The Trouble with Triggers

Like so many people in academia, my beliefs about trigger warnings solidified almost immediately the moment I first heard the term. It’s just one of those things that tend to foster instant reactions one way or another. For whatever reason, people’s beliefs about this topic tend to solidify based on either life experiences or long established personal beliefs. That being said, a perusal of opinion pieces in The Chronicle of Higher Education reveals some cogent and salient arguments on both sides of the issue.

For example, Mason Stokes recounts how teaching a text regarding incest resulted in a student’s admittance into a psychiatric hospital. From an even more intensely personal perspective, Angela Shaw-Thornburg recounts her beliefs in favor of trigger warnings from her perspective as a survivor of rape. On the other side of the argument, psychiatrist Sarah Roff argues that trigger warnings not only aid in the avoidance indicative of PTSD but that such warnings will create an atmosphere in the classroom where students learn there are things best left undiscussed and unexamined. Also opposed to trigger warnings altogether, Laurie Essig argues that trigger warnings will invariably lead to a kind of academic mission creep where everything must come with a warning. She also concludes with a convincing argument that these warnings ultimately discount and infantilize women, who should be considered by academics as strong and independent.

Any thoughtful person can respond to each of these thoughtful analyses. For example, the text that Mason Stokes first references is the important and challenging Dream Boy, by Jim Grimsley. In regard to a similar work, I actually had one student complain the first time I taught Scott Heim’s Mysterious Skin, a book that I feel accomplishes a conversation about the long term effects of child sexual abuse in such a unique manner that my personal ethic requires that I introduce it into a class room. I believe that students should read this book because it considers the complex humans who have undergone such an experience by refusing to treat them as hopelessly broken victims or (even worse) as potential future perpetrators. My understanding of the complaint is that it was related to a general sense of discomfort with the frankness of certain passages in the book and not a reaction to some personal trauma. Though I will never know for sure, this student clearly did not require convalescent time in a psychiatric facility. The irony, of course, is that I had given a trigger warning about this book, though I did not know it at that time. I knew the text was risky, and so I discussed it at the beginning of the semester. A disclaimer was also provided on the syllabus. To be honest, I was attempting to insulate myself against a possible complaint. I gave those students the ability to opt out (without question) and read an alternative book of the same length. Again, at that time I had not yet heard about trigger warnings. No one opted out. The conversation was great, the best of the semester. And somebody still lodged a vague complaint. The next time I taught it, I just put it on the syllabus and heard no negative feedback. Furthermore, when reading Stokes’ opinion piece, I was actually reminded of the Grimsley book and will consider putting it on a future syllabus. Of course, herein lies the problem because all of this information is anecdotal. Could something else have caused Stokes’s student to relive that trauma? Have I just been lucky with the assortment of students I have taught?

I am not entirely certain with how to respond to Shaw-Thornburg’s argument. But this is the effect of testimonial evidence. I believe everything about her story, but how am I supposed to account for that in my classroom? Even the more conservative estimates for the percentage of people who have experienced either an attempted or completed sexual assault indicate that I have had several women (and more than one man) in my classes who have been sexually assaulted. I also have students who have experienced violence in their homes, experienced violence due to their race, experienced violence in war. Even more than direct violence, some students have experienced proximal or psychological trauma of some sort. How am I supposed to account for these things? This is indeed the core of Essig’s argument that the classroom is the space to confront social ills. But these things are real and are already in my classroom by virtue of the lived experiences of these students. That being said, I am certainly not qualified, as Roff implies, to engage in any level of therapy. My classroom will never be a place of counseling and recovery. My experience speaks to this reality. While it is true that I felt a sense of healing and recovery in the classrooms I returned to as middle aged student, that experience was made possible through pedagogies of inquiry and exploration.

So, is this it? Does the debate reduce down to ever cancelling rounds of anecdotal evidence and personal experience? Am I going to wind up putting trigger warnings on some future syllabus based on where I work and who is in charge at the time? The answer is no. Based on a recent personal experience and the application of a theoretical lens, I believe with near certainty that, if they remain unchecked, policies demanding trigger warnings on all syllabi in English classrooms are approaching like and avalanche for a very specific reason. Furthermore, it is for that reason they should be enthusiastically and courageously resisted.

