[cn/tw: discussion of trigger warnings; mention of issues which may warrant trigger warnings, such as sexual violence; descriptions of being triggered]
Someone who is, loosely speaking, a colleague (an academic in the humanities) wrote yesterday in the Guardian that life doesn’t come with trigger warnings, and therefore books shouldn’t either.
I see this debate rehashed in various contexts (fandom, academia, school teaching) roughly once a week. We can’t coddle students; this element of the work I’m teaching has to be a surprise to the audience or it won’t work; go to therapy instead of class if you’re so upset; I can’t possibly warn for everything that might upset someone. Aside from the fact that therapy isn’t available to the vast majority of trauma survivors (and particularly to women who’ve experienced sexual violence), let me tell you why, if you’re so reluctant to use trigger warnings in an educational context, you’re a poor educator.
As an educator, your primary goal should be to facilitate students’ learning. Now here’s what happens every time one of your students encounters triggering content unprepared in one of your classes or assigned readings. I’m basing this on my own experiences which, frankly, are fairly mild. The first thing I experience are intrusive thoughts: memories of my abuse experience, not so bad that I can’t tell where I am or think that it’s happening to me again, but bad enough that I need to pay attention to those thoughts, and relive part of the experience. I then tend to try to redirect and refocus these thoughts: often to regret, sometimes to anger, as much as possible to some kind of rationalisation – either of why this happened to me or why I’m being triggered at this moment. If I’m lucky, that’s about it, I can then move on and away from these thoughts. In the occasional instances where I’m not so lucky, I experience physical reactions: feeling cold, shaking, unable to warm up for hours; involuntary sounds; on a couple of occasions curling up in a ball, sobbing, crying, heart racing, struggling to breathe.
Guess what I’m not doing while all of this is going on. I am not paying attention to anything you might be saying in class, or any ongoing discussion, or anything that’s happening in the film you’re showing. I’m not engaging with the work or with you or with any content. This might be for 30 seconds, or five minutes, but in a few extreme cases it may take me the rest of the day to process these feelings and recover. This does not facilitate my learning.
If, on the other hand, I am prepared for potentially triggering content, I am much better at putting myself in a frame of mind that allows me to engage with said content in the ways you want me to: rationally, critically, and even emotionally. I can pay attention, I can learn the things you’re trying to teach me, I can think about it and reach my own conclusions. If your top priority as an educator is to facilitate students’ learning, then using trigger warnings allows you to do exactly that.
Now, you may argue that it’s only a tiny minority of students that are affected in this way. The stats say otherwise. Nearly one in two women in the UK has experienced sexual assault, domestic abuse, or stalking. That’s not even counting the people who may be affected by other kinds of trauma: eating disorders, drug use, depression, suicidal thoughts, self harm, racism, homophobia, biphobia, transphobia. As a working estimate, you may be letting down somewhere between a quarter and a third of your class by not providing trigger warnings.
And yes, of course it’s difficult to predict what people will be triggered by. My own triggers are often subtle and not obvious: a particular quality of lighting, certain turns of phrase, as much as outright depictions of sexual violence or abuse. But eliminating the obvious ones (there are plenty of lists on the internet if you’re struggling for ideas) would go a long way towards creating safer spaces for learning – which is what you as an educator should be aiming at.
I research sexual consent, so every time I talk about my research, at conferences and in lectures, I give trigger warnings. I’ve had a couple of people walk out when the warning was given. I’d much rather they did that and ensured they were safe, than them ending up triggered and having this affect the rest of their day or week. In that state of mind they’re highly unlikely to engage with what I have to say anyway, and for good reason. But apart from those couple of cases, the vast majority of people stay, and engage, and I would hope that they’re able to learn something. Which is ultimately what I, as an educator, want.