Greta Christina’s ‘Trigger Warning’: A Response

Kristine Harley

In her op-ed arguing for trigger warnings to be included in Free Inquiry (“Trigger Warning,” FI, October/November 2015), Greta Christina clai ms that contrary to popular opinion, such labels are like spoiler alerts, albeit meant for specific audiences, and not an attempt to censor content. I was surprised to read her piece. She could not be more wrong.

The parameters of spoiler alerts are more clearly drawn and specific than for trigger warnings. It is much more concrete to require that a journalist or reviewer not divulge plot twists from a story than it is to anticipate how a hypothetical reader may react to subjective content, which today can include hints, subtext, asides, and imagery in the text. A spoiler alert depends upon the demonstrable behavior of the writer and not, as with trigger warnings, the highly individual reaction of a reader only believed to be out there somewhere. There is a huge difference between the two.

“Spoiler alerts and content notes are pretty similar,” Christina writes, and only meant for PTSD sufferers. Well, I have never seen a “spoiler alert” written for a class syllabus—but now, college students are demanding trigger warnings for class syllabi. Christina writes, “Even if they decide not to read something at all because of a content note—so what?” and then admits that this “obviously isn’t apt in an academic setting.” But increasingly, demands for trigger warnings and to be excused from encountering controversial material are clogging up an already bureaucratic and overpriced academic experience in the United States.

In fact, what freethinkers and advocates for free expression are objecting to is precisely the encroachment of such warnings into areas where they are not appropriate. Anyone who has been paying attention to the growing demand for trigger warnings in higher education—well documented in publications such as Inside Higher Ed and The Chronicle of Higher Education, both of which I read daily—knows that Christina’s portrayal of trigger warnings benevolently applied is not accurate. The reality is much more disturbing.

Freshman Tara Shultz, along with her parents, demanded that Crafton Hills College ban the graphic novels Fun Home and Persepolis, among others, from a literature class about . . . wait for it . . . graphic novels. The college refused to yank the materials but did agree in June 2015 to include a trigger warning on the syllabus for this class. (When the National Coalition against Censorship wrote a letter urging the college to drop the trigger warning, the college did.)

More disturbingly, the administration at Crafton Hills admits that it was involved in the decision to include a trigger warning—interfering with faculty decisions about curricula—but claims that this was mutually agreed upon with the family and the instructor. The instructor, Ryan Bartlett, denies that he ever agreed to the trigger warning on the syllabus. This case is hardly an isolated one.

Trigger warnings have been used—or in some cases, implemented and then withdrawn due to pushback by anticensorship advocates—at a growing number of colleges and universities. In fact, Oberlin College created an entire list of topics for faculty requiring trigger warnings. The task force that authored it also recommended that “triggering materials” be avoided by students altogether unless faculty could show that the materials “contribute directly” to the curriculum! Essential texts were to be made “optional.” This is censorship, and trigger warnings are indeed central to the process.

Demands for trigger warnings have become so prevalent that students are now demanding that law schools not teach the law regarding rape! Jeannie Suk, professor of law at Harvard, wrote about the dangers of giving in to students’ demands that professors not discuss sexual assault in law school. Her article in The New Yorker points out that students even insisted that one professor not use the phrase, “Does this violate the law?” because the word violate was triggering. According to Suk, “Asking students to challenge each other in discussions of rape law [a standard practice] has become so difficult that teachers are starting to give up on the subject. About a dozen new teachers of criminal law at multiple institutions have told me that they are not including rape law in their courses.” Were all of these law students, often buttressed in their complaints by “student organizations” and “advocates,” suffering from PTSD? Come on. If this is not censorship, what is it?

These examples—just some of many—establish that a “trigger warning” can indeed be a stepping-stone or a fallback position (as a “compromise”) for those advocating censorship. Therefore trigger warnings should be judiciously applied. But the goal of preventing any kind of “trauma” has replaced the reasonable goal of heading off PTSD-related episodes.

The situation in academia becomes even more ridiculous. A sexual assault survey, created to measure the prevalence of sexual violence against students and launched by the Association of American Universities in the spring of 2015, was criticized by victim advocates for using such “triggering” phrases as “oral sex” and “penetration.” Triggering material, unlike spoilers, is so poorly defined that almost anything can be a trigger, even clapping one’s hands. The National Union of Students (NUS) Women’s Campaign requested that clapping be banned at the West Midlands conference in London to avoid triggering participants, who were requested to display “jazz hands” instead. One wonders if in the future we will not indeed see a “trigger warning” attached to another, allegedly poorly written trigger warning.

