Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Good The Bad And The Triggering: Making The Case Against Trigger Warnings

In the recent Guardian article "Trigger Warnings; what should you be told before you read this piece?" Victoria Finan addresses critics who, "say trigger warnings wrap people in cotton wool," by asking, "But don't suffers of post traumatic stress disorder deserve to be warned if content is disturbing?" Using this question as a guide she states he position, in citing three main points: (1) trigger warnings are already used within society, (2) trigger warnings are for those who are sensitive to graphic material, especially after they have suffered or experienced trauma in real life, (3) and overall trigger warnings are an extension of courtesy and good will, thus they are morally and ethically necessary if we want to express our solidarity and care for another person's experience.

Finan is correct to address "trigger warnings" in everyday life. If there is a particularly gruesome scene, a television show will most likely state, "viewer discretion advised." A judge will surely inform the jury when horrific evidence will be displayed to the court. However, even though both of these instances inform the viewer of the graphic image, a juror cannot just get up and turn off the television. To be on a jury you must be selected and undergo being a jury candidate. You are questioned before you can even view any of the ghastly evidence that could possibly trigger you. If you just so happen to be triggered by the questioning, then you will not have the privilege of being part of the jury. Any lawyer worth their salt will make sure to remove someone who has a crippling traumatic experience while being prone to having triggering emotional events by evidence. A juror's judgement may be tainted due to their prior traumatic experience. As for television, these stations are capitalistic, as they work to provide a wide array of channels that will suit specific tastes or in this case triggers. Are we to assume that a company provides multiple channels because they are worried about someone becoming "triggered" by a particular program? No, they care about complaints, bad press, and their bottom line. According to Finan the virtue of tolerance or consideration is what fuels trigger warnings in everyday life, but I beg to differ. Again a juror when part of a court preceding must (if they wish to have an informed decision) view all the evidence presented. Television stations have multiple programming, and in all honesty don't care if a person suffering from PTSD is triggered by a war documentary, but they will inform the viewer of the graphic content, just so they will not be bothered by any complaints as they cross their fingers and hope you visit one of their sister stations. Fundamentally, these graphic warnings are usually meant to alert parents with children present that the material may be unsuitable for a child's age group. It is as if we assume most adults are capable of viewing the material and not being triggered, unless of course you are a college student but we will get to that later.

The second point seems be her best point given that it is hard for the average person to grasp due to its emotional foundation. It usually begins with questions such as, how would I know how someone with a crippling feels when viewing something that even slightly reminds them of a traumatic experience? Shouldn't we do what we can for those within our society who are sensitive to graphic material? Isn't that what we would do for our family, friends, and loved ones? It is here where people lose themselves into an answer that is nothing but unclear, fuzzy, and gray. As a society we want to help those around us who are enduring hardship, especially those who of no fault of their own have to engage with the world around them. A world which can be in many instances cruel and unforgiving to their sensitivities. What must be noted is that if someone does suffer from a traumatic experience that causes them to be triggered by words, or reenactments of actions, or a heinous actions that are displayed to a general audience, this person is needs help beyond a trigger warning. What is ignored by Finan and others, is that we live in a society that does care, so much so that there are doctors, medical facilities, treatment programs, etc, whose purpose is to help those with PTSD so that they can live in a pluralistic and democratic society that will not take into account their sensibilities. Treatment is for the restoration of some normalcy to the life of the victim. Many people understand this treatment as helpful, so it should come as no surprise when I liken trigger warnings to a children's band-aid on a severe gaping wound.

