Saturday, March 23, 2019

Trigger Warnings: For and Against

This article in the NY Times really flummoxed me, but not for the reason you would guess.  Most of the studies described in it seem to me to be asking the wrong questions about trigger warnings and whether they work.

Toward the end of my teaching career at UW Madison, I began putting a trigger warning on the syllabus of my contemporary moral issues class.  I had recently had a student who was a rape victim, and she found our discussion of whether pornography should be banned on the basis of the theory that it causes rape very disturbing.  My point was that I didn't want someone to go through this if they thought they couldn't handle it.  This seemed only decent to me.  I didn't want to be setting psychological booby traps for people who have been the victims of heinous violence or other deeply shocking experiences.  Sadly, in a class of eighty people, there are likely to be several who have.  I hoped that my warning would enable people who would find some of our material painful in ways they cannot or do not wish to cope with to drop the class in time to find another more suitable one. 

The trouble with most of the studies in the Times article -- about whether trigger warnings work -- is that they ask the wrong question.  They ask whether the warning changes the way you feel about the triggering event when it happens. Huh? Really? It literally had not entered my mind that someone would think that this is the point of a trigger warning.  Do people really think that knowing in advance that people are going to say things that call up vivid, horrible memories will somehow make this less vivid and horrible?  Why?  I can't imagine an answer to this question.

Then again, maybe what these people are thinking is that trigger warnings are notices that people are going to discuss opinions that you strongly disagree with, so strongly that you may fly into a fit of rage and shock.  I would simply repeat the same question:  How would telling them in advance that we are about to shock and offend them change their feelings of shock and offense?

Until I read the Times article, I really did not understand the trigger warning debate.  Where is the issue?  What the Hell is wrong with warning people about psychological booby traps?  There is such a thing as psychological trauma and the aftereffects are very real.  Doesn't everybody know that?

Now I realize that there is actually a group of people, apparently a very very large group, that is trying to use trigger warnings for a completely different purpose.  Evidently, the trigger warning idea is often an attempt to micromanage people's feelings -- and by people who have no business trying to do something like that, because they have no clue how real feelings actually work.  Isn't it funny how those who want to manage others are often the ones least qualified to do so!

(Hat tip to Kevin Hill for bringing this article to my attention.)