(Actually, the website Everyday Feminism announced this past June that it is replacing the phrase with “content warning,” since the word trigger could be triggering. “The word ‘trigger’ relies on and evokes violent weaponry imagery. This could be re-traumatizing for folks who have suffered military, police, and other forms of violence,” writes Gillian Brown. I wish I was making this up. Take note, Ms. Christina: in using the phrase, you may have already “triggered” someone!)

Isn’t it rather undemocratic for an arbitrary person, even the author of a piece, to decide beforehand what could be detrimental for others? And what if that self-styled authority is likewise racist, sexist, or homophobic? What if that authority is a creationist? Remember Kitzmiller (the Dover, Pennsylvania, evolution-teaching case) and those warning labels applied to science textbooks? Those, and not spoiler alerts, seem more akin to trigger warnings in many instances.

While insisting that trigger warnings “are not meant to warn people that content might be offensive,” Christina wanted to push the trigger-warning envelope into the new realm of a Free Inquiry opinion piece. Contrary to her claims, protecting readers from offense—leading to removal of the offending material or the disciplining of professors, or both—is exactly what trigger warnings are accomplishing in academe, from the Title IX “investigation” of Northwestern University Professor Laura Kipnis to the insistence that Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby bear trigger warnings for racial violence and misogyny, respectively.

Being that we have a number of atheists out there who have experienced violence and assault due to their nonbelief, shall Free Inquiry therefore place a trigger warning on every article or opinion piece about violence against an atheist? If not, why not? Being that Christina’s article in question already had “Emotional Responses to Terrible Ideas” in the title, what further warning was needed? And if her article had included her trigger warning, does that imply that all other articles at Free Inquiry are “safe”? I cannot help but wonder what would happen if a creationist reads Free Inquiry and, emboldened by seeing trigger warnings on other articles (because trigger warnings in many cases do embolden perennial agitators), claims to be “traumatized” by the idea that there is no God, no purpose, and no human special creation. When the aim is to prevent any trauma, and if everyone’s feelings of trauma are “valid” independent of facts, Free Inquiry could also be exhorted to warn creationists who might be dismayed by their exposure to the magazine. I doubt that Greta Christina has thought through these issues. She merely wanted to include one on her own article, but ignoring the larger context of whether what amounts to a change in policy at Free Inquiry reduces her effort to mere vogue. For it to really mean something, she should realize that including one content note does change the whole dynamic at the magazine.

I posit that warning readers of ostensibly triggering material is a subjective exercise—often lacking in specifics and today highly political—unfortunately used as a tool to find new avenues of discontent and blame. Employing trigger warnings is far more than “not perfect”; it has the potential to become a morass of claims and counter claims. I agree that Tom Flynn is wise not to open this can of worms at Free Inquiry.

The truth is, one simply cannot protect people from their fears and anxieties. It cannot be done. And the harder truth is, it probably should not be done, either. Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt remind us that protecting people from hurt can actually harm them more:

According to the most-basic tenets of psychology, the very idea of helping people with anxiety disorders avoid the things they fear is misguided. A person who is trapped in an elevator during a power outage may panic and think she is going to die. That frightening experience can change neural connections in her amygdala, leading to an elevator phobia. If you want this woman to retain her fear for life, you should help her avoid elevators.

Greta Christina mentions her experience with sexual harassment and threats, and I am sorry for her. I too have survived harrowing experiences. In my twenties, I left an abusive relationship. I was a victim of stalking in the late 1980s before anti-stalking laws were passed—my abusive ex-boyfriend persisted for more than three years. (When I asked, while attempting to obtain a protection order, why he could not be accused of a federal offense in crossing state lines to look for me, the sexual violence advocate simply stared at me.) I was a little girl in the 1970s, accosted by adult men in stores or from their vehicles. Living without a motor vehicle for twenty-three years, I’ve had to employ physical self-defense at bus stops against crazies unaffected by my pepper spray. Now, at age fifty but mistaken for younger, I still get sexually harassed in person, whereas online I am absurdly called “wrinkled,” “ugly,” “used up,” and “grandma” (I have no children) and am accused of using my “high school photograph” for my avatar. I too have received rape threats and death threats. As a woman, I’ve been there—and despite Christina’s contention, I do not object to trigger warnings because I claim to be “strong” and that she is “weak.” I would never make such a claim.

