Warning: This Post Is About Trigger Warnings

Warning: This Post Is About Trigger Warnings


Kate Manne (Cornell) has an opinion piece in today’s New York Times about professors’ use of “trigger warnings,” by which she means “notice in their syllabuses, or before certain reading assignments” that the course material may discuss or depict “common causes of trauma.” Such warnings have been criticized (here, for example) as a sign of the end times of higher education, but Manne makes some rather reasonable points about them, including:

  1. The point of warnings is not to prevent students from engaging with disturbing course content but to prepare them for it so they can engage with it productively.
  2. Content that is “merely offensive to certain people’s political or religious sensibilities” does not warrant a trigger warning.
  3. Though we are epistemically limited and thus cannot know exactly all of the content which might provoke reactions in students that interfere with their learning, we can provide warnings for some things.
  4. Warnings are easy to provide—it’s as easy as saying, e.g., “fyi, the next reading includes some graphic depictions of war.” (So even if they only help a small number of students, or none at all, they are virtually costless.)
  5. Despite what those who would have professors “help” previously traumatized students by surprising them with potentially triggering content say, the classroom is not the place for a therapy session.
  6. The warnings may do some good, but other things are important, too, such as academic freedom, so the use of triggers should be up to individual professors, and not mandated by university administration.

I would add: the term “trigger warning” appears to trigger a reaction in some who hear it, ranging from an increased proclivity for hyperbole, to feelings of victimhood and anger, to frothing at the mouth, right up to straight out apoplexy. Out of concern for these people, I suggest we warn them before we discuss trigger warnings.

caution banner

guest
49 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Chris Surprenant
6 years ago

I don’t think the problem is with these sorts of warnings per se., as they seem perfectly appropriate when they come before certain television shows or elsewhere when people may not expect or want to encounter what may strike them as disturbing content. The problem is thinking that such warnings are necessary and appropriate for a university, a place where encountering disturbing content should be expected.

Remember also that it’s not just trigger warnings, but the whole family of related nonsense that seems to be undermining our enterprise: creating “safe spaces” for students because of a triggering lecture on campus, not allowing certain people to speak because they may upset the students, allowing students to opt-out of assignments because they find them to be disturbing–the list goes on. I don’t doubt that there are students who are legitimately “triggered” by these things. But trying to accommodating them in these ways sends the wrong message about the mission of a university.Report

Kathryn Pogin
Kathryn Pogin
Reply to  Chris Surprenant
6 years ago

Sorry, I don’t understand — how is enabling every student to be able to rationally engage with their course material contrary to the mission of a university?Report

Anon
Anon
Reply to  Kathryn Pogin
6 years ago

What makes this conversation difficult is that part of what is in dispute is whether trigger warnings do in fact enable students to better rationally engage with the material. Those who favor trigger warnings assume that (i) concerns from students about potential trauma are legitimate and (ii) trigger warnings enable students to more effectively deal with trauma. Those who are concerned about trigger warnings often assume (i) concerns about student trauma are overblown and often serve as an excuse to avoid dealing with opinions they dislike and (ii) even if such concerns were not overblown, there is no evidence that triggers warnings are effective means for with such concerns. Since part of this dispute is empirical, it would help if someone could provide evidence that trigger warnings actually help students rationally engage with their course material.Report

Kathryn Pogin
Kathryn Pogin
Reply to  Anon
6 years ago

Thanks Anon — that’s a clear way of putting it, though I don’t think those who favor trigger warnings are assuming concerns from students about potential trauma are legitimate. I think they believe concerns from students about trauma are legitimate because they have reasons to believe it, e.g., I have friends who are students who have PTSD, I’ve had students who have had PTSD, the sorts of circumstances that can cause traumatic symptoms are not extraordinarily rare in the lives of many students, and so on. In the absence of good data on the prevalence of traumatic symptoms amongst students, particularly intrusion, it seems to me that that testimony is a good source of evidence. And while I do believe it’s possible that the number of those who experience intrusion on the basis of triggers we can reasonably expect to be triggering might be small relative to the student population as a whole, the costs of giving a heads up (as Kate pointed out) are so small (so long as framed in the right way), that it seems well worth it to me, until we learn otherwise.Report

DC
DC
Reply to  Kathryn Pogin
6 years ago

“In the absence of good data on the prevalence of traumatic symptoms amongst students, particularly intrusion, it seems to me that that testimony is a good source of evidence”

Testimony, particularly anecdotal testimony outside a well-designed is a not a particularly good source of evidence; psychological terminology has entered common parlance to the point where people use phrases like “trauma,” “PTSD,” and “trigger” in a way that frequently bears little resemblance to those terms as used by clinicians.Report

Kathryn Pogin
Kathryn Pogin
Reply to  Kathryn Pogin
6 years ago

I’m not claiming testimony is infallible, nor that other kinds of data wouldn’t be better or helpful — what I am claiming is that I don’t think it’s wrong to take testimony of this sort as a reason to respond accordingly in the absence of other data. There are enough war veterans, to take just one relevant population, who have gone without needed help because it seems the costs of stigma are higher than the costs of silence, that I would prefer to err on the side of trust than skepticism.Report

Anon
Anon
Reply to  Kathryn Pogin
6 years ago

Dear Kathryn, I agree that student testimony can serve as defeasible evidence. However, those who are concerned about trigger warnings typically think that there are many reasons to discount this evidence. First, much student testimony does not accord with our best understanding of how paradigm cases of PTSD triggering work. Second, students may not be able to easily discriminate between cases in which they are made upset or angry at an idea they do not like and a case in which they are triggered. Third, there are cases in which students simply lie about trauma to elicit sympathy for the sake of personal advantage (I do not claim that these cases are common, but they do of course happen). Fourth, many of these complaints come from those of comparative social and economic privilege who have a tendency to think their feelings should be given special concern. Fifth, and this is speculative, many demands for trigger warnings seem motivated by the desire for recognition of the personal importance of certain traumatic experiences rather than the need for safeguards against reexperiencing trauma. (By the way, this desire for recognition may be perfectly legitimate. The point is that insofar as it provides an alternative explanation as to why students demand trigger warnings, it undercuts student testimony that the reason such warnings are needed is to guard against further trauma).

