He wasn’t able to look at it fresh (and of course, the way we react to hype can go both ways – it can make something seem bigger than it is, or smaller than it is).

          I don’t mean to blow all this out of proportion – maybe a content warning that simply says “Contains Scenes of Sexual Violence” is, in the end, such a minor “spoiler” for the rest of the population, that it’s worth it, to potentially save a few people a lot of pain.

          But at the same time, it does feel a little like something is potentially being lost – perhaps a small something, but a small something lost to many, many people for whom it didn’t necessarily need to be lost – and that would be a “cost” to count.

          I don’t think the possibility, at least, is worthy of total dismissal. Artists make art and writers write (and people consume that art and writing), in an attempt to send and receive powerful emotions and truths, as unfiltered and unmediated as possible. Sometimes those emotions and truths are most efficiently and powerfully communicated by surprise, when the receiver’s mental guards are down and they didn’t see it coming. And sometimes the scenarios used to communicate them are unpleasant.

          I’m not arguing that it is OK or desirable to spring absolutely anything on anyone at anytime – just that it’s not clear to me where the lines should best be drawn. A few weeks ago, during the Bechdel threads, I didn’t opine on whether or not handing someone Fun Home with no content heads-up would be over the line, b/c I haven’t read it, but noted that doing the same with Alan Moore’s Lost Girls probably would be – even though I believe that book to have significant artistic/intellectual merit.

          The TL; DR of all this is that I think it’s worthwhile to at least question any new filters and mediators that we are considering adding to the process of artistic or intellectual communication.Report

          • Maribou in reply to Glyph says:

            @glyph Well and I think we can both agree on that TL;DR.

            One of the most awkward conversations I regularly have at work (maybe once or twice a year) is on “why is this AWFUL THING in this library?” “well if it has to be in the library WHY DOESN’T IT HAVE A LABEL ON IT because putting it in the library implies that you APPROVE OF THIS AWFULNESS?”

            It’s not awkward because whatever the thing is isn’t awful (those are just annoying, and on MY college campus, it’s very rare to have someone complain about something without a really good reason), it’s awkward because the thing IS so awful, and yes keeping it in the library DOES imply certain kinds of stamps of approval, and yet, it also has valid reasons for being in our stacks which may or may not be virtues depending on what it is, and if we start labeling everything in a more-than-100-year-old library that has awful parts with labels explaining the awful, well, good luck finishing that project any time in the next 20 years. Especially if someone has to the care and time to read the thing and research its contexts and explain properly instead of just sticking a label on it.

            And also, yes, generally I would also rather just experience things rather than be slathered in information about them beforehand. Except when I want to be slathered in information because it’s its own kind of entertainment, of course. And that’s even though I’m good at forgetting said information. This is part of why I never took a literature course in college, and yet spent all my free time in the PS’s and HQs…

            All of that together kinda makes up why I don’t mind syllabus-related warnings – by comparison, that’s a halfdozen books, mayyyybe 20 at most, and the point is not supposed to be blowing your mind, it’s supposed to be the cool analytical distanced evaluation thinger. I am not going to be able to evaluate coolly if you don’t give me a heads up about certain things.

            BUT ALSO – the reason I think such warnings are different than censorship and don’t threaten censorship – when they’re used for things that really DO literally give people flashbacks at least – is that most of the people I know with those kinds of damage HAVE read lots and lots of the sort of books that might trigger them.

            Keri Hulme’s The Bone People is one of my absolute favorite books, a book I loved at 13 and love now, even though once I’d faced all the things that have happened to me, and reread it, I had to stop about 5 times for ineluctable catharsis, since I’d suppressed all the painful parts of when I read it the first time. And there are at least half-a-dozen more books that I relate to similarly. But if I had HAD to read it for the first time for school, without warnings, and then HAD to write analytical papers about it, I would’ve had to drop the class. Part of the problem with childhood abuse related experiences is the element of coercion? Which when it comes into a trigger-related thing, amplifies the trigger. At least for me. Whereas if someone had made it optional, I probably could’ve both loved it and learned from it. And until maybe about 5 years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to explain why to anybody. I would’ve known why, but I couldn’t have SAID.

            And I’m aware that my perspective is also warped precisely by how much dissociation historically was a coping mechanism for me, along with forgetting, to the point where they were more of a life habit that a reaction, and in some ways still are. Those two things together don’t have much of a silver lining but the one thing they are GREAT for is being unspoilable.

            I think somewhere in the back of my brain my attitude toward people being upset about spoilers is “JUST LEARN HOW TO FORGET THEM, SHEESH, THAT’S A LOT EASIER THAN WHAT YOU ARE ASKING ME TO DO.” When really, while less painful, it might not actually be that easy for your average person to deliberately forget things….

            PS My sister has picked up a habit, in the survivor circles she moves in, of just using the two letter “tw” as a heads up. she doesn’t even elucidate. and she will comment that on a fb post just by itself sometimes, if she thinks the content at the link merits it based on her experience and those of her friends. I wonder what you would think of that, given that it really doesn’t *spell out* anything? Better or worse? I would’ve thought just from hearing about it that it would be both useless and annoying, but in practice I find it super helpful. Except in practice it may be MORE helpful to me than the average person since, after all, my own sister is the only person I know who uses it, and not because it’s actually helpful.

            PPS FWIW, my experience of “around here” is that the majority opinion is that trigger warnings are stupid and/or harmful and/or an example of how the world is going to h-e-double-hockeysticks in a handbasket. Haven’t done a count to see which it is (not sure how I would accurately count that), but I do think it’s interesting that our perspective of that is so different.Report

            • Glyph in reply to Maribou says:

              Well, I hope I haven’t been arguing as though TW’s mean the world is going to hell-diddly-ell. I’m trying to be more measured than that.

              To your question, as I indicated in my original comment, simply saying “TW” by itself doesn’t bother me much, since it’s generic enough that it’s little different from saying “Rated R”. There’s some adult content in there, and that’s enough for me to know to make the big decisions.

              To the extent that it gets more specific, it does make me a little more uncomfortable. When I compared more specific content warnings to the kinds of things the PMRC was agitating for, Lee pointed out that the PMRC stickers were intended to communicate different info, to different people.

