One night of my freshman year of high school I was walking down Central Park West after a late rehearsal. It was extremely dark out, so I ironically listened to Elton John’s “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me.” I spotted the outline of what appeared to be a large group of people walking towards me. Being both naive and afraid of all forms of confrontation at the time, I decided to turn towards Columbus Avenue as a means of feeling safe, even though CPW was filled with the safety of doormen and bright lights. An arm wrapped around my neck and pulled me to the ground. I chuckled at first, thinking it was one of the bullies from middle school who thought he was a friend of mine, trying to be funny. I was wrong, of course.
A voice warned me not to scream. I instinctively agreed to his demands. Another two (or maybe three, who can remember?) starting pulling off everything I was carrying on me. The watch I had used to check the time nearly every minute, was yanked from me. The cell phone, which contained the contacts to everyone in my life, was pulled from my pocket. My iPod and headphones were ripped out of my ears and shirt pocket, with them the sweet sounds of Elton John. They couldn’t find my wallet, and were getting testy. I, quivering, told them it was in one of my backpack pockets, where I had previously put it for some irrational reason. They had been searching me for maybe a minute, a dangerously long time for them, so they just grabbed my bag and ran. One of them, while running, dropped something and had to pick it up, allowing me to notice him notice me crying for a split second.
I didn’t do the smart thing and tell a nearby doorman, instead opting to finish my 20-minute walk home. I told my parents I had been mugged. I cried in a corner while they called the police. It was a very long weary night, answering police questions both in my home and the local station. My parents informed the school of what had happened, and told my teachers why I would be arriving the next day without a backpack or homework. I lamented that only repeats were on TV, as this was before the age of Netflix.
And then, time passed, and my life stabilized. I was traumatized, sure, and began taking precautionary safety steps to prevent any incidents in the future. But over time, I became comfortable walking alone at night again. I stopped being scared of the street right next to my school. I listened to Elton John again. I was no longer, to borrow a phrase from psychology and higher education, “triggered” by my surroundings. I had returned to my own sense of normality, or, rather, created a new normal.
Which is why, all things considered, I absolutely loathe “trigger warnings.” I can’t see why anyone who underwent a traumatic experience, especially those related to forms of violence, sexual assault, or otherwise would want to be actively reminded of it when it is presented to them explicitly in the trigger warning itself. So why, then, are so many colleges and so many students insistent on plastering warnings all over course content? Wesleyan, from what I’ve seen, hasn’t been big on trigger warnings, but it’s a remarkably disturbing trend across higher education. Giving students a vague outline of course content, especially potentially disturbing content, is fine. But how are direct and aggressive warnings to survivors going to be helpful? There’s a fine line between comforting someone and trying to terrify them, and I highly doubt that anyone has ever felt safer because of a trigger warning.
Though maybe I’m wrong about all this. I’m hardly a psychologist, and I admittedly received a C+ in Intro Psych last year, so maybe my logic is skewed. After all, wouldn’t it be harmful for someone with PTSD or suffering from recent (or even distant) trauma to be reminded of the event? The basic psychological rational for “trigger warnings” is, of course, to prevent people from being accidentally triggered, so they can be comfortable in the classroom.
Except that there isn’t any scientific basis for any of this. And if we care about using empirical data and research to help people, psychology isn’t exactly a fan of “trigger warnings.” An article in “The Atlantic,” entitled “The Coddling of the American Mind,” written by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt and first amendment lawyer Greg Lukianoff, noted for starters that most trigger warnings are typically demanded by students due to offensive or divisive opinions that they wish to avoid, not due to actual traumatic course material. More importantly, the way to cure anxiety disorders isn’t to outright avoid anything that provokes fear. The solution is often to slowly expose a person to what they fear in a comfortable setting (known as exposure therapy). I didn’t get over my fear of walking alone at night by issuing self-warnings about the dangers of dimly lit alleys: I walked with a friend who lived near my house for a week or so until I was comfortable walking alone. There is no clear scientific basis that suggests that other survivors should not do something similar.
