Dragons on the Road…

… A Slightly Fantastic Discussion of Trigger Warnings

“There are things that upset us. That’s not quite what we’re talking about here, though. I’m thinking rather about those images or words or ideas that drop like trapdoors beneath us, throwing us out of our safe, sane world into a place much more dark and less welcoming. Our hearts skip a ratatat drumbeat in our chests, and we fight for breath. Blood retreats from our faces and our fingers, leaving us pale and gasping and shocked.

And what we learn about ourselves in those moments, where the trigger has been squeezed, is this; the past is not dead. There are things that wait for us, patiently, in the dark corners of our lives. We think we have moved on, put them out of mind, left them to desiccate and shrivel and blow away; but we are wrong. They have been waiting there in the darkness, working out, practicing their most vicious blows, their sharp hard thoughtless punches into the gut, killing time until we came back that way.”

Neil Gaiman – Trigger Warning

It’s the beginning of a new term, and I’m thinking about triggers again. Background information: a trigger warning, or content warning is a message on a text to indicate that the material that comes up might be disturbing or distressing. This piece in itself may require a trigger warning, although I’m not entirely sure as I start writing how it’s going to come out.

Trigger warnings have been the subject of debate in academia for a while now: should we put them on our syllabus? Should we offer alternative readings? Are they a way to protect students or are they simply a way of coddling an over-protected student body? Do students gain more from feeling safe then they do from discussing uncomfortable subjects? Are those two ideas mutually exclusive anyway?

I’ve quoted Neil Gaiman at length because of all the discussions of trigger warnings I’ve read his is, well, the best, quite simply; it’s empathetic, considered, and well-balanced. It accepts that we can need protection and yet still be capable of dealing with fear. I will take Neil Gaiman by the hand and walk into dark places because I know that I was given a reasonable choice NOT to go, and because I trust that the journey has both worth and purpose, whatever my emotional reaction to the monsters and madness I encounter along the way. For others, the value of the journey may just not be enough… and that’s ok.

There seems to a basic misunderstanding of trigger warnings in other discussions, particularly among those who advocate for their removal, in that “triggers” are talked about as if they were specific words, concepts or ideas, which may be avoided by the removal of the subject from the discussion. These words are big, obvious, red flag words. They cannot be approached from any direction, but must be absolutely eradicated so as to avoid the possibility of distress. There are whole concepts which some people simply cannot deal with addressing at any time – or at least claim they cannot deal with, the poor, sheltered millennial generation.

But as someone who can get triggered, and as someone whose friends can get triggered, and who has spent a large number of years working with all kinds of people affected by various triggers, I have to say that this is NOT how triggers, and trigger warnings work.

Let’s think of a common trigger that’s not too terrible; let’s try loud, sudden noises. It is fairly common to be triggered by loud, sudden noises. But here I am, saying it again and again:

Loud, sudden noises. Loud, sudden noises. Loud, sudden noises. Loud, sudden noises. Loud, sudden noises. Loud, sudden noises. Loud, sudden noises.

…does this make me some kind of monster? I don’t think so. But if I creep up behind one of my students while they’re getting on with their work and pop balloon behind them… then I am the kind of teacher who doesn’t get invited back for the next term. My point being that triggers can be more about HOW things happen than a blanket avoidance of a given idea.

Point two is that triggers are not all common, neither are they verbal, specific or obvious. It might be a smell. A particular intonation of a particular sentence. A repetition of part of a dream can send you spiraling irrevocably into the pit of panic. No-one’s fault, but unavoidable. It is absolutely impossible to control for the number of things that might trigger someone in any given discussion… which is not an argument against trigger warnings, as you will discover if you can bear with me a little longer.

Point three is that a lot of the things that people get triggered by (and I’m disagreeing with Gaiman here) are because of more overarching issues that are under consideration or mentally present ALL THE TIME. It’s like being a woman walking home alone at night: you may be thinking about the way you’re going, the brilliance of the stars, the fun you just had. But you’re also bearing mind your escape route, whether or not you can run, where the nearest populated area is… you’re conscious of the worst that could happen, because you’re cultured to consider it. People with triggers are cultured to be on the look out for things that might trigger them; wobbling the loose tooth of trauma, reminding ourselves that safety depends on acknowledging the part of ourselves that might, without warning, fall out.

So now we know a little more about triggers, what can we DO about them? I’m glad you asked! We can provide a topical outline of things we’ll be discussing on a given day. We can work out what areas might reasonably be difficult, and take responsibility for discussing them in an empathetic and well-balanced way.

We can be the kind of teachers who, when a student says: “Can I be excused?” will let them go without demanding a public explanation. And when that student comes back and says “I’ve got a problem,” will listen to them and believe them and be generous about making things work. We will know that there is a time to speak and a time to be silent, for everybody, and trust out students to responsibly manage the silent days… we will be as kind when we manage the “over-speakers” as when we manage the quiet ones, because not everyone manifests emotions in the same way. We can tell our students publically that they can expect from us not the unquestioning acquiescence that some things are “just too much,” but instead that we will listen, and learn, and work with them to make sure that they can do the same. If we’re dancers in a class where we touch people, we can let people know that opting out, or asking for things to be explained verbally first, is ALWAYS ok.

The content warning is not: “WARNING, WARNING, we will be discussing these DANGEROUS and HORRIBLE ideas, and if you are the intellectually heroic type then RUN WHILE YOU CAN!!!”

It looks like this: “We will be discussing these ideas, in order to explore these topics, and we will be approaching them in these ways.”

And later: “If you have issues concerning the material in the class, or require certain accommodations to maximize your participation, please contact me either in person or by email so that a solution can be found and instigated as soon as possible.”

A trigger warning is not about blanket protection, the eradication of ideas or the inability to cope with danger. It is about offering a reasonable choice as to whether or not the value of the journey can outweigh the physical and mental onslaught of walking a particular intellectual path. It is about offering short cuts, benches, crutches and flying dragons (as steeds or bodyguards) to anyone you ask to walk with you, and being grateful that they chose to come, rather than churlish about how they get there.

Gaiman suggests that we label all fiction of a certain maturity: “Enter at your own risk.” I have to say that it’s never put me off. Every dancer knows that each class carries the risk of injury, but it doesn’t stop us dancing. A trigger warning is not a way of letting people decide to sit out, but a way of letting them come prepared to the table, with all that they can bring.


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