The Collective Gaslighting of the Trigger Warning Debate

I consider emotions to be a valuable source of information. When I noticed that I was getting much more emotional about the trigger warning debate than about most of the topics I write about–sensitive and personal as they often are–I knew something was up.

Both the content and the tone of the debate has been making me feel very angry, frustrated, and hopeless. The anger is a different sort of anger than the one I sometimes feel when engaging with discussions about sexual violence, homophobia, or other issues–issues that affect me much more strongly and urgently than trigger warnings. That anger is one of passion; this is one of defeat.

I don’t even really need trigger warnings very much. I am no longer a student (thank literally every possible god), and in the situations where I do find trigger warnings very helpful, they are typically provided, because the people in my life care about accommodating people with trauma and mental illness backgrounds.

So why the anger and hopelessness? Why the “taking it personally,” as some 3edgy5u conservative dude would probably love to accuse?

I realized that the debate on trigger warnings has largely turned into a sort of collective gaslighting.

I don’t use that word lightly. Gaslighting means denying someone’s thoughts, feelings, or perceptions so that they end up doubting their own reality. It’s not the same as arguing with someone’s opinions or with their interpretations of their perceptions. If a patient sees a doctor and says, “I have a headache and I think it must be brain cancer,” it’s not gaslighting for the doctor to say, “Well, I doubt it’s cancer. Let’s check it out.” It is gaslighting for the doctor to say, “Oh, come on, you’re probably just imagining it. There’s nothing wrong with you.”

So before you jump in with Just Because We Disagree With You About Trigger Warnings Doesn’t Mean We’re Abusing You Oh My God, I’ll draw a very fine distinction.

Yes, not all anti-trigger warning arguments are gaslighting. For instance, it’s not gaslighting to say, “I hear that you want this accommodation, but we can’t provide it because [reasons].” It’s not even gaslighting to say, “I hear that trigger warnings help you, but the research shows that they may do more harm than good in the long-term.” I still disagree with that, because the classroom is not the place for exposure therapy and exposure therapy cannot proceed without informed consent and trigger warnings. But at least that doesn’t deny anyone’s internal experiences.

What’s gaslighting is when we say, “We need trigger warnings in order to be able to engage with content rather than automatically shut down,” and you respond, “You’re just trying to avoid engaging with difficult content.”

If people are telling you that they are trying to engage with trauma-related material and you insist that they’re actually saying that they want to avoid it–or literally ban it from being taught–you are gaslighting them. You are insisting that you know better than they do what’s inside their own heads. You are pretending that they said something other than what they actually said, making them doubt their own thoughts and words.

That gaslighting has affected me. I’ve spent months, years, however long this bullshit debate has gone on, wondering if I’m just being unclear, if something in the words I’m using somehow communicates “I want to ban trauma-related material from college classrooms and I want students to never engage with it,” because that’s what people keep telling me I’m saying. Literally, I would write out all these in-depth articles like I always do and people would comment “So you just want to stop professors from teaching anything that ‘triggers’ you” or “But it’s important to engage with challenging material.” As if I ever even implied that it wasn’t.

There is nothing wrong with my communication except perhaps that I’m too charitable. The problem is that people insist that I literally spoke or wrote different words than the ones I actually spoke or wrote. They don’t even say, “I know you said this, but I think you really meant [blahblahblah].” They simply proceed with the argument as if I’d said, “Professors should not teach material that may trigger students” or “Students should feel free to avoid any reading assignment they find challenging without any consequences.”

I also wouldn’t care that much if it were only happening to me, because then I probably would just write it off as a quirk of my writing style. But I’ve been seeing it all over the internet. It happens in comment threads on Facebook and it happens in opinion pieces published in major outlets.

#NotAll anti-trigger warning opinions are framed in a gaslighting way, but many are. And no, it’s not enough to claim “Well some students at [university] do actually want to ban everything triggering from the curriculum,” not only because I have yet to see any evidence that that’s happening but also because they aren’t who you’re arguing with. If you’re presenting me with a claim I disagree with, then I need to argue with the claim you made, not with another, barely-related claim. (In fact, the idea of including trigger warnings in syllabi is literally incompatible with the idea of banning triggering material from the curriculum. It makes no sense to advocate for both of those things. If someone is advocating for trigger warnings, then by definition there is something still there to be warned about.)

I am willing to grant that in many of these arguments, the gaslighting is probably unintentional because their reading comprehension is simply that bad. Obviously if you can’t understand what someone is arguing, you are liable to argue against something other than what they argued. But 1) it doesn’t have to be intentional to be gaslighting, and 2) I simply can’t believe that all of these journalists and professors are that bad at reading.

I also don’t want to imply that every time you misunderstand someone’s argument and argue against something other than what they said, that’s gaslighting. It definitely isn’t. But when someone is including their personal experiences as part of their argument–a perfectly valid thing to do when the topic concerns mental health and education–then you need to respond to their argument without denying their own experience.

If I say: “I need trigger warnings so that I can engage with material related to sexual assault without shutting down and dissociating,” here are some responses that are gaslighting:

  • “You just want to avoid difficult material.”
  • “So you’re saying that professors shouldn’t ever teach anything related to sexual assault.”
  • “Come on, I’m sure you’re making it sound worse than it is.”
  • “Yeah, well, a college classroom can’t be your therapy session.”

Here are some responses that are not gaslighting:

  • “That’s valid, but we can’t require professors to include trigger warnings because that goes against our policy.”
  • “I hear you, but my concern is that other students will use that as a way to skip readings not because of any personal trauma, but because they just don’t want to confront that subject.”
  • “Sure, sexual assault is a common trigger and easy to warn about, but how could we possibly implement trigger warnings that account for all of our students’ various traumatic experiences?”
  • “But some students say they find trigger warnings harmful. How would you accommodate them?”
  • “Is there any other way the university community could support you without requiring that professors implement trigger warnings?”

I don’t agree with all of these hypothetical responses, but they at least do not rest on a willful misinterpretation of what I said. If I say I need trigger warnings to engage with something, then it’s not your place to disagree with that unless you are a mental health professional working with me and you have strong evidence that I’m misinterpreting what’s going on, and even then that is a conversation to be approached very, very carefully.

(In fact, as a therapist, I often have to gently nudge clients into letting go of interpretations that are not accurate or helpful. But as a therapist, I also have access to a lot more information than most other people do. I don’t have to claim that my client is lying; I can just make observations about their own statements and behavior. For instance, if a client who has a substance use problem and has relapsed says, “Actually, I can control my use,” I don’t need to disagree with their experience. All I have to say is, “I hear that you feel in control of your use. I’m wondering how that fits with what you told me about last week, when you drank enough to black out and say some things to your partner that you regretted.” And guess what? If I have no evidence that they can’t control their use, then I nod and ask them to tell me more about that and keep my baseless assumptions to myself.)

You might disagree that this type of discourse is harming anyone, even though it operates as gaslighting. Maybe it hasn’t harmed me all that much, all things considered. But I still wonder why we shouldn’t aim for debates in which people respond to what was said rather than continuing to read from their own personal script that they wrote before even engaging in the debate.

That’s why I don’t argue about trigger warnings anymore. (No, this isn’t me having an argument with you. This is a blog post and my comments are still closed.) I’m tired of being gaslit and I’m not going to allow it to continue.


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The Collective Gaslighting of the Trigger Warning Debate
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