Recent debates on the use of “trigger warnings” in higher education has made me wonder what it means for those of us who do diversity education work to do so in this now seemingly trigger conscious environment. As many have explained, trigger warnings began in feminist blogs as a way to create some safety when discussing difficult topics like sexual assault for their readers who might’ve experienced such traumatic events themselves. Triggers are also relevant for those who have experienced severe forms of trauma and suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. For these individuals, depending on the source of their trauma, certain sounds or images for instance, result in a sudden physical or emotional recall of the traumatic event. However, most recently, as in the cases in Oberlin and the University of CA, Santa Barbara, among others, demonstrate, trigger warnings are now being discussed and at times implemented in situations where individuals may be exposed to other forms of potentially difficult or challenging topics such as racism, sexism, privilege and power. How are we to engage in conversations on these topics, which is the key goal of diversity education?
I first heard the word trigger at a diversity training workshop where, as a part of setting up ground rules for the potential difficult conversation all of the participants were about to engage in, the facilitator had us all discuss what our triggers were, as a way to create a safe space for difficult dialogue. In that setting, a trigger was meant both as a self-assessment and as a short cut.
As an assessment method, we were invited to discuss with each other what our respective triggers were around diversity issues. We created long collective lists of the various racist, classist, sexist, and homophobic, phrases, terms, and behaviors that arose strong emotional and physical reactions. We weren’t warned against these reactions however, but were instead invited to sit with those reactions, understand where they were coming from, and learn how to respond and deal with them in productive and effective ways. It was an empowering process to recognize collectively the many ways in which discrimination, prejudice, and oppression harm us all. By also discussing positive and negative ways to respond to triggers, we were also individually empowered to respond to those triggers in effective ways.
In other words saying that something triggered you wasn’t the end of a conversation, or a way to identify something that the other person should immediately seize and desist from doing, but instead using the phrase “What you just did or said triggered me” was a way to start a conversation. And this is how calling something a “trigger” in the setting of a social justice workshop also served as a shortcut. By discussing our triggers and learning about both negative and positive ways to respond when triggered, we were then able to move into the difficult dialogue part of the workshop, because now we had the language to name when the dialogue became most challenging for folks in the room. When someone did say or do something that triggered someone in the room, that person could now name what they were experiencing as a trigger, and we could all have a conversation about it. It helped both the person who was triggered and the person who had inadvertently triggered this person, reach a better understanding of the particular power dynamic that the emotional responses were actually about.
Identifying when we were triggered however was not a way to identify when we were feeling discomfort. As I read through the various discussions on triggers and trigger warnings, it appears as if for some folks the word “trigger” has become a way to say that something makes you feel uncomfortable. When discussing issues of privilege and power then it seems that those in privileged positions are using “trigger” as a substitute for saying “I’m feeling discomfort” whether because they’ve never had to look at their own privilege before, don’t know how to articulate their awareness of their privilege, or simply are resisting this new awareness of themselves as privileged individuals, “trigger” has become a way for some to in a sense to reassert their privilege. “I’m triggered” becomes a new way of saying “I don’t like what I’m hearing about myself which makes me have to rethink who I am in relation to others around me,” and instead of it becoming an opportunity for conversation and growth, it becomes now a way to silence challenges. And because we have also lumped trauma triggers (as in those triggers experienced by victims of severe trauma such as certain forms of violence and war) with any and all types of triggers, we are unable to discern the difference between someone who is having a post-traumatic reaction and someone who is simply feeling discomfort. Which takes me back to my original question, how are we to do diversity education work in this new climate, when someone who feels discomfort because they are experiencing the usual growing pains of an increased awareness around issues of diversity, can use the term trigger to stop the conversation?
What I love about higher education is its potential for developing critical thinking skills. Colleges and universities provide the perfect opportunity to bring together opposing views, whether through assigning readings that provide conflicting perspectives on a social issue, or bringing the leading opposing speakers on a particular topic, and engaging in discussions about these various perspectives. There’s no better place to analyze a particular topic from divergent viewpoints than on a college campus. Instead of discussing whether trigger warnings are useful or not, or when they should be used or not, we should put triggers themselves under our analytical microscope. Let’s unpack what we really are talking about when we say we’ve been triggered. What are the various moments in which triggers are being named? Who is naming their triggers? Are triggers being identified by those who have been historically marginalized and oppressed as a way to empower themselves against years of being silenced? Or are triggers being named by those who have the privilege in the moment to speak? And how are we defining the term trigger? Has it become a synonym for the word “discomfort”? Are we identifying a post-traumatic response emitted by a particular situation? Or are we talking about those emotional and physical responses we feel when confronted by certain racist, classist, sexist, and homophobic speech and behavior? And finally, once we know what kind of trigger we are talking about, what are the most effective and productive ways to respond?
In other words, lets use this seemingly trigger conscious environment we are now in as an opportunity for more difficult dialogues, instead of using trigger naming as a way to bubble warp ourselves from each other. For while I can understand a self-protective response to discomfort and pain (I certainly have those days when I just want to hide from the world in a cave and never feel the anger, sadness, and frustration, that I consistently feel as a woman of color ever again), I also know that the hope I still have for a better world where we can all achieve greater understanding across our many differences can only be found in those moments where we actually are triggered, learn to build resistance, and grow from the experience.
For additional discussions on trigger warnings see:
“The False Dichotomy of Trigger Warnings”
“We’ve Gone Too Far With Trigger Warnings”
“On Trigger Warnings”
“Hazards Ahead: The Problem With Trigger Warnings According to the Research”