Trigger Warning: A Different Opinion

I’ll be responding to this post from a personal blog, concerning trigger warnings. One of my old friends goes to Skidmore College, and she shared this, and I felt inclined to reply to its contents. Here we go.

I Need Trigger Warnings: A Response to Skidmore News

So, I gather that this is Skidmore’s student newspaper. I actually found the offending article in question, which I will address later on.

Each day since the horrifying Skidmore News article was released deeming trigger warnings as unnecessary and “intellectually lazy,” I have sat down and attempted to write a response letter to the editorial board. But, each time, I cannot get past the first paragraph without letting my anger get the best of me and needing to take a step back.

“Horrifying.” Really. Okay. Also, if you can’t write a response article to something without being overcome with emotion, that says more about you than the article. It was horrifying . . . because it disagreed with your stance on the matter. Now, what did the horrifying article in question actually say? The article, entitled No Trigger Warnings Here was essentially your typical anti-trigger warnings think piece. Nothing all that new or particularly inflammatory, probably inspired by the recent trend of Atlantic articles on the subject.  If you think I’m downplaying it, click the link and read it for yourself.

The writer worried about the implications of trigger warnings, about their actual application as opposed to their ideal function and how the two are different things. It talks about how trigger warnings, in practice, are often used as an excuse to dissuade the discussion of certain topics instead of facilitate the discussion, coming with the clear implication that they probably shouldn’t be required for that reason, and so on and so forth. It states, “If we continue to stifle the liberation of these [unsettling] thoughts, then we only inhibit our learning ability.”

Sure. You can disagree with it all you want, and have arguments against it, but nothing about it is horrifying. It’s ultimately just someone worrying that too many accommodations for sensitivities would lead to stifled education, which is on record as something that actually happens (go and read one of the many articles penned by professors who water down their syllabus because of the potentially career-damaging possibility of triggering a student), so it’s a fairly legitimate criticism. And seeing as how you just described a fairly benign op-ed as “horrifying,” I’m inclined to believe that your standards for academic texts are equally unrealistically demanding.

I am a survivor of sexual assault. I need trigger warnings.

Okay. I’m sorry. I don’t want to seem callous here. I haven’t been sexually assaulted, so I cannot claim to know what you’re going through or the trauma you have. That being said, however, lots of people need lots of things. I’m sure the poor kids who went to a shitty high school need more concepts explained to them, but they tend to go to office hours for that, not insist that the Intro Psych teacher spend 15 extra minutes talking about the Bobo study instead of moving on. Why should your needs in particular be catered to? I’m assuming that you’re one of the people who would prefer that trigger warnings be a required fixture in the college setting by default (if you’re not, let me know and I’ll take that back).

I already mentioned how poorly implemented trigger warnings are in many cases, so how would you suggest we make this happen? You need trigger warnings. Okay. How are you going to get them, and, perhaps more importantly, what are you going to do when they either aren’t used or don’t adhere to your standards? Professors have undergone borderline-character assassination after it showed up in their yearly evaluation that their class “triggered someone.” If you want to have trigger warnings, how would you recommend we deal with the people who are and will use them for ill?

Notice that I use the word “need”– not want, not favor, but need.

Explain.

In order to be a student who is actively able to contribute to the classroom environment, in order to be a productive member of a workplace, in order to function socially. When a professor or coworker or friend prefaces something they’re about to say with the words “trigger warning” or some sort of preface that we’re going to be discussing a sensitive topic, I am able to brace myself in order to fully engage in this interaction.

Sure, okay. You like having a little heads-up about disturbing content. Fine. What are the specifics of this though? You say you need trigger warnings specifically, which I’m assuming means that friendly warnings about individual instances of disturbing material (which professors tend to give anyway) isn’t good enough. So, how far does this go, exactly? What are professors supposed to put trigger warnings on? There are the obviously disturbing things, of course, but what would the point of trigger warnings even be in the classes where they’re frequently used for that obvious purpose?

