Garwulf's Corner

Garwulf's Corner
Triggered by Trigger Warnings

Robert B. Marks | 12 Oct 2016 14:05
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Warning: This installment also includes a trigger warning about a discussion about trigger warnings, which will most certainly trigger those who are triggered by trigger warnings about trigger warnings.

Back in 1998, a very good war movie was released titled Saving Private Ryan. It was a revolutionary movie in its day - unlike many previous films, which had toned down the violence for the cinema, Saving Private Ryan depicted the gore and viscera of battle in all of its brutal glory. The second scene, a long and bloody sequence set on Omaha Beach, was so realistic that it caused combat veterans in the audience to suffer flashbacks and attacks of PTSD.


Psychological triggers are very real, and there is a legitimate need for trigger warnings. All too often, the problem lies in figuring out what warrants a warning. Some content, such as self-harm, violence, or sexual assault, is obvious. But, a lot of it isn't - a friend of mine who served a tour of duty in Afghanistan returned home with severe PTSD, and when it was finally triggered with devastating consequences, what triggered it had come out of nowhere (for the sake of the privacy of my friend, I'm not going to provide details).

But when you take a close look at discussion around trigger warnings, some very odd patterns emerge. Depending on who you talk to, trigger warnings are underused or overused, are applied to too many things or not enough things, and should be at the beginning of all content that might be triggering or should not be used in the first place. And don't even get people started on what's happening in university classrooms, where students are supposedly watching professors like hawks, waiting for a slip of the tongue with an absent trigger warning before they pounce.

If it all sounds like a bit much, that's because it is. If you take a close look at the mainstream media, trigger warnings are used sparsely and correctly. They are sometimes overused and even misused in the enthusiast media and the world of academia, but this happens a lot less often than people think, and news of new graduates attempting to force trigger warnings and "safe spaces" onto the world at large are conspicuously absent.

While trigger warnings are most certainly a worthy subject of current debate (even in the scattershot world of pop culture), they are far from the saviour of PTSD sufferers or the destroyer of free speech that they have been made out to be. It's a classic case of a mountain made out of a molehill. What is far more disturbing, however, is the patronizing attitude both sides take towards students in this discussion.

It is ironic, I guess, that the very people who spend so much time debating whether trigger warnings help students spend so little time actually giving consideration to those very same students.

Both sides - pro and con - seem to be stripping students of their perceived agency in this debate. The anti-trigger warning side appears to view university students as automatons having a switch that, Terminator 2-like, gets flipped to "no further learning" mode upon graduation, leaving any coddling during college as a permanent disability. The pro-trigger warning side seems to treat students as delicate flowers who must be forewarned of disturbing content at all costs, lest it damage their psyche.

The idea that university students are intelligent, critical thinkers capable of forming their own opinions and continuing to learn throughout the course of their lives seems to have escaped both sides.

Speaking as somebody only a couple of months away from turning 40, 18-year-old me was a bloody idiot. But that wasn't from a lack of intelligence, or inability to apply critical thought - it was from a heady mix of enthusiasm and inexperience. Most young people start off that way, as far as I know. One of the points of university and college is to provide a place where young people can experiment and make mistakes before the stakes get too high. Students are capable of putting trigger warnings into context and figuring out the appropriate weight to give them in their lives, even if it takes them a few attempts to get the balance right. They are aware that the world can be a nasty place, and that sometimes it's nice to get a heads-up that some disturbing content is coming, particularly when the subject title does not make it obvious. And, put bluntly, they are far better suited to determine what they need in regards to trigger warnings than those who aim to determine it for them.

It is ironic, I guess, that the very people who spend so much time debating whether trigger warnings help students spend so little time actually giving consideration to those very same students. When the New York Times ran a debate feature on the usefulness of trigger warnings in university classes, not a single contributor was a current university student. Students seem to be talked about far more than they are talked to, and when they do voice their opinion, it's not necessarily in support of either side.

University students are not children, they can speak for themselves, and perhaps it's time to trust them to make the right decisions on whether they need trigger warnings.

Robert B. Marks is the author of Diablo: Demonsbane, The EverQuest Companion, and Garwulf's Corner. His newest book, An Odyssey into Video Games and Pop Culture, is coming out on October 15th, and is available for pre-order in print and Kindle formats. He also has a Livejournal and is on Facebook.

Author's Note: I will be doing an AMA on Reddit on Sunday, October 16th, starting at 1:30 PM EST! Drop by and ask me a question!

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