Rejecting triggers ignores trauma’s lasting memories

In response to many of the negative reactions to the VSA’s resolution in support of the use of trigger warnings, we would like to clarify what triggers are, how they affect the Vassar community, and how trigger warnings will be used.

“Trigger” does not simply denote content that is emotionally intense or heavy, but rather content that prompts someone to re-experience feelings of trauma. Both Drama Department chair Gabrielle Cody, quoted in the Miscellany News’ article on trigger warnings (“VSA considers trigger warning resolution,” 11.29.2012), and Josh Solomon in his opinion piece last week (“VSA’s new trigger warning requirement detrimental to student events, courses,” 12.06.2012) seemed to use the word “trigger” to refer to material that is intensely thought-provoking, while we, and the VSA in its resolution, are using the word “trigger” as a psychological term to denote something that will cause an individual who has experienced trauma to re-experience that trauma in some way.

Although we all experience and deal with trauma and triggers in different ways, we want to provide a few examples of what being triggered can feel like. From both our own personal experiences and from experiences that others have shared with us, here are some examples of how Vassar students have experienced being triggered by campus events: having flashbacks to the original occurrence of trauma; intense anxiety and difficulty breathing, sometimes resulting in panic attacks; intense, all-consuming fear; inability to focus or function due to intrusive thoughts about trauma or heightened emotional stress; as well as other, individualized physical and emotional reactions.

We are not talking about abstract concepts here. These are actual reactions to trauma and to being triggered that are actually experienced by students on this campus, and are reactions that could have been avoided had students been given fair warning that events contained triggering material.

Trigger warnings can help to prevent these experiences in numerous ways. In some cases, students may decide not to go to an event. In other cases, simply having seen the warning may allow any given student to mentally prepare themselves to see potentially triggering material. Students may plan extra free time for after the event takes place so that they can engage in self-care practices if they are triggered, or they may ask a close friend to come and support them through the event. Everyone has their own different ways of coping and protecting their mental health, and having warnings about triggering content allows students to plan ahead and take better care of themselves.

Asking that potentially triggering content be appropriately labeled to allow those of us who have experienced trauma to ensure our own well-being has nothing to do with censorship. Content will in no way be restricted, nor will it even be affected. The only change that is being made is that a small warning will be added to programming, and we are only asking for this change because the current system has NOT been effective, and has resulted in students unnecessarily re-experiencing various forms of trauma.

Students’ exercising their own “discretion” as to whether or not a trigger warning is needed has not been working for the most part. We were distressed to read that Josh Solomon considered an “independent moderator” at a talkback to be an appropriate substitute for a trained CARES counselor for students who may have had to re-experience trauma without forewarning. This reflects a lack of understanding that being triggered is different from simply being provoked to think. A talkback would probably not be helpful for someone who had been triggered, as a talkback is meant to discuss potentially provocative or difficult material, not address experiences of trauma.

Further, talkbacks or other measures taken after the fact are not an appropriate substitute for forewarning individuals. We understand that theater groups in particular are concerned about plot spoilers, but warnings about thematic elements (i.e. relationship abuse) are not the same as divulging the entirety of the plot. Audience members may be aware of themes and plots of productions for a variety of reasons, and this does not reduce enjoyment or artistic merit of any given play or other event; indeed, it is quite uncommon for anyone to go to an event they know absolutely nothing about. Reducing the likelihood that students who attend plays and other events will unexpectedly re-experience past trauma contributes to the goal of engaging audiences in provocative and enjoyable art.

We don’t expect trigger warnings to be perfect, or that their implementation will mean no one on this campus will ever be triggered again. Of course that is impossible, but by using trigger warnings when event organizers do know that attendees will be exposed to triggering content, we can work together to reduce the extent to which students at Vassar re-experience trauma.

We hope that this has clarified why we feel that trigger warnings are important and how they will be implemented and used. We understand that many students may still be concerned, and we hope that we can continue to engage in dialogue about trigger warnings. Please feel free to email either or both of us at ([email protected]) or ([email protected]) if you have further concerns or questions.

—Kaylee Knowles ’13 and Faren Tang ’13 are Women’s Studies majors.

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