Trigger Warning: This article is critical of trigger warnings

“Trigger Warnings.”

I’d only heard the term a week ago. I was talking to a friend who’s finishing up his PhD, and he’d mentioned how more and more essays at his college were beginning with “trigger warnings” to warn “sensitive students” that some of the content they were about to encounter might disturb them.

At the time I thought it a bit weird, but then forgot about it until I came across the topic again in an excellent piece by Jenny Jarvie in last month’s New Republic.

Let me give you an example. Here’s a trigger warning before a blog post about an anti-gay incident on the NYC subway:

trigger-warning-example

So trigger warnings are basically a content warning label, not unlike those TV Parental Guidelines you see before any television show heavier than the Teletubbies.

Jarvie explains the origin of trigger warnings:

Initially, trigger warnings were used in self-help and feminist forums to help readers who might have post traumatic stress disorder to avoid graphic content that might cause painful memories, flashbacks, or panic attacks.

Jarvie goes on to show how trigger warnings have spread far beyond self-help and feminist forums.  For example, here’s a post about clubbing that includes a warning label about “alcohol.”

trigger-warning-alcohol

And here’s a short tumblr post with a trigger warning about “insects”:

trigger-warning-insects

As Jarvie explains, the warnings have now spread to college classes, course syllabi, college newspapers, promotional material for plays, and even poetry slams.  This one, from the Amherst Student, the independent student paper of Amherst College, seems a bit unnecessary, as the title should have given things away:

trigger-warning-redunant

I have to agree with Jarvie, who sees all of this as tending towards shutting down debate:

What’s more, the fear of triggers risks narrowing what we’re exposed to. Raechel Tiffe, an assistant professor in Communication Arts and Sciences at Merrimack College, Massachusetts, described a lesson in which she thought everything had gone well, until a student approached her about a clip from the television musical comedy, “Glee,” in which a student commits suicide. For Tiffe, who uses trigger warnings for sexual assault and rape, the incident was a “teaching moment”—not for the students, but for her to be more aware of the breadth of students’ sensitivities.

As academics become more preoccupied with students’ feelings of harm, they risk opening the door to a never-ending litany of requests. Last month, students at Wellesley College protested a sculpture of a man in his underwear because, according to the Change.org petition, it was a source of “triggering thoughts regarding sexual assault.” While the petition acknowledged the sculpture may not disturb everyone on campus, it insisted we share a “responsibility to pay attention to and attempt to answer the needs of all of our community members.” Even after the artist explained that the figure was supposed to be sleepwalking, students continued to insist it be moved indoors.

Trigger warnings are presented as a gesture of empathy, but the irony is they lead only to more solipsism, an over-preoccupation with one’s own feelings—much to the detriment of society as a whole. Structuring public life around the most fragile personal sensitivities will only restrict all of our horizons. Engaging with ideas involves risk, and slapping warnings on them only undermines the principle of intellectual exploration. We cannot anticipate every potential trigger—the world, like the Internet, is too large and unwieldy. But even if we could, why would we want to? Bending the world to accommodate our personal frailties does not help us overcome them.

And this is really part of a larger problem the left (maybe all of America and all intellectual discourse) is facing.  The larger push to shut down any interlocutor who might say something you don’t agree with.  We saw this in full view during the recent #CancelColbert brouhaha in which an Asian-American activist, Suey Park, got upset at progressive satirist Stephen Colbert‘s segment taking on the Washington Redskins, and thus demanded that Colbert’s show be canceled.

Putting aside for a moment whether Park was right about Colbert’s “racism” (I don’t think she was), what I found interesting were her responses to anyone who disagreed her: They were racist and sexist, and tended to have the effect of shutting her critics down.  This is something I’ve experienced a good deal in the past few years, mostly on transgender and racial issues, but I’m sure it’s out there on a host of lefty topics.  Quite often, when someone disagrees with your position, they hone in on the fact that you’re white, a man, and/or gay to “prove” that your argument is incorrect, unworthy of response, and that you and your entire community, race and gender are horrible human beings.

To wit: Park appeared on HuffPostLive to talk about the effort, and immediately took offense to HuffPost host Josh Zepps.  Zepps’ questioning made clear from the beginning that he was skeptical of Park’s position, but anyone who has been interviewed by Zepps (I have) knows that this is his schtick, and it’s a rather effective approach for pushing your guest to defend her position, and it simply make for a more lively interview.

Well, Park was having none of it.  She proceeded to tell Zepp that because he was white, and a man, he wasn’t entitled to an opinion on the topic:

SUEY PARK: I feel like it’s incredibly patronizing of you to paint these questions this way, especially as a white man, I don’t expect you to be able to understand what people of color are actually saying with regards to #CancelColbert.