If a class had to issue a trigger warning for one article one time, I may understand, but that’s hardly the case as far as “triggering” material goes. If you’re in a class that talks about history, or war, or violence, or sociology/anthropology what is the point of trigger warnings, exactly? I feel like students should just know going in that their their class about the Civil Rights era is going to have depictions of violence and bigotry. If you go into a class about Greek mythology, be prepared for lots of rape to happen. When almost every single thing you read and watch has a trigger warning on it (which seems like a very likely scenario here), that seems to really devalue the intended purpose of the trigger warning as an actual warning. It would be the PG-13 of academia. At that point, you might as well just put a trigger warning on the course description in general, which, psychologically speaking, would actively dissuade people from taking the course even if they didn’t mind the content, because it’s labeling the course as something we associate with negativity. So how would you use a trigger warning in that scenario in a way that didn’t utterly devalue the use of a trigger warning?

How about the non-obvious triggers? I already spent a whole paragraph talking about how putting a trigger warning on the obvious things would quickly devolve into the TW meaning absolutely nothing whist simultaneously turning people off of challenging content, even if it’s unintentional. But what about the not-so-obviously triggering content? What about the girl who has a panic attack every time she sees a police uniform, or the color yellow, or if she hears a certain song, or smells a certain scent?

How is the professor supposed to know about that trigger, exactly, without digging into their students’ personal lives and directly asking them what they need to have a trigger warning for? And if we’re going by that more personal standard, then the profs would have to do that for every class they taught, for every semester. Perhaps a list of the students’ triggers should just be kept on file so they don’t have to send out all those pesky, awkward emails twice a year. I’m pretty sure people wouldn’t appreciate that. The only people who would be okay with that set up are the people who already go to professors at the beginning of the year to tell them about their hang-ups. Trigger warning activists just made it more complicated by insisted that trigger warnings should be a requirement, and therefore something that can lead to a punishment if not done properly, which means some kind of rule system that they aren’t willing to explicate further would have to be put in place to decide how to judge these things with anything resembling objectivity. So when one of them finally steps up and explains to me what system they actually want in place instead of just yelling about how we need them, let me know.

The words of this article further enforces the damaging stigma surrounding survivors of sexual assault, mental illness, and other types of life experiences. While I should have been prepared to see this kind of language from Skidmore News considering their previous coverage on sexual assault and gender equality on campus, I truly expected more of the Editorial Board when it came to this topic.

Translation: Despite this being a newspaper–something that, I remeind you, is supposed to be an unbiased source of news and intrigue–that publishes articles and opinions pieces as long as they don’t fall into hate speech, I don’t like it. You realize that that is what you said, right? This is something that I don’t agree with–take it away.

Not “I’m going to write a strongly worded reply in next weeks opinions column,” not “this person’s opinion is inaccurate and here’s why.” Just “shame on you for even publishing something that I I say is bad.” Saying “you expected more” is clearly a poorly disguised euphemism for, “I expected them not to publish something like this.” So, you didn’t want this article published because it perpetuates bad ideas, essentially.

“I know it was benign and rather blandly worded piece about a debate many people have deemed to be worth having, sought to offend no one, and simply stated an opinion in the opinions section of our paper, so not even as a more objective piece of journalism claiming to be correct–just an opinion. But, fuck it, it’s an opinion that I don’t like. It shouldn’t even be available for other people to look at, it shouldn’t even be given credence to or acknowledged as an idea that exists, it shouldn’t be put into the public for further debate because I don’t like it.”

I believe it was Chris Hitchens who said that demanding that certain ideas not be spoken or given voice to not only takes a right away from the speaker, but it takes away your own right to hear what they have to say. You’re essentially saying that you didn’t want to hear what the writer of that article had to say, and, since you didn’t want to hear it, it was a damn shame that someone had the gall to put it out there in the first place. Because the world revolves around you and what you want to see, right?

I am not intellectually lazy. I have a good GPA, I have consistently taken 18-credit course-loads while simultaneously working three part-time jobs and running my own organization.

Good for you. I’m not for calling trigger warning activists intellectually lazy since that’s often not the case. They’re not intellectually lazy as much as they are oftentimes intellectually blocked off, in the since that they’ve already decided what they do and do not want to talk about. I refer you to your above comment about how your school newspaper “should have known better” than to publish an article with a dissenting opinion.

