Are Trigger Warnings for White People? (Guest Post by Kristina Meshelski)


Kristina Meshelski, an assistant professor of philosophy at CSU Northridge, has kindly authored the following guest post about the recent discussion of trigger warnings at Bully Bloggers by Jack Halberstam (USC), “You Are Triggering Me! The Neo-Liberal Rhetoric of Harm, Danger, and Trauma.”


I know many philosophers who teach ethics use at the very least some form of this warning: “We are going to be discussing sensitive subjects in class.  Try to remain calm and respect your fellow students during the discussion.”  But this hardly seems adequate when, if your classes are like mine, the subjects of rape and/or slavery always seem to come up.  Many people now think we need something more specific, something to make sure that students who have experienced trauma or may be particularly sensitive to it don’t feel blindsided.  This is what’s known as the “trigger warning.”

Trigger warnings are a hot topic, and many professors are now using them in the classroom.  See this post from Feminist Philosophers for a generally positive round-up of perspectives from philosophers.

Recently Jack Halberstam posted a criticism of trigger warnings at Bully Bloggers. She* says:

In a post-affirmative action society, where even recent histories of political violence like slavery and lynching are cast as a distant and irrelevant past, all claims to hardship have been cast as equal; and some students, accustomed to trotting out stories of painful events in their childhoods (dead pets/parrots, a bad injury in sports) in college applications and other such venues, have come to think of themselves as communities of naked, shivering, quaking little selves – too vulnerable to take a joke, too damaged to make one.

Halberstam mocks this trend as similar to an outdated “weepy white lady feminism” that was rightfully replaced by “a multi-racial, poststructuralist, intersectional feminism” in the 1990s.

There are lots of other things going on in the post, and there has already been a fair amount of criticism of Halberstam’s post online (here’s one).

Though I have many concerns about the various claims Halberstam makes, especially her characterization of the Trannyshack debate, I wonder if there isn’t something in there that philosophers should consider.  Halberstam argues that young people use descriptive statements about individual harm as replacement for actual social activism, which would involve recognizing inequality.  She says

let’s all take a hard long look at the privileges that often prop up public performances of grief and outrage; let’s acknowledge that being queer no longer automatically means being brutalized and let’s argue for much more situated claims to marginalization, trauma and violence.

If Halberstam is right that trigger warnings are part of a general movement toward liberal individualism that makes all pain seem equal and obscures real oppression then that would mean that philosophers who use or condone trigger warnings in the name of inclusiveness are in fact only being inclusive towards white women or white LGBT students rather than those with other racial or class identities.  We are perhaps further alienating students who are already alienated from academic philosophy when we allow the relatively privileged to claim a trauma that is treated as equal to the trauma of the less privileged.

What do you think?

(*Note: Halberstam has no preferred pronoun.)

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Rachel McKinnon
Rachel McKinnon
6 years ago

I’ll post my comment here, but I won’t be following the discussion closely afterwards.

“If Halberstam is right that trigger warnings are part of a general movement toward liberal individualism that makes all pain seem equal and obscures real oppression then that would mean that philosophers who use or condone trigger warnings in the name of inclusiveness are in fact only being inclusive towards white women or white LGBT students rather than those with other racial or class identities. We are perhaps further alienating students who are already alienated from academic philosophy when we allow the relatively privileged to claim a trauma that is treated as equal to the trauma of the less privileged.”

I think it’s simply false that trigger warnings are part of a general movement toward liberal individualism. How could it be? Also, trigger warnings don’t make all pain seem equal! They’re merely warnings (how minimal of an action!!) that let people who might suffer harm from a topic manage themselves (do they need to leave? do they need to just take a second to mentally and emotionally prepare themselves? do they need to turn to management strategies?). It doesn’t say that the harm suffered from being triggered is the same for all people. It doesn’t say that the harm from, say, being raped is the same as someone being triggered for discussions of sexual assault. I think, *at best*, it’s intellectually lazy to think that trigger warnings do this.

More importantly, though: look at who’s discussing trigger warnings in current grassroots activism. It’s the very people you say we should be worried about. It is queer people of colour.

Who’s mostly criticizing the use of trigger warnings? WHITE PEOPLE (typically cis, typically at least middle class, typically straight). Just ask: Who’s writing all the articles bemoaning the use of trigger warnings on syllabi?

Is it only white people? No of course not, but that’s the dominant voice in the critical discourse.

In fact, there are important conversations to have here, but let’s not couch them in terms of protecting, say, queer people of colour, unless *they’re the ones* saying so. Otherwise, I fear that it’s just more white knight feminism acting on behalf of others when they haven’t asked for it.

There’s a small discussion here: http://www.blackgirldangerous.org/2013/10/breaking-concrete-shame-sexual-violence/Report

philodaria
philodaria
6 years ago

I use trigger warnings because I have a few friends with PTSD, and while neither they nor I can know in advance all of what will be triggering for them, there are certain topics that if discussed are likely to produce them. It’s likely that some of my students have had similar experiences, and it’s certainly possible that some of them likewise have PTSD.

