The trigger warnings for college classes debate is interesting because it’s a debate where my “side” is entirely unrelated to my position on the actual issue.
My position on the actual issue is that “trigger warnings on syllabuses!” is a solution you can come up with only if you didn’t think for five minutes about how to accommodate triggers in the college classroom. Trigger warnings were originally developed for blogs and are perfectly reasonable in a blogular context, because there is no way I can learn the triggers of everyone who stumbles across my blog on Google, so I have to warn for the most common things and leave people with weird triggers to themselves.
However, in a college environment, courses contain a small and finite number of people, a smaller and more finite number of whom have mental health issues. You could just make it routine for disability services to ask students seeking accommodations whether they have any triggers and then send an email to professors along the lines of “students who are considering taking your class in fantasy literature are triggered by teddy bears, zombies, and discussion of Hogwarts sorting. Are any of these involved in the class? If so, could you eliminate them without harming the educational purpose of the course?” This seems like it would work far better and take just as much effort (although it does involve the perhaps unrealistic expectation that college disability services would not be a useless pile of garbage).
I have had friends whom I respect deeply and agree with about mental health issues and who align themselves with the anti-trigger-warning side. Their primary critique of the pro-trigger-warning idea is that routine trigger warnings only make sense if you assume that triggers are a small number of obviously evil things. People may be triggered by rape, abuse, racism, and misogyny, but not by spiders, body positivity, and bald men. I’ve seen a lot of people campaign for “trigger warning: racist slurs” in courses on Twain, but no one campaign for “trigger warning: loud noises” in physics demonstrations, despite the fact that loud unexpected noises are a very common trigger for PTSD flashbacks.
After a certain point, you have to admit that the pro-trigger-warning side isn’t about making a safe environment for people with triggers, it’s about leftist neurotypicals signaling how Very Offended they are. And, you know, as a person with triggers, I really don’t appreciate a conversation allegedly about disability accommodations actually being an excuse for a Who Hates Abuse The Most contest. Can’t you guys go off and, I don’t know, luridly describe how you want to torture abusers to death on your own time?
Nevertheless, I consider myself broadly on the pro-trigger-warning side.
Partly, that’s because the anti-trigger-warning side doesn’t believe in weird triggers either. My favorite source of the anti-SJ consensus, wtfsocialjustice, enjoys making fun of people’s lists of strange triggers.
A lot of anti-trigger-warning arguments seem to boil down to an opposition to accommodations in general. Consider this article, chosen scientifically because it is the first result on Google for “against trigger warnings.” Filipovic talks about college as “a space for kinda-sorta adults to wade neck-deep into art, literature, philosophy, and the sciences, to explore new ideas, to expand their knowledge of the cultural canon, to interrogate power and to learn how to make an argument and to read a text… a space where the student is challenged and sometimes frustrated and sometimes deeply upset, a place where the student’s world expands and pushes them to reach the outer edges.” She valorizes “the challenge of exploring their own beliefs and responding to disagreement.”
I mean, that’s great! I want to explore my beliefs and respond to disagreement and expand my knowledge of the cultural canon and interrogate power and the rest! But you know when I can’t do any of that shit?
When I’m having a panic attack.
Triggered people– for pretty much any value of ‘triggered’ you can imagine, from eating disorders to OCD– are notoriously bad at making rational arguments, seeing both sides of the issue, or expanding their intellectual horizons. oh god oh god I want to be dead I want to be dead is just not a good mindset to be in when you’re trying to grasp the nuances of Derrida.
And, sure, someone can use trigger warnings to avoid challenging material. But college students already get to pick their own courses! If someone doesn’t want to engage with gender studies, they can just… not take a gender studies course. The act of asking for a trigger warning is a statement of commitment to learning; it is a statement that the person genuinely wants to engage with the material and they’re trying their best to be able to make sure that they can.
I’d like to more closely examine two of Filipovic’s arguments. First, her suggestion of mental health care instead of accommodations. This is terrible on about a dozen different levels.
Recovery takes time. Many times, it’s measured in years, not weeks. Some people never get better. What do you do with people in the meantime? Because if you let crazy people in recovery go to school or get jobs, then you are going to have to accommodate people with triggers, because triggers do not go away immediately the first time you fill out a CBT homework sheet.
And if not…
Most people, including mentally ill people, are happier and more functional if they have structure, a sense of purpose, and something to do all day. Unfortunately, all three of those things unavoidably involve mentally ill people existing in public. But what is the other option? Should those people put their lives on hold until a day that may never come? Are my intellectual horizons to remain unexpanded until I become sane? Are mentally ill people not allowed to wade neck-deep into art, literature, philosophy, and the sciences?
I am crazy, but I am not going to let that stop me from making the best life I can as a crazy person. Part of that is wanting to go to school and learn. And, frankly, making sure that I can learn is, quite literally, the college’s job. It is what I am paying them tens of thousands of dollars for.
Second: Filipovic frets that trigger warnings “contribute to the general perception of members of those groups [women, people of color, LGBT people, and mentally ill people] as weak, vulnerable and “other”.”
Unfortunately, not too put a fine point on it, weak and vulnerable members of marginalized groups exist. If only we had talked to Filipovic before we had the nerve to exist while in pain! I am sure she would have set us straight about all the harm we were doing to The Cause by having needs.
You do not get to throw the– by your own stipulation!– weakest and most vulnerable members of marginalized groups under the bus so that you look good and stereotype-defying to privileged people. That is Bad Social Justice.
(Man, I love the inclusion of mentally ill people there. God forbid that someone think that mentally ill people tend to be weak and vulnerable.)
I don’t care about your opinion about trigger warnings on college campuses, really. But I care a lot whether you’re going to hurt me. I am a person who has triggers. And it matters to me whether people are going to respond to me asking for accommodations with “why don’t you just get therapy?”, or decide I’m harming social justice by existing, or assume my accommodations are unnecessary things I just want because I want to be sheltered from the world instead of things necessary for me to be able to engage with it, or think my triggers don’t exist because I’m triggered by weird shit, or care less about me than about their virtue signaling. And so this shit matters to me, even though I don’t care about the actual issue at all.