Is Trigger Warning Mania the Terrifying Future of Activism?

Do you remember what your high-school English teacher said to your class before assigning The Great Gatsby? Did she call it the Great American Novel? Did he urge you to pay attention to the green light? However your teacher introduced the book, I’m guessing it wasn’t like this: “Trigger warning: suicide, domestic abuse, graphic violence.”

This is not a joke. It’s a real suggestion, made by a Rutgers student in the university newspaper and brought to more public attention in Jenny Jarvie’s recent New Republic piece on the spread of the “trigger warning” — generally a note cautioning readers or viewers about content that might be harmful to those who are recovering from certain types of trauma — from blogs and message boards to college classrooms. As Jarvie reports, students are increasingly demanding that professors include these content alerts on syllabi, with student governments going so far as to put pressure on school officials to mandate the practice.

Even as the trigger warning makes headway in the culture at large, and penetrates ever deeper into the orthodoxy of realms like the feminist blogosphere and so-called “social justice Tumblr,” the arguments against it (or at least its ubiquity) are many. Jarvie touches on each of them: It’s censorship. It preempts necessary conversations that are seen as too difficult or fraught. It’s a big, flashing billboard attracting exactly the same people it means to caution. Astutely, she points out that what we call “triggers,” in the psychological sense, aren’t as literal as proponents of trigger warnings seem to believe:

As the list of trigger warning–worthy topics continues to grow, there’s scant research demonstrating how words “trigger” or how warnings might help. Most psychological research on P.S.T.D. suggests that, for those who have experienced trauma, “triggers” can be complex and unpredictable, appearing in many forms, from sounds to smells to weather conditions and times of the year. In this sense, anything can be a trigger — a musky cologne, a ditsy pop song, a footprint in the snow.

As the above passage suggests, there’s also the fact that the trigger warning isn’t just becoming more common — it’s expanding to cover an ever-increasing number of topics, to an extent that is as alarming as it is occasionally comical. In a Guardian piece titled “We’ve gone too far with ‘trigger warnings,'” the feminist writer Jill Filipovic provides a lengthy list of subjects she’s seen prefaced by one:

misogyny, the death penalty, calories in a food item, terrorism, drunk driving, how much a person weighs, racism, gun violence, Stand Your Ground laws, drones, homophobia, PTSD, slavery, victim-blaming, abuse, swearing, child abuse, self-injury, suicide, talk of drug use, descriptions of medical procedures, corpses, skulls, skeletons, needles, discussion of “isms,” neuroatypical shaming, slurs (including “stupid” or “dumb”), kidnapping, dental trauma, discussions of sex (even consensual), death or dying, spiders, insects, snakes, vomit, pregnancy, childbirth, blood, scarification, Nazi paraphernalia, slimy things, holes and “anything that might inspire intrusive thoughts in people with OCD“.

Like most people who think social justice struggles should focus on liberation, not restriction — and broadening, not narrowing, the kinds of discussions that can take place in the public sphere — I find just about all of the above arguments convincing. But it’s this observation from Filipovic’s piece that has stuck with me the most:

[G]eneralized trigger warnings aren’t so much about helping people with PTSD as they are about a certain kind of performative feminism: they’re a low-stakes way to use the right language to identify yourself as conscious of social justice issues. Even better is demanding a trigger warning – that identifies you as even more aware, even more feminist, even more solicitous than the person who failed to adequately provide such a warning.

I thought of it when I read Salon’s inevitable response to the New Republic article, “Trigger warnings on campus: What the critics are missing,” in which Katie McDonough argues that students’ demands for trigger warnings are a desperate plea for sensitivity on college campuses caught in the throes of sexual assault epidemics:

But the bigger truth, and what Jarvie doesn’t really grapple with in her piece, is that trigger warnings are an imperfect but sometimes necessary band-aid on the open and gaping wounds plaguing college campuses — rampant sexual violence, for starters. Singling out trigger warnings as the greater problem in need of addressing is, perhaps, missing the point.

Sexual violence on college campuses is an issue with unprecedented visibility right now, which could explain why the conversation about the warnings’ use in classrooms is getting attention as well. Students who advocate for these warnings may see them as a nod toward compassion and accountability in a campus environment (and culture, in general) that could use a lot more of both — and they’re very likely correct in this.

McDonough may not be wrong about the students’ motivations, but the kind of thinking she’s championing flat-out terrifies me. The implication is that, when faced with a real sexual violence problem, an entirely reasonable response is to demand a symbolic gesture — which is the primary function trigger warnings serve in this scenario — rather than pushing for real solutions. Instead of outing actual rapists and pressuring school officials to address the “open and gaping wounds” of “rampant sexual violence,” it’s supposedly a step in the right direction to pressure well-meaning professors into warning English majors about what they might find when they open The Great Gatsby.

I don’t want to get too hysterical about “internet feminism” or “social justice Tumblr,” because online activism has been too valuable to deserve wholesale dismissal. It’s given voice to communities that are too often marginalized by mainstream progressive movements; it’s forged connections that help oppressed people, many of them teenagers, realize that they’re not alone; and it’s held public figures accountable for the fucked-up things they’ve said and done. Even those who question its overall utility have to admit that it’s an essential tool for “IRL” organizing.

But the spread of trigger warnings, and the fact that a growing number of college students seem to believe they have a right to view the entire world through the filter those warnings provide, highlights the downside to these new, online rules of engagement. At its worst, this sphere tends toward the type of “performative feminism” Filipovic describes, privileging the espousal of certain, increasingly precisely honed political ideals over taking real — if potentially flawed or difficult or unsuccessful — action. If McDonough’s defense of the trigger warning is any indication, we’re already beginning to forget that symbolic gestures don’t solve real problems.