I do not use trigger warnings because I think all pain is equal, but I do want to be accommodating to people with PTSD where I can, and this is an easy step in that direction.Report

Robin James
6 years ago

Insofar as a YWs are institutiomalized as a beaurocratic instrument in the academy, I think they are tools of white supremacy. To explain that, I am reposting what I wrote on Leigh Johnson’s FB wall. Leigh has a great post on this issue on her blog, which I’ll link below.

” i’ve also been thinking a lot about this twitter convo i overheard about what happens when you institutionalize activist practices in the university. so, these activist practices that might be emancipatory when used by grassroots communities actually become instruments of violence when they’re institutionalized. just think about ‘diversity’ or ‘disability’ statements on syllabi: they’re basically CYA clauses that let faculty not really need to think about accommodating diversity or differently abled students. or, um, how affirmative action ends up working, once it’s made institutional policy/practice. etc etc. i think institutionalizing trigger warnings would similarly transform them into mechanisms of violence & oppression, even if that’s not how they work in the contexts they originated in…”

Leigh’s blog: http://readmorewritemorethinkmorebemore.blogspot.com/2014/07/on-trigger-warnings-codes-of-conduct.htmlReport

Matt Drabek
6 years ago

The trouble with trigger warnings in the classroom seems to be that the range of troubling reactions to classroom material is much broader than what is covered by the label “trigger,” which is a technical psychological term. There are lots of ways students can be negatively impacted that we, as instructors, should be concerned about, but only some of those ways are through psychological triggering. So, by merely adding a trigger warning and calling it a day, I worry that I might be:

1. encouraging students who are emotionally harmed by the course materials, but in a way that isn’t covered by the label “trigger”, to falsely claim to be have been triggered.
2. ignoring the many other ways that course materials can be problematic.
3. ignoring the fact that psychological triggers are often much more mundane, everyday objects. (e.g., specific perfumes or objects lying around the house)

And so I sidestep this by simply having a frank and honest discussion with my classes about the course content. I tell them which topics are covered and I talk them through which materials might lead to these sorts of issues. And I do it without using the word “trigger.”Report

anon
anon
6 years ago

It’s worth keeping in mind that Halberstam article seems to be targeting something much more general than “trigger warnings,” treating them as symptomatic of a larger problem. So we have the option of believing that trigger warnings aren’t intrinsically problematic without rejecting the piece in its entirety or even its primary point.

I think trigger warnings are a good idea in some cases, but like the author, I think the popularity of the idea is a worrisome symptom. Part of what I find worrisome is the sense that learning should be, in an *abstract* sense, “safe.” Of course it goes without saying that an educational environment should in specific, literal ways, be a “safe” place. But when that concept loses its specificity, bordering on the metaphorical, I think it may promote a false conception of what authentic learning is supposed to be.

Psychological harms can be very real harms, and so students do need to protected from very real, very specific kinds of psychological harm. However. Psychological harm is above all a kind of harm to the person, to the self. And some kinds of “harm” to the self are not moral harms. For example, if my sense of self is bound up with sexists or racists attitudes, harm to that self is in fact a moral improvement, an opening of a harmful form of selfhood to transformation and development.

So, I want to suggest that “harm” is *in a very limited, narrow sense of undermining certain aspects of selfhood” is a necessary part of learning, and the *abstract* demand for *general* “safety” is potentially at odds with real learning. Again, none of this in any way should be taken as a rejection that guarantees of very specific forms of psychological and physical safety are absolutely crucial to learning, but that some, narrower, limited forms may not be. More accurately, I think, would be to say: some experiences that *feel* like harm but *are not really* may be valuable to learning and endangered by the vagueness of the discourse of “trigger warnings.”

I suppose some might object that this is a demand to students to “man up,” but I think that would be a could to ignore real dangers and real wounds, while instead I think the worry is that we are training students to be unable to take *pain*, which is at least *sometimes* different from wounds. We do need *some* level of tolerance for pain if we want to learn. If we must characterize it in stereotypical gendered terms, the proper characterization would be to “woman up” (high tolerance for pain), not “man up” (high tolerance for harm and violence).Report

Rachel McKinnon
Rachel McKinnon
6 years ago

Here’s the thing that seems to be missed quite a bit: trigger warnings are *not* about making spaces “safe.” They’re about warning people who may be harmed by topics. Those people very often will still choose to engage with the topic (read the article, attend the class, watch the movie…whatever). At most, it’s about making the spaces safer, not safe. (This is partly why many of us in the activists circles are starting to talk about “safer spaces” rather than “safe spaces,” particularly because the latter are an illusion.

Trigger warnings aren’t there to stop students from being confronted with difficult, sometimes painful material. It’s *just* to give them a heads up that it’s coming. Really, what’s so objectionable about that? I warn my passengers in my car when we’re going to hit a bump. Similar courtesy.Report

Matt McAdam
Matt McAdam
Reply to  Rachel McKinnon
6 years ago

“They’re about warning people who may be harmed by topics.”

