The Blue Revue: On Trigger Warnings

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The language that the left and the right use is often very different. At Better Angels, we recognize that a language barrier can lead to serious issues when it comes to communicating effectively, and this certainly hasn’t helped us to extricate ourselves from our present loggerheads between reds and blues. Our president, David Blankenhorn, has written extensively about this phenomenon, and the challenge is always present in our work to depolarize the country.

In my role as Better Angels’ resident blue columnist, I believe I have a responsibility to open a window into the soul of the political left for my readers, to help others understand a little better how we think and what drives us. This certainly includes unpacking the language that we use, so people to our right can understand what the conversations informing our viewpoints look like, and why our agenda seems to us to be the right one for the country.

The Blue Revue seeks to do just that. It will be a regular feature in my column, The Lioz Letters. In it, I’ll examine a word or phrase widely used among liberals and progressives, and explain what it means to us. I’ll do my best to make it relatable to people outside the liberal and progressive worlds, and to clear up any misunderstandings that commonly occur around it.

I’ll also have help from my esteemed Revue Council, comprising some of the most thoughtful and intelligent blues in my life. For each Blue Revue column I write, I’ll feature a rebuttal of sorts from one of them, a chance for someone better informed than I am about the nuances of the phrase to correct my misunderstandings, or at least to illustrate the range of interpretations that exist, on the left, of each of these ideas.

The title, the Blue Revue, includes a French word, meaning magazine or overview. It’s at once to be taken seriously and yet not to be, a subtle tongue-in-cheek nod to the stereotype that so often comes up about blues in our workshops, “elitist.” If we can’t laugh at the “kernel of truth” in that one, then we really are taking ourselves too seriously.

For my first Blue Revue, I’ve decided to tackle a phrase that I’ve already referenced in one of my articles: trigger warnings. This is a phrase with honest, well-intentioned beginnings, that many progressives feel has been co-opted, and twisted into a meaning that was never intended.

Reds tend to associate the idea of triggering with someone, generally a blue, who has a bad reaction to an idea that doesn’t fit with their existing worldview. It’s used by critics as an accusation, and by trolls as a goal. It seems that some on the right find it entertaining or pleasing to watch a triggered liberal sputter incoherently in response to a challenging assertion from a well-informed conservative.

The reality, however, can be much different. Seeing someone triggered, in the way that progressives use that word, can be a piteous or scary sight. It can involve someone who has suffered deeply in the past re-enter that experience, and break down beyond function. It could be a sexual assault survivor forced to relive their experience through a difficult scene in a movie shown in a class. It might be a war veteran whose PTSD is tripped by a graphic war scene in a piece of literature. (Indeed, it’s often used in academic settings, and thus further associated with liberalism.)

The reality is there are any number of experiences that can cause great psychological harm to recovering victims. And of course we can’t protect every one of them, all the time, from this sort of harm in an open and free society, in which we value the frequent exchange of challenging ideas and themes in our modes of learning, in our media, in our public discourse. We certainly shouldn’t seek to bar students or other members of society from being exposed to things that have the potential of inflicting this mental harm.

But we can do the small things that might mitigate this harm. Things like a simple trigger warning. A teacher might say, “If anyone has difficulty with scenes of sexual assault, you might want to leave the room for this movie.” Or, “If someone in class has had a traumatic combat experience, I suggest you skip chapter 22.” There are many more examples.

This is the more innocent reality of the trigger warning as it is used in the minds of progressives, rather than some kind of sinister effort to stifle free speech that some conservatives imagine. Blues see this as an opportunity for us all to treat one another with some dignity and respect with a very subtle, but powerful, gesture. It may be the very least we can do.

A response from Revue Council member Louise Kleszyk, visiting assistant professor of philosophy at Knox College, in Galesburg, IL:

Imagine you’re learning to play softball. You’re in the outfield playing catch with half the team while the rest of the team is running batting drills. Your team is one of many practicing in a cluster of diamonds. The sound of metal and leather smacking against polyurethane-wrapped cork surrounds you. Unbeknownst to you, a pop fly from an adjacent field is gaining momentum as it nears your cranium. Your coach calls your name and a quick ‘heads up’. You now choose to catch the ball or bypass it. Nobody would blame that coach for giving you a heads up, and many people would think the coach did the right thing. Few people—if any—would argue that your coach should have let the ball hit you to teach you a lesson or help you learn the sport. Indeed, if the damage suffered were serious enough, the coach could be responsible not only for causing harm but also preventing future learning opportunities.

Content warnings flash on our screens so often when watching TV and films that we don’t think twice about it. Books of all kinds feature blurbs that preview content inside. Nobody calls the back-cover synopsis censorship. Nobody blames a film rating for softening children and weakening their minds. Yet when the topic of ‘trigger warnings’ come up, these concerns only touch the tip of the iceberg. In addition to being blamed for censorship and coddling young minds, trigger warnings have even been criticized as virtue signaling by ‘liberal feminists’ who worry about creating unrealistic expectations for students. With so much criticism from ‘the left and the right’, is it even possible to mount a reasonable defense of trigger warnings? Maybe it’s the label, and not the practice, that we need to abolish.