HUFFPO’S JOSH ZEPPS: Suey, being a white man doesn’t prevent me from being able to think, and prevent me from being able to have reasoned perspectives on things. I didn’t give up my right to have an intellectual conversation when I was born.

SUEY PARK: White men definitely feel like they’re entitled to talk over me, they definitely feel like they’re entitled to kind of minimalize my experience. And they definitely feel like they are somehow exempt and so logical as compared to women who are painted as emotional, right?

Park’s negative generalizations about white people aren’t limited to Zepps.  She also has issues with “white gay men.”

white-gaysx

In both cases, Park used a racist attack to try shut down her intellectual opponent.  But her attack was more than simply racist (and sexist, actually).  It was centered around her own supposed victimization: By disagreeing with her you were per se victimizing her.  Therefore your only options were to continue “victimizing her,” and thus prove what a typically-awful white, man, or gay person you are, or stop talking all together.  (I’m not going to spend any more time on Park, but if you’d like to read more, Joslyn Stevens, who isn’t a gay white man, has apparently been following Park’ “work” for a while now – her recent essay on Suey Park is quite a read.)

Another popular tack for shutting down disagreement is to claim that only representatives of the offended group in question can judge whether an offense has been committed (though they never quite explain what happens to this Papal-like infallibility when members of the same community disagree with each other on a topic – perhaps they all turn to butter).  The corollary to that, is that if you ask them to prove their case, you’re – you guessed it – oppressing them.

I had this come up a good ten years ago, when I was asked to speak on a panel about sexism among “A-list male bloggers.”  Being the only “A-list male blogger” invited to be on the panel, I was a bit concerned from the git-go about what I was walking into. To make a long story short, I’d suggested that the panel might start off by talking a little about why it is that some women feel  that there is sexism, or a sexist environment, among the top political blogs – basically, rather than assume we’re all a bunch of sexist pigs, I thought the panel might start by proving its premise.

Well.

I was informed that it impolitic to ask a woman to prove her own oppression.  That per se if a woman says she is being treated in a sexist manner, she is.  And that if you ask her to prove her case, that’s further sexist oppression.  I was given an analogy: sexual harassment in the workplace.  If a woman says she’s been sexually harassed, she has been sexually harassed, I was told. She doesn’t need to prove her case.  (Courts of law and HR departments might beg to differ.)

Needless to say, I didn’t appear on that panel.  But it was my first-run in with the almost-beautiful architecture of these arguments, and the way they to attempt to automatically shut down any dissent.

Here’s Suey Park’s HuffPostLive appearance:


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Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown (1989); and worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, and as a stringer for the Economist. Frequent TV pundit: O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline & Reliable Sources. Bio, .

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  • http://www.asplint.com/ Jeffrey Deutsch

    Hello Becca,

    You’re absolutely right that people — especially (1) those in power, (2) those who consider themselves on a way station to (1) and (3) those who believe in a Just World (significant overlap with [1] and [2], but I digress) rush to dismissive judgment. And not just about sexual or other harassment, oh no. For example, that’s part of why whistleblowers tend to have a tough time.

    But the opposite rush to judgment is, to say the least, no better.

    When someone complains of, say, sexual harassment, we could believe her for the purposes of providing her (or him) personal support and help to start recovering. But when we turn to judging the accused, he (or she) is still innocent until proven guilty.

    (And unfortunately, some managers and school administrators do believe that “if she says it’s harassment, it’s harassment” — to quote one such administrator. And she’s not the only one to actually say this in so many words.)

    And yes, many if not most terrible things have grown out of good intentions.

  • TonySandos

    Sir, well written. I hope your dedication to truth and justice prevails for you. Even better would be for you to attain a following that supports establishing a middle ground among us intellectually varied people.

  • TellMeImDreaming

    I’d like to testify! I’ve read the Huffington Post for a long time, recently they’ve started posting pictures and videos of animals being eaten or abused or in distress almost every day. It’s very distressing to me. I cannot stand seeing animals in peril and it upsets me greatly. I still can’t stand the theme from Lassie. For example I once took some nephews to a wildlife museum and they had a film where some african deer are drinking and they all run when a lion appears but one little one’s stuck in the mud — and unsure whether this film did or did not flinch at showing a lion feeding I had to get up and close my eyes and leave the theatre as quickly as possible. So I would find these warnings quite useful.
    The oldest use of trigger in this sense that I know of is from the Alcoholics Anonymous program’s belief that you have to change people places and things to remain sober, as your old friends, hangouts, and habits (anger, self-pity) were “triggers” for a relapse.

  • whirleee

    I agree that trigger warnings have been used superficially. I do not agree that trigger warnings are themselves a bad idea.

