round and round the trigger warning maypole

I got into another discussion of trigger warnings last night that really crystallized why that discussion is so immensely frustrating for me.

First is the now-ubiquitous claim that trigger warnings are only warnings, and that they have no connection whatsoever to an actual censorship impulse. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been told, with absolute confidence, that “no one is talking about actually regulating content!” Which just is not true. Again, I’m forced to invoke my greater personal experience and knowledge of actual campus activists, rather than the purely abstract version that so many people in the media embrace. I have spent my entire life in campus lefty circles, was a campus activist when I was on campus, maintain an active network of people involved in campus politics today, and keep my ear to the ground still. And there have always been campus leftists who think that many types of speech that we generally acknowledge as legitimate political expression should be banned. When I was growing up on campus, there was already a robust hate speech discourse in campus activist circles, and they tended to take a very expansive view on what hate speech constitutes. I know campus antifa types myself who think that anti-abortion attitudes should be no platformed as a matter of routine. Stop telling me from the media bubble you live in that these attitudes don’t exist, just because they resemble a conservative stereotype.

Yes, you can articulate a view that trigger warnings are entirely distinct from actual regulation of intellectual content on campus, and you are certainly free to support the former and not the latter. But there is real overlap  between the people who push most forcefully for trigger warnings and those who want to push ideas they find offensive off campus. The Laura Kipnis affair was frightening because it was an escalation of a pattern of attempts to regulate ideas on campus, bringing the power of the federal government to bear. But it wasn’t surprising, to me, at all. Again, because I know people who actually want to limit speech in the way that drive-by liberal writers say don’t exist. The University of Michigan American Sniper incident was a minor moment, sure, and the movie was eventually broadcast on campus. But I was just arguing with someone who said that the movie should be banned from campuses because it’s violent propaganda, not legitimate expression. You can call that view fringe. You can claim it doesn’t actually have power on campus. But it exists, and it’s held by many of the same people who push most forcefully (and accusingly) for trigger warnings. To say that there’s no potential connection between these things simply isn’t credible. I don’t understand why people can’t say “I support trigger warnings, but I acknowledge that there are genuinely censorious forces on campus, and I don’t support that.” Why is that so hard?

If you really support trigger warnings on campus but oppose actual regulation of intellectual content on campus, you might get around to saying the latter once in awhile, rather than circling the wagons and insisting that it’s all a conservative conspiracy.

Next, the relationship between PTSD and trigger warnings. There’s absolutely no clarity on a very basic question: are trigger warnings intended to help those who suffer from PTSD? The very notion of a “trigger”  comes from discussion of PTSD. And when it suits them, those who aggressively pursue trigger warnings certainly use the weight of medicalization to get what they want. But there is no corresponding claim that only those with PTSD should be invoking triggering. In fact, trigger warning proponents tend to take a very expansive view of who gets to invoke feeling triggered, generally arguing that anyone who claims to be feeling traumatized legitimately is so. But that’s not at all the standard of medical science on PTSD. So the standard seems to be that when it comes time to argue for the righteousness of trigger warnings — and, naturally, the evil of those who oppose them — trigger warnings are a matter of medical necessity. But when it comes to who gets to invoke them, there is no medical standard that needs to be invoked at all.

When we talk about “triggers,” are we talking about PTSD? I have read thousands and thousands of words on this subject, and I have no idea. 

Nor is there any notion of how to handle cheating and abuse, because questioning whether someone actually suffered a trauma is considered anathema. This is a constant aspect of contemporary progressive politics: assigning special rights or privileges to groups that have a certain condition, but treating investigating whether someone actually has that condition as the most offensive behavior possible. What are we supposed to do with students who frivolously claim to have suffered trauma? I have been told directly by people who are in favor of trigger warnings that to attempt to determine if someone really has PTSD, or some other, vaguer form of trauma, is to “revictimize” them. So what are educators and institutions supposed to do? The closest thing I get to a response is “no one would  do that.” No one would do that? Really? No college student would take advantage of a special dispensation you’ve created that inarguably gives them a certain amount of transactional power in their interactions with an instructor? There are millions of people in college. They come in all different forms. Many of them are great, both honest and ethical. And some of them are very bad people. So what do we do to decide who can fairly claim to have suffered trauma, and access the special dispensation that might come with it?

Then there’s the fact that, in the actual medical literature on PTSD, triggers are discussed not as intellectual subjects like rape or war but as sensorial impressions like a sound or a small or a play of light. Or the fact that there’s no extant medical literature that demonstrates that trigger warnings actually have provide demonstrable relief to the people who suffer PTSD. That stuff isn’t even discussed.

Finally, there’s the rhetorical condition of the discussion we have. I think this piece from Lindy West emblemizes it:

Maybe we can all get flippant and condescending about trigger warnings after we build a world where more than 3% of rapes lead to conviction, where we don’t shame and blame people for their own victimisation, where men don’t feel entitled to women’s bodies, and where millions of people aren’t moving through life yoked with massive, secret traumas.

This strikes me as a classic example of a common progressive category error: this terrible injustice exists (and it does), so therefore you have to get on board with this heavy-handed policy that cannot possibly actually reduce that injustice. I am totally unclear as to how trigger warnings actually combat any of the problems that West identifies in that paragraph.

But more importantly: how exactly is anyone supposed to have a conversation after a statement like that is made? How are we supposed to sort good from better when the rhetorical cudgels of rape, victim blaming, male entitlement, and secret trauma have been deployed? The trigger warning conversation is so impossible precisely because of tactics like this: using the reality of trauma, and the horrors of trauma, as a means of guilt by association and ratcheting up the emotional stakes of the discussion. The whole conversation tends to get dragged down into recrimination and acrimony precisely because of this kind of argument, which seeks to cast people asking questions and raising concerns as apologists for terrible crimes. How can you have a conversation that way?

I don’t think political correctness is ruining campus, no matter how often I am accused of thinking that. In fact I don’t even like the term “political correctness” at all. I don’t think trigger warnings threaten the fabric of our education system. I do think that there are some legitimate problems with them and their use, and more, with the way that people who advocate for them go about arguing in their favor. And unlike so many others, my concerns in this arena come because I want to spend my life on campus and have direct personal stakes in the health of our institutions. I genuinely believe that there is a meaningful common ground that people can find on this issue. But I have no idea how to find it, when as soon as you raise concerns with the practice, you’re relegated to the role of victim blamer and trauma denier. There’s no way to address this issue constructively under those conditions. None. So the question becomes, as it is for so many other issues within the progressive coalition these days: do we really want to be the side of “you’re either with us or against us”?