First, I’ll embrace the distinction between the technical use of ‘trigger’ and the casual, jokey use of the term that seems standard on the internet. A person can be ​triggered ​if there is an underlying condition (oftentimes diagnosed by a medical professional) that can be initiated or exacerbated by triggers.​ Triggers include images, phrases, and even smells that initiate an episode of PTSD, for example. Indeed, as ​Jill Filipovic​ points out, general content warnings do little to help people who suffer from conditions like PTSD. Triggers are usually very specific and can be unique. Simply warning students that the content includes violence is unlikely to be very helpful.

If triggers are potentially individualized according to a person’s psychological condition, how could an educator even hope to give each student a heads up? Honestly, there is no way for me to anticipate the psychological needs of all my students. But if a lot of students are veterans, I should know to give advance warning if we’re watching a film with combat violence. If I see that pop fly heading in their direction, I’m gonna call ‘heads up’. Trigger warnings aren’t about making sure that every person is shielded from their triggers. Trigger warnings are about giving people advance warning when reasonably possible, so that they can either prepare themselves for the experience or excuse themselves from a traumatic episode.

Especially if a student has a diagnosed condition, I am legally required by the ADA to accommodate that student. This doesn’t mean that I lose choice. If I think that a film with combat violence has concrete and specific educational value, I have the academic freedom to show this film to my students. I can launch as many line drives in their direction as I want. Making sure their heads are up ahead of time isn’t a violation of my freedom, as ​Marcie Bianco​ claims. Just like we don’t think of a preview as censorship, trigger warnings are merely additional content used to help young adults manage their health.

Trigger warnings are not about shielding minds from the harsh reality of the world. When I give a heads up, it’s not to keep students from experiencing discomfort that naturally accompanies learning. Indeed, it is my duty to challenge students. I tell students every term that they should feel uncomfortable at some point in my class. Without being exposed to new and challenging content, academic growth is stifled. But there’s also a difference between a normal feeling of discomfort when facing an intellectual challenge and the triggering of a traumatic episode that may range from blackouts to violent fits of rage.

For many students, the warning alone is sufficient to gird themselves against content that could recall trauma. For those who are not as far along in the healing process or who have a more serious condition, the warning gives them the freedom to pursue an alternative path to learning. Neither path will be easy. Neither path will be entirely comfortable. But if a student has a brief content warning ahead of time, they gain the freedom to choose. Helping students to manage their own mental health is thus a way of cultivating responsibility and independence. Certainly nobody can expect to be shielded from all potential trauma and discomfort, but when it is reasonably possible to prevent actual trauma, it seems like the right thing to do. I may not call them ‘trigger warnings’, but I will provide a heads up for students when I can—especially if I’m the one hitting them line drives.

More to explore

Recapping the Month: Ezra Klein, The Weave Project and more

Ciaran O’Connor and John Wood, Jr. recap their recent journeys across the country discussing depolarization and reconciliation, Ciaran’s interview with Ezra Klein, the values that bind Americans and John’s feelings on Memorial Day.

4 thoughts on “The Blue Revue: On Trigger Warnings”

  1. Thought-provoking article. I appreciate your explanation of triggering from a Blue perspective and as a Red I accept your core argument. We cannot protect everyone from hurtful words, but as a basic human courtesy when it is within our power to give a “heads up” we should. However, from a practical standpoint it is not always possible, and when it has the effect of gagging free speech it is, in my opinion, undesirable. Unfortunately, there are too many on both sides who have the intent to hurt and inflame as well a those who are all too ready to be offended.

    1. Erica Etelson

      Hi MasonJar, have you seen instances of trigger warnings gagging free speech? Or, if not, what hypothetically would that look like to you? I’m having trouble conjuring up an example — thanks!

  2. Charles Masenas

    When I read a Blue saying “Reds tend to…” I immediately think straw man argument. Wouldn’t it be much better to quote the actual words that prompt you to comment? In the best case it supports your thesis. In the worst case you find that nowhere has that happened and your thesis cannot be supported.

    And how can you assume that “…some on the right find it entertaining.” BTW, I am neither Red nor Blue. I just wish people would quote actual words and not what they thought they heard.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Charles. I’m writing based on my own experience, which I’ll grant you certainly isn’t all-encompassing. But I have never met a conservative who has the same understanding of trigger warnings that I do. Indeed the ubiquity of the conservative caricature of the concept has made it such that it’s taken on the conservative meaning in larger pop culture, what Louise refers to as “the casual, jokey use of the term that seems standard on the internet.” This was not a column for which I felt the need to conduct interviews with reds, since my experience has been very consistent. And I’ve definitely experienced plenty of conservatives mocking and laughing at a “triggered” liberal. This isn’t really as assumption.

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