Trigger Warnings, Microaggressions, and the War Against "Over-Sensitivity"

My newest piece at the Daily Dot examines the backlash against “over-sensitivity” online.

A group of Columbia University students have ignited the latest battle in the online war over trigger warnings by asking professors to include them before teaching classics that feature detailed rape scenes, such as certain Greek myths. Predictably, their own classmates have responded with insults and thinly veiled rape threats in the comments sections of the Columbia Spectator story.

Lest it seem that these students are asking for some extreme and unreasonable accommodation, consider this: Have you ever had a friend invite you to see a movie and asked them to warn you if the movie has graphic violence in it? If so, congratulations, you’ve asked for a trigger warning. It’s unlikely, as Michael E. Miller writes in Post, that trigger warnings are a “treatment [Greek myth] never had before.” Surely someone has at some point handed their friend a book of Greek mythology and said, “Watch out though, there’s kinda a lot of rape in there.”

The outrage over trigger warnings (in college syllabi and elsewhere) is just one example of the online backlash against supposed “over-sensitivity.”

Microaggressions, which have long been discussed in academic circles but recently made more well-known by college students’ awareness campaigns, are another frequent target. National Review referred to the effort to reduce microaggressions as “thought police.” Reason advised voters to be “less sensitive” to microaggressions. The Atlantic offered some helpful advice: “Instead, let’s focus on acts of aggression that are far from micro.” The message seems to be that what you don’t think about can’t hurt you.

When I read any one of these many panicked screeds, what I see on the surface is fear that things that have always functioned a certain way (i.e., college classrooms, corporate offices, online comments sections, and casual conversations) will no longer be able to function that way. Now we have to be “sensitive.” Now we can’t make lewd comments about a female colleague’s body. Now we can’t ask an Asian classmate which “type of Asian” he is.

But it goes deeper. People are worried that they’ll have to care about all these problems they never even knew existed, that they’ll be seen as bad people if they do not care, and that they won’t know all the right words to say and will say the wrong words instead. And that’s a real fear.

But it’s a fear few want to acknowledge, because it’s so deeply uncool to admit that you care what people think of you. So instead, it becomes about how college students are So Whiny And Coddled These Days and how will we ever be able to have a conversation if we have to be So Sensitive all the time?

Read the rest here.

Trigger Warnings, Microaggressions, and the War Against "Over-Sensitivity"

10 thoughts on “Trigger Warnings, Microaggressions, and the War Against "Over-Sensitivity"

  1. 1

    it’s so deeply uncool to admit that you care what people think of you.

    Now that’s a very interesting observation… And very much a double-edged sword: obviously there is something to be said for not being overly burdened by worries about other people’s opinions, but by the same token, there is a great deal to be said for basic politeness and common courtesy. It brings to mind a number of points from this article on “Parisian Gentleman” concerning the art of conversation:

    Call it freedom of speech or the new wave of the “me generation” where self-interest rules. Call it rebellion against the establishment or call it “venting”…but whatever you call it, you may admit that the way societies have abandoned the pursuit of gentlemanly behavior feels like something of a loss.

    The lyrics from the 50 Cent rap song “Be a Gentleman” tells us: It’s best you be a gentleman and you watch what you say. This dictate hits an artery with a curt summary of how to behave by simply watching what you say. Simple enough. After all, what else can heal or harm, create war or peace, scar or mend, and motivate or debilitate the human spirit more than words?

    We crave words that make us feel good, supported or at least motivated and we can give words to affect the day of other people. And [Arthur] Martine’s [1866] text [“Martine’s Handbook of Etiquette, and Guide to True Politeness”] shows us that conversation is not only about using words, but also about restraining from the use of words. While some people are proud of their lack of restraint in guarding their words, these same people can become tiring after a while, as their demeanor feels lazy…as if no effort is put into considering anyone except themselves. […] He gives us these words:

    “[Politeness]… is a ceremonial, agreed upon and established among mankind, to give each other external testimonies of friendship or respect. Politeness and etiquette form a sort of supplement to the law, which enables society to protect itself against offenses which the law cannot touch. For instance, the law cannot punish a man for habitually staring at people in an insolent and annoying manner, but etiquette can banish such an offender from the circles of good society, and fix upon him the brand of vulgarity.”