              And that may be true, but in the end the *effect* is largely the same, and you are communicating to *everybody*; there’s no way to narrow-cast or target that message (actually, as we move farther and farther away from hard copies for reading, that statement may become less true…should be easier to carry TW info in a separate unobtrusive “channel”, like closed-captioning, that people can choose for themselves whether to utilize.)

              Maybe the PMRC would be less of a footnote punchline if they’d just come along just a few years later, and requested a trigger warning sticker on Tori Amos’ “Me and a Gun”. If their intentions were beyond reproach, then why would anyone question the result?Report

              • Chris in reply to Glyph says:

                How’s this for a solution: a general warning, not so much “Rated R,” but of the TV rating sort, which gives you a broad reason for the rating (“strong sexual content,” as the TV ratings warn, or “sexual violence,” say), and then provides a way to get more specific content warnings should the reader choose (e.g., “Pages 43-48 contain a graphic depiction of sexual violence”)? That way if I don’t want further warning, I don’t have to seek it out, but if I do I can. For courses, you don’t even have to put the more detailed warnings on the syllabus or introductory materials for a work; you can put them on a website provided on the syllabus/intro.Report

              • Glyph in reply to Chris says:

                you can put them on a website provided on the syllabus/intro

                This gets at what I meant about “separate channels”. I think I’d be pretty fine with something that said “for a more detailed description of the content, including possible triggers for PTSD sufferers, go to this URL”. Just make sure you don’t get too detailed, students should still have to buy their own damn Cliffs Notes. 😉Report

              • Chris in reply to Glyph says:

                Right. I’m again thinking of the example of the woman I was dating when we went to see a movie with graphic sexual violence, based on a book with the same. She probably could have finished the movie and gotten plenty out of it, and read the book subsequently, if she’d been able to skip the scene in question. I imagine that’s not uncommon.Report

    • Morat20 in reply to Jaybird says:

      I got the impression that, by and large, that’s what trigger warnings were. “Fair warnings, kiddos, we’re about to get into the weeds”.

      I mean if you weren’t about to go ahead and assign or teach the stuff, there’d be no point in trigger warnings, would there? You just wouldn’t assign it or teach it at all, and obviate the need for them entirely.

      Yeah, some college students are gonna take the ‘non’ trigger option. I don’t know if college professors are any different these days, but my anecdotal experience is if you take the “More work for the college professor” route you get the harder stuff. Not hugely more difficult, but enough so that it ensured you had a real issue.

      My HS AP biology teacher dealt with the few students who parent’s refused the allow them to take the evolution unit by giving them further studies into biochemistry. Nobody faked a Creationist belief to get out of work.

      My wife generally has a set of alternative readings for any literature that’s going to trigger parental fuss (HS English), and she generally selects an alternative work specifically for the student — if the kid’s not getting the dedicated lesson plan with the others, he or she needs something that’ll make them work a bit harder to get it down.Report

  8. switters says:

    Maybe I need to reread the article, but my recollection of what Ken was railing against was the right to not be offended. I don’t think he even mentions trigger warnings. He may have an issue with trigger warnings, but what he is pushing back against here is much a broader, and much more insidious.Report

    • Autolukos in reply to switters says:

      You are correct; Ken never once mentions trigger warnings. Instead, he leads off with a link to Volokh discussing a proposal to require UC schools to implement disturbingly broad regulation of speech. Seems worthy of concern to me.Report

  9. Stillwater says:

    To sorta bring the topic to a more personal level, it seems to me that a few things are going on that I’m personally opposed to wrt trigger warnings. The first: in an academic environment – by definition! look up the meaning of the word! – specific topics are (supposed to be) studied and analyzed dispassionately and impersonally in order to better understand either how the world works, or how a theory explains empirical evidence, or how empirical evidence fails to support a specific theory, and so on. So it seems to me that if part of the academic pursuit of a certain type of (eg) thematic construction requires reading about two men having sex, then the student, qua student, should be prepared to read those materials and evaluate them dispassionately and impersonally. So, no trigger warnings ought to be required.

    Second: on a more personal level, it seems to me that insofar as individual students are offended or emotionally harmed (from prior trauma, say) by being exposed to certain depictions as part of a particular academic endeavor, then the burden is on those individuals – rather than the world! – to figure out how to mitigate the offense or emotional harm, either by refraining from studying those topics at all (move to a different department!) or – and this my main beef – view their “having taken offense” as a sign that they need to do more work in their own lives to deal with their own counterproductive reactivity. By saying that I’m not discounting that folks actually do experience real pain or sorrow or offense when presented with certain types of descriptions. I just think trying to prevent those reactions from arising isn’t the correct response here, and instead trying to overcome those reactions is.

    Third: It seems to me that a small segment of the population is imposing their views on “broader society” for reasons that aren’t justified by current arguments. That is, if a person FEELS that reading about gay sex is so personally offensive that it requires a trigger warning, then that person should pro-actively enter a college or department in which descriptions of gay sex aren’t part of the curriculum.

    Fourth: this only seems to be a problem which exists in a very narrow range of departments and subdisciplines, yeah? Seems to me that at the very beginning of the class, or even entry into the department, students could be apprised that the content of some materials will include gay sex, godbashing, descriptions of murders and rapes, the violence of war, etc and so on, and overly sensitive students could make a rational decision upfront as to whether they want to pursue that area of study.

    Fifth: should biology and geology (etc) classes have a trigger warning re: the Biblical Creation Myth?Report

  10. Chris says:

    I’ve probably said this before in the many trigger warning conversations that we’ve had here, but I (and I’m sure some of you) remember when talk of “triggered memories” left the realm of clinical and academic discussions of PTSD, and became part of the vernacular of “survivor” groups (many of whom had no doubt heard talk of triggered memories in therapy). At the time, the lay discussion of triggers and triggering was fairly sophisticated (again, likely because many of those who participated had experience with therapy; some were even therapists themselves). One of the more notable aspectsof that discussion was its recognition that triggers are everywhere, are often mundane and seemingly, from an outsider’s perspective, divorced from the traumatic event itself: a wrought iron fence, a particular color of carpet, a brand of soap, a smell, a feel, a taste. The triggering stimuli were, perhaps, fragmented impressions gathered during or in the time around the traumatic event(s) and invested with the emotions, particularly the terror, that the traumatic event produced.

