On The Right Not To Be “Triggered”

by Will Wilkinson

Michelle’s post on the the difficulty of teaching rape law in this, the age of the “trigger warning,” put me in mind of my graying Gen-Xer suspicions that kids these days are entitled precious overdramatic snowflakes too poignantly damaged by their not-very-harsh lives to conduct adult conversations about adult topics, and that this triggering business is bosh.

Trauma is all-too-real, and experiences that throw those who have been traumatized back into painful memories of their trauma are all-too-real. But how common is it, really? How important is it, really, to avoid triggering events? Is not being reminded of a trauma others cannot be reasonably expected to know anything about the sort of thing to which we might be morally entitled? Does anyone have a right not to be triggered, such that we’re all obligated not to do it? Is there any science about this that might help answer these question? It turns out there is! And because it confirms my biases I am eager to share it with you.

According to this useful round-up of the relevant research by Richard J. McNally, a Harvard professor of psychology, here are the main nuggets about triggering. So, most people who have been traumatized don’t develop post-traumatic stress disorder. PTSD is fairly common among victims of sexual assault, though about half of those who have been raped recover from their trauma in a few months. But what about the “triggering” stuff? That’s what I’m most interested in. Here’s McNally:

Trigger warnings are designed to help survivors avoid reminders of their trauma, thereby preventing emotional discomfort. Yet avoidance reinforces PTSD. Conversely, systematic exposure to triggers and the memories they provoke is the most effective means of overcoming the disorder.

Enabling avoidance may make PTSD worse. Sarah Roff, a psychiatrist, has sounded the same note in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

As a psychiatrist, I nonetheless have to question whether trigger warnings are in such students’ best interests. One of the cardinal symptoms of PTSD is avoidance, which can become the most impairing symptom of all. If someone has been so affected by an event in her life that reading a description of a rape in Ovid’s Metamorphoses can trigger nightmares, flashbacks, and panic attacks, she is likely to be functionally impaired in areas of her life well beyond the classroom. The solution is not to help these students dig themselves further into a life of fear and avoidance by allowing them to keep away from upsetting material.

Now, this does not imply that we ought to go around trying to trigger memories of trauma in order to confer upon the traumatized the therapeutic benefits of facing their troubles head-on. That kind of intentional confrontation ought to occur in a controlled, clinical context. But it seems clear enough that catering to avoidance by offering speculative warnings and by tiptoeing around possibly sensitive subjects doesn’t really help, and might even hurt a little. It seems pretty implausible that teachers and writers might have some kind of general obligation to do something that doesn’t really help and might even make things worse, doesn’t it?

Roff goes on to make an interesting point that had not occurred to me. Triggering works through a sometimes unpredictable associative logic, making it very hard to avoid stumbling into potentially triggering territory. She writes:

I am also skeptical that labeling sensitive material with trigger warnings will prevent distress. The scientific literature about trauma teaches us that it seeps into people’s lives by networks of association. Someone who has been raped by a man in a yellow shirt at a bus stop may start avoiding not only men, but bus stops and perhaps even anyone wearing yellow. A soldier who has seen a comrade killed by a roadside explosive device may come to avoid not just parked vehicles, but also civilians who look like the people he or she saw right before the device exploded. Since triggers are a contagious phenomenon, there will never be enough trigger warnings to keep up with them. It should not be the job of college educators to foster this process.

Moreover, it will be a shame, and a deep loss, if our educational culture becomes so painfully sensitive, so leery of any subject that might make anyone feel anxious and uncomfortable, that it becomes impossible to intelligently examine the dark side of the human experience in the classroom. We don’t need the pitiless anti-PC provocation to which some conservatives seem to prone, but we do need a firm, mature insistence that the serious, detailed collective exploration of violence, sex, war, pain, and death is simply too important to defer because of any one person’s troubled autobiography.