Trigger Warnings: Calm Down Right-Wingers, They Were Created To Help Veterans, Not Feminists


Rebecca McEwen agrees there’s a debate to be had about trigger warnings. She’s just not convinced the debate we’ve been having is the right one.

Trigger warnings are the favoured new punching bag of those convinced that progressives are primarily occupied by a desire to stifle debate in order to avoid hurting anyone’s feelings.

The discussion about trigger warnings has devolved to a point where the original idea of a trigger warning has been almost completely obliterated by hand-wringing hyperbole about free speech.

Writing for The Atlantic, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt define “trigger warnings” as “alerts that professors are expected to issue if something in a course might cause a strong emotional response”. This is a particularly convenient definition because it makes it easy to characterise trigger warnings as the last bastion of politically correct hysteria, and obfuscates the underpinning purpose of trigger warnings.

Despite the expostulations of many right-wing pundits, trigger warnings were not devised by radical feminists to insidiously undermine free speech and protect people from things they might find offensive or upsetting. They were, in fact, initially championed on behalf of war veterans. They were devised to recognise that those who suffer the ongoing effects of violent trauma are worthy of respect and support. The word “trigger” does not, in this context, mean “evoke upset or offence”, it means “trigger a flashback to trauma”.

The examples selected by those who oppose trigger warnings are always the most extreme, and are always couched in terms of “offence” or “upset”. References are made to “coddling” and “cotton wool”, as though the overwhelming sensory experience of a flashback to violent trauma is the equivalent of being a little bit bothered by the content of a movie.

Both proponents and opponents of trigger warnings are equally guilty of allowing the discussion to come untethered from its moorings. To that end, discussions of trigger warnings must be carved out from discussion about, for example, content warnings (which are designed to warn people that something might be disturbing, rather than triggering), and particularly from discussions about concepts such as microaggressions. PTSD must not be conflated with anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses.

It is true that there is evidence that avoidance reinforces PTSD. The idea that trigger warnings were devised exclusively to assist people to avoid material appears to be yet another useful framing device conjured up by those who are aware that the best way to attack trigger warnings is to pit them against freedom of speech and expression.

Logically, warning a sufferer of PTSD that content may be triggering does not mean they will not engage with it. In fact, they may be more willing to take courses or deal with subjects that are likely to be triggering, in the knowledge that they will be forewarned. If anything, trigger warnings can assist in building a culture where discussion can proceed unfettered because people are aware that the content may be triggering.

“Life doesn’t come with a trigger warning” is another favoured line of opposition. This is as pithy and superficially appealing as it is disingenuous. PTSD is largely suffered as a consequence of violent trauma, including, for many people, violent and prolonged sexual abuse. People are unlikely, in the course of their daily life, to encounter a graphic depiction of sexual violence.

People cannot be shielded from everything that might trigger them, particularly as triggers are frequently highly specific and dependent on the source of the trauma. That is not an argument against trigger warnings, it’s a devastating reality for PTSD sufferers. It does not mean that trigger warnings cannot serve a worthy purpose.

Trigger warnings are not about protecting people from ideas they don’t like. They are not about upset, or offence, or keeping people from being challenged. They should not, and must not, stifle discussion or lead to the censorship of content or ideas. But they also should not be dismissed as a manifestation of the worst kind of anti-intellectualism.

Trigger warnings were designed to fulfil a limited purpose, and the broadening of the debate to encompass all content warnings and all forms of mental illness does all participants in the discussion a disservice.

It is, perhaps, a reflection of the fact that, divorced from suggestions about paring back content or suppressing ideas, trigger warnings are not particularly objectionable. A line in a course reader, a note in a tutorial guide, a sentence or two at the beginning of a lecture.

Not all PTSD sufferers are advocates of trigger warnings, and there are sensible divergences of opinion about the usefulness, scope and content of trigger warnings, in addition to the practicalities of their implementation.

There is a debate to be had. Let’s just make sure it’s the right one.

Rebecca McEwen is a Master of Laws candidate at the University of Sydney.