    At some point in the last decade, talk of triggers shifted from stimuli that triggered traumatic memories for specific individuals to talk of trauma itself, which is then treated as triggering for many if not most people who’ve experienced trauma (perhaps even entirely different sorts of trauma). It’s not clear to me how much of this shift is based in the way PTSD actually works, though I have no doubt that for some, perhaps many, maybe even most survivors of traumatic events, talk of similar events can be extremely unpleasant, even if it is not triggering in the way that specific impressions associated with the event are. That is, there’s something to it, even if it’s not quite what some people make it out to be.

    I remember, for example, going to see a movie with a woman I was dating once. It was a movie based on a book I had read, so I knew that it very likely contained a very intense rape scene, and I knew that she was a rape survivor, so I tried to talk her out of seeing it (at least in the theater: if she had to see the movie, perhaps it would be better to see it in the comfort of her home), but she insisted. We saw it, there was a very intense rape scene, it affected her greatly and we ended up leaving the theater a few minutes after that scene. The rape in the film was not, in its surface details at least, like her own, but seeing it was clearly extremely difficult for her emotionally. I can’t help but think that she would have been better off avoiding it altogether. It didn’t look like the sort of triggering event that PTSD produces, but I’m not sure that matters all that much: she was very, very upset, and there was no way she could have watched the rest of the movie, much less gotten anything out of it.

    Which brings me to the use of trigger warnings in the classroom. If the woman I was dating had, instead of viewing the movie, read the book for a class (and it’s a book that I’m quite certain gets assigned in some college classes, maybe even some advanced high school ones), it would have been difficult for her to read that scene, which took place over several pages, and continue to read the book at all, much less read it comprehendingly, or critically, in a way that would meet the sorts of educational goals associated with reading assignments in a course. She would likely have gotten more out of the book by skipping that scene (though it’s an important scene, as what comes after is at least in large part a result of it, perhaps merely knowing what sort of things happened would have been sufficient, and sufficiently non-“triggering”). So I’m all for the sort of warning, highly specific in such a case (“Starting on page such and such, through page so and so, there is a very graphic depiction of sexual violence”) that would let her avoid those scenes.

    Does this mean she would be avoiding challenging material, material that would potentially make her think differnetly about her views of the world, society, gender, whatever? I don’t think so. I think that properly targeted trigger warnings just allow students with experiences like hers to avoid material that would do nothing but disrupt their ability to engage potentially challenging material (the novel in question is meant to be quite challenging).

    Of course, trigger warnings can be abused, both by those who give them and those who demand them, but this isn’t a reason to dismiss them entirely, as I think there’s little doubt that they can do good for the sort of people like the woman I described who would genuinely benefit from avoiding some graphic depictions of violence or other trauma. Which is why I get so disappointed with the conversation about them, has become largely about “the left” and censorship and that “creeping leftist fascism” thing again. Perhaps there’s a better way to do it than it’s generally being done right now (of this I have no doubt, really: it’s new, so we haven’t got a lot of experience yet), but because of how the conversation about them is being held, it’s unlikely to influence them for the better.Report

    • Jaybird in reply to Chris says:

      Yeah, what turned me around on this was an essay by a person who was explaining that she was triggered by calculus given that she was going through a pretty horrific experience during a period in her life where she was also taking calc.

      So she sees a formula and, whammo, she’s back to the emotional place she was during the trauma.

      And when I was reading this essay, I found myself all defensive and angry and thinking “HOW IN THE HELL SHOULD I KNOW TO AVOID TALKING ABOUT CALCULUS?!??”

      When it slowly dawned on me that “this ain’t about you, Jaybird…”, I realized that I was seriously misunderstanding what trigger warnings were trying to do.Report

      • Chris in reply to Jaybird says:

        Yeah, and that’s likely the sort of trigger I was talking about from the actual treatment of PTSD, and it’s the sort that you can’t do anything about. You can’t trigger warn every possible trigger, because they are infinite and highly individual.

        What’s more, that sort of trigger is treatable: if calculus triggers traumatic memories and their associated emotions, you likely have PTSD, and should seek treatment which can help dissociate calculus from the emotional reaction associated with the trauma.

        Which brings up another point: I think one of the reasons people react to the very concept of trigger warnings the way they do is that the current college-aged generation may be the generation most aware of mental health issues. The stigma associated with them still infects the way most of us older folk think about these things, but they have significantly less stigma for young people, which allows them to take them more seriously. That’s an unqualified good thing.Report

        • Glyph in reply to Chris says:

          the current college-aged generation may be the generation most aware of mental health issues. The stigma associated with them still infects the way most of us older folk think about these things, but they have significantly less stigma for young people, which allows them to take them more seriously. That’s an unqualified good thing.

          I don’t know if I’d go so far as “unqualified”. It does seem to me that there is a push to pathologize and diagnose every sort of human behavior (and to be fair, I’ve engaged in some armchair speculation myself from time to time).

          So in this case, being made uncomfortable is definitely not the same thing as being triggered; just like being garden-variety-anxious isn’t having a panic attack; and sometimes that person who supposedly has Borderline Personality Disorder, is really just a controlling jerk.Report

          • Chris in reply to Glyph says:

            I agree, to some extent, but I don’t think it’s a necessary trade off, and I think part of the reason it’s a trade off that actually occurs regularly is a reaction to the way that mental illness is treated by pretty much everyone but the kids in this generation. I think some of that will melt away as society as a whole becomes more accepting and knowledgeable of mental illness.

            And I said in my first comment that I don’t think what we’re talking about here is triggering in the usual sense, but I used the example of the woman I used to know to show that even though it’s not triggering, it can be quite upsetting, upsetting in a way that is disruptive to learning and participation, and therefore in a way that should be avoided if possible, not by censoring content, but by making people aware of it and letting them avoid it if they feel they should.Report

          • Stillwater in reply to Glyph says:

            I was gonna say something different: that college age students probably aren’t any more aware of the types of mental health issues Chris describes, particularly wrt PTSD, and that the motivation for trigger warnings (at least for lots of the people advocating them) doesn’t derive from holding less stigma for mental health issues. It seems to me it’s sorta the inverse of that insofar as they’ve extended the concept of mental health to include not being offended.Report

            • Chris in reply to Stillwater says:

              The extension of trigger warnings to not being offended seems, to me at least, pretty limited. Most of it is still about types of trauma and violence. Though warnings that there is gonna be some seriously racist shit in the material we’re reading for next class have always been around. I remember out teachers warning us lo these many years ago, even.