Moreover, even if it is granted that some students are only able to rationally engage with material under very particular conditions, we have not even touched the issue of whether trigger warnings are actually effective in creating these conditions. Here, student testimony is of even less value it seems.Report

Kathryn Pogin
Kathryn Pogin
Reply to  Kathryn Pogin
6 years ago

Anon, it is certainly possible that some students may lie or exaggerate, but I think that’s true regardless of what we do with trigger warnings. As to who ask for them, in my own experience, students who have requested them directly have been, to my knowledge, more commonly among the least privileged (of course, my experience is limited) — it is true, however, that students who have engaged in more visible activism surrounding the topic in general are often coming from a position of greater social or economic privilege, but I think that’s unsurprising in a way that’s irrelevant to the issue as such. Such students typically have better access to the means by which they might raise the issue in public discourse.

I posted this on facebook, but I’ll share it here because while I recognize the importance of the empirical questions, I think it’s worth remembering why we don’t have much better data beyond testimony to rely on here:

I’m noticing a number of calls for caution until we have more data on trauma’s interactions with the classroom. As it happens, the reasons why trauma is so under-studied at all, never mind in particular relation to education, are unsurprisingly political. The effects of trauma have been documented for centuries, but its study in relation to war was eschewed along with its victims — soldiers who could not kill and watch their friends be killed without reaction were termed “moral invalids.” Women who suffered abuse in their homes were deemed hysterical and their testimony incredible. PTSD was only added to the DSM in 1980. We don’t have better data on trauma because for as long as we have recognized it as a phenomena, we have deemed those who claim to experience it over-sensitive, over-zealous, and unbelievable. One can’t help but be reminded of the words of Michael Norman, “Family and friends wondered why we were so angry. What are you crying about? they would ask. Why are you so ill-tempered and disaffected. Our fathers and grandfathers had gone off to war, done their duty, come home and got on with it. What made our generation so different? As it turns out, nothing. No difference at all. When the old soldiers from ‘good’ wars are dragged from behind the curtain of myth and sentiment and brought into the light, they too seem to smolder with choler and alienation . . . So we were angry. Our anger was old, atavistic. We were angry as all civilized men who have ever been sent to make murder in the name of virtue were angry.”Report

Anonymous 2
Anonymous 2
Reply to  Kathryn Pogin
6 years ago

Sorry, I guess I don’t understand – if a student isn’t able to engage rationally with course material, that student would have a condition that could be diagnosed by a professional rather than by a professor, wouldn’t he or she? If there is a diagnosed condition, then the professor will make reasonable accommodations (since no one is arguing against reasonable accommodations for students with diagnosed diseases/disorders/conditions). If there is no such diagnosis, what is the point of the trigger warning?

Apparently, there is a class of students who are in need of reasonable accommodation (i.e. a trigger warning) but haven’t been diagnosed with a medical condition. Isn’t the question at issue in this entire debate *why* these students haven’t been diagnosed? Some students who don’t have diagnosed conditions simply don’t have any kind of condition at all. Some might be ‘sensitive’ or what have you to certain issues or types of content, but in the absence of a condition, the anti-trigger warning group is going to say that we infantilize them by genuflecting before these students’ sensitivities. It’s hard not to see the sense in this.

Thus, since no one is concerned about students who don’t have medical conditions (because they are not in need of accommodation), the pro-trigger warning group must be concerned about students have undiagnosed medical conditions, and therefore are in need of accommodations but lack the imprimatur of a medical professional’s diagnosis. In other words, doesn’t this boil down to a question of how best to ‘treat’ students with undiagnosed medical conditions? It’s imaginable that trigger warnings constitute a reasonable course of treatment for some students. But it’s also imaginable that preventing these students from being triggered ultimately makes it harder for them to seek treatment. Regardless: this strikes me as a question that philosophers simply are not trained to answer. Medical professionals can tell us not only how best to treat these sorts of undiagnosed conditions, and they can also tell us how many students there are who have undiagnosed conditions that are likely to be negatively impacted by encountering ‘triggering’ material. In the absence of answers to these questions (and other questions, I expect the professionals would tell us) speculation over the harm we unquestionably are doing, or claiming that trigger warnings are what these students *finally* need to rationally engage with their course material, is fruitless and obfuscating.Report

Kathryn Pogin
Kathryn Pogin
Reply to  Anonymous 2
6 years ago

I don’t think the concern is about students who can’t rationally engage with material — it’s about students who may face special challenges in the course of attempting to rationally engage with material. I think the question of diagnosis is somewhat orthogonal to this debate; students may be diagnosed with PTSD, but nonetheless not want to seek accommodations through a disability office (for a variety of reasons), or students might be in a position to be diagnosed, but have not yet been. The latter scenario is the more salient concern for me — say a student is e.g., a war veteran who for personal or professional reasons doesn’t want to navigate the stigma of admitting that they are traumatized, or say that someone is a survivor of sexual abuse, but hasn’t come forward and doesn’t want to. Of course, it’s also relevant that one can experience traumatic symptoms for a limited period of time after a traumatic event, including intrusion, without those symptoms persisting for years (which is more common, though not limited to being, in response to extended traumas like chronic abuse or captivity); and so while diagnosis and treatment may be a good thing in response to any traumatic symptoms, it does not appear to be necessary for recovery in every instance.