I am strong, I am smart– and it has taken me years to be able to see this within myself.

I’m glad your self esteem isn’t cripplingly low, then. Although, once again from a psychological standpoint, if you really want high self esteem, you should probably stop making objective statements about positive qualities you just have by default. That leads to lack of character growth.

If memory serves me correctly, I have stepped out of a class only twice in my entire college career to compose myself– and this was not due to a trigger warning giving me permission to. This was because a professor did not use a trigger warning before launching into a discussion on graphic depictions of sexual assault– something that I was not mentally prepared to handle, but that I could have had there been a warning that this was where the conversation was headed.

Once again, good for you. Are you going to address how many colleges actually have used trigger warnings as an excuse to just not do something or let students walk out of class or refuse to do work? Are you going to address the notion that professors actively water down their classes with “less triggering” material, depriving their students of information all because they want class to run smoothly and don’t want to risk getting in trouble via overzealous student activists? If you want these things instituted, you have to talk about that eventually.

I’m also inclined to ask what “graphic” in this case entails, because, again, “graphic” can mean anything. I’ve heard people call simple statements like “I was raped once.” graphic just because it mentioned rape. You’re going to have to be more specific. Does an otherwise totally benign article that says, “I was raped once.” get a TW, by the way?

Did you talk to your professor beforehand about your need of trigger warnings? If you did, that professor is a dick, or at least very forgetful. But if you didn’t make that professor aware of the accommodation you would need, I don’t know why you expected them to just know. This is a rather crucial part of the story that you’re leaving out for dramatic effect. Did you actively make your professor aware that you would need accommodations in class that they then proceeded to ignore? If not: If you need trigger warnings so much, why have you not taken the initiative to tell the relevant people? That is on you. It is something you need, and it is your job to ask for it, just like the kid with poor eyesight needs to ask for a reserved spot close to the board.

If needing a trigger warning to be able to feel safe and able to engage in this community makes me intellectually lazy, than goddamnit, I guess I’m intellectually lazy. But if Skidmore News and other members of this supposedly warm and open community decide to stigmatize and create an unsafe environment for individuals who also need trigger warnings, then they are willingly ignorant and rude.

It’s nice to see you utterly write off your campus and it’s newspaper simply because the paper published an article that you hate for your own reasons. This is just another example of the all-or-nothing mindset that turns people off of your cause. The sooner you realize that, the sooner you’ll be able to be taken more seriously. Your school newspaper publishes an opinion piece that you don’t like, and it’s all of a sudden a stigmatizing, unsafe, triggering, intentionally cruel environment totally unwelcoming to all people who actually have feelings; and that newspaper and anyone who signed off on publishing it and anyone who read it without being enraged should be ashamed themselves, and “you’re not angry, you’re just disappointed.”

You can’t argue for trigger warnings, talk about how they’re so important and so helpful to people who have experienced trauma, in the same article where you call a simple opinion piece that you happen to disagree with “horrifying”–something that made you so angry you couldn’t even talk, and something that wouldn’t have been published in any decent newspaper. You ignore the very real criticisms of trigger warnings and their shoddy implementation, then proceed to demonstrate the kind of behavior that has perpetuated that shoddy implementation. That’s totally counterproductive and makes you seem just like the overly-dramatic, censorship-happy SJW that people are accusing those on your side of the argument of being. In short: You’re not helping.

Please note that I have chosen not to respond to the Skidmore News article on their own website, as I do not want to give them any more publicity or traffic than I already have by addressing their horrifying remarks.

And you’re not even replying to the actual article? Not even telling the writer of that horrifying piece of trash why they’re wrong? Really? Let me guess: You love “fostering discussion.”

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One thought on “Trigger Warning: A Different Opinion

  1. “When a professor or coworker or friend prefaces something they’re about to say with the words “trigger warning” or some sort of preface that we’re going to be discussing a sensitive topic, I am able to brace myself in order to fully engage in this interaction.”

    LIFE should come with a trigger warning. We should all “brace ourselves.”

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