Not Wong: Trigger Warnings

Brian Wong takes issue with the rising condemnation of Trigger Warnings by the political and educational establishment

There’s a tempting tendency amongst commentators to frame the issue about trigger warnings (TWs) as concerning exposure and the purpose of universities as “places where there can be open debate which is challenged and [in which] people can get involved.” (Theresa May, September 2016), but this framing possesses multiple serious problems. .

A clarification is needed beforehand. Defendants of TWs only need to show that under some circumstances, TWs are appropriate; they need not defend all forms of existing application; nor endorse excessive application, for instance labeling every component of academic content potentially “triggering” – indeed the vastly lowered credibility of warnings in such a situation would be obviously counterproductive. TWs should be, and are currently applied as, precursory notices for individuals who find particular content deeply psychologically traumatising (triggering) to enable them to opt out of these uncomfortable moments.

The first direct response to the Alternative View Exposure Argument is to point out that the subset of cases where exposure is “stifled” due to TWs is highly limited. Note, TWs rarely cause students who disagree about the topic being raised to leave the discussion – individuals who refuse to engage with opposite views would refuse to engage anyway; individuals who prefer to engage with different views would have no issue continuing to engage with flagged topics of controversy. More importantly, TWs are applied in cases where injurious emotional harm is likely to be caused – 99% (figuratively) of academic discussions (including ones where uncomfortable cognitive dissonance takes place) in the Status Quo are unaffected by TWs.

To that effect, let’s engage with the remaining 1% of absent exposure. This 1% requires weighing against the alternative exposure that TWs encourage.

Firstly, beneficiaries of TWs are more likely to be willing to engage in discussion for three reasons:
i) Psychological State – distressed individuals shocked by the resurgence of painful personal memories are unlikely to be able to participate in discussions; effective exposure is optimised when students are not literally too shocked to speak or listen.
ii) General Willingness –without TWs risk-averse students are more likely to opt out of most (if not all) campus discussions altogether, leaving far less exposure on the aggregate; TWs – and the sense of control and autonomy they institutionalise – encourage students to expose themselves to the “controversial views” that advocates against TWs celebrate so enthusiastically.
iii) Affective Heuristic – individuals imagine and perceive arguments through the dominant psychological schema (the “affect”) impacting them at the time of reception; the  experience of reliving traumatic memories in an episode of triggering makes individuals far less receptive to the “new opinions and challenging concepts” that TW-critics mention; TWs ensure that their beneficiaries can engage in discussions in comparatively more composed  mental states.

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Secondly, the existence of TWs encourages their beneficiaries to speak up more frequently:

  1. i) Internal Buy-In –without any TWs, students who have particularly traumatising triggers would be hesitant to discuss topics that could be potentially sensitive and possibly triggering (given their inability to opt-out); TWs allow students to speak in a controlled and safe fashion on sensitive topics such as sexual assault, racial discrimination, and war;
  2. ii) External Buy-In – for students who are deeply affected by particular triggers, the existence of TWs may determine their choice of a particular (or any) university in the first place. Students who drop out or decline to attend universities due to deficient welfare systems are more likely to be marginalised and excluded from ideas if TWs are absent.

The above mechanisms bring about exposure to alternative views that is quantitatively and qualitatively superior to that (realistically small amount) which trigger warnings are alleged to “stifle”.  Beyond this, TWs facilitate a virtuous cycle of inclusion within campus discussion, which extends beyond the individuals directly affected, and draws in a greater plurality of voices to campus debates.

The strongest case against trigger warnings, in my opinion, is the soft paternalistic argument that individuals have second-order preferences to become “healed” through the “shock doctrine” of exposure to triggering material, and that their first-order preferences of opting out of discussions would elude their “genuine interests”. Two responses:

First, there seems to be more than one way to treat and “heal” an individual through exposure. Exposure does not have to be painful, deeply traumatising, and fundamentally unfriendly. It equally does not require unnecessary and simplistic characterisations of the lived experiences of those who face being triggered.

Second, the non-moral premise is worth challenging here: there are several reasons why the absence of TWs makes therapy significantly more difficult. TWs allow individuals to opt in and out of discussions, gradually increasing the levels of psychological tolerance; the absence of TWs means that shocks come through in an emotionally overwhelming manner unconducive towards therapy. A vaccine injects a controlled, weakened dosage of a microbe; it does not inject an overwhelming dosage of the most lethal strain.  Discussions without TWs may also include ones that are deeply antagonistic and unhelpful towards participants’ welfare (e.g. victim-blaming narratives in discussions concerning sexual assault); TWs allow beneficiaries to opt out of discussions that would potentially jeopardise recovery. Finally, without TWs, victims of past abuses are locked in a power asymmetry that deprives them of the ability to opt out of abusive discussions and dialogue; TWs allow victims to control their therapeutic progress and determine when and how they could best confront the demons from their past.

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Simplistic and grossly mischaracterised discussions about trigger warnings are unhelpful and counterproductive. There may be strong reasons against trigger warnings, but holding that exposure is the silver bullet argument is fundamentally misguided.