You’re sitting down for a performance, and suddenly the director of the show says, “Trigger warning: This show deals with sexual assault and may be triggering for those who have suffered traumatic experiences.” Suddenly the experience takes on a whole new weight.
Trigger warnings, meant to prevent those who have suffered trauma from having post-traumatic stress reactions to content in a variety of arenas, have attracted a lot of attention over the past year. Warning an audience of disturbing content is nothing new: MPAA film rating categories have existed in their current state since the late 1990s. However, trigger warnings differ from other kinds of warnings in that they explicitly say what may disturb the audience. Whether or not these warnings have a place in the academic sphere has been hotly debated.
University President Michael Roth has thought about how students might react to sensitive content in the classroom, and though he has considered implementing a trigger warning policy at Wesleyan, the effect of such a policy remains unclear.
“I don’t want to make a bureaucratic rule like everybody has to do ‘X,’” Roth said.
One perspective on trigger warnings is that much of what is covered in a college class is and should be unsettling. Some, such as Jonah Goldberg in a May 2014 LA Times op-ed, argue that it is important to undergo potentially damaging cerebral experiences, such as reading literature that deals with trauma or a play that deals with sexual assault.
“I think it’s a real issue in the sense that much of what we teach in the humanities, but also in other fields, [should] be emotionally wrenching, should be real for the students,” Roth said. “That can be hard in certain situations, and so you have to be careful to take care of people and make sure they’re okay but at the same time you don’t want to make it so banal that nobody’s ever upset.”
Armani White ’15, a writer for The Ankh, Wesleyan’s student of color magazine, believes that certain categories of trauma that require a trigger warning because of the painful memories they tend to induce. White does not use trigger warnings in his writing, but he believes they are necessary in writing that describes traumatic incidents that could happen in one’s life, such as killings, sexual assault, rape, beatings, and death.
In teaching his classes, Roth has often had to confront that fine line between the traumatizing and the emotionally wrenching.
“I gave a course on photography and representation at Wesleyan a few times and many times at art school, and a lot of the photographs were about trauma and mutilation,” Roth said. “If you’re not upset about that, that would be upsetting. I think teachers are different, and I’ve learned to be a little bit more sensitive to how upset people can get.”
Wesleying, the student-run blog, uses trigger warnings mainly for posts related to sexual assault. However, Wesleying does not have an official trigger warning policy. Rather, the editors and writers determine whether a trigger warning is needed on a case-by-case basis. An example of one such warning read:
“TRIGGER WARNING: The following discusses the issue of sexual assault at Wesleyan and may be triggering for some readers. Community and official support resources can be accessed here, here, and here.”
The words “here” contained hyperlinks to community resources, such as Wesleyan’s literature pertaining to support for survivors of sexual assault.
In slam poetry, an arena in which trigger warnings are seen quite frequently, a similar tension exists between what is appropriately jarring and what is so traumatic it needs a trigger warning.
“I think the logic behind trigger warnings in poetry is spot on,” slam poet Max Friedlich ’17 wrote in a message to The Argus. “Poetry slams seek to foster a safe space where people can share, hear, internalize, and be listened to. Trigger warnings are there to protect that safety, to [protect] any audience member who might be hurt by certain subject matter.”
That said, Friedlich has doubts about the effectiveness of trigger warnings.
“In practice, I’m not sure about trigger warnings at poetry slams,” he wrote. “I’ve never observed someone leave after hearing a trigger warning and I’m not sure if the warning actually would help a person who has suffered trauma or been the victim of sexual assault ready themselves to hear something triggering.”
The question of what is triggering is a tough one. The words in the trigger warning itself can be triggering for some, but the calculation is that it is better to warn someone beforehand than to have a triggering event occur in the middle of a class or performance, or even at one’s home when one is reading a book or article. The line between which traumas warrant a trigger warning is unclear the further away one gets from the obvious ones cited by White—violence, death, and sexual assault. And some argue that trigger warnings can prioritize certain traumatic experiences over others.
“Trigger warnings can enforce a hierarchy of personal tragedy wherein we give trigger warnings for certain things and not others,” Friedlich wrote. “Sexual assault poems can be extremely triggering for people but I’ve observed people feeling upset and alienated when someone does not give a warning for say racial abuse or anti-Semitism.”