But, importantly, a trigger warning is not a treatment, nor does it prevent anyone from actually being triggered; it’s provision of notice that provides them with the opportunity to make the kinds of preparations necessary to be able to engage with material that they might be triggered by. They might want to begin to work through the reading in private, or need to schedule themselves extra time, for example, or come to office hours to discuss the material in advance in a more comfortable environment to prepare for classroom discussion.Report

Anonymous 2
Anonymous 2
Reply to  Kathryn Pogin
6 years ago

Hi Kathryn,

The point I’m making is that students at risk of ‘being triggered’ either have a medical condition or don’t have a medical condition. If they do have a medical condition, then, diagnosed or not, philosophy professors have no business engaging in any kind of treatment of the condition, however mild or non-intrusive that treatment might be, unless that treatment is provided under the supervision of a medical professional. Trigger warnings surely constitute a mild treatment for a triggerable condition, since, under your own description, trigger warnings attempt to prevent or lessen the symptoms brought on by the trigger. Do we have any data on whether trigger warnings are efficacious in reducing the symptoms associated with being triggered? Do we have any data on whether reducing those symptoms in the way (whatever way) trigger warnings are supposed to do is medically advisable? I doubt there are answers to these questions, and as I wrote in my first post, I fail to see how speculation in the absence answers is anything other than fruitless and obfuscating. Indeed, it may even be harmful, as philosopher with ptsd notes below.

You want to resist the exclusive disjunction (medical condition vs. non-medical condition) by claiming that there are cases of triggerable conditions that are not necessarily medical conditions; i.e. these conditions likely would not be diagnosed by a medical professional, and trigger warnings can aid in their recovery. The difficulty in studying (which is to say, understanding) the nature of these conditions on the basis of student testimony is well-discussed by Anon above. In light of the many objections to the reliability of testimony in these cases, and in the absence of scientific evidence to the contrary, it’s hard to see how student testimony is sufficient to show that this class (students with non-medical conditions who can benefit from trigger warnings) even exists. And if the class does not exist, we are back to the problem of philosophers attempting to treat undiagnosed medical conditions.Report

Kathryn Pogin
Kathryn Pogin
Reply to  Kathryn Pogin
6 years ago

Hi Anonymous 2, thanks for following up — your comment helped me realize one way in which I may have been unclear. I don’t think trigger warnings are a treatment at all (as Justin notes, telling someone who is allergic to bees, “Hey, heads up, there’s bees here” or, say, putting a notice on food prepared around peanuts, might reduce symptoms, but only insofar as it gives someone with relevant allergies notice), but, moreover, I don’t think the argument that such warnings are a nice courtesy to provide need rely necessarily on the idea that they are especially efficacious.

I do think testimony provides reason to believe they are for some people; I do think there are good reasons to err in response to that testimony on the side of trust rather than skepticism, and so on. That said, I also think there’s a question of what’s an appropriate way to respond when someone makes a request of you — particularly when that request relates to their educational success. To be clear, I don’t think if a student comes to me and says they don’t want to complete an assignment but may they still please get credit for it I should acquiesce, but when someone says, hey, I’m struggling, here’s something really easy you could do that would help me out, in the absence of persuasive reason not to do as requested, I’m inclined to want to respond positively.

I take the comments below from philosopher with PTSD seriously, but I also know that there are other perspectives from others who also have PTSD, as well as from those who experience traumatic symptoms in the wake of trauma — and I take the crux of those comments to be regarding how we talk in the debate surrounding this issue rather than about warnings per se.Report

Chris Surprenant
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
6 years ago

Thanks, Justin, for the intellectual charity and taking my comment how it was intended.

I have a great deal of sympathy for people struggling with mental illness, and as a society we certainly do not pay enough attention to these sorts of things or provide people in this situation the appropriate amount of support. But here I think Brian Leiter is correct in what he posted this morning: “[Manne’s piece] elides the real issues which are: (1) PTSD is a clinical diagnosis, and no one I know has argued against (legally required) accommodations for someone with that medical condition; (2) instructors, with no clinical competence, making ad hoc judgments about what warnings *might* be necessary for students who *might* have PTSD is an invitation to both insufficient accommodation and unnecessary “warnings” that may have, as their consequence, precisely what the critics claim, namely, shutting down discussion.”

With that said, for me this question about what we should be doing in our universities and the message we are sending to both the students and our society as a whole is the most important. Take, for example, someone who is triggered by a discussion of slavery in an ethics class to the point where he cannot rationally engage in the discussion. It is not as all obvious to me why we think this person is able to participate in a university-level liberal arts program at this stage of his life. Again, we’re talking about individuals who become so physically overwhelmed by being confronted with certain ideas that they cannot rationally engage.

I imagine what I’m suggesting will not be popular, and so I appreciate folks being intellectually charitable here. But I am curious what thoughts you and others have on this point.Report

Komal
Komal
6 years ago

I agree with Kate Manne, but I would use general warnings instead of trigger warnings and specify the content, so as to not be presumptuous — people with PTSD can recognize their triggers without the warning being preceded by the word ‘trigger’. I would also limit their use to things that are horrifying or violent, so that dissenting opinions are not silenced or marginalized by the use of them.Report

anonymous
anonymous
6 years ago

A sensible statement about trigger warnings, their origin in the feminist blogosphere, their creep into academia, their infantilising (the authors’ term) effect on students, the foolishness of treating a genuine problem (PTSD) as if it were a subject for classroom intervention, and the anti-intellectual consequences of focusing on student comfort can be found here:

http://www.aaup.org/report/trigger-warningsReport

DC
DC
6 years ago

“Right. This seemed to me to be one of Manne’s points against those who oppose trigger warnings because they deprive PTSD victims of potentially therapeutic exposure to triggering content in class.”