              If we’re going to only discuss the worst uses of trigger warnings, and what’s more, treat them as representative of the very concept, then we’re just not going to have a productive discussion about them.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Chris says:

                Have we only discussed the worst uses of trigger warnings?Report

              • Chris in reply to Jaybird says:

                Some folks here have.Report

              • Stillwater in reply to Chris says:

                Well, that’s what people want to discuss, Chris! Seems to me that even if a person agrees that there are legitimate reasons to warn students of certain types of content, they may still oppose the idea that such warnings should have to accompany the materials, or that such warning should be school policy, or that students have a “right” to expect being warned. And all those views might be held even despite agreeing with you about the legitimate cases. So the discussion – quite obviously! – goes way beyond what you think it ought to be limited to.

                For my part, I’m opposed to them (for the reasons I gave above) except as a polite heads-up offered by profs on (for example) the first day of class. And that strikes me as more about pro-actively informing students about the course’s content so’s the student can make a rational decision regarding whether they want to proceed, rather than the prof making a reactive decision regarding what constitutes a trigger.Report

              • Chris in reply to Stillwater says:

                All of the points you mention are great topics of discussion.

                I don’t have a problem with them being policy (though I think thereit may do simply to encourage it), though the policy should be clear, instructors should be educated on the policy (both its content and its purposes), and there should be someone whom instructors can go to to ask about specific cases.

                I also don’t have a problem with students asking for content warnings. I don’t think they should be able to “demand” them, because they don’t get to determine the content of their education by themselves. It should be an interaction, a dialogue between instructors and students, one that allows students to have some say, and requires instructors to be accountable to their students to some degree, without placing an undue burden on instructors to anticipate, much less cater to, every students’ desire.

                If an instructor genuinely feels that trigger warnings in a particular course, or for a particular work, are counter to his or her pedagogic reasons for including that work, the instructor should be able to justify feeling that way to students. He or she may not be able to convince all students, but when was the last time that happened on any topic?Report

              • El Muneco in reply to Chris says:

                Also, if a particular work collects a certain level of TW, maybe it’s an indication to reconsider whether that’s the best work to use in the course. Of course, often it will be, but it seems to me that TW can be part of a properly functioning system without suppressing uncomfortable works from view.

                Maybe my view has been colored by seeing them used judiciously and constructively in the blogosphere.

                Also, I agree with one of the posts far above this one – in terms of on-campus speech issues, TW might not be in the top five biggest threats, and certainly aren’t #1.Report

              • Glyph in reply to El Muneco says:

                TW might not be in the top five biggest threats, and certainly aren’t #1.

                But…they contain the word “trigger”.

                That’s, like, part of a gun.Report

    • DensityDuck in reply to Chris says:

      I think the concern is that trigger warnings are going to end up as the next gluten-free diet; some people genuinely need them, but many many more people are going to convince themselves that they need them.


      There’s also the fact that it seems to enable the things it’s trying to warn against. If I need to assume that general audiences might receive my speech–and I care about their good opinion–then I need to keep in mind how that speech might be received. But if I put a trigger warning on my stuff, then I can off-load the responsibility for negative interpretations onto the listener. You knew you were getting into something serious, that’s what the trigger warnings were for, so if you don’t like what you heard that’s your problem, right?Report

      • Chris in reply to DensityDuck says:

        On your first point, if you worry about that, all the more reason to have a productive conversation about trigger warnings, rather than the sneering one we usually have here (and pretty much everywhere).

        On your second point, that seems like a valid concern: if people are using trigger warnings simply to avoid responsibility, they’re probably using them in a way that doesn’t effectively serve the purpose of trigger warnings in the first place. Trigger warnings should be relatively specific, particularly for individual works or lectures or talks or whatever, specifying when and what sort of potentially “triggering” information will be present.

        Also, I would prefer to get away from the “trigger” language. Since “trigger” really does mean something specific in PTSD, and what we’re talking about is likely qualitatively different, I’d prefer we call it something else, to signify what we’re trying to communicate and accomplish. It might also get rid of some of the baggage that has come to be associated with the very concept.Report

        • Oscar Gordon in reply to Chris says:


          Once upon a time, my wife & I were in a horrible head-on collision. Nasty affair, with serious injuries and a death. After it was all said & done, things got … strained about the house. Why wasn’t clear until one day my wife joined me at the firing range, and had a meltdown right there. Terror, crying, the works.

          Well we packed up & left and after she calmed down & we talked, she told me the smell got to her.

          Turns out smokeless gunpowder smells an awful lot like the propellant used in airbags. The reaction was triggered by the smell. It was clearly involuntary, because my wife grew up around hunters, firearms don’t bother her in the least.

          When someone tells me they need a Trigger Warning, I expect them to have a reaction on par with what my wife experienced that day at the range. If they aren’t, then it’s being mis-used (which is why I commented before that someone asking for one should have a diagnosis & be in treatment for PTSD).

          (And yes, we got her into treatment ASAP; took a few years to work it all out, but she’s much better now).Report

          • Chris in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

            First, it sucks that you and your wife went through that, and second, that’s a very clear example of a PTSD trigger. I don’t think we need quite that level to have “trigger warnings” (though again, I’d change the name). The example I described was pretty intense, but it wasn’t close to the intensity I’ve seen with PTSD. I think the warnings should cover the example I gave even though it doesn’t reach that level.Report

            • Oscar Gordon in reply to Chris says:

              I guess that is my big objection to all of this. A Trigger Warning is, to me, something very specific & personal. A Trigger Warning is not “Disturbing or Objectionable Material Ahead, Discretion is Advised”, which seems to be what is, in most of these cases, a more appropriate disclaimer.Report

            • Oscar Gordon in reply to Chris says:

              Regarding your example -if she had to leave shortly after the viewing, even after knowing it was there, I’d count that as a Trigger to some degree (the need to exit the environment is pretty key, I think).

