Commentary: The Worth of Trigger Warnings

screenshot-2016-10-07-07-52-52E.WU/THE PHILLIPIAN



Warning: This article includes content about death and grief. Laci Green’s powerful presentation on rape culture last Wednesday sparked a campus-wide dialogue. One sentence, however, went un- noticed by most students: A short, seemingly nondescript statement at the beginning, which warned students of the potentially difficult subject matter she was going to discuss. This sentence was a trigger warning, and by keep- ing it concise but clear, Green proved that trigger warnings can be both uncontroversial and beneficial.

For school campuses, cre- ators of memes, and opponents of political correctness, trigger warnings have been a catalyst for discussion, often in terms of derision and mischaracteriza- tion. In a controversial letter that the University of Chicago sent to its class of 2020, the uni- versity stated that it “do[es] not support so-called ‘trigger warn- ings’ ” on its campus because they enable individuals to “re- treat from ideas and perspec- tives at odds with their own.” Despite the much-maligned public image of trigger warn- ings, for survivors of emotional trauma, they are a necessity for preserving mental health.

My father passed away in a car accident three weeks ago. It goes without saying that I am devastated. I sought to honor him by continuing to attend classes, sports, and extracurric- ulars, managing to strike a rela- tive balance in my life in spite of my grief. Yet last Friday, I walked

into my physics class and was blindsided: My teacher played a video that applied physics to car collisions. The video recreated my father’s death exactly. Al- though I excused myself before it had finished, I had seen more than enough. I spent the next several days unable to focus on sports or homework or even socializing. Every time I closed my eyes, flashes of the video re- played in my head. In the days that followed, I felt just like I was in the first week after his passing: vulnerable, devastated, derailed.

My purpose in recounting this anecdote is neither to elicit sympathy nor to encourage ire against this teacher. She had no way of knowing how severely this video would affect me. My point is this: Triggers are real, and trigger warnings are im-

portant. If anyone, particularly a teacher, is aware of the po- tentially detrimental effects a discussion or class might have, and can choose to minimize this damage, they should do so. If they can say, as Laci Green did, “This contains x, y, and z,” they should do so. This is what a trigger warning is: not a shield, but an alert. It is the emotional equivalent of telling someone to clench his chest in the inter- est of not seeing him get sucker punched.

I am just one of innumer- able students on this campus who are quietly grappling with emotional trauma. Eighty-four Andover students have been sexually assaulted, according to The Phillipian’s 2016 “State of the Academy.” More than a few students have lost a close family member. The survivors of trau-

e.wu/the phillipian ma on campus, unfortunately,

are not scarce. But the inherent difficulty of discussing trauma means that the loudest voices in the debate are typically those who have little personal experi- ence with trauma and are obliv- ious to the impact of triggers on survivors.

Their silence, however, does not erase the importance of trigger warnings to every one of those victims of sexual as- sault, to every person who has suffered verbal or physi- cal abuse, to every person who has grieved. Although I cannot speak in place of others, I can say with almost certainty that a large portion of these dozens of students have been similarly blindsided by a class discussion or video. Although we cannot eliminate these difficult en- counters, we must, whenever

possible, reduce their shock factor by using trigger warnings.

In its letter, the University of Chicago argued that it expects each student to be challenged and even feel discomfort at times. What they do not realize is that survivors of trauma already do feel challenged every single day. We feel discomfort every single day. We know how to cope with these difficulties far better than the average student, or even an adult, does. When a girl spends days emotionally derailed because she cannot get the gruesome image of her father’s death out of her head, no one benefits. These triggers are not opportunities for students to learn, but rather the opposite – they detract from the student’s studies, emotional health, and make school a source of turmoil, not learning.

The discussion over trig- ger warnings does not belong exclusively to those who have experienced emotional trauma. Those who do not understand the magnitude of such events do not have the right to decide whether someone can handle potentially traumatic material in a class. Those of us who seek trigger warnings are just as ear- nest in our pursuit of knowledge as those who do not: Despite the emotional weight we carry, we still choose to get out of bed every morning, to go to classes, to embrace challenges. I seek no medal or praise. All I ask is that teachers and students on this campus – and every campus – think about the ways in which they can help victims of trauma heal.

Oct 7, 2016