    I have a follower on Tumblr who is self-harming and suicidal, and has requested that posts about self-harm or lightning, especially pictures, be marked with trigger warnings because they cause him anxiety. I can understand self-harm, but lightning? That was a new one for me. And the reason I thought of this while reading the article is that avoiding pictures of lightning is not the same as avoiding topics that you disagree with, nor shutting out information and reality because you don’t want to listen to them.

    For a real life example, I recently cooked and ate a dinner with my boyfriend and we had left the frying pan to cool on the stove while we ate. The liquid fat in the pan had congealed into a solid white mass and I went to scrape it out and throw it away. My bf immediately freaked out, covered his eyes, and was generally incoherent with some hand gestures while I looked at him confused. Basically the fat grossed him out and made him feel like he was going to vomit. So because we are decent human beings and I don’t want to make him feel like vomitting, I’ve kept this event in mind and I take care of any congealed globs of fat while out of his view. Again, a sort of trigger warning and adjusting my own actions because of concern for others… but not censorship.

  • ComradeRutherford

    Years ago the writer Todd Alcott wrote monologues for actors in the NYC region to use as audition pieces. Eventually he started performing them himself in performance art spaces. There was one called the Politically Correct News, with Todd as the news caster. He started and ended the piece with, “I’m Todd Alcott, and I apologize for being a straight, white male.”

    Here is another piece by Todd, “Do you know how to make a shirt?”

    http://www.toddalcott.com/money.html

  • http://www.theangryfag.com/ TheAngryFag

    Trigger Warning: Reality

    This woman gives activists a bad name.

  • Silver_Witch

    Agreed and sad. How about we go watch the HOney Maid video and smile a minute.

  • PeteWa

    I’m working on the logo right now… ^__^

  • silas1898

    The Bush years seem to have drained humor from America. Now we just have relentless anger.

  • silas1898

    “The road to hell is paved with good intentions” along with its companion “No good deed goes unpunished”

  • silas1898

    I smell a franchise opportunity :)

  • Ryan

    Ideally it is not about censorship but creating spaces where people are able to avoid situations they don’t want to be in. It is like the practice of tagging things as NSFW. No one has to use the tag, but people appreciate the warning. Some places treat NSFW content as inevitable and don’t bother tagging things. Another example would be the practice of some websites of displaying the host domain of the webpage next to a link or noting when a link goes to a pdf file. These aren’t things that people have to do, but many find it useful.

    You don’t have to respect anyone’s request for warnings, and in many cases the burden of avoiding content should fall onto those who don’t wish to see it. That doesn’t mean that trigger warnings are inherently ridiculous.

  • PeteWa

    we can protect everybody from every unpleasant piece of information, all that is required is drive through lobotomy clinics!

  • bbock

    She ought to have a trigger warning on her name. It’s not her real name. She’s Korean-American but her name was picked from Chop Suey, a Chinese American dish. Not kidding. I have zero respect for activists who won’t use their real names.

  • bbock

    How about vulnerable people avoid places where they will encounter those ideas that bother them. If you are a sensitive soul, Internet forums might not be for you. Why does every conversation need to be filtered to the point where no ideas can be conveyed. I have an issue that I don’t like to see animals being abused or with wounds. So I avoid places where I might see that. I don’t demand that people not talk about animal abuse.

    I’m picturing someone saying “The sky is blue.” And then someone is upset because they can’t tell blue from green and reminding them of this is a trigger. I understand that this trigger notifications comes from a positive place, mostly. But what if it isn’t? For example, what if mentioning gays or Lesbians or transgendered people is a trigger to a bigot? Do we need to put a trigger notice on our lives? Where does it end?

  • 2karmanot

    OMG. does this mean that this white liberal man can’t walk on his oriental rugs?

  • 2karmanot

    There are also feelings of inferiority, which in most cases is fully warranted.

  • 2karmanot

    Tigger warning: Park is driving.

  • Ryan

    The problem is that we don’t yet have norms about what needs to be tagged and what doesn’t. There is a benefit to protecting vulnerable people from experiences that could cause them serious harm, but there is also costs in learning what to tag, tagging things, and protecting people from things that are merely uncomfortable. Right now, the people who would benefit from trigger warnings are trying to set the norms in a way that will maximize their benefit. Those who pay the costs have trouble deciding what is reasonable and unreasonable because we usually answer these questions by referring to what society expects us to do.

  • http://www.rebeccamorn.com/mind BeccaM

    Exactly. Good intentions and supportiveness gone awry.

  • http://AMERICAblog.com/ John Aravosis

    That’s interesting, Becca, about the history. But yeah, it fits into the larger problem on the left nowadays. It seems many of these things started with good intentions.

  • http://www.rebeccamorn.com/mind BeccaM

    Yeah… unfortunately what started as an accommodation for people genuinely suffering from PTSD via extreme trauma has expanded until it encompasses virtually everything — and yes, it’s used to shut down debate.

