Trigger Warnings Aren’t Trivial They’re Necessary

Recently, Bradford Richardson CMC ‘15 wrote
an article called “The End of the Women’s College” in the Claremont Independent in which he mocked trigger warnings as part
of a system where “every potentially offensive idea [is] accompanied by a
‘trigger warning,’ and every hurt feeling [is] satiated in its demands for
reparations.” Other conservatives on campus and
some outside the bubble have
expressed similar views. They regard trigger warnings and microaggressions
as problems created by hypersensitive liberals, and magnified by the
obsessively politically correct environment on college campuses. They argue that
this kind of sensitivity prevents public discourse.

This is an extremely polarized perspective, but
it is here in Claremont. Where one political camp sees “aggression and ignorance,” the other side sees censorship. Neither takes the time to engage with the other in a
reasonable way. Unfortunately, when the two sides do speak, too often it is
through nasty (and anonymous) online comments that attack the individual
author. Hostile commentary not only alienates those that we should be trying to
convince, but is also intellectually lazy. An argument is no more or less valid because of
who says it. 

However, in Richardson’s article, critics repeatedly comment on
the author’s identity as a cisgender white man. Critics see that these
groups are often unaware of the problems faced by women and other marginalized
people, particularly with respect to trigger warnings and microaggressions.
Authors like Richardson don’t take those problems into account when forming their
arguments.

In the specific case of trigger warnings, conservatives see themselves
being attacked in their attempt to broach controversial topics. But in the process,
they lose sight of the fact that trigger warnings are beneficial for everyone who has suffered trauma, regardless of who they are or how they identify.

Triggers relate to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The clinical definition of PTSD describes it as an “intense
psychological distress at exposure to internal or external cues that symbolize
or resemble an aspect of the traumatic event,” which is what it feels like to be triggered.

PTSD based panic attacks are a real physical condition. Trigger
warnings are meant to create a safe environment and prevent this sort of
PTSD episode. In a piece by Major Carlos C. Huerta called “Leaving the Battlefield,” he describes his experience with PTSD and his response to being triggered. “I
don’t know what the trigger was, but it hit me hard. I went home one evening
and all of sudden, I felt a tightness in my chest, it was hard to breathe, I
felt closed in and panicky,” he said.

A Pomona student uses similar terms to describe her own experience being
triggered, saying, “I couldn’t breathe. I was completely in my
head, remembering the attack. I could feel his hands on my throat … I knew I was
trembling all over.” 

Both her reaction and Major Huerta’s are common experiences
of PTSD sufferers. Although many people see the trauma of sexual assault and
the trauma of war as tremendously different conditions, the physiological way the brain processes this kind of trauma and the need for control over the healing process are, in reality, extraordinarily similar.

A common argument against trigger warnings is that if
anything (an image, a smell) can trigger an individual, why bother providing
content warnings at all? Tom Weber, a local psychotherapist who specializes in
trauma and anxiety explains that “people can be triggered
by anything; it depends on what it was that they were very aware of during
their trauma.”

We cannot predict all triggers, and we
cannot shelter individuals from every reminder of their trauma. 

But, as Weber
explains, “When the subject we are exposing those around us to could clearly be
triggering, content warnings
allow victims time.” This time is so that victims can, as one student explains, “figure out how they’re going to react in that space.” Descriptions of sexual assault and war violence are just two examples of topics that are clearly triggering.

Another often-repeated argument is that, according
to psychologists, many victims find effective treatment in the form of controlled
exposure. This is true for some. However, we must be extremely careful about what
we consider controlled. Weber explains that “although exposure to a
traumatic event or feared object can in certain cases be an effective
treatment, being forced into a triggering situation is not the same thing as
interacting with that experience in a therapy session, or safe situation.”

Tiombe Sewell SC ’95, a therapist and founder of
Bridges to Healing, a trauma healing therapy group, extrapolates on how PTSD and interpersonal violence can be triggered. As she explains, “One of the things
that we know is that [a victim’s reaction is] exacerbated by feeling that their
agency or their sense of safety or control is being impacted.” 

So, according to
Sewell, for someone to say that it’s good to be exposed to reminders of trauma is “counter
to everything we know about recovering from and truly decreasing the impact of
PSTD.”

Finally, some argue that if a student is not
prepared to be challenged in an academic environment, or if they are not
healthy enough to be here, they should pack their bags and go home; it is
unjust that they receive any preferential treatment. Though I find this
perspective to be extremely callous, it is logically flawed as well.

Brushing aside the fact that we have incredibly
lenient academic policies (You were sick? Or perhaps, too hungover to go to class? Don’t worry about it!), there are numerous accommodations made
for students with learning disabilities, such as dyslexia or ADHD. Therefore,
the principle of unconditionally equitable treatment of students is not the
real issue at stake here: Empathy is.

PTSD is a real issue that affects many college students, and
trigger warnings exist on campus to help students engage with one another in a safer way.
So, why wouldn’t we provide warnings? Why would we mock them? Because there is
a perception that triggers are too broadly defined for issues like sexual
assault, and that PTSD is “faked.” These perceptions are
exacerbated by an isolation-prone bipartisan climate. To address these issues,
we have to change how we enter into dialogue. This means greater awareness of
our biases in both political camps, and greater efforts to engage ‘the other
side.’

Jacquelyn Zehner CMC ’15 is a science nerd who hails from Austin, Texas. She studies Computational Neuroscience and plans to enter the tech scene upon graduation

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