The digital-first, student-run magazine of the University of Massachusetts Amherst Journalism Department

The recent trigger of trigger warnings

April 25, 2016

Tiffany Rivera believes trigger warnings should be used in a similar way as viewer discretion warnings in the beginning of HBO series.

“Something about that specific phrase carries some type of stigma. If ‘content warning’ was used, I think the response might be different, even though both function similarly, if not the same. And honestly, I don’t see the harm in them,” Rivera said.

As a certified volunteer at the Center for Women and Community at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Rivera calls her work with survivors of sexual assault “very, very hard emotionally, but rewarding in the end.”

Rivera meets with survivors primarily of sexual assault and even with friends and family of survivors. She averages 50-60 hours per month mostly by listening and validating the stories of her clients.

“I know that there’s a worry that trigger warnings may ‘coddle’ students, but I think that professors are misled in thinking so. On the contrary, I’ve heard from survivors that these warnings help prepare them, and consequently makes it at least a little bit easier for them to participate, whether in classrooms or other non-academic settings,” Rivera said.

Trigger warnings gained their popularity among community blogging websites such as Tumblr, Reddit and xo Jane, according to author Ali Vingiano. Commentators began requesting that bloggers use trigger warnings before writing about difficult topics, such as eating disorders, sexual assault, suicide, self harm and so forth – topics that can trigger survivors of those certain traumas into, for example, panic attacks, dissociation or PTSD flashbacks.

But not everyone agrees they’re helpful. An article in The Atlantic called “The Coddling of the American Mind,” argues it is disastrous to try to protect students from every little thing they could be uncomfortable with, describing it as: “a movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas and subjects that might discomfort or give offense.”

Priya Ghosh, the current president of the Coalition to End Rape Culture, defines trigger warnings as warnings that inform people about what will be discussed in a conversation, while taking into account their well-being and health.

When Ghosh talks about trigger warnings, she calls them content warnings.

“The word ‘trigger,’ as I’ve found out, can be triggering for folks, so I prefer to use the word ‘content warning,’” Ghosh said.

As a women, gender and sexuality studies minor at the university, Ghosh has discussed sexual violence many times in her classes. At the same time, she has worked closely with survivors within CERC who have been subject to mental and emotional trauma and distress after covering triggering topics in classes without adequate warning.

Some professors can be really understanding, Ghosh said, while others can say, ‘This is a part of the class. It counts as points toward your grade. You need to participate.’

“Life is a trigger”

In four words, Rani Neutill summarized her article,“My Trigger Warning Disaster,” with “Life is a trigger.”

“Yes to this. I warn my students that as a journalist, I can’t and won’t coddle them. This is life and they’ll cover it,” assistant UMass journalism professor, Shaheen Pasha said in a tweet.

Pasha wrote an article called, “Trigger Warning: This Article May Piss You Off,” in which she shared her own experiences in college, such as overhearing racial slurs, to “violent-sounding sex” from a dorm room on her floor, to learning about a suicide attempt by another student, to being stalked by a classmate who would wait for her in the communal lounge.

“College is not a safe space. It was never intended to be,” Pasha said in her article. She said that college is the first time that students are “exposed to the negative aspects of life without having their parents or other trusted individuals around to help shelter them or comfort them through it.”

Pasha said she processed her college experiences by taking them as a “learning opportunity.” She learned to stand up for herself and her principles as well as to trust her instincts about people and situations.

“Those are skills that have been invaluable to me as a professional journalist,” the former journalist for DOW Jones, CNN Money and Reuters said.

Pasha believes journalism is a career that “exposes you to some of the worst things in life.” In terms of sensitivity while teaching such difficult topics, she tries to teach with respect.

“I don’t sensationalize. My goal is not to shock anyone and I don’t believe in showing anything gratuitous that I would not put in my own articles,” she said.

In her global journalism classroom, she has had students walk out during a lecture on the “horrific 2012 Delhi rape case, without offering a trigger warning.” Pasha said that “if someone is traumatized by something and wants to leave,” she has no problem with that.

“If they want to tell me in advance that they are dealing with something, I have no problem letting them know if a discussion is going to go in that direction privately,” Pasha said.

Whereas, having to predict and accommodate every students’ triggers is “an impossible task,” Pasha said. “Just the act of living life will have aspects that will trigger negative feelings and emotions.”

She clarified that she is not belittling PTSD and comes from a place of “intimately understanding triggers,” but still believes that debates within the classroom are what matures students.

“I became a different person by the time I left college in part because of the robust discussions I had in class, which were often heated. I think everyone should aspire to grow as a person. And that’s hard to do, if classroom discussions have too many restrictions,” she said.

Trigger warnings in the classroom

Catherine A. Sanderson, a psychology professor at Amherst College, teaches a little differently, using trigger warnings in her syllabi and at the beginning of some of her classes, depending on some of the material that is presented.

For example, Sanderson uses trigger warnings for topics that are triggers for a lot of people, such as suicide. Like Pasha, she believes that it is difficult to predict what specifically will trigger students.

“One day in a large lecture class in Introduction to Psychology, I used an example of fear of dentists as a phobia, and discussed strategies people could use to over come it – and a student came up very upset after class because she had this phobia and hearing it discussed upset her,” Sanderson said. “But I couldn’t possibly give a trigger warning to an entire class about ‘I’m going to talk about dentists now.’”

Sanderson said it is impossible to make accurate predictions. “For example, if your grandmother died in Florida and you are discussing a novel set in Florida, that might be triggering for you, but not for everyone in the room. So I worry about the over-use of trigger warnings.”

Unlike a blogging website where the user may simply log off after being triggered, a student can not just as easily walk out of class because he or she may fear that it will affect their grades, Sanderson said.

In terms of coddling students, Sanderson said that she agrees with most of the points made in “The Coddling of the American Mind.”

“I believe college should expose students to sometimes difficult topics and that is an important part of learning,” she said.

In her class, the Psychology of Good and Evil, topics such as sexual assault, serial killers and domestic violence are often discussed.

“These are difficult topics, and virtually every class could qualify for a trigger warning. But these are also important topics for students to understand because understanding what predicts evil, or bad behavior, may help us find solutions to getting people help. So in that sense, discussing, maybe not experiencing, but discussing traumatic topics may in fact be very useful,” Sanderson said.

Lucy can be reached at [email protected]

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