    Legitimate ‘trigger warning’? When you are about to tell or write about stories that have graphic detail about horrific personal events. Yet over time, it’s gotten so bad, you can’t even mention certain topics without someone complaining that they were unfairly ‘triggered’ without warning. But worse is when there’s a discussion or debate going on, and the other person suddenly trolls that they were triggered and how horrible a person you are.

    One detail that might help with understanding, John, is the experience you had on that panel and the explanation of that sexual harassment in the workplace definition came about because for so many women, a complaint of harassment would be met with disbelief, victim-blaming, shaming, and outright denial. I’m not kidding: The default position on a woman’s report of harassment is it didn’t happen, whereas for many other crimes, the default is to give the accusation at least enough credence to investigate.

    We needed someone who would say, “I believe you, now tell me what happened” — without the denial or rush to dismissive judgment. Someone who wouldn’t immediately start asking the woman what she’d done to invite the harassment. And furthermore with the knowledge and understanding that sexual harassment doesn’t always consist of wolf-whistles and demands for sex from one’s boss.

    So the movement to provide an unquestioningly supportive environment for women who’ve been harassed began with the best of intentions. Unfortunately, we humans often don’t get nuance. Unfortunately, before long this position of automatic support became twisted and seized upon by extremists…who exist in any movement.

    It’s the same thing with the ridiculous proliferation of these trigger warnings, as if we can protect everybody from every unpleasant piece of information.

  • PeteWa

    Park is just polishing up her troll skills… and [trigger warning: male pronoun] boy, do they need polishing.

  • http://AMERICAblog.com/ John Aravosis

    Yes it does. But as Park herself proves, the ridiculous is now being mainstreamed.

  • Silver_Witch

    Sexist post ::snark::

  • 4th Turning

    I’d say not much of a leap from helicopter-parents to a self-absorbed, helicoptering society (good
    news, I suppose for those staring down 300 lbs.).

    Why do parents hover?

    Helicopter parenting can develop for a number of reasons. Here are four common triggers.

    Fear of dire consequences
    A low grade, not making the team, or not getting a certain job can appear disastrous to a parent, especially if it seems it could be avoided with parental involvement. But, says Deborah Gilboa, M.D., founder of AskDoctorG.com, “many of the consequences [parents] are trying to prevent–unhappiness, struggle, not excelling, working hard, no guaranteed results–are great teachers for kids and not actually life-threatening. It just feels that way.”

    Feelings of anxiety
    Worries about the economy, the job market, and the world in general can push parents toward taking more control over their child’s life in an attempt to protect them. “Worry,” Dr. Daitch says, “can drive parents to take control in the belief that they can keep their child from ever being hurt or disappointed.”

    Overcompensation
    Adults who felt unloved, neglected, or ignored as children can overcompensate with their own children. Excessive attention and monitoring are attempts to remedy a deficiency the parents felt in their own upbringing.

    Peer pressure from other parents
    When parents see other overinvolved parents, it can trigger a similar response. “Sometimes when we observe other parents overparenting or being helicopter parents, it will pressure us to do the same,” Dr. Daitch says. “We can easily feel that if we don’t immerse ourselves in our children’s lives, we are bad parents. Guilt is a large component in this dynamic.”

    http://www.parents.com/parenting/better-parenting/what-is-helicopter-parenting/

  • thisMike

    [Trigger Warning: comments about the Roy Rogers's horse]
    Some called him “The Smartest Horse in the Movies”. I disagree…

  • Fentwin

    trigger warning; reality ahead

  • dcinsider

    [trigger warning: negative comments about entire generation]

    This is the logical extension of a generation of people raised to believe that their every feeling must be acknowledged. Thus, the heightened sensitivity that leads to the Suey Parks of the world. An episode of Girls really lays out the issue beautifully and with a sense of humor. That’s why I adore Lena Dunham and her take on the whole self obsession of her own generation.

  • BeminDC

    The HuffPost Live session is fascinating. Bummed that this fool is getting all of this attention, but fascinating . . .

  • olandp

    In regard to the Colbert crap, I have said before, I cannot be bothered with people who don’t understand satire, they are beneath me.

  • BeminDC

    You gas lighting white male gay mofo stop oppressing me! I’m outraged!

  • Indigo

    [trigger warning: impatient with nonsense.]
    I have little time and less patience with folks who need to wrap their minds and sensitivities in bubble wrap. Let them go live on the utopian space station of their fantasy or, if they must stay on Earth, let them wear buckles on their shoes, Puritan bibs around their necks, and sport bowl hair cuts so we can know them for the obsolete Puritans they are.

  • http://heimaey.us/ heimaey

    This seems a bit ridiculous.

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