A trigger warning is material that can cause distress to traumatized people. Trauma happens when you receive a mental shock so threatening to your safety – say, getting shot – that you can’t store it as memory. You get blocked and the memory remains present, as if it’s happening now. Any feature that reminds you of that trauma brings it back: a sight, sound, smell, it doesn’t matter. It’s no accident that PTSD was first identified in American veterans of the Vietnam and Gulf Wars, and that some radical treatments for it have come out of treating victims of terrorist bombings.
It’s become common to write ‘trigger warning’ before an article or picture that deals with violent imagery. However, arguments against trigger warnings have also appeared and become mainstream after Oberlin College, a small liberal arts institution, advised instructors to avoid presenting material that would remind sexual assault survivors of their trauma. Numerous editorials appeared about those crazy liberals and their thin skins, but there were two counter-arguments worth taking seriously.
1) Well-meaning liberals warned of the dangers of censorship:
Students should be pushed to defend their ideas and to see the world from a variety of perspectives. Trigger warnings don’t just warn students of potentially triggering material; they effectively shut down particular lines of discussion with “that’s triggering”.
I usually care about censorship when governments censor radical ideas. But that’s not really necessary these days: the weight of new material published daily smothers radical or controversial material, and the liberal fiction of ‘giving equal weight to all sides’ simply ensures that the powerful can create new sides when necessary. Censoring harmful material is a different, more complex issue, and I don’t think people should get carte blanche to try and hurt or trigger others.
2) This is the more serious critique that some leftists have advanced. Triggers are not just seeing something you don’t like, but come out of trauma, or more specifically, Post-Traumatic Distress Syndrome. If the problem is just trigger warnings, that’s another way of saying “Violence exists but let’s not talk about it.” In fact, media triggers are the tip of the iceberg. War, gendered sexual violence and disasters are the real traumas of capitalism and patriarchy. Trigger warnings are just a way to trivialize real trauma.
What is trauma?
The problem with this argument is that it assumes trauma is acute: a single big event. But trauma is also chronic: a slow accumulation of humiliations can also become trauma and leave someone just as PTSDed – and open to triggers – as a survivor of a drone attack. Humans are complex because their environments are complex, and there’s no way to codify the point at which something becomes a trigger. Some people go through bombings and make art; others get bullied and become shrinking wrecks.
Does acknowledging chronic trauma diminish the real suffering of those who went through acute events? I don’t think so. With research showing that the impact of bullying lasts your whole life, I think chronic trauma’s impact is real and quantifiable. [Edit: See The Guardian‘s harrowing account of boarding school abuse:
Psychiatrists I have spoken to agree that, yes, while sexual and physical abuse is the headline grabber (and what makes criminal cases), real damage is done to children and adults by long-term psychological abuse. A child may recover from a blow, but not from the withdrawal of love and the denial of safety – the “complex trauma” child psychologists talk of.
Chronic trauma is a thing, and it’s equatable to acute trauma in the long term. Real violence, however slight, can accumulate. However, this doesn’t mean acute pain hurts less. It clearly hurts a lot more in the moment. It’s telling that the symptoms of PTSD are equally available for victims of terrorism and victims of loveless childhoods. We’re all individuals: there is no way to equate differing sufferings, which is a morally odious exercise anyway.
And this is my problem with the calls to prioritize acute trauma over other varieties: it ranks suffering, and who gets to suffer the most? For example, I volunteered teaching English to Somali women refugees who left their countries fleeing violence. They were some of the most upbeat people I’d ever been around, constantly joking; only once did a grandma tell me that she had to leave when unnamed assailants seized her property, and the inference was clear that she was next. If I had to pick a group of most-traumatized, they’d get the medal. But there was no way to decide if they had suffered more than, say, the Chilean refugees from the Pinochet regime, or the Iranian refugees from the Ayatollah’s regime that I’ve met, worked and joked with.
Instead of ranking – which is endemic to language politics for some reason – we need to recognize how harmful all violence is: physical, sexual, verbal, emotional, and their social subtext. And given the breathtaking sweep of daily violence committed against and by so many, that can lead to a sense of despair. I think that’s a deeper source of the reaction against trigger warnings. They raise another, equally frightening prospect: that daily life in capitalism is so difficult that we’re all traumatized.