              Kudos to her for trying though. I hope she got help, or more help, if she was still having trouble with it. After seeing the change wrought in my wife, both by the accident, and by the therapy afterward, I can’t stress enough how important it is to get help, and to understand that there are more than one approach to treatment, since not everything approach works for every person.Report

          • dragonfrog in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

            Why should they have to come to you, disclose their medical records, describe the traumatic things that happened to them, just for the courtesy of a trigger warning for items that one could easily predict might put a lot of people out of the capacity to engage with the material taught?

            Let’s look at the distribution of burdens here.

            – if only those in treatment for PTSD have the right to trigger warnings, then every student undergoing such treatment has to subject themselves to half a dozen humiliating and unnecessary disclosures of their personal history and medical information to instructors who have no need of that information, with a >95% chance that any given encounter will be pointless because the course material doesn’t contain any graphic depictions that would be triggering to the student.

            – if trigger warnings for a few basic things are published by default, every instructor has to take a minute to consider whether the material they’re covering has graphic violence, sexual assault, or gruesome deaths, and add a note to that effect when writing the syllabus, and no one’s medical privacy is violated.Report

            • Kolohe in reply to dragonfrog says:

              The instructors can all make the first slide of their presentations with fine print so it look like a car commercial with a lease option.Report

            • Oscar Gordon in reply to dragonfrog says:

              To your first point, try to exercise a touch of imagination in this regard. A person with a medical condition need not talk to the prof, or any faculty. They stop by campus medical, disclose the issue to the professionals there, hand over a copy of their class schedule, and campus medical sends out a polite email informing all faculty on the class schedule that someone in their class would appreciate a heads up in regard to any material dealing with X.

              This not only maintains confidentiality, but it also keeps campus medical in the loop with regard to students who are dealing with mental health issues, so they can make sure appropriate resources are available. It also serves as a way to screen out people who are just trying to game the system for whatever ends.

              To your second, see Kolohe’s point below.Report

            • Jaybird in reply to dragonfrog says:

              every instructor has to take a minute to consider whether the material they’re covering has graphic violence, sexual assault, or gruesome deaths, and add a note to that effect when writing the syllabus, and no one’s medical privacy is violated.

              So you’re saying that Art History should have burdens placed upon it that Liquid Dynamics doesn’t?Report

            • InMD in reply to dragonfrog says:

              Maybe this is a reactionary view but I don’t understand the challenge with people taking a bit of responsibility for their own mental health. We don’t seem to be talking about individuals with profound disabilities who aren’t able to function on their own. It’s people who have a diagnosed psychological problem with at least some awareness of what stimuli could cause a reaction. Given the innumerable potential causes of a ptsd related episode it can’t be the responsibility of everyone else. If you have a known food allergy and go to a pot luck dinner then eat things without asking questions whose fault is it if you have a reaction?Report

              • Oscar Gordon in reply to InMD says:


                I have a disability. It’s not obvious, but it does require some accommodation from my employer with regard to my work space. It is my responsibility to inform my employer about my needs, and to provide documentation upon request. This is the standard across the country, so I fail to see why college students should not be expected to do the same?

                ETA: As to why the documentation is important, I point to the situation regarding service animals. I can understand a seeing eye dog, but a therapy weasel is a stretch.Report

              • InMD in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

                Sounds like it might be exciting to have around the office though, re: the weasel.Report

              • Stillwater in reply to InMD says:

                Doesn’t every office already have a weasel, tho?Report

              • …but a therapy weasel is a stretch.

                Look, man, I’ve got have something to protect me from slaver wasps and revenants.Report

              • Glyph in reply to Michael Cain says:

                And a therapy mustelid is just the thing ferret?Report

              • Oscar Gordon in reply to Michael Cain says:

                I so have to catch up on Girl Genius…Report

              • Alan Scott in reply to InMD says:

                OTOH, food manufacturers in the US are legally required to provide information about ingredients on the food’s packaging, and chain restaurants typically provide such information on their websites.

                In the EU, there’s a list of fourteen common allergens that even Mom & Pop restaurants are required to inform their customers about if they’re included in a dish. I don’t see why that same basic approach can’t be adapted as a university policy.Report

              • InMD in reply to Alan Scott says:

                We can say with some medical certainty that peanuts plus people with a certain diagnosed sensitivity equals measurable medical distress. I’m not sure we can say that about psychological discomfort arising out of an external stimulus which causes an individual to recall a painful past experience. There are far more variables.

                To the extent this is something that can be diagnosed I’m not even sure we should be trying to shield people from exposure so much as getting them into therapy. Isn’t the goal of treating people with ptsd to get them to a point where the individual is no longer afflicted? I’m not of the sky is falling persuasion on this issue but I do think the advocates have a long hill to climb when it comes to proving that marking everything in this manner is even in the interest of the folks for whom they claim to speak.

                From a pure cost perspective are we even sure that there are enough people in college with a ptsd diagnosis to justify major reviews of curriculum that people seemed to have handled just fine in the past?Report

              • Alan Scott in reply to InMD says:

                This feels like concern trolling. You know what the generally accepted best-practice treatment for PTSD is? Controlled exposure. Trigger warnings are, as designed, a tool used to control exposure to triggering stimuli. That is what they are for, and there are people right here on this thread talking about the ways in which trigger warnings help them manage their PTSD symptoms.

                As for prevalence on campuses, the National Institute of Health cites 23 as the average onset age for PTSD, and a 12-month prevalence of 3.5% of the adult US population. Back of the envelope math suggests that at least one in a hundred college students suffer from PTSD. I suspect the average full-time professor teaches about two hundred students a year–which means most college professors are going to have one or more students who suffer from PTSD just about every year.

                You say that advocates have a long hill to climb. But in reality, they are at the top of the hill waving a big sign that says “look up here”, while being ignored due to the political agendas of detractors. (Which is not to say that many advocates don’t have political agendas too, but none of that changes the fact that PTSD is real and common, and its sufferers deserve our respect)Report

              • InMD in reply to Alan Scott says:

                I dont see how basic cost analysis and treating this like every other mental health diagnosis is ‘concern trolling.’ Let’s assume your facts are accurate and 1-2% of the student population has a ptsd diagnosis. The cost effective way to handle that is for that 1-2% of the population to work with their therapist and be wary about what they expose themselves to. It isn’t to have every professor reviewing Thucidides or the 2010 anthology of literary classics for passages that could cause a reaction, especially when it might be unique to every individual.