Sleepwalker by Toni Matelli 
Personally, I have never met anyone who both suffers from PTSD and wants trigger warnings to be used throughout academia, media, and anywhere else their sensibilities may be bruised. Nevertheless, everyday we find more instances where trigger warnings are being used to diminish academic freedom and limit freedom of speech rather than what those in favor of trigger warnings contend. The American Association of University Professors when addressing trigger warnings, cited an incident where Wellesley College students objected to "a sculpture of a man in his underwear (entitled Sleepwalker) because it might be a source of 'triggering thoughts regarding sexual assault.' While the student's petition acknowledged that the sculpture might not disturb everyone on campus, it insisted that we share a 'responsibility to pay attention to and attempt to answer the needs of all our community members' Even after the artist explained the figure was supposed to be sleepwalking, students continued to insist it be moved indoors." Although Finan acknowledged that trigger warnings are treated as a joke, and that in some cases trigger warnings hinder free speech, she writes, "but being triggered emotionally, psychologically, is not the same as simply not liking something." She thereby concludes that Time's columnist Mick Humen's statement in which he compares trigger warnings to "wrapping people in cotton wool" as insensitive, "insulting, and dangerous." To this I must ask, what is more dangerous, displaying a public statue of a man in his underwear, or taking the statue down because someone felt it may psychologically harm someone else (of whom they have never met)? In my case, as someone who finds academic freedom to be the foundation of a ideal university, the latter is extremely insulting and dangerous to the function of a University. Are Universities the appropriate venue to treat PTSD? A reasonable person would answer no. The problem with Finan's argument is the assumption that (1) a person who has suffered traumatic experiences will be triggered, and (2) that people will not take advantage of the relative nature of definitions and construe the phrase "trigger warning" to mean "anything I personally find objectionable." Is Finan going to be the one to condemn college students, feminists, the illiberal liberals among us who have decided to push trigger warnings out of the realm of the Internet and into academia? No. This seems to be a task for those of us who promote freedom of speech and intellectual diversity, which I guess is superseded by more important issues such as being offended by a Disney movie because it isn't as feminist as you would have hoped.

It should come as no surprise that Finan's last point slightly offends me, because not only is disagreeing with trigger warnings just an intellectual dispute, it has caused many to label those in disagreement as hateful unethical or immoral people. The devolves into questions of, "We care, why don't you? Aren't you part of a society that wants to treat victims with respect? Do you want to increase the suffering of others?" These questions present a lose-lose scenario, where if you acknowledge them as legitimate you are descending into the realm where feelings formulate the list of inappropriate trigger words, and if you don't answer these questions you will be deemed uncaring, unjust, and even unfit to work in certain professions (such as college professor).

Since I don't care much about losing, I will answer the question with one of my own, are trigger warnings moral? For the purposes of this article, I will concede that they may be ethical, given the nature of society where we must at least act in a way that promotes consideration of the emotions and sensitivities of others. As for the moral worth of putting up a trigger warning, I find that there is none. It is neither moral or immoral to display a trigger warning, but the intention behind the trigger warning is what I find immoral. I understand that trigger warnings may be likened to information about a book. If it is the case that a book contains domestic violence placing a trigger warning could be viewed as just information so the consumer can make an informed purchase, but this is not what trigger warnings are being used to do. Trigger warnings are a means to dissuade a person from purchasing, reading, or engaging in material that would be offensive to others or themselves. Trigger warnings define the action of purchasing, recommending, or viewing material that is categorized as racist, sexist, or homophobic, an immoral action. To put it bluntly, it is pretentious censorship by those who claim moral superiority. For example, if a professor tells their students that in order to participate in classroom discussions you must read F.Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, and the book is accompanied by trigger warnings such as suicide, domestic abuse, and graphic violence, wouldn't the progressive among us say the professor is acting immorally? They would shout that teacher is promoting rape culture, domestic violence, and possibly suicide. The question then becomes if you are promoting the purchase, or reading a book that has trigger words are you also promoting those triggers? This then extends into the author's intent, which will consist of two options: create a piece without triggers, or have triggers within the context of a message that we (progressives) wholeheartedly agree with.

To this I will state something that I have mentioned many times to those who are obviously care more than I: there is no such thing as an evil book. A book, movie, video game, picture, etc, has no agency. Only people can have moral agency. When you are offended at any creation enough to proclaim that the it is sexist, homophobic, misogynist, and/or racist, you're actually implying that the creator is sexist, homophobic, misogynist, and/or racist. Is the creator actually all of those horrid labels and more? Who cares when their creation is going to be held up as the example of their obvious immoral outlook on life. Was it the intent of the creator to create something that offends you? As we can see in the case of Wellesley College, the sculptor's opinion on their creation's triggering nature did not matter in the slightest to those who were offended. To be fair, although the creator's intent would shed some light on why the creation was made, but within the context of determining the morality of the object, I don't believe this matters. A creator has no moral obligation to create something that does not offend someone. If this was the case nothing would be produced. People with the intent to use trigger warnings as a means of hateful disagreement are people who lack the prudence to accept simple truth: there is no evil book, and subsequently no need for trigger words. Therefore the illiberal liberals among us are not just promoting trigger warnings for the purpose of protecting the sensitive as Finan suggests, but for protecting all of us from our own unethical, immoral, and imperfect nature. After all they care, and we don't.

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