Editor’s Note: At the risk of being ironic, this article discusses rape and sexual assault, so readers should tread carefully.
Two months ago, the Atlantic Monthly published an article by Karen Swallow Prior about the use of trigger warnings in college classrooms and the shift from “politically correct” to, as Prior dubbed it, “empathetically correct.” In our culture’s effort to become more sensitive to rape and sexual assault, professors have started tailoring their syllabi to their students’ personal comfort, tacking trigger warnings, or messages that warn readers about potentially disturbing material, on media that address a variety of topics, from sexual violence to Anti-Semitism.
I thought I might be able to get through writing this piece without the utterance of the term “Millennials,” but I might as well just get it out of the way now. The term itself triggers a burning rage in my very core that makes me want to at once roundhouse kick that Andrew Meyers fellow but also take a megaphone to the face of all twenty-somethings who have their parents accompany them to job interviews and scream, “YOU’RE RUINING IT FOR ALL OF US.” Yet I have to admit that “Millennial,” like the word “hipster,” does have its purpose, and frankly we all know what these old folks are getting at. Let’s just say that the people who instigated this trigger-warning trend on college campuses were certain individuals in a certain age bracket.
I’d like to take a megaphone to these individuals as well. Is opting out of the discussion really in a student’s best interest for academic growth? What if Mark Twain’s use of the N-word in “Huckleberry Finn” turns into a thought-provoking discussion about hegemony in the literary canon? If a piece of art or literature makes a statement and the student isn’t there to hear it, does it make a sound?
While a trigger warning for “Clockwork Orange” would be well advised, perhaps we can leave Mrs. Dalloway out of it. One Rutgers student argued that “The Great Gatsby” warranted a trigger warning because of its themes of “gory, abusive, and misogynistic violence”. There are things that offend us, and then there are triggers, which suggest a psychological, often physically distressing reaction. Do these students know the difference? In cultivating sensitivity towards rape and sexual assault, is our culture becoming too “trigger-happy”? Admittedly, when I see the amount of trigger warnings on some feminist blogs, I wonder whether these headlines are in earnest or if they are just a ploy to garner more website hits. As someone who wants to be sensitive to survivors of rape and sexual assault, I hope that these warnings are in the interest of empathy. I don’t want a few shallow blog sites to discredit the experience of too many women and men.
Unfortunately for these feminist bloggers and sensitive professors, triggers are inherently unpredictable, and trigger warnings on websites or syllabuses don’t necessarily cover everything that could incite a bad reaction. For example. a veteran with PTSD may duck at the sound of a car backfiring. Every time a survivor of trauma walks down the street, that person risks reliving past pain. It’s a choice between exhaustively trying to control your environment, or living your life.
When I was the editor of my college newspaper, a woman wrote an op-ed piece in response to a banner on the entryway of the student union that read: “1 in 5 women in college have been raped.” As a survivor of a recent rape, the writer’s PTSD was triggered and she didn’t feel safe on campus. My own history with PTSD at the time was limited. I was sexually assaulted in a college dorm room, which was traumatic, but luckily didn’t prevent me from enjoying the rest of my college experience. A few years later, I was diagnosed with PTSD not because of relationship violence, but because of a terrible breakup that raised latent trust and abandonment issues. When my therapist diagnosed me, I laughed and called the diagnosis “pathetic,” even though the triggers (e.g. smelling my old perfume, opening benign emails from friends) felt very real to me, and my reactions to the triggers were nothing short of panic attacks. I learned, however, that the best remedy to these post-traumatic reactions was to be gentle with myself and recognize my limits, no matter how silly they seemed. I exposed myself to my triggers on my own time and strategized coping mechanisms for unpredictable affronts: for instance, I chose not to watch romantic comedies, but I couldn’t have predicted that a Google Chrome ad would make me hyperventilate. Triggers are as unavoidable as they are idiosyncratic. I have my own coping strategies for my own experience, but it would be horrendously presumptuous to tell a rape survivor or a POW how they should manage their own triggers.
Which is why, when I edited that woman’s op-ed for the newspaper, I didn’t give weight to my initial judgment (Give me a break, it’s just a statistic). Sure, the banner didn’t out her specifically, but the point is that she felt outed, and the feeling is what matters. Unfortunately, the group that hung the banner for all of campus to see did not portend to do anything except educate the student body, even though, according to the statistic, some of them would have been victims of sexual assault themselves.
If we’re going to use trigger warnings, we should consider that not all triggers are created equal. Issues of rape, sexual assault, and suicide necessitate trigger warnings, but it is our individual responsibility to distinguish between a trigger for thought and a trigger for an all-out physical, psychologically traumatic reaction. The relationship between censorship and self-expression is a touchy one. Survivors of trauma should be informed of potential triggers so that they can decide whether to expose themselves to subject matter might thwart their healing process.
For others who are able to have a discussion without going into “fight or flight” mode, a healthy classroom dynamic would ideally be a safe, inclusive space for students to explore their limits with certain topics. This safe space requires that students know themselves. Perhaps this is the most maddening stereotype of the Millennial that I hope doesn’t earn more clout: we want it easy. Instead of challenging our limits in a healthy way, we want the grown ups, or the professors, to decide what we can handle. As we learn to be sensitive towards survivors, let’s not shy away from topics that could provoke thoughtful dialogue, or even a healthy dose of outrage.
Written by Caitlin MacDougall
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For another perspective on trigger warnings and their use in college classrooms, you can read this article by Kat Dalton.