LEARN: Trigger Warnings

I’m planning a number of short blog posts that will explore concepts, phrases, and beliefs that I think are often misunderstood. Recent conversations, however, have helped me see that it’s worth offering some concise explanations to friends and relatives about a number of issues. This series will all be labeled “LEARN”. I’ve chosen to emphasize that word because it’s not meant to be some slamming opinion that knocks you off your feet. I also want to make it clear that I am not some self-appointed expert. I am daily learning how my actions and words have an impact on those around me. These posts are simply meant to express a side of these issues that you might not have considered. Many will be better versed on the subject; please feel free to add your knowledge. I ask only that you consider the information and decide whether or not it might be useful for you in the future.

 

Let’s start with the first subject: trigger warnings.

Below I’ve linked an article that I think explores the topic, especially in light of recent news, quite well. It will go much deeper into the subject than I do. It’s worth a read:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/university-of-chicago-trigger-warning_us_57bf16d9e4b085c1ff28176d

Let’s define first. Trigger warnings can be attached to books, poems, essays, lectures, etc. They are used in a similar fashion to movie content warnings. A movie that is rated R immediately moves into a specific category in your mind. If that movie is labeled as having adult language, you would have an even more specific idea of what you can expect. The goal is simply to give a potential audience an initial warning about topics that are potentially connected to issues that are normally connected to various traumas. A warning can a) mentally prepare a person for the upcoming subject of material or b) give that person an opportunity to remove themselves from the experience.

Now an example: My creative writing students often wrote and shared their poems. Early in my classes, we introduced the concept of announcing trigger warnings. If a student wanted to explore the concept of sexual harassment, I wanted my class to be a place where they could artistically examine their experiences, their fears, and their beliefs on those subjects. However, before sharing their poem I might ask them to say the phrase: “Trigger Warning – Sexual Assault.” At that point, I would give students about 30 seconds to make a decision. If students were free to write about a subject, they were also free to remove themselves from hearing about that subject. It was common practice for my students to politely step out of my room as the writer began their poem.

Let’s examine why this is a good practice. As that Huffington Post article states, trigger warnings were first introduced in connection to soldiers, war, and PTSD. It was clear that certain experiences could trigger the feelings, fears, and experiences of war when a soldier returned home. This eventually expanded, as researchers realized symptoms of PTSD weren’t limited to people who fought in wars. Victims of sexual assault, racism, abuse, etc. could also experience these symptoms.

As a teacher, I was always stunned by how much my students had been through. I have lived a relatively trauma free life. It hasn’t been entirely free of pain, but even at this point in my life, I can say that there have been only a handful of truly difficult experiences. My students, on the other hand, deal with the deaths of their loved ones. Many experience sexual assault. Others are victims of racism. Every year I had a handful of students who, as grades dropped, would reveal an experience of personal pain that left me dumbfounded.

So I know that many people feel trigger warnings have gone too far. I know many people feel that our next generation isn’t tough. I’m willing to accept there are examples in which the idea of trigger warnings might seem to stretch beyond the initial intent of the practice… but I would ask you to examine whether or not it is fair to use outliers to dismiss the need to be sensitive to the pain of other people.

The thing I respect the most about the practice of trigger warnings is that it costs almost nothing. At the most, you could say it cost me 30 seconds. Before showing a certain spoken word poem, I would pause. “This next poem deals honestly with the abuses suffered by many students who identify as gay. While I feel the ultimate message is one of hope and one that emphasizes your ability to make a difference in the lives of marginalized students, I want to be clear that this poem uses evocative images that might be sensitive to anyone who has dealt with this pain, or who has friends/family who have dealt with bullying. I’m going to give anyone who needs to step outside a second to do so.”

So my final challenges. What does it cost you to consider how you speak? What does it cost to provide a warning when content could potentially bring out painful memories? Why are you opposed to the idea of treating people with sensitivity? In what ways does the existence of trigger warnings actually offend or do damage to you personally? What subjects make you squeamish, or outright uncomfortable? Is there a scenario in which the discussion of those personal events would make you feel even more uncomfortable? When you express dislike for trigger warnings, who is at the center of your thoughts? Are you thinking about your own personal tastes, strengths, personality, and experiences? Are you thinking about others and their concerns above your own? In these conversations, is there a measure of mercy in how you’re viewing people? Is their love in your thoughts?

 

My personal take: If I ever have an opportunity to reduce the pain and hurt another person experiences, I’d like to take it. The use of trigger warnings works to allow students space to explore personal pain without forcing others to re-experience that pain.

That’s all I’ve got. Until next time.

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