by Chris Bodenner
First, a Dan Savage reader underscores a key distinction:
Thank you, thank you, thank you from a survivor of three separate T’s, triply diagnosed with PTSD—severe child abuse (sexual, physical, verbal), rape at age 18, and a gunpoint robbery while delivering pizza in college. I had to deal with several legitimate triggers in college, all of which I managed to handle. People calling for trigger warnings on every damn thing are essentially using “triggered” to mean “made mildly uncomfortable,” and that infuriates me. “Triggered” needs to actually mean “triggered” or else my life and the life of other survivors will be made significantly more difficult. People self-diagnosing PTSD because (gasp) something shitty happened to them once and then claiming to be triggered because something reminds them of the shitty thing are adding new obstacles to what PTSD survivors already have to cope with, and it sucks.
Meanwhile, Dish readers continue their discussion:
As a clinical psychologist who has studied PTSD and treated patients suffering with post-traumatic symptoms, I’m pleased to see the extended discussion of trigger warnings on the Dish. One of your readers wrote:
I find it amusing that so many people are getting their knickers in a twist over trigger warnings on books. Has it not occurred to anyone that there have been warnings on content for decades? Hello, movie ratings system!
Well, no, it’s not the same as the movie rating system. That system is intended to indicate age appropriateness of content and possible morally offensive or disturbing material without making assumptions about psychopathology in the viewer. Trigger warnings represent a clinical judgment that erroneously assumes that serious symptomatic reactions may occur if a reader reads about a criminal or tragic event. This represents a gross misunderstanding of PTSD triggers, and it condescendingly assumes pathology so disabling that the reader can’t even hear mention of anything related to the trauma they experienced without tumbling into a symptomatic spiral. That’s nonsense.
Not according to this PTSD sufferer:
I’ve been watching the recent trigger warning debate with incredulity. I have post-traumatic stress disorder. I have triggers. I am fortunately not in a field where they’re likely to come up in class, but being triggered in other contexts has caused me to have panic attacks and thrown off my emotional balance and ability to focus for hours.
But, if I know that something is coming that might trigger me – i.e. if I get a warning – I can steel myself. I’m more likely to be successful in modulating my reaction appropriately. I’m a lot more likely to be able to continue engaging with the material in a productive way. And if this is helpful for me, it’s probably helpful for other people in similar situations, some of whom are more likely to be exposed to their triggers in class.
After following the last few days of debate, I’ve learned that this means I want to censor or ban books, that I’m a whiny oversheltered millennial who has never had to feel uncomfortable before (how, exactly, do these people think one gets PTSD or any other trauma-related psychological problem in the first place?), that I should toughen up, that my position is the triumph of the student-customer model that’s ruining American universities, that I’m ignoring the healing transformative power of literature and am trying to create a society where nobody feels pain, that trying to influence my environment to make it more friendly to my mental health is privilege run amok, and that, since exposure therapy and systematic desensitization can be helpful for PTSD, my desire to avoid panic attacks in public places with a quick heads-up is counterproductive (because being exposed to a trigger randomly in a space of untrained laypeople is clearly comparable to a therapeutic technique being used in a planned treatment program by a mental health professional? I have a therapist, a seasoned trauma specialist, and I’m pretty sure I’d rather work with her in a coherent recovery process than have misguided random people trying to tough-love me out of my symptoms).
The discussion has left me standing in my kitchen, bewilderedly telling my husband, “All I wanted was for someone to give me a heads up if they’re about to show something with [the kind of violence that caused my trauma]! And for other people to be able to get one too if they needed!”
She proposes a good idea:
Increasingly, I’m thinking that a good implementation for trigger warnings in a university setting would be as accommodations through the disability office. This would allow more tailoring to individuals’ needs than blanket warnings – people with really random idiosyncratic triggers could be accommodated just the same as people with common ones. It would mean that professors didn’t have to worry about making judgments that they don’t think should be their responsibility or about students filing complaints, as long as they cooperated with the disability office the way they would for other disabilities. It might also allow students to take care of their mental health without a bunch of people yelling about censorship and kids these days’ lack of fortitude.
Another reader who suffered trauma views it differently:
I get putting a “trigger-warning” on things like movies that can cause epileptic seizures due to flickering lighting. I even get basic rating systems for movies – it’s entertainment, and broad guides to let the audience pick what they want to expose themselves to seems not that unfair. But it’s getting carried to such horrible, idiotic extremes.
I’ve run into trigger-material that hit my own triggers hard enough to make me walk away from material I would otherwise have liked. I lost one fetus to an ectopic pregnancy and spent nine-months in fear of losing a child to SIDS (Sudden Infant Death). I did not respond well to a book that included a villain who killed infants silently without a mark and left them for their parents to discover. The villain was SIDS and miscarriage personified – walking evil. And, yeah, it was a trigger for me.
You know what I did? Closed the book and gave it away … with no hard feelings toward the author. And if I’d had to study the material for a grade? I’d have bloody-well soldiered up.
Education is by its nature threatening, forcing us out of our comfort zones. Those who can’t cope with that should give some serious thought to their presence in an educational setting … or at the very least to their areas of study.
Your reader who says that trigger warnings are no big deal because we have content ratings on movies has, inadvertently, expressed my biggest concern about this subject. Take a look at the movie landscape and you’ll notice that producers now go out of their way to ensure that every movie they make, with few exceptions, have a PG-13 rating. The reason for this is that producers are perfectly aware that this is the rating with the largest audience cross section. The direct consequence of this is that subject matter that pushes boundaries gets automatically marginalized as a type of soft-censorship sets in, and this isn’t even without considering the power that the (unregulated and unaccountable) MPAA has over the industry.
The thought that literature could go this way send chills down my spine. One of the points of literature is to push at convention and to challenge us by periodically shocking and, yes, upsetting us. Do we really want to give publishers a reason to actively start cutting content out of books for fear that a trigger warning label will drive down sales?
I think the idea of providing detailed keywords for content (especially movies) is a good one, but there’s no need to call them “triggers.” Clearly that word is hotly debated. “Tags” would be a fine word. Therefore when people are looking to relax with a movie, they can see at a glance if it includes mutilation, dead babies, or incest. And no, doing a google search is not practical for everything you want to see. I want it listed on the case/Netflix summary like you get ingredients for food.
One more reader:
Why can’t there be a middle ground in the trigger warning debate? There’s an easy one for teachers: They can make it clear to their students that if asked, they’ll provide a list of assignments that could be a trigger for them. That way people who don’t want spoilers don’t get them. People only get warnings about triggers that affect them. Works aren’t labeled in scary ways. And, important to my mind, no judgment is passed on what is or is not enough of a trigger to merit a warning.