Can you explain what you mean by “harm”? I ask bc it strikes me as a tendentious and question-begging description of the experience someone may have in response to exposure to something on a syllabus.Report

Jennifer Frey
6 years ago

I would never put a trigger warning on content I teach in class, and I am far from alone in this policy (I am somewhat alone in being willing to just state it without apology). Frankly, if my students can’t talk about ‘bad’ actions in a reasonable, detached, and minimally informed way, they don’t belong in my class, since my class concerns bad human actions as its topic. Moreover, its not like I’m showing violent content (except for animal cruelty videos, which I do preface with the note that what follows is violent and gross but nonetheless mandatory to watch for purposes of class discussions). We do of course discuss ethical issues that can make folks uncomfortable, including rape, assault, enslavement, suicide, and LGBT issues, etc. And we discuss both sides of every issue, and that typically results in a kind of mutual alienation between students with very different world views and identities. That’s part of the process I am supposed to be facilitating, how to overcome that alienation and see the person occupying the other side as a human being with a different set of values and assumptions. Part of the reason my university forces students to take my class is so that they can learn to do things that make them uncomfortable, and to confront points of view that make them uncomfortable, because if they can’t do that then they can’t learn, nor can they be active members of a functioning, pluralist society.

A syllabus should be enough of a “trigger warning.” Reasonably intelligent students who have done the reading in advance and have looked at the topics can have a sense of what they are getting into. No extra warnings should be necessary from my end, because again, part of learning to negotiate life as an adult is learning what you can and can’t handle in advance.

Obviously the counterargument is that I am being insensitive (or that I’m white, which supposedly renders my opinions here either irrelevant or obviously suspect). Well, I accept that I am both white and somewhat insensitive, though I don’t see the two as obviously related. But I think, quite generally, effective teaching demands a healthy bit of insensitivity to the precious and fragile ego of individual students. I can’t imagine how I would have turned out if I hadn’t received straight and direct feedback from my professors over the years, and if they hadn’t pushed me outside of my comfort zone time and again. I am incredibly grateful to them for their insensitivity towards me in these respects over the years. It’s part of learning, becoming more sophisticated, and quite generally growing up.

One final thought: if a student has a genuine disorder like PTSD, then the student should be able to get accommodations through student disability services. And of course, I am more than fine with that, as I accommodate all my students with disabilities. Perhaps such students, of necessity, must have a very restricted range of classes and learning environments, and must be exempt from certain discussions, materials, etc. Trigger warnings, on the other hand, are a general policy adopted for the general student populace, and that’s what I’m against.Report

Matt Drabek
Reply to  Jennifer Frey
6 years ago

I’m somewhat sympathetic to this, but surely there are certain things that the syllabus doesn’t say. The syllabus might say that “consent” is the *topic*, but it might not contain the information that the article contains something specific, like graphic description of sexual assault. I think it’s this latter sort of info that a trigger warning is supposed to contain. Do your syllabi contain that more specific information?

Now, I don’t think trigger warnings do the job in quite the right way (see my post above), but I think that’s the job they’re supposed to be doing. For the most part, I think if you replace the label “trigger warning” with the label “content note”, the job can be done well enough.Report

HappyPhilosopher
HappyPhilosopher
Reply to  Jennifer Frey
6 years ago

A very reasonable analysis, Jennifer.Report

philodaria
philodaria
Reply to  Jennifer Frey
6 years ago

Getting an accommodation through student disability services for PTSD requires having been previously diagnosed. For at least a couple of the people I know who do have it, it wasn’t for years after their trauma that they were actually diagnosed. Given the number of students who are sexually assaulted during their college years, and given the high number of assault victims who do develop PTSD, it’s quite likely that some students each of us will encounter during our careers will develop PTSD during their time in college, and will not immediately have access to something like disability services.

And unless syllabi are annotated in a detailed enough way, a syllabus itself is often not enough of a signal of what students will encounter in a course to serve as a substitute, I think.Report

Kristina Meshelski
Kristina Meshelski
6 years ago

I’m not anti-trigger warnings at all. There is nothing objectionable in the basic idea (I take Rachel’s analogy to be apt, what’s wrong with warning someone about a bump in the road?) But I do want to continue to think about the way that trigger warnings are employed in practice and the messages we send to students. Robin James makes a good point (and reminded me to Leigh Johnson blog-thanks!) that when things go from activist circles into the classroom sometimes a lot gets lost in translation.

But I also just want to be clear that I don’t in any way endorse the idea that students are too “soft” or whatever. Students are people too and they all come from different backgrounds. My main problem with students is that too many are not soft enough – they are too proud to ask for help when they need it. (And yeah, also, they never do the reading.)Report

Kristina Meshelski
Kristina Meshelski
6 years ago

On facebook, Rachel pointed me to comment 20 on the Feminist Philosophers post, which includes this link http://entropymag.org/on-trigger-warnings-part-i-in-the-creative-writing-classroom/

Within this, someone quotes Heather Laine Talley, and it captures well something that I worry about

“Violence is likely to elicit a trigger warning. Luxury good consumption is not, even though for folks desperate for healthcare or panicked about meeting their basic needs, this topic is easily (and understandably) triggering. I’d like to figure out strategies that avoid reifying that some injuries matter while invisibalizing others.”Report