Before reading my thoughts on trigger warnings, you should read this post.
The post I linked is meant to oppose trigger warnings but actually reads to me in many ways like a defense. The veteran student mentioned chose to watch a movie with images of war in a setting where he would be less likely to have a severe reaction. That is the very purpose of trigger warnings in an academic setting. It’s not an excuse to skip any material. It just allows the student to deal with it in a healthier way.
While I do support trigger warnings, I also have to agree with this post that they are a privilege. (I wrote about this idea previously.) I would love to avoid images of war, violence, and many other unpleasant things. So too would many people I’ve met in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. They are not as lucky as I am. They get no trigger warnings.
This is also a problem with the notion of “safe spaces”. We have no clear definition, and I have seen cases where people seem to think a “safe space” means being shielded from any potential triggers. An environment where people are afraid to talk about certain topics because it might upset someone doesn’t sound like a safe space to me. In fact, it sounds like a common description of an abusive environment. (“Don’t talk about drinking. It’ll upset the abusive alcoholic.”) A safe space for me is where I can feel free to talk about anything and where I will be comforted and supported if something upsets me. One way people can be supportive in such a safe space is to use trigger warnings.
Advocates for trigger warnings often argue that they are not used to avoid uncomfortable material. Unfortunately, that is not the case, and dismissing that concern does not help. It only gives opponents an excuse to dismiss our arguments. There are times when people use trigger warnings to avoid uncomfortable material. People are certainly free to make that choice, but that doesn’t mean they have to be excused from academic requirements. If warned at the beginning of a class about potentially triggering material, they can then decide whether or not they wish to continue before a problem might arise that could affect their grades.
Trigger warnings have been very helpful to me. No one can warn me of everything that might trigger me. The list of my wartime triggers alone would take pages and feature numerous everyday things. No one can predict everything that would be triggering to others, but there are certainly a number of topics we know are troublesome to many. For myself, the more I know ahead of time the better able I am to handle difficult material. So knowing that I’m about to be presented with material that involves war makes it less likely that I’ll have a flashback or some other intense reaction.
I once took a class on child maltreatment. I had personally experienced many of the forms of child maltreatment discussed in the class. Trigger warnings helped me make it through that semester-long class with only one incident that couldn’t be foreseen. While giving a presentation on an especially personal topic, I had a panic attack. I knew this was a requirement from the beginning and had been preparing for weeks. As I stepped up to the podium, however, the thought crept into my mind that people might know how personal the topic was to me.
We must remain clear on what we’re asking for and what is being asked of us. Trigger warnings are an easy way to show compassion. They will never be comprehensive and will sometimes be forgotten. (I forget them all too often.) Trigger warnings are WARNINGS, not excuses from triggers. Spaces free from triggers are not safe for open discussion and learning. Academic settings should have trigger warnings, but those warnings should not be used to make those spaces unsafe for education.