                This is how we handle all non-incapacitating mental health diagnosis. There’s some responsibility on the part of the sufferer. More often it sounds to me like it’s advocates who want this issue treated by the pyblic as having the gravity of medical diagnosis but don’t want any of the reasonable responsibilities that go along with that. This is why skeptics sense a political agenda.Report

              • Alan Scott in reply to InMD says:

                InMD: work with their therapist and be wary about what they expose themselves to.

                Um… duh. And that is exactly what trigger warnings are for. They’re a basic tool that enables sufferers to take the responsibility for their own care you claim trigger warnings let them escape.

                And, just saying, the primary theme of Thucidides is the atrocity of war. Any professor who can’t decide whether the History of the Peloponnesian War deserves a trigger warning is probably not qualified to teach a course on it.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Alan Scott says:

                I feel sorry for all of the people who had to learn about the Peloponnesian War prior to our generation from professors who never even *CONSIDERED* telling students about the various triggers they would be encountering.Report

              • Alan Scott in reply to Jaybird says:

                Fortunately, Thucidides was kind enough to provide a trigger warning in the title.Report

              • InMD in reply to Alan Scott says:

                It isn’t a tool, it’s a burdensome responsibility placed on someone else. It requires a third party to have intimate knowledge of a complete stranger’s psychological condition in a manner that will never be possible. This is why it must be the sufferer’s own responsibility to be wary based on their own diagnosis and where they are in their treatment, something that that no professor is ever going to be able to know for certain. Contra your point about a history professor, I don’t think it’s at all reasonable to expect professors to have expertise outside of their own discipline.

                Take an individual with a certain type of learning disability. Our response to that isn’t to, say, eliminate timed tests for everyone just in case someone in the class has a disability. It’s to require the individual with the disability to provide documentation evidencing its existence and to work with the institution to make an accommodation, to the extent possible and/or legally required.

                I think a similar approach is much more reasonable than requiring professors to divine what might set off any given adult student at any given time. That means if you’ve got severe ptsd from a few tours in Iraq it’s probably a good idea to avoid a class called war in modern cinema. If it’s ptsd from being a victim of a crime then it’s probably a good idea to avoid courses in the criminology department.

                This is where I might get a bit harsh (and back to Thucidides). If a person’s ptsd is such that a translation of an ancient text causes such a severe emotional reaction then I submit that college just isn’t right for that person at that point in time. It doesn’t mean it never will be, but that individual clearly has some things to work through first, and it isn’t the faculty or anyone else’s responsibility to navigate that for them.Report

              • Alan Scott in reply to InMD says:

                InMD: This is how we handle all non-incapacitating mental health diagnosis. There’s some responsibility on the part of the sufferer. More often it sounds to me like it’s advocates who want this issue treated by the pyblic as having the gravity of medical diagnosis but don’t want any of the reasonable responsibilities that go along with that. This is why skeptics sense a political agenda.

                What reasonable responsibilities? A perusal of several University websites suggests that the typical responsibility chain of someone whose mental (or physical) health affects their ability to participate is: A) Give the disability support office a health worker’s note describing the standardized accommodations they require, and B) Receive those standardized accommodations at the University’s expense.

                Notably, this pathway doesn’t require disabled students to carefully curate their class selection and participation to avoid activities they can’t participate it. It doesn’t require them to disclose their medical diagnosis to professors or give professors additional gate-keeping power. It doesn’t require an additional investment of resources on the part of the disabled student.

                It may, however require professors to undertake additional responsibilities regarding these students such as allowing a student additional time to complete tests, or wearing a microphone so lectures can be recorded, or providing a reading list to the university so that they can ensure that accessible textbooks are available.

                Asking professors to provide trigger warnings on their syllabi isn’t exactly the same, but it’s a lot closer to the process I’ve described above that the current status quo for trauma survivors.Report

              • InMD in reply to Alan Scott says:

                I think I answered these points above (but if there’s a point I missed I’m happy to look again). My opinion is that it shouldn’t be the professor’s responsibility for the reasons stated in the previous comment.Report

    • Stillwater in reply to Chris says:

      it would have been difficult for her to read that scene, which took place over several pages, and continue to read the book at all, much less read it comprehendingly, or critically, in a way that would meet the sorts of educational goals associated with reading assignments in a course.

      I agree with this, and I think the reason is that the motivation for a trigger warning (verbally expressed by the prof, say) is that the purpose of the warning isn’t specifically, or even primarily, to protect the students feelings, but instead to promote the educational goals of the prof, class and institution. That is, the reason a trigger warning is completely appropriate in that context is because providing one actually increases the likelihood that the student learns, and more-better learns!, the subject matter at hand.

      I’m sorta spitballing on this one, because I agree with you about the (I’ll use scare quotes here!) “legitimate” uses of trigger warnings based on the model of folks with diagnosed PTSD. The problem, of course, is that triggers are (as you say) potentially infinite, in which case, if we take a wide view of this, everything in life could be a trigger for someone, so life itself requires a trigger warning.Report

      • Chris in reply to Stillwater says:

        Right, again I want to get rid of the concept of triggers. Let’s just call it extremely upsetting: it doesn’t (most of the time) actually trigger the re-experiencing of the trauma the way a trigger does (which can be completely paralyzing), it’s just upsetting because it recalls the trauma. It’s upsetting in a way that those of us who haven’t experienced that level of trauma may not understand, but it’s still not at the level of a PTSD trigger. Still, the educational goals may be undermined by that level of emotional reaction, even if it’s not like PTSD, even if it’s in a person who doesn’t suffer from PTSD. Using specific, direct content warnings is still justified, and in fact a “best practice,” as the kids these days say.Report

        • Maribou in reply to Chris says:

          My experience (and from what I read / what my shrink has said, that of many people with complex PTSD, especially from events that began in childhood) is not as binary as you are describing here. After extensive work over the last few years, I can tell “trigger” category stuff from “non-trigger” category stuff quite quickly – in seconds – and start working to head it off, or use it, or mitigate it, or whatever the deal is. It’s like a migraine aura? Kind of? Unless it’s a new one that doesn’t fit into one of the “how we deal with this” patterns I’ve worked out, or is really a HUGE surprise.

