Safety First? Trigger Warnings and Constructive Dialogue

Are trigger warnings helpful? Trigger warnings prevent those of us who are victims of trauma from being subjected to an associative emotional pain. Trigger warnings are not meant to be an excuse to disengage, but rather an opportunity for self-care. As I work with students, I have been debating when, how, and why to use trigger warnings — wanting to stay current with students and the changing environment on many campuses.

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Editors Note: A trigger is something that reminds a person of a past traumatic experience. A trigger warning alerts an individual that something disturbing — an unsettling piece of information or experience — is about to follow.

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If you do not understand the purpose of trigger warnings, these few questions might help to provide perspective: Have you ever found yourself remembering an event so traumatic that you are frozen in fear? Have you ever been awakened in the middle of the night because of a scary movie you watched? Have you ever shuddered in discomfort or fear thinking about some object reminiscent of or connected tangentially to a phobia? These feelings are akin to (but different from) what someone who is triggered might feel.

My personal struggle focuses on whether or not safe spaces that ensure trigger warnings are — in the long run — helpful. For example, a teacher preparing a class discussion on domestic abuse and violence could issue a warning so that students who have experienced any personal violence are informed and allowed to disengage from the lesson rather than possibly experience a retraumatization. In this case, the student opts out of the conversation. But, sometimes, staying engaged in a conversation about a traumatic issue helps the individual to stretch, to grow, and to learn. And we also have to ask whether a trigger warning lessens the effectiveness of a presentation. Will trigger warnings deprive the student of opportunities to engage in conversations that are painful but productive?

A few weeks ago, I spoke on a panel about the experiences that LGBTQ+ youth face when they are homeless. To begin the discussion, we showed a video that depicted a young man being thrown out of his home and forced to live on the streets. The video also contained references to rape, domestic abuse, and other violence, as it was intended to show the audience the very brutal reality of the lives of some homeless youths. Before screening the video, we gave a trigger warning. We wanted to alert the audience in case there were people present who had themselves been victims of this type of trauma. Everyone stayed to watch the video in its entirety.

The warning did not diminish the impact of the film. Rather, it may have provided an even greater opportunity to engage more deeply and meaningfully in a tense dialogue because the warning served as a guide to how difficult the conversation would be. Participants in the room could ready themselves for a gripping video and the painful conversation that followed, which challenged the perspectives of most in the room by graphically describing the physical and emotional vicissitudes of homelessness. The audience was compelled to acknowledge and face their own biases, ignorance, and complacency.

Machlochet l’shem shamayim (conflict for the sake of heaven) is the notion that it is a positive thing to engage in constructive argumentation and conflict. In a meeting, classroom lesson, or community program focusing on a difficult topic — such as the future of democracy in Israel or hate crimes against LGBTQ+ individuals and communities — I wonder whether a trigger warning would help people to engage more deeply in a conversation that might otherwise be too emotionally toxic.Constructive conflict sometimes pushes people to the edge of their comfort — especially if it drives them to consider the veracity of what they think they know to be true. In order for this struggle with knowledge to be fruitful, a person must be properly prepared to engage. And trigger warnings can be used as a part of the prelude to that process. Such conflict helps us to vet ideas, and when this is done for the betterment of others or ourselves, it is considered machlochet l’shem shamayim.

Author

Joseph Levin-Manning

Joseph Levin-Manning

Joseph Levin-Manning is a MBA student with a focus on management and leadership at the University of Maryland, College Park. He has been on staff at several Hillel programs and he now works as the graduate coordinator for LGBTQ+ programs at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

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Safety First? Trigger Warnings and Constructive Dialogue

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