It seems more of a point against those who advocate for trigger warnings; if the classroom is not a place for therapeutic approaches to mental disorders (and the vast majority of professors outside a clinical psychology department are profoundly incompetent to institute such approaches), wouldn’t the only logical course of action the status quo, i.e. don’t actively implement teaching approaches to treat such disorders?Report

DC
DC
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
6 years ago

The idea of “triggers” is a little bit more complex than bee stings; there is a consensus among professional health practitioners that people with bee allergies should avoid bees. As far as I know there is no such consensus among mental health practitioners in regards to classroom triggers and PTSD; if there were, I would certainly willing to change my view of trigger warnings, but at the moment it seems that the majority of “trigger warning” advocates are not mental health professionals and not particularly competent to evaluate the complicated relationship between PTSD, intrusion, and triggering events in a college classroom.

Also, just as a side note, the cure for bee allergies is exactly that; exposing the patient to small amount of venom over a period of time. It has a 95% success rate.Report

Jasper Heaton
Jasper Heaton
Reply to  DC
6 years ago

Though the point regarding consensus is right, it doesn’t really provide any counter to Justin’s point about the idea behind trigger warnings. A trigger warning is not an injunction for certain people to avoid certain contents. A trigger warning (as best I roughly understand them) is a marker intended to *facilitate* the engagement of certain contents, by alerting people for whom such an alert might be useful (and who falls into this group will of course be an inordinately complex matter) that certain sorts of contents are coming up. A trigger warning forces no course of action – either engagement or disengagement – but simply signposts that certain features are ahead. For many people, such signposts may well be of little relevance to them. But like our proverbial hiker, for some students it can be really helpful to know what’s ahead, *so that they can continue forging ahead*.Report

Matt Weiner
Matt Weiner
Reply to  DC
6 years ago

I was allergic to bee stings as a child and was desensitized through a venom treatment. The treatments were given to me in a doctor’s office and in the meantime I avoided bees in the wild. Getting stung by a limited number of bees in a non-medical setting doesn’t seem to me like it would’ve been a good way to treat my allergy.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
6 years ago

I can’t see any problem with warning students about potentially disturbing content per se. I do it in class if I’m assigning them something particularly unpleasant to read. I did it recently for a mere ghost story, reasoning that some people might be disturbed by ghosts. Obviously, such efforts could be taken too far. A lot depends on how common it is for students to suffer because they weren’t warned about content. Does anyone know of any surveys students have taken? When I talk about morality or politics in class, I make use of some very horrible examples without providing trigger warnings first, but I’ve never had a student mention disturbing content in their end of semester class evaluations.

I’m sympathetic to those who would like to see rules requiring instructors to include such warnings, but I’m not in favor of there being such rules. That sort of policing of content is too easy to abuse, even, or especially, by the well-meaning.

One issue that I would like to see addressed is the application of trigger warnings to spontaneous examples in class. Should we be providing them? Should we be required to provide them?Report

PN
PN
6 years ago

From the discussion, I do not know what the scope of the recommendation is for issuing trigger warnings. Not very many types of examples have been considered. For example, if I know that something I say or show in my classroom will cause bodily harm if I don’t issue a warning (e.g. flashing lights that could trigger seizures), then it seems very sensible to issue a warning. This is not an interesting case. On the other hand, if it will cause serious offense if I don’t issue a warning, but if issuing a warning would undermine an important intrinsic educational goal, then I could see how this could be a live issue. But what examples are people thinking of? I think if I assigned students books by William Burroughs or Karen Finley videos and I thought the students were a bit sheltered, then I might well warn them a bit in advance! (Too bad my classes never involve assigning such material, so I can’t put my principles into practice!!!)Report

anonstudent
anonstudent
6 years ago

The problem is that Manne retreated to an extremely minimalist definition of ‘trigger warnings’ and their use in order to mount her defense. The debate here is really not about professors freely giving students an informative heads-up about the future content of a class. I think that has always taken place to some degree. The debate is much more about things like the Oberlin trigger warning policy — a top-down policy that mandated warnings, allowed students to opt out of assignments, and exhorted professors not to assign disturbing material. She completely avoids discussion of that.Report

Kathryn Pogin
Kathryn Pogin
Reply to  anonstudent
6 years ago

She doesn’t avoid discussion of that — she explicitly says in the piece that she does not believe any top-down policy is appropriate (and I agree with her). I think Manne has helpfully illustrated that there are a variety of pro-trigger warning positions one can take, some are much more reasonable than others. Given that recent anti-trigger warning pieces (e.g., the Atlantic piece) have conflated a variety of issues, some of which don’t apply to certain pro-warning views, that seems like an extremely valuable contribution to the broader debate.Report

philosopher w ptsd
philosopher w ptsd
6 years ago

I’m a philosopher who, after being hospitalized for a while, was diagnosed with (complex) ptsd–which is (controversially) slightly different from ptsd–longer lasting, with slightly different symptoms, and a result of more persistent trauma and never from isolated incidents (so, e.g., prolonged exposure to/inability to escape a war zone, prolonged seemingly inescapable domestic violence, kidnapping/capture, etc., but I also am deeply familiar with many people (familiar in-a-therapeutic-setting, so I mean deeply familiar with the way the disorder affects them) with non-complex ptsd. I just wanted to say, I have no problem with trigger warnings, except that I do think that there’s an alarming trend towards upper-middle-class young people with cushy lives who have never experienced anything deeply difficult in comparison to what the rest of the world deals with on a daily basis. This is bad for political reasons: instead of us focusing on injustice *in the world*, we have all these young people with lots of resources who are obsessed with purported injustices they’ve suffered and obsessed with their own victimization, and this helps prevent them from seeing how bad things are for people who have actually got the short end of the stick. We should be worried about this, I think. And I do worry that we coddle and encourage this kind of behaviour way too much, and that trigger warnings may contribute to that. I think that part of the reason that trigger warnings make people so angry is because of this. And because they seem to largely be for those who haven’t had hard lives at all. There are disproportionately more of those among philosophers’ students. And I don’t think it’s clear that this isn’t a serious worry. But all that aside, I think in abstract terms they are sort of nbd, and especially the minimal defense that Kate Manne is launching seems fine to me.

