Some Thoughts on Trigger Warnings

I don’t remember the first time I used or saw a trigger warning online–probably in my Livejournal days or perhaps on Tumblr. Like alt text, which on Tumblr posts must be written in the actual caption space for a photo since Tumblr does not allow users to enter alt text on photo posts, I was initially struck by how trigger warnings interrupted my typical reading patterns, though in ways that I appreciated. Trigger warnings on Tumblr moved from being in the post to the tags of posts after Tumblr Savior grew more popular. Long story short, they have a long history in a number of online spaces, respond to constraints of both the form of blogging platforms and the needs of their readers, and rose from digital writers seeking to accommodate their audience.

Recently, trigger warnings have breached the digital spaces where they are maintained. Recent efforts by students at Oberlin and UC-Santa Barbara for professors to use trigger warnings on their syllabi have been met with almost total rejection by both universities, prominent popular feminist bloggers, poets, queer theorists on public and private Facebook forums, and Inside Higher Education reporters. To me the response is almost laughably reactive. The url for the New Republic article castigating trigger warnings ends with “trigger-warnings-have-spread-blogs-college-classrooms-thats-bad.” With most of what has been written I have tried to maintain a Wayne Boothian attempt to listen and understand their argument. But trigger warnings seem to have brought out the worst in us in terms of discussing how to create accessible spaces in college classrooms.

Recently Entropy Magazine published a roundtable discussion about the role of trigger warnings in the creative writing classroom, which is of distinct interest to me because trigger warning discussions are usually framed in terms of literature or cultural studies classrooms where the focus is not primarily about writing. I want to make more of that at some point but for this post I wanted to focus on how trigger warnings are often being defined in this discussion, and how trigger warnings in many ways are a stand in for the disabled student.

Sarah Schulman starts the roundtable off by giving her definition of what being triggered is:

‘Being “triggered” means being reminded of a past violation or unresolved trauma in a way that provokes a reaction to the past, in the present. The responsibility of each person is to learn how to differentiate between the past and the present so that they are not blaming, scapegoating or attacking people today for pain that they have not caused but was inflicted by others long gone. The community around the reactive, triggered person must intervene, no matter how uncomfortable it makes them, to help them be aware. The worst, most detrimental thing a friend or family can do with a triggered person is to feed the runaway train, i.e., re-enforce the delusion that they are being violated when the triggeredness is by definition an over-reaction.

The goal is for the triggered person to learn how to be aware of their own over-reaction. The goal is to learn how to say “I feel out of control” instead of acting out to destroy someone who doesn’t deserve to be treated that way.’

I really don’t buy Schulman’s understanding of being triggered. When I first read this, I was struck by her description of a triggered person “blaming, scapegoating or attacking” people who trigger them. Immediately in the context of this roundtable and in many of the discussions I’ve seen online, those who are triggered–those who have experienced trauma or have a mental illness–act violently towards those around them. The speech act of requesting accommodation is positioned as violence against “the community.” This is a fairly common trope. As Margaret Price and others have extensively documented, violence and mental illness are constantly yoked together. People who aren’t neurotypical experience a particular form of ableism where they are perceived as a physical threat to those around them. What’s sad is that there is no single response to being triggered; for me the response has ranged from stunned silence, feeling set in jelly, uncontrollable crying for hours, and other feelings depending on the context. But in classroom spaces triggering seems to almost always end with a student leaving a space either physically or mentally.

Often the neuroatypical person’s mental health is used as a way to violently separate them from the community in which they live. This is particularly true on college campuses, where hospitalization often results in students’ expulsion from school or being banned from campus. Yi Li’s op-ed in Pomona’s school newspaper shows how students who seek mental health services are roundly cut off from returning to campus life. As Yi Li describes,

When hospitalization results in residential suspension, when displaying signs of mental illness results in threats of disciplinary action, when having issues with self-harm means that I cannot be allowed to live with the sane folk, it’s easy to understand why few students are open about their struggles with mental health. 

I believe a similar pattern is happening when we reject trigger warnings and their potential as accessibility tools in classroom spaces. When the model of community intervention is to remind a triggered person that s/he is ill and not normal rather than considering how to build structures into community interaction that make a space more accessible (not more safe) for someone with mental health needs, then we are not doing much better than current campus policies that expel students after they seek help.


6 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Trigger Warnings

  1. Katie Levin

    I appreciate this whole post. I’ve been thinking a lot about the distinction between safety and comfort lately (in relation to writing centers); I really like this additional distinction between safety and accessibility. Thanks, Neil!

  2. shendelmuffin

    Hear, hear. These conversations tend to spiral out of control when the anti-TW camp starts to “what if”* until the thing devolves into a non sequitur debate on censorship. Which I think says a lot about a) western academic misconceptions as to what censorship really looks like, b) the privileging of neurotypical “freedom” (freedom to disregard?) over neuroatypical access, and c) the popularization of “trigger” to mean “upset” or “make uncomfortable” in “radical” political discourse. That last consideration worries me because I’m not sure if that’s a slippery slope into policing experiences of trauma, but I think there’s at least some truth to it, socially.

    Anyway, great post. I especially appreciated your tracing of TWs form and evolution; I’d forgotten they weren’t always in the tags. Do you know anything about the difference between a “CW” and a “TW”? Been wondering about that for a bit.

    *ironic considering this irrational spiraling is a common symptom of my and others’ anxiety/neuroatypicality.

  3. neilfsimpkins Post author

    @jules, From what I understand (from K telling me) content warnings are similar to trigger warnings but are even more tailored to a writers’ relationship to their audience. So some people on Tumblr might have followers that want to know if a post is going to be about food and they want to mark that in some way (often used for people who have a lot of followers with eating disorders). Also some sexual assault survivors have expressed desire for TWs to be about SA or violence…TLDR they are related but distinct in that CWs are often more similar to tagging certain kinds of posts.

  4. neilfsimpkins Post author

    The pattern I see too is that content warnings are almost exclusively in Tumblr tags for Tumblr Savior while TWs are often in the title or top of a post.


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