On Trusting People: Why Content Warnings Matter

One recent evening, a friend and I had a short talk about trigger warnings on readings in college classrooms. My friend had been in an English composition class where this subject came up, and we started talking about it because of how simple my friend’s answer had been in class. My friend said they didn’t think trigger warnings were necessary. I should have delved into why they thought this, but I didn’t — it didn’t even occur to me because I was so caught up in my own narrative.

I remember when I would have agreed with my friend.

And I remember transitioning to being on the fence about it. And then disagreeing, so hard.

I remember agreeing with this when I believed people would use trigger warnings in classrooms as an excuse to not do a reading or watch a film or whatever other thing was assigned — which is to say, I didn’t give my classmates or my students much credit. These are the same ideas trotted out, again and again, by people who are like I used to be — people deeply cynical of others, and their motivations and/or work ethic, or skeptical of other people’s experiences with pain (as in: “You must read about X to understand X because you can’t possibly have experienced X and this is the only way you can learn, here let me explain X to you even though I may also never have experienced X.”). People who believe people need to be “guided” to the “right” ideas or version of history and that there is, in fact, a limited number of right ideas, at least when it comes to experiencing the world. People, like the person I used to be, who eschewed trigger warnings as a way of saying “I’m strong enough not to need trigger warnings because I’m so not impacted by this thing (that I am, when I’m being honest with myself, deeply impacted by), because I refuse to give those who hurt me more power.” People who, mostly, haven’t explored their position of privilege or power or plausible deniability.

I don’t remember what moved me to an “on the fence” position, but I do remember what caused me to move to being in the “pro” put trigger warnings on things camp. It was articles like this one. And, about fifteen months ago, there were so many articles discussing the pros and cons of trigger warnings.

But what I said to my friend was a condensed version of this: I’m in favor of trigger warnings — or what are more frequently being called content warnings, with a brief depiction of what the upsetting content might contain — because, for me, it’s never been about not reading an article or not seeing a movie or otherwise isolating myself. It’s been about making sure that I’m in the place — mentally, emotionally, and sometimes physically — to be okay after I get through that content. Because, depending on what’s there, I might shut down. For me, this outwardly means assuming the flat affect that I maintained for so much of my younger life. The one that had partners and teachers and friends all telling me some variation of “You’re so hard to read.” Later, it may manifest as me lashing out at someone I care about because I’m feeling vulnerable and scared and hurt and sad.DSCN8413

Internally, it may show up as tunnel vision or my muscles tensing or nausea or sudden sleepiness or remembering certain aspects of being raped or being molested as a kid or groped by so many boys and men who thought my body was their right. It may mean my heart rate increases or that my fight or flight or freeze instinct has kicked in and I’m hyperaware of every detail — and the world is also moving like molasses and too bright and the corners too sharp. It may show up as boatloads of self-doubt or berating my body and a renewed awareness of calories in and calories out. It may come as the wharf rats that haunt the edges of my soul, carriers of darkness and depression.

It may mean that later I turn to some self-destructive habit because those habits are the ways I learned to cope before I learned healthier ways to cope — and those healthy ways seem so inaccessible when I’m shut down. They aren’t as ingrained. They aren’t as instantly resonant.

I sometimes — though less frequently with time, healing, and beginning to learn to love myself fiercely thanks to all the people who have loved me unconditionally through some of my most fragile and dark days — need to take space before proceeding, and content warnings give me that opportunity.

And that’s okay.

And I am not alone in needing to take that space. I am certainly not alone in living with trauma. And I’m lucky that my other privileges have protected me so much — even in the trauma I’ve experienced. Content warnings aren’t going to make people softer or shield us forever from some dark truth about the underbelly of the human experience. They aren’t in place to coddle anyone. The world doesn’t so much allow for .coddling. Because the truth of the matter — and so many, too many people know this far too intimately — is that the world is a fucked up place. It’s especially fucked up if you’re from any marginalized community, because there are (frequently) microagressions every single day. Sometimes, just getting out of bed and doing it — whatever it is — is challenge enough.

Content warnings allow people to ready themselves, to engage with material — or to say, “You know what, I’ve lived this. I don’t need to engage with this exact material in this moment.” And that’s okay too, if we trust people.

I don’t write this to point fingers. I write this because I didn’t realize the extent to which this is still conversation is still happening in academia. I write this because I think we need to be talking about how we can create trauma-informed spaces for learning, and this can include content warnings.


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