That being said, it really bothers me that the discussion is inevitably connected up with ptsd. I don’t think there is any justification–and I am speaking here as someone who has sat through years of therapy groups with war veterans, victims of persistent and inescapable domestic violence, and so on, as well as someone who has just discussed this with a bunch of mental health professionals, read a lot about it, and lived it for many years of my life (thankfully in a slowly improved way)–for trigger warnings that comes from ptsd. The hip new thing among these young upper middle class young people who are obsessed with injustice happening to them instead of to the world is to try to claim that they are trauma victims or that they suffer from ptsd. Nearly daily I see someone mention something about it on my fb feed. Having something sort of bad happen to you is not the same thing as suffering from ptsd, and there seems to be a serious lack of actual diagnoses among those people (I’ve asked). But ptsd is also being overdiagnosed (I suspect) in wealthy white communities and severely underdiagnosed (there is significant evidence for this) in poor communities of color. What bugs me is that I have basically never heard anyone having this trigger warning discussion talk about ptsd in an informed way that suggests they actually know what they are talking about. Sure, have trigger warnings. But they aren’t for us. They aren’t for my messy community of people for whom life is incredibly hard in ways that are clearly not understood here. They don’t help us. That’s not the way things work. That’s not the way that *triggers*–I suggest we use a different word for the things under discussion, since this word comes to us from mental health professionals and means something different, something that some of us deal with constantly, and which none of you all is going to be able to fix, help, or do anything about at all–work. So sure, have as many warnings as you want. But stop claiming that it is for the sake of a community that, if you look at the actual bounds of (that is, the people who actually have the disorder, not the ones who claim to, or have been overdiagnosed, but the ones who either have been diagnosed or would be if mental healthcare were serving them better), it would not help at all. Sorry if this sounds angry. This issue makes me so angry. I’m not going to read any of the rest of the comments, so feel free to attack me in them. I won’t be triggered. I don’t care whether you believe me or not. I won’t even know what you say. It just drives me insane. I’m allowed to use that ableist language since I’m apparently actually clinically insane or whatever.Report

i have ptsd
i have ptsd
Reply to  philosopher w ptsd
6 years ago

thanks for saying this. i have a clinical diagnosis of ptsd, and i know a bunch of people–some of whom ended up in professional philosophy–who also suffer from ptsd. diagnosed ptsd, with all of its messy and distinctive problems. the appropriation of the clinical terminology of ptsd–trigger, trauma, whatever–drives me crazy, especially because it makes it so much harder for me to explain the stuff i deal with it. in certain circles, i feel like i don’t even have a language to explain my own situation anymore.Report

i have ptsd
i have ptsd
Reply to  i have ptsd
6 years ago

by the way, if anyone would like to ask me a question pertaining to ptsd (not that i am a clinician or can speak for anyone besides myself), i will check this thread and do my best to answer any questions left.Report

Anon
Anon
Reply to  philosopher w ptsd
6 years ago

Philosopher with Ptsd… If the people who make university policy at various prestigious institutions are supposed to think most seriously about the students most likely to populate those institutions (white, upper class, etc), then yeah, I’m not sure if its a good thing for them to give in to the watered down notion of trauma that a certain sort of very privileged student will talk a lot about now days. But some people from the lower levels of society who have PTSD in the most legitimate sense do make their way to universities, and being excused from a class that might severely impact their mental state for days, might be useful for them. And having to go on record with the university and a professor as having PTSD might be something that they very deeply do not want to do. And maybe university policy makers should give some thought into the needs of possible students of these backgrounds (though I suppose they never really have thought very hard about them in the past). If it helps my case, I’m one such person. And knowing that there is another philosopher with complex PTSD actually makes me feel a little less lonely in the field.Report

philosopher w ptsd
philosopher w ptsd
6 years ago

p.s. there is, as far as I know, literally zero research that shows that trigger warnings are helpful to people with ptsd. Maybe they are helpful to other people. Maybe there is anecdotal evidence that they are helpful. But it’s worth keeping in mind that we should be careful about contrast classes when we think about anecdotal evidence. E.g. your friend’s testimony that she finds them helpful together with her claim that she has ptsd (which may or may not be because she is getting on the hip and cool bandwagon and may or may not have been actually diagnosed by a mental health professional) is not enough to show that trigger warnings are particularly helpful to people with ptsd. It’s just enough to show that they are helpful to one person who happens to have ptsd. Let’s just stop talking about this in relation to ptsd in the absence of better evidence here.Report

Dan Dennis
Dan Dennis
6 years ago

I would be grateful if someone would clarify exactly how ‘trigger warnings’ are supposed to help. Is it that if you say what you will talk about before talking about it then the person hearing what you say is less likely to be traumatized (or whatever) by it? What would be the mechanism for that? The person is still reminded of the traumatic event. Why would saying, ‘If you are fat and have been pushed off a bridge, then you may find the following example distressing’ make the discussion of the example less distressing?