For that reason, I did not appreciate her inclusion of Sam Dylan Finch’s snide polemic, “When You Oppose Trigger Warnings, You’re Really Saying These 8 Things.” False equivalence is a crutch that Finch leans on, as he often employs the “what you’re really saying” technique, but poisoning the well has no place in this discussion. Moreover, the irony of someone else telling others what they are actually saying has obviously escaped Christina. This practice is trendy, self-righteous, and abusive. People should be able to express themselves without Finch’s authoritarian voice reinterpreting their words, and I resist the convenient labels on people, ubiquitous today, that writers such as him apply in order to squash nuance and sober analysis in favor of the dogpile.

So prominent in the push for trigger warnings—and this is what really worries me—is this accompanying hypocrisy of “it’s okay when we dehumanize others” in the name of helping them to “understand,” that is, comply. It’s “okay” to call others names, label them racist/sexist/homophobic, give their words absurd interpretations, and marshal others to hurl invective their way because any opposition is “wrong,” whereas whichever present-day Carrie Nation who is championing this cause is heartfelt and sincere. Perhaps Finch’s shaming commentary, being also nonacademic to say the least, should have included a trigger warning: “This emotional blackmail reduces anyone who does not get on the bandwagon to a bigoted, loutish stereotype who doesn’t care about one’s audience, is too lazy to write a few extra words, and says ‘Lol, who cares’ about PTSD.”

The last thing that we as reasonable people need at Free Inquiry are logical fallacies and guilt trips such as Finch’s—the nonbeliever’s version of a “War on Christmas.” It also profoundly harms Christina’s argument to include Finch’s attempt to shut down debate (“if you don’t agree you are admitting you’re lazy and don’t care”), while claiming that trigger warnings do not silence debate!

(This reminds me of the ugly feminist infighting of the early 1990s, when I was told that my interest in science meant I “hated” myself, was “male-identified”—it had a different meaning then—and that “self-realized” women “did relational work,” especially with “the Other,” and were “nurturing.” The only thing to recommend “phallocentric” me—because I enjoyed the works of Joseph Conrad and Vladimir Nabokov—to these guardians was that I had not given birth to “the oppressor,” that is, a male child. Where have all these buzzwords gone? When will they ever learn?)

What I am claiming is that Lukianoff and Haidt should be heeded when they warn us against fortune-telling (convincing yourself that a dreaded event will happen), emotional reasoning (“What I believe must be true, or else I wouldn’t think it”), magnification (exaggerating the importance of an event, especially a negative one), and labeling (assigning global traits, usually negative, to oneself and others). These reactions are hallmarks not only of religious or superstitious claims but also of those who advocate for new frontiers for trigger warnings.

What I am claiming is that these irrational behaviors are unintentionally celebrated in Christina’s piece, where in fact we should choose to react to our negative experiences with reason, logic, and evidence-based inquiry. These have been my sentinels and my tools, even in the face of sexual assault. They, and the self-defense techniques, have worked. Newfangled “tools” that still need to be studied should be approached with caution. I understand their attraction, but they can be illusions. What I am claiming is that, unfortunately, Christina’s piece is full of magical thinking, and what is needed on this issue is not what could turn out to be the latest therapeutic snake oil with a probable short shelf life but more rationality.

The parallel here with the Salem witch trials, “recovered memory syndrome,” facilitated communication, and satanic ritual abuse is obvious. Trigger warnings, whatever their initial usefulness for diagnosed victims—and how can we know when even surveys of victims are labeled “triggering”?—have regrettably become a response to a form of moral panic, and like many hysterias, this has taken on the attributes of one-upmanship, trend, and fashion. Law students avoiding rape law in class neither resemble fans of The Empire Strikes Back who don’t want to know beforehand that Darth Vader is Luke’s father, nor do they “decide not to read [the material] on the bus to work.” They rather behave like the pharmacists who do not want to dispense birth control or the Kentucky county clerk who refuses to issue marriage licenses to gay couples. In an atmosphere so charged with emotion, without concrete parameters and results, and with black-and-white diatribes such as Finch’s, adding trigger warnings to Free Inquiry is a bad idea.

Christina hardly helps her own argument when she admits that she herself manages to weed out disturbing material without needing someone else to play patriarch (or God) and slap a canned trigger warning on it. She can do this because when she is evaluating material, even when angered or hurt, she is thinking rationally instead of engaging in the emotionalism that pervades her op-ed. I can similarly weed out disturbing online comments and messages for the same reason—because rationality, reason, and logic work better than avoidance, magnification, and catastrophizing. Don’t we know this?

Christina’s piece raises questions that she does not answer. Who among Free Inquiry readers has PTSD? Who can claim to have it in the general population? Many more do than are actually diagnosed, if today’s culture is any indication.

