A Response to an Almost Good but Limited and Very Troubling Argument against Trigger Warnings

Greta Christina

Sigh.

Okay—I’m talking about trigger warnings again. Quick explanation of context: In the October/November 2015 issue of Free Inquiry, I wrote a column titled “Trigger Warning,” making an analogy between trigger warnings and spoiler alerts and arguing that it didn’t make much sense to accept the latter while vilifying the former. In the December 2015/January 2016 issue, Kristine Harley wrote a long response (“Greta Christina’s ‘Trigger Warning’: A Response”), arguing that trigger warnings were much more dangerous and problematic than I had represented—especially in academia.

I acknowledge that I’m not an academic, and, while I’ve read a fair amount about the trigger warning/content note debates on college and university campuses, I’m not intimately familiar with the details of how they play out there. I’m much more familiar with the debates revolving around trigger warnings in traditional commercial publishing (newspapers, magazines, books, etc.), personal online platforms (such as blogs, podcasts, and YouTube videos), and social media.

So I’m going to steel-man this argument. That’s the opposite of straw-manning, where people create the weakest possible version of their opponent’s arguments, including arguments their opponents never actually made. “Steel-manning” means engaging with the best possible version of your opponent’s arguments and even making them better. In this case, I’m going to start by assuming that all the facts cited by Harley are factually correct and that none of them have been misrepresented, distorted, or taken out of context. (Given the many ways she misrepresented what I wrote in my column, it’s entirely possible that this isn’t the case—but if it isn’t, I’m not the best person to respond, so I’ll leave it to others to do that.)

So let’s assume that everything Harley said in her essay is true and fair. It’s a reasonably good argument for why policies in academia about trigger warnings and content notes should be more careful, more nuanced, or otherwise better. It is, however, a terrible argument for not using trigger warnings at all. The best summary I can make of Harley’s argument is, “Trigger warnings sometimes get badly misused in academia—therefore, they’re a slippery slope, the arguments for them amount to hysteria, and nobody should ever advocate for them.” I hope I don’t have to explain why this is a very bad argument.

If everything Harley says is true and fair, it’s a reasonably good argument for why the case for trigger warnings/content notes in academia should not be extended into (a) excusing students from potentially traumatic classroom content or (b) actually changing or limiting this content. There are complicated and fraught debates over classroom content in academic settings, including questions such as “Is the potential trauma caused by this content worth the educational value?” “Is there other, equally good content on the same topic that isn’t likely to traumatize?” “If content is potentially traumatizing for a significant number of students, should they be given options for alternative content?” and “Who gets to decide?” While these debates are often related or similar to the ones about trigger warnings, they’re not the same. If, in fact, these debates are being conflated, then sure—I think they should be kept separate.

But by the same token, Harley’s argument about changing or limiting traumatic content in some academic settings is irrelevant to the case for trigger warnings in general and to my column in particular. I didn’t say anything about what content should or should not be taught in academic settings or about providing alternative content, or who gets to decide about that or anything similar. I didn’t get into those discussions at all. I argued that trigger warnings are generally a good idea; that they’re similar to spoiler alerts, which very few people oppose; and that accepting spoiler alerts but vehemently opposing trigger warnings is both irrational and callous. Advocating for trigger warnings is not the same as calling for censorship or even the limitation of content, and Harley should not be equating them.

Importantly, the core of Harley’s essay is an argument that’s relevant only to academia, where requests for trigger warnings can actually be enforced by college or university policy. That’s not a trivial concern—far from it. But academia is only one arena where debates about trigger warnings and content notes are happening. These debates also focus on commercial publishing (such as newspapers and magazines) and online platforms (such as blogs and YouTube videos), where the only pressure applied is that by the consumer: “We like trigger warnings; we don’t like it when they aren’t used; we’re going to consume more media that uses them and less media that doesn’t.” And there are extensive debates about trigger warnings in social media, where the only enforcement is social pressure and the harshest consequence is hearing “I’m not going to listen to you anymore.” Harley’s essay almost entirely ignores the world of media and content outside academia—and her core argument is irrelevant in that world.

And her essay is a terrible, terrible argument for why individual writers or other content creators shouldn’t use trigger warnings if they wish to. Contrary to Harley’s implication, I did not propose that trigger warnings should be Free Inquiry policy or that all writers here should be required to use them. I objected (briefly) to the fact that I wanted to use a trigger warning in a Free Inquiry column and was not permitted to do so.

All of this assumes that everything Harley says in her essay is true and fair. But I am now finished with steel-manning. There are serious problems with both the accuracy and the fairness of Harley’s essay, and I’m going to talk about them.

Some of her assertions are simply mistaken, such as the assertion that spoilers and spoiler alerts are objective, simple, and clear while trauma triggers and trigger warnings are complex, nuanced, and subjective. As a writer who has struggled mightily with the highly subjective questions of how much plot it’s okay to describe without including a spoiler alert or whether there’s a statute of limitations and when it kicks in (should I include a spoiler alert for Citizen Kane? Star Wars? Mad Men?), I can tell you that this assertion is just flat out wrong. And I did not, in fact, say that trigger warnings were only for PTSD sufferers—in fact, I specifically said otherwise (“While people with PTSD are the primary reason for content notes, they’re not the only ones”).