Or is it just that then the person can leave the class, put in their earphones (to block the sound of you talking) or whatever, so does not hear you go into details on the topic in question?Report

i have ptsd
i have ptsd
Reply to  Dan Dennis
6 years ago

Here’s the best way I can explain it, speaking for myself. Let’s say that there’s a switch in your brain; when that switch is flipped, you will be experience a super intense, adrenaline-filled, life-or-death-struggle response. Your heart rate goes up, you tremble, your vision changes, your perception of time gets wonky. Ideally, that switch gets flipped only when you are in a life-or-death situation. The traumatized brain is such that sometimes that switch gets flipped by accident, when the situation is not life-or-death. For example, this can happen if there are things in the environment that you associate with a past traumatic life-or-death situation and your brain suddenly think that you’re in a life-or-death situation again. Because part of ptsd is being unable to turn that switch back off, even after you recognize that the situation is not life-or-death, you now are stuck trying to get your system to calm down. It’s a huge pain to deal with.

Sometimes if you are calm enough or use coping strategies or whatever, you can do things that will prevent that switch from getting flipped in a non-life-or-death but “triggering” situation. However, if you don’t get the “heads up” and the potential “trigger” is sprung on you, you don’t have time to employ these coping mechanisms. Your defenses are lowered, you’re surprised by the content, and consequently the next you know, that switch got flipped, and your system thinks you’re struggling for your life.

This is why (I think) advocates for trigger warnings say that they are designed not to help students avoid the topic but instead to give them advanced notice: so that they can employ the coping strategies that, ideally, they’ve learned in therapy and block the trigger reaction. (There are a bunch of them, which are not necessarily obvious to the layperson, and they are effective.)

I’m not a clinician; this is just my best explanation of how I deal with this stuff in my own life.Report

i have ptsd
i have ptsd
Reply to  Dan Dennis
6 years ago

by the way, i want to emphasize that insofar as i am supportive of ‘trigger warnings,’ it is because being triggered is a huge, massive waste of energy and time, and it is extremely unpleasant to deal with it.

unfortunately a lot of younger folks like to say ‘i’m triggered’ when what they really mean is ‘i feel sad, upset, angry’ or even ‘i have powerfully negative feelings’ or ‘i’m disturbed.’ it’s unfortunate that someone feels bad, but at the end of the day, they’re still normal (albeit unpleasant and powerful) feelings, and as many people like to point out in these discussion, being disturbed is sometimes the outcome of good pedagogy.

being (clinically) triggered is different. it can involve things like feeling like you’re not in the real world, losing a normal sense of time, being stuck in a cloud of intense but irrational fear, or having persistent and intrusive memories of past traumatic events. it can last for days. it’s really, really awful. i try my best to advocate for myself and deal with stuff that might serve as triggers, but when people thoughtlessly do things that they know better than to do, whether interpersonally or in an academic context or what have you, and i get triggered, i sometimes end up really angry at them. it cost them little to do it, and it costs me days of my life.Report

Anon grad student
Anon grad student
6 years ago

As this discussion continues, I thought it might be useful to remind some — at least those here who seem supportive of issuing these warnings to their students — that for many, the phrase “trigger warning” is itself triggering. As a result, many advocate using the phrase “content warning” instead. This article provides a discussion: http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/06/guide-to-triggering/ This shift in language might also serve as a solution in disconnecting the need for such warnings from the psychological literature on triggers in the case of PTSD.Report

DC
DC
Reply to  Anon grad student
6 years ago

I had some issues with that article. First of all, while attempting to explain what “people” mean by triggering, the author is basically just offering ipse dixit. Secondly by disconnecting the idea of “triggers” from clinical work on PTSD it just leaves us with what a lot of the pro-trigger warning advocates assure us they’re not arguing for — an imperative to pre-emptively prevent listeners (in the case of this discussion, students) mental discomfort. The term “triggers” is divorced from any sort of therapeutic legitimacy and just becomes a folk pathology, that can be pulled up to demand others to compel them to act a certain way towards you. Finally, the author is not describing PTSD; it sounds more like either generalized anxiety disorder or obsessive-compulsive disorder based on the symptoms they ascribe to “triggering.” One of the most insidious parts of anxiety/OCD is the belief that if you can just avoid the trigger, you can avoid the disorder, but that’s not how it works.Report

Professor Plum
Professor Plum
6 years ago

Oh, brother. While I’m sure she is perfectly well intentioned, I don’t find Manne’s intervention here helpful or illuminating. She seems to be arguing against a strawman position.

I don’t think there could be anything approaching a debate about trigger warnings because everyone is using the term “trigger warnings”in a different way. For Manne they are, apparently, a one sentence statement she puts on her syllabi. So understood, trigger warnings are completely innocuous and also completely divorced from the larger questions about studens’ and administrators’ increasing sensitivity to difficult ideas and controversial points of view. If trigger warnings are characterized in this way, who could disagree with her bromides?

However, in my experience, trigger warnings cut quite a bit deeper. Not only do students demand a warning, but they also seek to be excused from assignments that trigger them, and they ask for triggering material not to be added to exams. I have been criticized by students because the class discussion became “triggering” due to the responses of other students. And all this happened when I *did* include warnings on my syllabi. No more. Using trigger warnings, even in the way Manne describes, contributes to a larger social problem.

If we step back and look at the bigger picture, we will see the trigger warnings are one way in which privileged students attempt to control curriculum by appealing to superficial concepts of trauma that have very little to do with PTSD. Trigger warnings are, in my view, an indicator of an over reliance on the vocabulary and concepts of pop psychology and are far more dangerous than helpful.

