I just read an article in The New Republic about the increasing attachment of the label “triggering” to media online and in college classrooms as a way to effectively censor certain content. The article also mentioned the recent Wellesley College debate about the statue “Sleepwalker” which many students at the all-women school (which I graduated from) feel to be triggering and wonder why it, of all art installations, has to be outside on campus interacting with all of the students.
I appreciate that the New Republican wrote a thoughtful article about something that I do agree has become problematic. I think that dialogue is important. But I don’t think the problem is that people are trying to become more sensitive to issues surrounding trauma. I think the problem, as with issues surrounding race, sexism, religion, abortion–basically any polarizing issue–is that there is a lack of honest dialogue.
When I lived in Boston (and lily-white Vermont) issues of race were dealt with by a culturally enforced, and inauthentic, color-blindness. PC terminology and rabid cultural sensitivity don’t actually make issues go away, folks. But we get so afraid of “messing up” and “being bad” around certain issues that we effectively squelch dialogue in an attempt to be the “good guy.” And that is problematic. I personally think that is the problem with the uprise of “trigger” warnings.
Becoming aware that certain materials can trigger folks who have PTSD is a good thing. Censoring content across the board because of its possibly triggering affects is not. Again, political correctness as a stand-in for actually thinking through and talking about race I believe is ultimately harmful, as well.
But the attitude that seemed to be expressed in the New Republic article that we should stop worrying about it, has some serious problems. The assertion that triggers are so diverse that we can’t censor everything or know what to censor is also misleading. The fact is, there are not that many categories of things, really, that cause PTSD. Rape, domestic violence, and war are the big ones.
Now I, personally, am triggered by cockroaches. So, yes, that’s random. But I’m also triggered by images of rape, incest, and child sexual abuse. And those, I do feel, are things that it would be worth being a little sensitive about. But, as I’ve said before, I don’t think that our response to being sensitive should be to ban content or censor it. Because the honest truth is that rape survivors don’t need to live in a world that will never remind them of the rape. They need to live in a world that will help them heal and think through how the event has changed their lives.
Folks who are still being traumatized, especially children, really shouldn’t be forced to read books like Speak before they are ready to deal with it. That’s why I maintain that not all kids should be forced to read books like To Kill a Mockingbird. But once they are safe, I think we should be providing even more narratives about potentially triggering materials and increasing exposure to them, not providing fewer and making it easier for them to be avoided.
My basic point is that increased cultural awareness is a good thing. But simplistic measures like labeling certain materials as “triggering” are the wrong approaches because they actually decrease real dialogue in society at large instead of increasing it. And they don’t do survivors a favor either. People shouldn’t be forced to deal with trauma before they are psychologically capable of doing so, but in order to heal and move on with life, we do eventually need to be confronted with these ideas and works of art in order to re-contextualize our lives and move forward. So that’s what I have to say about all that.