The debate over so-called “trigger warnings” continues to simmer, boiling over in the media every month or so. These warnings – statements alerting students, and other members of the public, if writing, video or other materials contain confronting images or ideas – have taken centre stage in the campus culture wars in the US and beyond.
Proponents argue that trigger warnings protect vulnerable and traumatised students from harm. Warnings allow students to prepare themselves mentally for distressing experiences or to avoid exposure to them if they feel unable to cope.
Critics see things differently. Where trigger warning proponents see protection they see coddling. Where proponents see sensitivity, they see censorship and threats to fearless pedagogy.
The concept of ‘triggers’
Rather than enter this political minefield, we might consider the concept of “trigger warning” itself and ask where it comes from. A literal trigger is a device that releases a mechanism of some sort. By analogy, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a trigger can be
something that acts like a mechanical trigger in initiating a process or reaction.
To trigger something is therefore not just to bring it about in some general sense, but to cause it in a way that is mechanical and automatic, like a reflex. Pollen is an asthma trigger because it sets off muscle contractions in the airways among people who are sensitive to it. The muscular reaction is involuntary and requires no conscious deliberation. It just happens.
The idea of trigger warnings originates in the psychiatric literature on post-traumatic reactions, where triggering had the same connotations. The primary features of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) include so-called “re-experiencing symptoms”, like intrusive thoughts and flashbacks.
These thoughts and images bring traumatic events vividly back to life, accompanied by the intense fear that the events originally evoked. Experiences that recall those early events trigger re-experiencing symptoms through a process that is rapid, unconscious, involuntary and automatic. That process is often understood in terms of fear conditioning.
When trigger warnings were first introduced, they adhered closely to this post-traumatic sense of the term. Warnings were intended to alert traumatised people, who had experienced rape and sexual or physical assault, that soon-to-be presented material might spark their traumatic memories.
That relatively narrow sense of triggering has since given way to a dramatically broader and looser definition. Trigger warnings now commonly alert people not only to content that relates to sexual or physical trauma, but also to material that is potentially offensive, disgusting or politically questionable.
For example, one recent proposal urged trigger warnings for vomit, spiders and insects, slimy things, food, eye contact, pregnancy, classism, racism and transphobia (including, presumably, critiques thereof). Lists such as these indicate that trigger warnings have expanded their conceptual territory to encompass almost anything that could be a focus of strong emotion or conflict.
That expansion is revealed by statements that trigger warnings relate to material that is “emotionally confronting” or “distressing” rather than narrowly traumatic. Indeed, much of the content now subject to trigger warnings has no direct association with trauma in the psychiatric sense.
The fact that a concept such as “trigger” has inflated far beyond its original meaning is not in itself a cause for concern. Concepts evolve all the time, and so they should. However, it is important to ask whether the expanding meaning of “trigger” has come at a cost.
Responding to Humpty Dumpty’s claim that a word “means just what I choose it to mean”, Alice asked: “The question is … whether you can make words say so many different things”. Humpty Dumpty replied: “The question is … which is to be master”, he or the word.
Trigger warning advocates may be the masters when it comes to defining “triggers”, but they may be over-egging the definition.
Indeed, many of the newly proposed triggers differ in a variety of important ways from the classic triggers associated with sexual and physical trauma. They differ in their emotional tone, intensity, automaticity, prevalence and personal reference.
The emotional signature of trauma is intense fear or horror. It is fear that dominates the re-experiencing symptoms of PTSD. However, the newer triggers often involve markedly different emotions: sadness or depression, social anxiety, disgust, or moral indignation at an offensive -ism. These diverse emotions can be rolled up with fear into an undifferentiated ball of “upset”, “distress” or feeling “confronted”, but crucial distinctions are overlooked in the process.
Traumatic fear, for example, is intense, evoked by reminders in a largely automatic manner, difficult to override and related to a personal catastrophic experience. Mercifully only a small minority of the population suffers from PTSD at any point in time; 3.8% over a six-month period according to one recent study.
In contrast, most people experience some disgust at slimy things and vomit, but rarely to a pathological degree and not necessarily as a result of a traumatic personal history. To group together “triggers” for sexual trauma and for everyday disgust is to mix apples and rotten oranges.
The angry offence that people may take to undesirable social attitudes and political ideologies is even more different from traumatic fear, and even more questionably described by the language of “triggering”. Outrage or indignation is not as automatic as traumatic fear, involving a more complex moral assessment of the situation.
The ire we experience when we take offence is not generated by an involuntary trigger-like mechanism but by a complex process of moral cognition.
The differences between traumatic fear and moral anger do not stop there. One motivates avoidance, the other motivates attack. People taking angry offence at classism or racism are unlikely to be responding reflexively to a personal trauma, and more likely to be responding in an, at least partially, reasoned way to injustices felt on behalf of (or as part of) a group, including groups to which they do not belong.
To argue trigger warnings are required for class content that refers to colonialism or Islamophobia is to stretch the meaning of “trigger” to breaking point, making it refer both to pathological fear and to normal moral disapproval.
The end of trigger warnings?
One way to avoid this over-stretching of the concept of triggering is to replace it with something more neutral.
Some have argued “content warning” is a more appropriate term, on the ironic basis that the word “trigger” may itself be triggering because of its association with weapons. One problem with “content warning”, however, is that its very neutrality opens the door to further expansion of the range of phenomena that might require warnings.
For as long as “trigger warning” remains the term of choice, however, we need to remember that it now refers to a very disparate set of phenomena, from the psychiatric to the political, many of which do not involve a trigger-like process.
As Alice said to Humpty Dumpty: “That’s a great deal to make one word mean”. To which Humpty replied: “When I make a word do a lot of work like that … I always pay it extra”.
Nick Haslam receives funding from the Australian Research Council.
Authors: Nick Haslam, Professor of Psychology, University of Melbourne