Trigger warnings only make sense in a context where students expect to feel comfortable and safe. A university education should not have that aim. Rather than having individual instructors warn students about material which might trouble them, maybe universities should make it clear that ideas can be dangerous and horrifying and messy and upsetting. Since education is now just a commodity: caveat emptor.Report

Langdon
Langdon
Reply to  Professor Plum
6 years ago

I had the same reaction to the article as Plum did. Without the broader context of “safe spaces”, etc., no one would ever object to trigger warnings as Manne describes them. When someone goes to great lengths to defend something that is clearly completely innocuous and has been done, in one form or another, by professors for decades, they should stop and reflect on what their opponents are actually objecting to.Report

Joe
Joe
Reply to  Professor Plum
6 years ago

So, to summarize: everyone has very strong views about what is, in fact, a complex empirical question that has not actually been studied. Everyone (tacitly) agrees that if the world is as their opponents actually say it is, then the other side has a lot going for it. Does anyone else think it’s time for a moratorium on this discussion? The moral terrain has been charted and agreed upon. Let’s figure out if this victimhood-culture really is on the rise, instead of assuming that it is or is not and then accusing our dialectical opponents of ignoring some profound harm to society.Report

Professor Plum
Professor Plum
Reply to  Joe
6 years ago

Far be it from me to tell people to stop arguing about some issue, but it seems clear that many are talking past one another.

But you are claiming that what we need here is some empirical data about whether coddling culture is on the rise; I guess you think this empirical data would settle the matter. Quite apart from worries about what such data would look like, I take issue with your claim: the expressive value (or disvalue) of some practice is not determined exclusively by the consequences of the practice.Report

DC
DC
Reply to  Joe
6 years ago

“Does anyone else think it’s time for a moratorium on this discussion?”

No, because there are numerous attempts by numerous people at numerous universities to promote and in some cases mandate trigger warnings; so long as there are real-world attempts to institute trigger warnings, the debate over them should continue.Report

Anony
Anony
6 years ago

Thanks for this Anon Grad Student. But as you can see, that article is from June. Things are moving along at quite a pace. Owing to the (doubtlessly well-meaning) effort to substitute talk of ‘content warnings’ for ‘trigger warnings’ regarding episodes like the sleepwalking statue at Wellesley College, some students in my classes this term are triggered by talk of content. I’ve found it’s better to refrain from talking in front of other people and, where necessary, signal a content warning by doing something so absurd no one will know what it means (e.g. giving a talk on the oppressive structures of the heteropatricaucy).Report

Corey
Corey
6 years ago

A professor of mine would employ “trigger warnings” in her Existentialism courses. She explained their use as more of a “content warning” so students could prepare in advance. Her justification in doing so stemmed from going through a family death while a graduate student. I think, in part, she wanted to communicate to students that studying Philosophy can profoundly change one’s worldview – and as a young college student, such a jolt could cause anxiety. I think she wanted to students to be prepared in case they experienced anything jarring and to be able to identify what may have triggered it in case the student needed to see a counselor, etc. She would allow students to leave the classroom if necessary, but she still required the student to pass the exam.Report

the Onion Man
the Onion Man
6 years ago

Point 2 about “content that is merely offensive to religious or political sensibilities” is so wrong, it borders on being disingenuous. “Triggers” for sexism, classism, homophobia, etc., are often inherently political and/or religious in nature–for example, traditional Catholic teaching on human sexuality, or the opinions of the Church fathers on sodomites or Jews, constitute precisely the kind of material that is considered “triggering” in the present climate. So this point is extremely weak sauce: obviously, I would even say axiomatically, it’s totally fair game to offend conservatives’ and traditionalists’ religious and political sensibilities. What is off the table, because “triggering,” is offending the religious and political sensibilities of the people who are enforcing the trigger warnings.Report

Anon
Anon
6 years ago

One last thought on this discussion: one thing that opponents of trigger warnings find particularly annoying is that they are often portrayed as being insensitive to concerns about subtle modes of oppression faced by minority groups. This is annoying because many think that the idea of “triggers” plays into oppressive stereotypes about the abilities of disadvantaged minorities to rationally engage with difficult material.

Say we’re going to discuss abortion in class. A content warning says: “we are going to engage with material about which people have strong feelings. Let’s try to proceed with concern and respect for each other’s views and experiences.” A trigger warning says: “we are going to engage with material that some of you — the ladies — may be unable to rationally discuss in class. This is because the mere mention of the term ‘abortion’ may put you in such a state of anxiety that you will be unable to collect your thoughts and respond appropriately to your fellow classmates. I hereby give you permission to leave the classroom to collect yourself until such a time as your constitution enables you to think clearly about the class material. In the meantime, those who can think about these issues clearly without some special controlled environment — i.e. the men — will carry on the discussion.”

I’m exaggerating slightly to make a point: The trigger warning, unlike the content warning, expresses a concern that certain members of the class are only able to engage with the material under vary controlled conditions and, even then, with difficulty. Moreover, as we have seen in this discussion, there is very little actual scientific evidence that minority groups need special accommodations to engage with this material. Consequently, many of those who oppose trigger warnings feel that concerns about “triggers” are just the newest iteration of a recurring mechanism of social oppression: using junk science to support stereotypes about the inabilities of minorities to discuss issues that bear directly on their lives.Report

Anon Grad Student
Anon Grad Student
6 years ago

I am a grad student with mental illness, and someone who has adjuncted for a few years.

I see a few things going on in these discussions that I want to address. The first is that I agree that the discussion of TWs is getting conflated with the need for content notes (CNs). And I do think that this ends up spiralling into debates about mental illness versus non-mental illness in terms of student reactions, and treatment options.

