My Complex Relationship with Trigger Warnings
I’ve woken up, had a cup of tea, and am making my way through this morning’s slew of emails. There’s one from a sociology lecturer at Auckland University and it reads like this: “Yes, there is a lecture tomorrow, with the topic being contemporary pornography. There’s a ‘trigger warning’ for this in that we will be discussing adult content, potentially including mention (but not images) of acts that some might consider problematic.”
The lecturer then goes on to say that even though there will be a question about pornography in the exam there will be more questions to choose from, so if we don’t want to come to the class we don’t have to. Which, to be quite frank leaves me feeling disappointed and a little annoyed—since when is a world ranking university letting students not come to class because of problematic or adult content? It’s a dangerous precedent to set.
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Most of the arguments I see about trigger warnings (TWs) are not, in my mind, nuanced enough. One side ridicules those who don’t use TWs as thoughtless, wanton assholes; the other as overly sensitive Social Justice Warriors. In the largely un-censored and chaotic realm of the internet, I can understand the desire to create safe-spaces, places where we can attempt to ease the brutality of the world—a world which can be violent, sexist, racist, homophobic, the list goes on… I say this without flippancy.
There is a difference between being triggered and being offended, it is important not to conflate the two. However, there comes a point where an attempt to create a safe space for some becomes an expectation that is placed on others and crosses over into the realm of censorship. It also sometimes turns into a toxic game of what seems to be, less about courtesy to others, and more about the ‘Awareness Olympics’. If anyone reading this is or has been a member of the insufferable Facebook group Cool Freaks Wikipedia Club, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Can others really be expected to know what kind of brutalities a person has gone through without meeting them? And can they be expected to identify anything and everything that may cause someone to be triggered? Should Facebook user guidelines be changed so that everyone has to use a stipulated set of warnings?
The answer is a resounding no. I say this with the knowledge that not everyone is neurotypical, with the knowledge of my own experiences with anxiety and panic attacks, and with the knowledge that getting professional help for mental health issues is a privilege that is made inaccessible to many. I respect the choice made by certain online forums and media outlets to use TWs—especially when they include graphic depictions of rape, child sexual abuse, or self-harm. But the use of trigger or content warnings is as much a political statement and personal choice as it is anything else, which is why they should never be expected, especially within the context of a tertiary institution.
University has never been and shouldn’t be an intellectual ‘safe space’. We go to University to learn and to challenge and to be challenged. I also have a sneaking suspicion that the email was sent out by that particular lecturer because they knew that if they didn’t, people would complain. Resulting in either a slap on the wrist or having that unit being replaced with something else less ‘problematic’. But the reason why this attitude and expectation of a prior warning is so insidious is because it teaches people they don’t have to address certain issues that make them uncomfortable or that trigger them.
I’ve watched porn before, I know how absolutely vile and degrading some porn can be—especially heterosexual porn. But that just indicates to me that there’s even more of a reason for us to talk about it; to talk about its implications for young men, young women, for rape culture, and even the niche for feminist porn. It seems, therefore, counterintuitive to warn students against these kinds of uncomfortable and often violent topics and to tell them they don’t need to come to classes for fear of being triggered or offended. Because at the end of the day, the kind of behaviour and acts that cause people to then be triggered by the word ‘rape’ or the word ‘violate’, is exactly the kind of behaviour that demands to be talked about and challenged in every possible arena in order for it to go away.
To quote someone far more eloquent than me, Roxane Gay puts it perfectly in her essay “The Illusion of Safety/The Safety of Illusion” when she says, “there will always be a finger on the trigger. No matter how hard we try, there’s no way to step out of the line of fire.”