Where is the evidence that trigger warnings even achieve what they set out to do? At what point does drawing attention to negativity, or dreading a traumatized response, magnify it and make it self-fulfilling? How can one even write a trigger warning for someone that he or she does not know, which is itself a form of labeling and fortune-telling? No trigger warning could have warned a law student against the word violate in the phrase “violates this law” in class.

Mine is hardly a “Lol, who cares” attitude.

If Free Inquiry adopts trigger warnings, then how about The Intelligence Report, published by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which sometimes includes photos of lynchings and other atrocities? How about the organization Defenders of Wildlife, which sent me a mailing with an image of a dead wolf and the words “Help me” on the envelope? Where does it end?

It ends, according to James Poulos of The Daily Beast, with Plato. Attempting to understand the eruption of outrage by students at Oberlin College at a presentation by Christina Hoff Sommers—she urged young women to get into engineering instead of sociology for a better salary—in an April 2015 commentary Poulos turns to The Republic to analyze this alarming scene, again all too familiar to any liberal-minded intellectual who has been paying attention to modern higher education:

Students now known as “safe spacers,” for their insistence on dialogue protected from “triggering” psychic and verbal assaults, sank into a delirium of invective. Convinced that Sommers participates in the reality of rape culture by peddling “bullshit” facts, they offered jeers and mockery throughout her remarks, on one occasion shouting down what Sommers described as a “kindly philosophy professor” who “urged students to be civil.”

Meanwhile, in response to Sommers’ address, the Oberlin Review ran a letter to the editor entitled “a love letter to ourselves,” complete with a “content warning” cautioning readers about an impending discussion of, among other things, harassment. . . .

From a traditionally liberal standpoint, the intellectual inconsistency displayed by Oberlin’s outraged students is frightful. When they harass, they are freedom fighters; when they feel harassed, they are victims of terrorism. One group of students who organized an alternative to the Sommers event warned that any “toxic, dangerous, and/or violent” people would be screened out. “We’re pretty cool,” said one, crystallizing the apparent hypocrisy with a knowing half-joke. “We only bite people we dislike.” Trigger warning indeed!

Plato, according to Poulos, understood that each generation rejected the values of its elders yet unconsciously enfolded those same values into their solutions, thereby exacerbating the problem. Like creationists, the “democratic” generation strives “to make life safe for meaning. . . . Extremism in the defense of meaning is no vice at all.” However, “meaning” is slippery. Those of us involved in the fight to maintain sound science standards in school have heard what I call the appeal to meaning time and again in the other side’s fight to discredit and remove evolution from public schools.

I observe that this odd love-hate relationship with authority has also been described by Eric Hoffer in The True Believer: those who rail the loudest against government, authority, or “oppression” nevertheless imitate and strengthen its negative aspects in the end, because in fact what they are opposing is not tyranny but the fact that the tyranny is not strong enough—their way. Thus, true believers create a reality even more stifling, oppressive, and undemocratic than existed before, despite their stated goals of valuing everyone equally.

Emotional calls for justice and equality, which so often adopt the self-righteous tone of Finch’s piece, have a rotten success rate, and a remarkable ability to create unintentional outcomes. Poulos states (and I agree): “By trying to fix what’s broken, we only get better at brokenness.” Life resists easy truisms, and we cannot substitute religion with social change through quick fixes—which is what I fear some people are attempting to do.
Trigger warnings can at best be vague and general and confined to specific circumstances—they are a blunt instrument. Certainly, I employed one when I prefaced a fanfic chapter with the statement that it involved rape, because I did not know who my online and anonymous audience members were. Trigger warnings have their place, but I am not convinced that they are needed for the audience of Free Inquiry. Such warnings also can never be a guarantee, but a guaranteed result is what so many advocates are demanding these days. As Isaac Asimov famously said, there is “no thumb to suck” in life, and to me these growing demands for an expected outcome are beginning to sound like prayers to a therapeutic god in a feel-good church of conformity. I do not want to see atheists and freethinkers swept along by this trend, which in its present form resembles a secular religion and a patronizing creed that disdains rationality in favor of discovering new frontiers of righteous polarization.

Further Reading

  • Jaschik, Scott. 2015. “Trigger Warning Diffused.” Inside Higher Ed, July 9.
  • Lukianoff, Greg, and Jonathan Haidt. 2015. “The Coddling of the American Mind.” The Atlantic, September.
  • Poulos, James. 2015. “What Plato Said about Trigger Warnings.” The Daily Beast, April 25.
  • Suk, Jeannie. 2014. “The Trouble with Teaching Rape Law.” The New Yorker, December 25.

Kristine Harley

Kristine Harley is a writer, librarian/archivist, and indexer.