          But back in the day (like a whole 6 months ago), an event like the movie experience you described was just as likely to put me on the way-out spectrum as a more conventional trigger like a surprise smell or linoleum pattern or what have you.

          Also, weirdly enough, I have often found that if I can come BACK to the triggery book/movie whatever, and manage to watch the whole thing, I will be able to avoid the nightmares, panic attacks, etc that would ensue if I leave it “open,” ie unfinished.Report

          • Chris in reply to Maribou says:

            I do not doubt that’s often the case. I just don’t think it has to be a PTSD trigger to produce pretty extreme reactions.

            Also, thank you for sharing your experience. It helps me to think about these things.Report

  11. Alan Scott says:

    I guess what throws me so much about this is that trigger warnings are simply a specific iteration of absurdly basic teaching skills.

    Preparing students for the material they’re about to encounter is simple and straightforward pedagogy. I know that my students will learn better if I warn them when they’re about to encounter something as simple and non-controversial as square roots. In that context, I simply can’t comprehend why professors would object to warning students that they’re about to encounter rape.

    A complaint about trigger warnings is a complaint that the professor will have to consider the ways their students might react to the lesson that is being presented, and the way that might affect the degree the students absorb or respond to the material. Anyone who is unwilling to do that basic task should not be employed to teach a class.Report

    • Glyph in reply to Alan Scott says:

      Except that there’s more than one way to teach. The Socratic method is pretty much predicated around letting the student take the first step via making an assertion, then via a series of questions or elucidations, the teacher helps illuminate some of the concepts at play.

      At the college level, it’s not uncommon at all to say “read this chapter/book, formulate some thoughts about it, and we will discuss tomorrow.” Sure, you can tell students what is contained in what they are about to read, but that’s not exactly the way this teaching mode is supposed to work.

      Perhaps, like the infamous Game of Thrones show misstep where the showrunners didn’t think they were filming a rape scene but pretty much everyone watching thought they had, there is a scene that is ambiguous (perhaps is even intentionally-intended to be ambiguous) – resolving that ambiguity beforehand, for the students, may work against the purpose of an exercise to have them *experience and explore* the ambiguities.Report

      • Alan Scott in reply to Glyph says:

        I said “A complaint about trigger warnings is a complaint that the professor will have to consider the ways their students might react to the lesson that is being presented, and the way that might affect the degree the students absorb or respond to the material.”

        Anyone who doesn’t consider those things will fail just as hard at teaching via the Socratic Method as they would using any other teaching strategy. If anything, the Socratic method requires you to think more about how your students will react to the material than other methods do.Report

        • Glyph in reply to Alan Scott says:

          Sure it does. But it also means that you are not to “prep” them. You can think about how they will react, without telling them (and therefore priming them) how to react.

          The point is that they are supposed to take the first step in evaluating the work or their feelings about it, which they perhaps can’t do as fully, if you have pre-evaluated for them.Report

          • Alan Scott in reply to Glyph says:

            In magical theory land, sure, okay. But in actuality, anyone for whom surprise rape ambiguity is a real lesson plan is both a crappy teacher and a crappy human being.

            I’m reminded of that incident Saul highlighted last year in which a group of grade school students evaluated the claims of Holocaust denial. Yes, it was a particularly boneheaded circumstance given the age group of the students involved, but I’d argue that a lesson in evaluating the truthfulness of historical claims based around holocaust denial is inherently boneheaded. Because either your students know the answer already, defeating the purpose of the lesson, or they don’t and wind up arguing in class that the Holocaust never happened.

            Likewise, I’m sure there are all sorts of conversations about a particular work of art or writing that may be forestalled by the warning that such work contains a scene of rape, or contains a scene whose exact nature is ambiguous but might be rape. But I don’t think those are conversations worthy of a college classroom.Report

            • Glyph in reply to Alan Scott says:

              @alan-scott -no time to discuss further, I’m on the way out the door to celebrate my anniversary by seeing a concert, getting good and drunk, and nursing a hangover with a book by the hotel pool. I’ve written a lot of words explaining what I see as the potential costs of TWs.

              I will just note that your position seems to assume that the costs of TWs are nonexistent or negligible, and that there is only one way to properly teach, which is by fully preparing the student for the material (and never using the material to help prepare the student; at least not without parameters that you deem necessary, even though only a very small fraction of students need them or would be helped by them), and any teacher who does not conform to your conception is de facto a bad teacher.

              Suffice to say that I think both these assumptions can be questioned.Report

          • Mike Schilling in reply to Glyph says:

            I disagree. The Socratic method works if both parties understand that that’s what taking place. If the student doesn’t understand that the teacher is asking him what seem like boneheaded questions in order to make him think more deeply about his previous answers, he’ll simply conclude that the teacher is a bonehead.Report

  12. oscargordon says:


    Maribou: was not even on the horizon, and I am pretty sure that most PTSD sufferers go untreated.

    Oh I am certain a lot of PTSD sufferers go untreated across all walks of life. It is a good sign that PTSD is being recognized as something that is just a thing that happens to people of all types, and not a lack of strength or failure of character (like it was in the past). It’s a tricky condition to diagnose, or even recognize. It was almost 18 months between our wreck & the event that gave us a clue as to what was going on, and in that 18 months, our marriage almost fell apart. If providence had not provided us that clue-by-four, I don’t know that our marriage would have survived. So I get that it is no small, simple thing.

    Which actually leads to the point I’ve been working at here. I have no issue with general content warnings*, that can be easily seen as a simple courtesy. My issue is, as with many things, the way TWs are used in a way that seems somewhat … unserious is I guess the best term I can come up with.

    Let me relate a story:

    When I was 14, my appendix burst. Off I go to the hospital for emergency surgery, and of course, since it burst, after surgery I get pumped full of antibiotics (the appendix is full of all kinds of nasty stuff that is not meant to be floating around outside of your colon). This being the late 80’s, I got a massive dose of penicillin, which lead to me going unexpectedly into anaphylactic shock (unexpectedly because I’d taken penicillin before, no problem). Anyway, I pulled through & was told to make sure I avoid penicillin.