    Re-reading that article, I’m also struck by how much Arthur Martine’s 1866 list of conversational styles to avoid reads like a modern bestiary of internet trolls…

  2. 2

    From what I have seen, it seems more that there is a concern that if a student can’t handle what they might find in an assigned reading, then they should be seeking professional aid to help them properly function in a school environment. There is a worry that content warnings encourage an avoidance of improvement or healing. It is debated that one cannot understand a literary work if one has skipped entire sections of it.

    Many feel that content warnings are also an attempt to make professors responsible for the mental health of their students, and they allow a student to avoid their anxieties instead of seeking to treat them.

    1. 2.1

      Actually, many (if not most) people who are dealing with trauma on that level are already seeking professional help. Even years of therapy can’t necessarily undo triggers. And trigger warnings are usually a way for someone to engage with content (by being forewarned and not freaking out and having a panic attack) rather than avoid it. It’s a common talking point that people use TWs to avoid things, but it’s not really the way most people use them.

      Learning to cope with trauma isn’t a one-step process: expose oneself to trauma, heal. It takes years or decades of constant work. In the meantime, people should be able to sit in a college classroom without having flashbacks and panic attacks, and trigger warnings for graphically violent content are a really cheap, easy, and quick way to prevent a lot of unnecessary pain.

    2. xyz

      Lyssa, those concerns seem pretty paternalistic and concern-trolly to me. Let me explain: I’m a recovered eating disorder sufferer, and I still have triggers. Some of them are mundane, everyday things that noone would consider giving a trigger warning for. Some of them are more extreme, outré stuff like so-called “pro-ana” rhetoric that I believe always deserves a trigger warning. In talking with other people who have trauma, I’ve learned that this is a common pattern – many of our triggers are things that only hold that meaning to us personally. Basically, we have to confront everyday triggers pretty damn often, more often than people without major trauma can really imagine.

      So it’s not like getting a heads-up that I’m about to hear pro-ana rhetoric in a classroom would somehow allow me to stick my head in the sand and not work on my coping skills ever. What it would do is allow me to prepare myself for triggering language, leave the room to give myself a break if needed, etc. A trigger warning in the classroom isn’t an example of a teacher being forced to take control of my mental health – it’s a teacher being thoughtful enough to give me and those like me a more exact control of our own mental health. An actual example of a teacher making mental health decisions for their students? Would be a teacher deciding “Oh, a trigger warning would just help my students coddle themselves. If they can’t handle this, they should be in therapy. I won’t give a trigger warning on this clearly disturbing content – I’ll let the chips fall as they may.” Why should a teacher feel comfortable issuing that kind of ultimatum on who belongs in their classroom?

      By the way, I now do some academic work about racism, and I do give trigger warnings by simply saying, “This presentation will involve showing you some racist rhetoric [or depictions of Black people, or white supremacist violence… etcetera]. Just a heads up. I don’t mind if anyone leaves the room.” No one has left the room yet – but I have been thanked for the warning.

    3. 2.3

      You are aware that mental health issues are covered under ADA, and that colleges and universities have an obligation to make accommodations so as to be accessible to students with disabilities and chronic health conditions? This is something you have to deal with as an instructor.

      With mental health issues, is the real answer ‘come back to school when you’re completely fixed to the satisfaction of the instructor?’ That seems a big ableist. People don’t ask to go through trauma and they don’t ask to have ongoing issues. I’d rather accommodate students with trigger warnings. I didn’t really teach subjects where those came up much, but it just seems like a pretty low-effort thing that could be pretty helpful.

  3. 3

    The main thing I don’t understand about Trigger Warnings is that it seems to me like it should be Content Warnings instead. I know that’s super pedantic but it just seems more descriptive. Talking about triggers is confusing because many triggers are from mundane things so it’s not like you’re going to put a trigger warning on all the things that could trigger people. But even on the flipside, someone may not have a trigger for sexual assault but still might want a warning that sexual assault is in the content.

    Like there are definitely people who are basically trolls, but often I get the impression that it’s a bizarre semantic issue that people react really negatively toward. Like if it was a Content Warning then nobody would care.

  4. 4

    doublereed: I agree that “Content Warning” is probably a much better (and more accurate) label than “Trigger Warning”. It’s such a great idea/insight that… I wish I’d thought of it.

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