As Kathryn mentioned, TWs are not a substitute for healthcare. But that doesn’t mean that they are useless or counter-productive. As someone who suffers from OCD, I have taken part in what’s known as ‘Exposure Response-Prevention’ therapy, which involves exposing oneself to obsessions, fears, etc, and avoiding doing anything compulsive (or comforting) in response. I imagine there might be similar treatments for other trauma-informed mental illness. It should be noted that such treatment is often undertaken under the care of a health professional. Considering that instructors are not health care professionals, I don’t think that we can just take ourselves to be ‘helping’ people by exposing them to upsetting material with no warning because it’s our opinion that it’s ‘good for them’. (Some form of: just suck it up?)

Sure some people are probably not getting the mental health care they need. In fact many people aren’t, because mental healthcare in Western society lacks the infrastructure it currently needs to meet the needs of a society in which it is increasingly obvious people have suffered a huge amount of violence and harm.

Which leads me to my next point: trigger warnings, or content notes, are actually doing a *social service*. They are acknowledging precisely that there is a lot of harm in our society that is not being addressed by our current social infrastructure. We live in a society that enables rape, the constant harassment and undermining of women, the constant undermining of mental illness, horrible racism, and violence (not to mention all the families and people touched by war). While I agree that mandatory trigger warnings shouldn’t be under the proviso of university administration, I do think that saying to students, ‘Hey, we’re about to talk about racism/violence/rape/mental illness’ is a completely reasonable thing to do, and to ask for. In a way it’s our way of saying ‘hey we are about to watch something that perhaps some or many of you have encountered/still do encounter IN REAL LIFE and so I would like to acknowledge that this might be disturbing/upsetting/triggering for you in a way that it might not be for the rest of us, and as a result I would like to give you some time to mentally prepare yourself’.

I have suffered panic attacks in class as a student and believe me it is terrible. But it’s not *just* about panic attacks or other forms of being triggered. It’s about approaching upsetting and controversial material (which of course is what we want to do in universities, I really haven’t heard anyone arguing the opposite) in a sensitive manner, and with awareness that our students might have had real encounters with what we are often treating theoretically or abstractly.

What upsets me, in light of this, is to hear people speak so condescendingly of students, that they are ‘weak’ or ‘spoiled’ or ‘soft’ because they ask for these things. Sure, we’ve all had students who we haven’t liked at one time or another, and perhaps that has involved those students balking at material or ideas we are talking about in the classroom. I’ve also had students be very brave during discussions of hard topics, and I cannot imagine it would have hurt to have broached it by saying that as the authority figure in the room I want to acknowledge that they might have more experience than I do (especially when I’m trying to address racism as a white person in a classroom full of POC). I’ve also had students leave during discussions of rape and racism, and those moments have left me wondering if perhaps I could have been more sensitive, and approached the topic with a heads up. It’s not about coddling. It’s about developing some fundamental awareness and respect between instructors and students, and amongst the students themselves.Report

D.
D.
6 years ago

I had a stroke at age 24. I woke up in the middle of the night, tried to reach for my phone and found that I couldn’t move my right arm. I panicked, but got up and started scrolling WebMD, determining shortly thereafter that I was having a stroke. Then my whole right side went numb and I lost the ability to translate my thoughts into speech. My roommate called an ambulance. Three days later I walked out of the hospital as if nothing had happened.

That was a terrible experience. It seemed that everything would remind me of it, at least initially. The pin pricks of my hand or foot falling asleep would get me thinking it was happening all over again. This might set me off on something that a very liberal doctor might call a panic attack. But there there were many more mild occurrences: I’d come across the phrase “stroke of genius” and just seeing the word remind me, unsurprisingly, of those past events.

Because the relevant vocabulary wasn’t around (or I hadn’t been exposed to it), it didn’t dawn on me that I had been triggered, but I take it that the mildly unpleasant feelings I got from seeing that word are what is at issue in most cases of so-called triggering, since I doubt that many people are exhibiting real cases of PTSD; only 7% of the population suffers these attacks, and I imagine student sensitivity isn’t a matter of a higher rate of incidence of PTSD but of socio-cultural factors that have encouraged thin-skinnedness among young people in North America. If this is genuinely what is at issue in most cases of triggering, I honestly think it might be better for students to confront triggers head on.

That said, I find Manne’s proposal pretty reasonable.Report

ANON#5
ANON#5
6 years ago

I agree there are compelling philosophical questions that rise out of our newfound use of the word “triggering.” I hope we continue to debate the ethics and practicalities of this issue for a while longer.

I also hope my administration never requires me to place a trigger warning on my syllabus. I care deeply about my students, including those that have experienced traumatic events. I sincerely want what is best for them, in the broadest sense possible.

However, a trigger warning seems like it would be truly ineffectual against any actual symptoms of trauma (though it may make certain people feel better, politically). Also, ownership over syllabi is a contested site at many public universities, and forcing faculty to give up more syllabus-real estate to what will probably be seen as a passing fad (trigger warnings) seems to invite more intrusion by upper administration, in the lives of teaching faculty.

For my own part, I’ll continue to warn students when potentially disturbing material is about to be read, listened to, or watched. But I want to keep that decision my own, not my administration’s.Report

ANON#5
ANON#5
6 years ago

Just remembered: I’ve had two students — coincidentally, both members of CRU (used to be called Campus Crusades for Christ) — who refused to read and respond to “American Born Chinese,” a lovely little graphic novel about the experience described in the title. They refused because, in about the middle of the book, there are cartoon drawings of male strippers dancing naked together.

I’m a little concerned that public discussion about trigger warnings may exacerbate situations like this — in which, as far as I could tell, I was dealing with students who had not actually been traumatized.Report