i dream of being possible

reframing the trigger warnings debate

In two recent articles I’ve read about trigger warnings in academia, the concern has largely been about academic freedom, with James Turk being a mega drama queen and a group of faculty justifying why the won’t use them with false assumptions and poor reasoning.

While I do understand that the current discussion was precipitated by Oberlin saying that triggering, but non-essential, content should be removed. I can see why people have a problem with this but they rarely stop at this. It is a general, dig-in-our-heels “no one can tell me what to do, you’re the boss of me” reaction1.

There are really two distinct things happening here: one is a real-world event where faculty were actually asked to remove content and one is a more general debate about the use of trigger warnings in academia. But these aren’t the same discussions and the conflation of the two by pretty much critic I’ve seen significantly weakens their argument. In the case of the professors’ piece, their sections on the trigger warnings themselves and the relation to disability are pretty much either factually incorrect or depressingly uncaring and unwilling to accommodate.

Triggers are not restricted to PTSD. Their point about PTSD triggers being unpredictable (and thus unable to be forwarned) is a good one. And it would matter more if triggers were something that only impacted people with PTSD. This is neither true of the academic literature on triggers nor of the current discouse about triggers. Triggers for people with anxiety, phobias, depression, etc. can, in actual fact, be predicable. This is why there are (informal) standards about what sort of things are commonly warned for.

Moreover, triggers do not only impact people with psychological/mood disabilities. Outside of higher ed, trigger warnings are commonly used on the internet to also warn people about things like moving or flashing gifs (for people with photosensitve disabilities like epilepsy). Saying outright “we will not put trigger warnings on anything” includes situations like this.

Perhaps the most laughable (but also heartbreaking) point the professors make is when they note that PTSD is a disability and should be handled in a systematic way by the campus’ disability services. This might hold more weight if these services were better funded and better supported. And this includes faculty. I can’t even count the number of stories I’ve heard from disabled students who do all the right things (get their ‘certification’2, accommodation plans, etc) only to have the faculty member outright refuse to accommodate. And acting like the marginalized person here has any real recourse against the institution is counter to reality.

One of the things I find most interest about the article is the ways that the faculty so clearly distinguish themselves from the university as institution. This might be my ‘unpopular opinion’ moment, but I really want to be clear here: if you are a faculty member, you are the system. Particularly when it comes to something like disability accommodations.

The reason why I’m highlighting the accommodation/disability aspect of this is because it is the important and salient point being lost in the panic about academic freedom. Academic freedom isn’t a human right. However, accommodations for disability are a human right. What you say, when you say academic freedom matters more than disability accommodations, is that your privilege3 matters more than someone else’s human rights.

In so doing, you really are the embodiment of institutional oppression. Because this is the message that society at large tells disabled people.

And in the hand-waving over trigger warnings, people really seem to mistake their actual purpose. Warning people about certain content that might trigger an adverse response it part of it… but it isn’t the only function. One thing they serve to do is allow people to engage in certain discussions and materials in an informed and consensual way. It is a way to add context to something that may not otherwise have it (eg, a journal article in a reading list will usually just have the citation and titles aren’t always descriptive).

Yes, in some cases trigger warnings serve as a necessary shelter for people who need them, but they also empower some of those same people to engage in the classroom in a healthy fashion. It isn’t about avoidance.

If a person sees that a particular day/reading will have something that might potentially trigger them, they can make an informed decision concerning their current state and whether or not they can engage without significantly damaging their health. And/or they are able to prepare in advance any extra support or self-care they might need to recover from the experience (ie, booking an appointment with a campus councellor, asking a friend to meet them afterwards, etc.).

Part of the problem with this, is that most people (again) are only thinking of themselves. With adequate warnings students might also be able to make arrangements for classes they have after the potentially triggering one. Without any systematic approach to this, how easily do you think a student could get a professor from a different class excuse their absence if they, say, had a panic attack and needed to take medication rendering them unable to attend the rest of their classes that day? What if they have a test on the same day as the class and that they may not be able to do both a potentially triggering class and a test on the same day?

While trigger warnings do serve an important function of protecting disabled students, traumatized students, etc. from additional harm, they also empower those same students to make good, informed decisions about their education. It creates an environment where their agency is considered real and respected. It gives them an active role in their educational experiences.

But I guess the real solution is maintaining a hostile and unsafe learning environment for disabled students because ~academic freedom~.

  1. Although, for the article written by the professors, points 7,8, and 9 are good and really worth considering. But only if the conversation remains in the realm of actually removing material from courses, as with the Oberlin decision. 

  2. To be honest, the fact that they even mention certification lets me know that they are woefully out of touch with critical disability discourse. Particularly since they are presenting this as coming from marginalized people themselves (ie, the professors are marginalized in some way). Getting ‘certified’ for a disability (particularly psychological ones) can be very, very difficult. Particularly for people of colour. Are we really trying to pretend, here, like the medical industry is outside of the same structurally oppressive context as the university? 

  3. I’m speaking very literally here: academic freedom is a privilege. Like, not even in the theoretical sense. It is a privilege that academics have and no one else.