    Fast forward to Navy basic training at Great Lakes, IL (north of Chicago, near Waukegan). It’s late December, recruits are from all over, so in an effort to head off infections, every recruit is given a massive dose of penicillin, which is injected into the butt check, and is a very viscous fluid that forms a lump in your ass for a day or two. Not pleasant at all. The older recruits have told us all about the shot, hyping it up and making it out to be a lot worse than it is. As we all queue up to get our shots, the Corpsman asks if anyone here has a penicillin allergy. Three of us raise our hands, and he checks us off his list of people with known allergies (you disclose such things at your pre-entry physical, so it was already in my record, and it got me a red dog tag indicating the fact, something I carry to this day). We then get pulled out of line and told to sit, as we are not getting the shot. Sure enough, one other guy ‘suddenly’ remembers he has a penicillin allergy. He didn’t have an allergy, he was just didn’t want to get a lump of peanut butter injected into his ass (told me as much later). Of course the Corpsman grilled him a bit for not disclosing such things before hand, but they had neither the time or resources to argue the claim, so he dodged the shot.

    So from my POV, requesting a TW is like claiming you have a serious allergy**. Exposure to this thing will be exceptionally bad for you***, and there is something of an obligation upon other people to take a measure of care. It is a serious thing, and it is something that should be done in conjunction with professional treatment. Which leads to my second issue with this.

    In this wonderful internet age, and with the blessings bestowed upon us by sites like PubMed, or worse, Mercola, a lot of people have taken up the hobby of self-diagnosis. They have a problem, they read a personal account of someone who has been diagnosed with a mental health condition that resonates with them, and they read about said condition, check off the symptoms, and decide they have X. Then they stop there & never actually go see a doctor about their suspicion of X. Or they do, but the doctor disagrees and thinks it’s Y, and because they’ve convinced themselves they have X, they leave for a 2nd, 3rd, 4th, etc opinion. Having some kind of documentation that shows a person is in treatment when requesting a TW not only validates the claim, it also serves to make sure they are getting help.

    *I get the point made above about wanting to avoid poisoning the well with regard to content meant to be discussed, but given the prevalence of Wikipedia & Cliff’s Notes, if a student wants to find out about something objectionable in a book, they can without actually reading it. Of course, that also makes me wonder why a student who has a trigger needs a warning? They have a syllabus, can’t they just do a bit of research ahead of time to see if anything might be problematic? Either way, I see no issue with general content warning for violence, etc.

    **Or perhaps a more appropriate analogy would be a person with a nasty wound they are recovering from. You should probably let them know if they’ll be doing something that might aggravate or worsen the wound, like swimming in sewage.

    ***I say this because, like an allergy, if you know & fail to take a measure of care, there is legal liability. So a person who has a Trigger, one recognized by their doctor, who goes through the effort to inform campus or HR of the need for this accommodation, should have a valid ADA claim if the accommodation is ignored or denied.Report

  13. Michael Drew says:

    Clearly Ken is already applying Snowflakes to people in his own mind. After all, if you went to Brown, usually it says so on your resume or bio. “Snowflake!” says Ken.Report

  14. Rufus F. says:

    I understand the argument that gets made often on this issue that “the plural of anecdote is not data” and can definitely see how the worry about trigger warnings is probably overblown. But I also have a problem with that argument- really not an argument but a statement- because I’m not sure it couldn’t be made about any social concern we have. “Police brutality? Well, it’s just a few cases that are being overblown by worrywarts.” “Racism? Where’s your evidence?” After all, it’s not as if anyone’s doing a nationwide study of trigger warnings and their effects. So, do I think the use of “trigger warnings” is a major problem? No. Do I really know one way or the other? No.

    Interestingly, I work at a university where the subject has come up a few times in the student press, usually to do with who gets to speak rather than what they say. So, we had a Jewish student group that booked some Israeli speakers to discuss how we create dialogue between Jews and Muslims and a Muslim student group protested that the university shouldn’t have allowed some of the speakers on campus because they had served in the Israeli military, as one does at a certain age in Israel, so their presence was triggering and an act of violence against students from Palestine. The university did not acquiesce, although I think one of the speakers bowed out. Similar things have happened with other guest speakers over different issues.

    But I do think this debate is really just a stand in for a discussion about other problems that students and instructors are having with the sort of commodified education we have now. Treating students as customers makes them feel they don’t matter as people, and treating instructors as temps makes them feel their jobs are always on the line, and this issue touches both nerves.Report

    • Chris in reply to Rufus F. says:

      As I think your example shows, to the extent that trigger warnings are abused, and I have no doubt that they sometimes are, their abuse tends to look a lot like the sorts of things students have been doing for as long as I’ve been around, and I imagine much longer. Protesting Israeli speakers on whatever grounds are available to protest them? What, is this the 70s?Report

    • Jaybird in reply to Rufus F. says:

      There does seem to have been, for lack of a better word, “appropriation” of trigger warnings.

      The impulse that we, as a society, should protect people from PTSD kinda triggers (and, seriously, pretty much everybody who is a true scotsman agrees on that point) is being a sort of camel’s nose for the argument that we, as a society, should not discuss certain kinds of content (e.g., The Peloponnesian War) without first pointing out that the topic touches on some seriously unpleasant things like violence, gore, consent, etc, which has some people nodding and some people hemming and hawing… and when you notice the prevalence of such things as “safe spaces” on campus and “free speech zones” and a small, but noticeable, group arguing that we should be free from expressions of intolerance.

      And it’s reached the point where discussions about the attitudes and actions of this small, but noticeable, group is being conflated with the argument about trigger warnings… something that we, as a society, agree should be handled with compassion and delicacy.

      Personally, I imagine that this will all end in tears but I’m That Guy.Report

      • Rufus F. in reply to Jaybird says:

        I’m more the guy who thinks people are generally reasonable once the dust settles. I think this will all result in some sort of reasonable norms… eventually. Just before it does we’re going to have to listen to a lot of people who think the concerns about trauma and triggers are not a serious thing and another group of people who think the concerns about trigger warnings are not a serious thing, and most people will come to a more reasonable consensus.Report

      • InMD in reply to Jaybird says:

        I think that probably nails it. If not for those other issues I have a feeling it would never be discussed outside of some dull college faculty meetings that half the attendees couldn’t even recall if asked. I suspect your prediction is correct.Report