More importantly, Harley’s information about PTSD and other mental illness is wildly inaccurate. Yes, it’s impossible to create content notes for every trigger for everyone with PTSD or other trauma-related mental illness. I said so in my original column. But as I also said in my column, there are a handful of common traumas that a very large number of people have experienced, and it’s just not that hard to include trigger warnings for those. Yes, it can be helpful for people with PTSD or other trauma disorders to be exposed to content related to that trauma. But the therapeutic standard of care is that this exposure should be controlled—not sprung on people without warning. And it’s wildly inaccurate to describe content warnings as “an arbitrary person, even the author of a piece, [deciding] beforehand what could be detrimental for others.” No. No, no, no. Content warnings are not the product of a random person deciding what could be detrimental for others. Content warnings are a not-at-all arbitrary response to large numbers of people saying, “This specific thing is detrimental to me.”

But Harley’s description of PTSD and other mental illness isn’t just inaccurate. Her thinking about it is, to say the least, deeply troubling. Harley seems to think that she knows how to deal with the suffering of mental illness better than both mental-health professionals and people with mental illness themselves. In her essay, she dispenses the amateur medical advice that “in fact we should choose to react to our negative experiences with reason, logic, and evidence-based inquiry.” I am, in fact, choosing to react to the negative experience of my trauma-related depression with reason, logic, and evidence-based inquiry—and this includes the evidence-based provisional conclusion, informed by (among other things) conversations with my therapist and my psychiatrist, that at times when my mental health is shaky, it’s a bad idea for me to read about misogynist hatred and harassment. And Harley even seems to dismiss the very existence of people who are triggered by traumatic content, describing them as readers “only believed to be out there somewhere”—as opposed to actual people who are speaking out.

What’s more, her reading of my own experience with depression is so off-base, so exactly the opposite of what I actually wrote, it’s hard to be charitable and assume the misreading wasn’t deliberate. When describing my experience of depression, Harley says 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.” That’s not only needlessly snide—it completely misses the point. The whole idea was that trigger warnings help me make choices about what I want to read and when, and they help me avoid some triggering content that can lead to a depression spiral. The whole point was that when I’m weeding out disturbing material, trigger warnings help.

And it’s absurd to argue that pointing out the implications of an idea or a behavior constitutes “false equivalence,” “poisoning the well,” “emotional blackmail,” or “telling others what they are actually saying.” Pointing out the implications of an idea or a behavior—such as the implications of pseudoscience or religious belief—is key to freethought. And pointing out that those implications are harmful is key to moral persuasion. This accusation is especially bizarre because Harley does this herself—when she claims that I “unintentionally celebrated” a whole panoply of “irrational behavior,” including superstition, science denial, and the belief in the war on Christmas. Why is it okay for her to say that there are negative implications to advocating for trigger warnings but it’s not okay for me to say the same about opposing them?

I understand that it’s hard to hear people say, “This thing you’re doing is hurting me, and if you keep doing it I’m going to make some pretty harsh assumptions about you.” But if we want to be good people, we need to be willing to hear that and take it seriously—even if we don’t ultimately accept their judgments. If you think someone is incorrect about A implying B, make that case. Don’t excoriate people simply for asserting that ideas have implications.

Finally, it is wildly frustrating to read a 3,600-plus word essay responding to something you’ve written—an essay that misrepresents what you’ve said and equates you with the warriors of the War on Christmas—and then, in the final paragraph, discover that she actually agrees with you. To quote Harley: “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.”

Yes, trigger warnings are imperfect. They are vague and blunt instruments—assuming that “vague” and “blunt instrument” means “not all triggers can be predicted or avoided.” They are not a panacea. But they have their place, especially when writers don’t know their audience. I don’t know whether they’re needed for the audience of Free Inquiry—so since I don’t know who those readers are, I thought it was reasonable to err on the side of caution and add a twelve-word introduction to my piece that might prevent some needless pain.

That’s pretty much exactly what I said.

It seems as if Harley wanted to write an essay about what she sees as the overreach and misuse of trigger warnings in academia and used my column as an excuse. I wish she had simply written the essay. I would like to see a good, thoughtful critique of trigger warnings by someone who understands that they’re valuable but is concerned about how they’re sometimes used. As it was, Harley unfairly shoehorned her essay into a response to my column, misrepresenting my views and distorting important parts of the truth in order to make her case. And this makes me seriously mistrust whether the case she did make was accurate or fair.

Greta Christina

Greta Christina is an author, blogger at The Orbit, and speaker. Her latest book is The Way of the Heathen: Practicing Atheism in Everyday Life (Pitchstone Publishing, 2016).


Greta Christina responds to Kristine Harley’s critique of her column “Trigger Warning.”

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