Trigger warnings do not restrict choice

I have encountered a variety of negative responses to VSA Resolution 27-4, which was passed by VSA Council on Sunday, Dec. 2. The resolution stated that Council would seek to expand the use of trigger warnings on campus, by asking Campus Activities to add them to the SARC event registration form and by asking faculty to add them to the Course Catalogue. Various complaints have been voiced, none of which pertain in the slightest to the resolution: trigger warnings are not an unreasonable dispensation for the students they benefit, they are not obtrusive or prominent, they are neither an obstruction nor an inconvenience. They are not censorship. Trigger warnings are a simple action that we can all take to show our respect for the mental well-being of others.

I am the author of this resolution, but it was written in collaboration with and at the urging of Vassar students. I’d like to clear up a couple of points, briefly, because I think that most of the complaints and objections have been born of misunderstanding rather than genuine disagreement. The most troubling of these to me is the failure to distinguish between a warning about content in general (a content warning) and a warning about content that might be triggering (a trigger warning). The two differ in their target audience and in their intended effect: a content warning applies to any potential viewer or audience member, and its purpose is to alert them all to the potentially aversive nature of the text, image, sound, film, or other medium regardless of their individual history or background.

By contrast, a trigger warning is intended only for potential audience members who are trauma survivors. It is not a statement about the general nature of the content; it’s a safety advisory about a particular potential reaction, one that’s contingent on a traumatic history. To the members of Council, promoting the widespread use of trigger warnings is a recognition of the needs of those who have survived traumatic experiences; they do not in any way pass judgment on the safety, quality, enjoyability, or value of an event or medium. Of course, no list of potentially triggering content can ever be exhaustive, but we can at least try to respect those around us as well as we are able.

There have been other forms of confusion as well. Several students have expressed concern that widespread use of trigger warnings will in some way dilute their effect. Council wishes to promote the use of trigger warnings because it will have precisely the opposite effect: it will help students understand their purpose and remember to look for them.

I have been told by some representatives of theatre groups that trigger warnings can spoil the plots of shows or, alternately, that some art is meant to be triggering. Moving beyond the fact that in both cases appreciation of student theatre has been prioritized over basic mental health, we ought to be clear that neither of these objections actually obtains. Art is not meant to be triggering any more than strobe lights are used in order to cause seizures. Art can be intended to produce profound emotional effects, or to force us to confront our emotions and to feel deeply what we usually do not. This is not the same as being triggered. Being triggered is harmful, painful, negative. It has no upside, no introspective value. It is psychologically damaging, not conducive to personal growth. In response to the first objection, I argue that it’s nothing more than a challenge of phrasing to word a trigger warning carefully in order to preserve the aesthetic experience of a show and yet alert audience members when content might be triggering for them. The wording can be flexible; our resolution does nothing more than ask event organizers to self-identify some types of content that can commonly be triggering, and suggest wording for a trigger warning. It requires nothing, constrains nothing, and includes no details of font size or location on your event advertisements.

In the realm of art more generally, there remains the censorship objection: trigger warnings censor artists’ work, preventing them from expressing their creativity. I can guarantee that the Council has no intention of censoring anything whatsoever. We are trying to encourage basic precautions to preserve students’ mental health. Trigger warnings don’t prevent anything from taking place or being put on display, which is a minimal requirement for censorship. More than this, the only time a trigger warning would ever prevent someone from attending an event or taking a class is if that person is likely to be triggered by attending, in which case the effect is no more censorship of art than is labeling allergens in food is censorship of cooking.

Finally, the VSA Council has no desire to impinge on the academic, intellectual, artistic, or organizational freedom of any member of the Vassar community. Our intent was to raise awareness of trigger warnings, and to ask that all of us weigh our objections carefully against the potential beneficial effects. We ask only that you make the choice to use or not use trigger warnings deliberately, and be clear about your reasons. What exactly is more important to you than the basic mental health of another person?

—Matt Harvey ’13 is a Neuroscience & Behavior and Cognitive Science double major. He is VSA Vice President for Academics.

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