But beyond even the psychology of it all, “trigger warnings” are remarkably condescending. Nobody’s life can be summed up by a single event, good or bad. But “trigger warnings” attempt to do precisely that. Because of the need to shelter survivors from anything that might be remotely related to a triggering incident, survivors are not allowed or given the opportunity to live normal lives. “Trigger warnings” essentially send the message that due to one traumatic event, life can never be satisfying or fulfilling again, and therefore one must be forcefully reminded of this fact. The entire lives of survivors are literally reduced to the memory of a previous event, and a few adjectives that describe it.
Beyond reducing people’s individual lives to singular moments, advocates of trigger warnings have essentially tried to control the cultural consumption and education of survivors. Any work of art or literature, history textbook, or movie that contains anything offensive is supposed to be hidden from any survivor, preventing them from enjoying the beauty of the world around them. Students at prestigious universities across the country have been asking for trigger warnings on books such as “The Great Gatsby” due to its depictions of violence. Harvard Law students have asked that rape law not be taught due to its potential to trigger. To any rational person, this is absurd. Attempting to deny someone the beauty of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s prose is nothing short of criminal; to not teach law students about rape law is to leave survivors stranded and force students to remain ignorant of an important subject. Either action is both idiotic and tyrannical.
Who, exactly, even asked for or created these trigger warnings? What survivor would ask to be directly and forcefully reminded of their pain on a daily basis, rather than let their wounds heal and move on? I certainly wouldn’t have. The most awful moments after my mugging were the times when I had to describe the incident to my school administration, and the well-intended looks of pity from my friends and teachers. I felt traumatized, sure, but that didn’t mean I wanted to remain in a stew of my own emotional instability. I wanted to reclaim my life and sense of happiness sooner rather than later. Frankly it seems unlikely that any survivor of any trauma would think otherwise.
Certainly, no legitimate psychologist would ask for students to be trigger warned. They’d be not only a laughingstock for their complete ignorance of basic Pavlovian psychology, but they would be advocating for something they know to be scientifically unhelpful. It is the job of any psychologist, and scientist, period, to base their conclusions on empirical data and use this to guide their future experiments. Any psychologist who clings to disproven theories has failed to do their basic job.
All of this leads me to believe that the continued existence of “trigger warnings” is likely caused not by survivors or psychologists, but by a group of people who, in their desire to be good people, assumed their moral intent superseded the need to do any proper research on the subject of trauma and anxiety, and their actions went entirely unchallenged due to the complexity and difficulty of the subject matter, as well as their appearance as good Samaritans. Falsely moral people appear to me to be the only possible people who contribute to and continue this madness.
I’ll admit, I was fairly lucky back in freshman year. The mugging was terrible, but to this day I’m glad that neither a knife nor gun was pulled on me. My true luck, though, came the very next day when, out of pity for me, someone in my biology class asked me if I wanted to go to lunch with him and his friends. While it was December at this point, I hadn’t really established a friend group yet. I accepted, with the caveat that I would be a little late, as I had to copy some homework exercises from my teacher’s textbook (mine had been taken, of course). I arrived late, but was warmly welcomed.
It remains to this day one of the more startling moments of my life. After staring into my own personal heart of darkness, I was suddenly sitting a table full of loving and laughing friends. There were no looks of pity and sympathy, no questioning policemen. There was just happiness, a small light in the darkness that help set me on the path to overcoming the horrors of the night before.
Now, I’m quite aware that many survivors of any kind of incident won’t be as lucky as myself. But the objective of anyone who wants to help someone who’s been hurt shouldn’t be to remind them of and highlight their fears as aggressively as possible. It should be to comfort them, and ease them back into a state of normality, with the hopes that they can learn to appreciate life and all its wonders, once more. If comfort is to be found in support groups, or therapy, or even binge-watching “Friends” with actual friends, then I’m supportive of that cause.
Nor do I think that students should be let in the dark about what they will study. Of course teachers should let their students know of the content of their courses. I would have been absolutely horrified I read “A Clockwork Orange” without knowing beforehand about some of the content. Student discomfort should also be acknowledged if and when it comes up, too. But letting a student know about the sensitive material in a course, is not the same as a “trigger warning.” The former involves letting a student know what they’re studying. The latter is a means of creating unnecessary anxiety.
The last line of “The Great Gatsby” is an iconic one: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Everyone’s trying to overcome some aspects of their past, some unfortunately more than others. So, let’s ask ourselves: should the job of the educator be to push students back towards their stormy pasts, or to guide them toward the bright horizon in the distance?