Social Issues

what should trigger warnings do?

caution tape[photo by Eugene Zemlyanskiy]

A little bit ago I argued in favor of colleges and universities taking a proactive approach toward the needs of trauma survivors. I don’t think that trigger warnings by themselves are enough—professors need to be educated about how to respond to people like me appropriately, and about the nature of abuse and trauma and rape and violence.

But, I do tend to think that “trigger warnings,” as a concept, are a good idea. I used that phrase on earlier posts, but you may have noticed that I shifted to using “content note” instead. I didn’t make a huge announcement about it at the time, but I wanted to take the opportunity to explain why I use them and what purpose I think they should serve.

Dianna Anderson has already written an excellent article on why she uses “content notes,” and the difference between personal interactions and communal responsibilities. In fact, her article is the reason why I changed to using “content note” instead of “trigger warning.”

I’d like to add something to the conversation she started: in general, I think “trigger warnings” should exist in order to help people grow beyond the need for them.

To be clear: this approach will not work for everyone. Hopefully it’s obvious in my writing that I don’t think universal solutions exist, but I wanted to make that absolutely clear here. Trauma is different for every person, healing is different for every person, and it may just be a fact of a person’s life that they need to avoid a trigger indefinitely.

However, in general, I think that trigger warnings help people because they are one tool, among many, for growth. In my earlier post, I talked about how having a trigger warning could have helped me avoid two days of agony. The thing is, the younger me who read that poem for the first time is not who I am today. The me who was triggered was a me who had not processed her rape, who had barely acknowledged it had happened. She had not sought counseling yet, and she had not spent the last year of her life educating herself about rape. She had not been surrounded by an incredibly supportive community. She had not told her parents. She had not healed.

I am not a fully recovered person. I still struggle.

For example, many of the worst moments of my abusive relationship happened in bathrooms. Because of that I have a phobia about bathrooms—showers especially. This makes travelling extraordinarily difficult for me, although my partner is very helpful. A few weeks ago, however, I was cleaning my shower, and I accidentally flicked a few tiny specks of mold onto my hand.

Instantly, I was curled up in a ball on the floor, screaming. My partner had to pick me up, carry me out of the bathroom, wash my arm up to my elbow in the kitchen sink, and then hold me while I sobbed for half an hour.

It’s been years. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to take a shower in a strange place without shaking. However, it actually has gotten better. I can take a shower in a strange place. That wasn’t possible a few years ago. In the same way, if the person I am today was in that poetry writing class reading that poem, I’d be able to handle it. It still wouldn’t be fun, but I wouldn’t have to spend the next two days locked in my room.

Same thing goes for taking that Faulkner class. When that young man argued that Temple in Sanctuary was at least partly responsible for what happened to her, I would know how to respond. I would have pointed out that what he was doing was victim blaming. It would be different today.

But it would be different today because of trigger warnings. They’ve given me the ability to decide “can I read this right now?” Sometimes I’ve said yes, sometimes no. But, over the past few years, I’ve learned how to cultivate a healthy mentality. I know how to listen to myself. I know what I can handle. I’ve learned when to stop actively engaging.

Those were things I didn’t know in college.

The interesting thing about college is that it almost requires victims to push themselves past what they’re capable of handling. Without professors educated on trauma, without a healthy atmosphere that acknowledges the needs of survivors, we’re not giving students the ability to learn what I’ve learned. The point isn’t to keep students exactly where they are, to make them dependent on something like a trigger warning. But by ignoring this reality, by arguing against things like trigger warnings, that’s exactly what we’re doing.

No survivor wants to be static. No survivor is content with avoiding triggers for the rest of our lives.

We just need to be given the space and time to do that. Trigger warnings—along with supportive communities, and counseling, and learning to understand ourselves—help.

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