I have come to believe that the theorist who most closely approximates the mechanism of the trigger warning is Jean Baudrillard. In the exuberant prose of Simulacra and Simulation, Baudrillard explains the role of a simulacrum, a copy without an original:

“It is no longer a question of imitation, nor duplication, nor even parody. It is a question of substituting the signs of the real for the real, that is to say an operation of deterring every real process via its operational double, a programmatic, metastable, perfectly descriptive machine that offers all the signs of the real and short-circuits all its vicissitudes. Never again will the real have the chance to produce itself—such is the vital function of the model in a system of death, or rather of anticipated resurrection, that no longer even gives the event of death a chance. A hyperreal henceforth sheltered from the imaginary, and from any distinction between the real and the imaginary, leaving room only for the orbital recurrence of models and for the simulated generation of differences.” (2-3)

Simulacra are a distraction. Baudrillard famously explains that the fantastic world of Disneyland (and other such places) distract the attendee from the fact that the all of society is just as fantastically constructed (and thus not real). He famously called Disneyland a “deterrence machine” (13). How much, then, is a trigger warning a deterrence machine? First, a trigger warning functions to deter confrontation with trauma. The effect of the warning is to confound a textual experience with trauma as intended by the author. An event situation within a text for a reason is revealed out of place for the reader. Second, and admittedly paradoxically, trigger warnings operate at the level of a deterrence machine by connecting the real experience of trauma with the academic exploration of the theme of trauma. The academic exploration of a topic, or theme, or subject by definition requires some freedom, hence some distance, to discuss a topic as objectively as possible. The imposition of actual trauma in the form of trigger warnings limits that freedom and limits discussion. Conversely, an actual trauma—one that may have actual needs like counseling or police intervention—can experience deterrence through an open discussion that should take place in the classroom. And I am not naïve; the real world (the lived experiences of students) collide with academic activities and discussions all the time. It is part and parcel of the whole operation. In fact, I believe it is what makes a great classroom experience truly great. I would not pursue this line of work if I thought differently. The point is that trigger warnings do not facilitate this interaction; they shut down both sides of the operation.

Another example by Baudrillard is the Watergate scandal. He argues plainly that in this instance, the simulacrum of Watergate allows for an intensification of attention onto one aspect of an entire political system that is corrupt—in this instance, corrupted by capitalism. Do trigger warnings operate under a similar principle of intensification? A week or so ago, I attended a meeting on campus during which the group was introduced to people whose job it is to counsel and advocate for students who have experienced sexual assault on campus. In this meeting, the Victim Advocate for the university, who expressed support for trigger warnings in the classroom, explained that the university brought her in from an outside center that directly assists women in situations of domestic violence. I really don’t have a problem with the university bringing in outside expertise on this matter, but what is the university doing beyond this? True, there do seem to be procedures in place, but those procedures are dependent on reporting standards that are not well known as well as on the cooperation of the person who has experienced the trauma. We all know the “no means no” and the “yes means yes” debates currently under way.

The problem is that all of this, all the meetings, all this debate, all of these good intentions are just distractions. Trigger warnings are a simulacrum of any material effort to stem the problem of sexual assault in today’s university setting. Due to the internal hierarchal nature of university systems, no structural changes can be made to these inherently heteronormative institutions. To support this statement, I could say a lot about the Greek system, about the gendered makeup of university police departments, and mostly about the administrative complexities that keep all victims of sexual trauma at the bottom of the pecking order. But I think it is enough to consider that trigger warnings in no way account for, correct, or mitigate these realities that persist in all university settings. It is one thing to be helpful, to aid in addressing a problem. However, simulacra do the opposite. Simulacra deter, mask, and distract from the actual problem.

Simulacra are a copy without an original. And this may be where my argument breaks down because I cannot for the life of me think of the original. However, I think that I don’t have to. The original may be lost. But since the effect is the same, since the simulacrum of the trigger warning looks like an actual solution, the tendency is for everyone to buy into it, which is why the pressure to adopt these in humanities classes will only increase—any why they must be resisted. Trigger warnings distract from actual measures that might address this terrible threat; therefore, they are part of the problem.

-Robert Lipscomb


Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. Trans. Sheila Faria Glaser. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1994. Print.


Recent Posts