The science is in, but don’t expect that to change anything. According to at least 17 recent studies, trigger warnings — those advisories posted ahead of content some readers may find distressing — not only fail to alleviate suffering in the emotionally disturbed but may actually induce greater trauma in those individuals.
There are, to date, no studies that indicate trigger warnings work to their intended purpose. They were dreamed up in the 1970s after psychologists began to diagnose a new condition, post-traumatic stress disorder, in Vietnam War vets. But trigger warnings only reached popular consciousness in the 2010s, when feminist blogs used them ahead of content about sexual violence. You may not like feminist blogs, or sexual violence either, but that at least seems well-intentioned. Although less than 4 percent of the US population has received a PTSD diagnosis, and that number is probably much lower for students, the warnings soon became ubiquitous on college campus texts — so much so that ‘trigger warning’ has become a reliable way of mocking a generation seen as coddled, weak and hypersensitive.
Trigger warnings today extend far beyond watching your friend’s head get blown off in a jungle in southeast Asia or being a rape victim. Instances of trigger warnings on campus have been applied to everything from Shakespeare to The Great Gatsby to Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart to Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, and even the Emancipation Proclamation. They prepare students for — and often allow them to opt out of — engaging with texts that address antisemitism, slavery, alcoholism, racism, colonialism, Nazi symbols, death and ‘toxic parents’.
In a recent YouTube video, a professor discussing trigger warnings tells of a student who asked for one before a reading about the Holocaust. ‘The student also asked for an alternative text because the reading about the Holocaust was too disturbing. Two quick observations,’ the professor, who is against trigger warnings, says. ‘If you read about the Holocaust and are not disturbed, you should really look into the possibility that you are sociopath. Second, there is no alternative to learning about the Holocaust.’
As much as we laugh at people who announce their triggering — and we should laugh at them, for to declare ‘I’m triggered!’ without a hint of irony is to expose oneself as a petty bully and attention-seeker — to be triggered is perfectly natural and, often, good. You don’t have to have been witness to or a victim of violence to get triggered.
Imagine a time you were asked out on a date by someone who reminds you all too well of an ex who deeply betrayed you, or having a friend who drinks too much and whose mere presence transports you to darker days in your youth that you’d prefer to forget. People, sights, and smells trigger past trauma in us daily even if that trauma is not overtly gruesome or evil. In the fight-or-flight response to a perceived threat, feeling triggered tells us to flee. In the above examples, this is the correct response: to protect yourself from possibly being retraumatized. It’s called the gut instinct, and in most situations you’d be smart to listen to it, even if you continually learn that the hard way.
We’ve all been traumatized. It’s a part of living. But not all trauma does or should require months or years in therapy. Sufferers from severe PTSD — the very group trigger warnings were originally intended for — are often encouraged to engage with their trauma and their triggers in a clinical setting, and not to avoid them. Yet a recent Harvard study is one of many that finds trigger warnings cause more distress in people who report having trauma. This makes sense, as trigger warnings only reinforce the sense that trauma is central to one’s identity. Feed the monster and watch it grow.
For everyone else — those among us who are ill-equipped for struggle, who are burgeoning tyrants, or who’d simply like for you to believe they have some unique dark experience that makes them interesting — trigger warnings are little more than a pretext for manipulation. This is how they work for students, who use ‘trauma’ as a lever for exerting control over their professors. As no one on campus dares to smack them down and put the little brats in their place, their thirst for clout metastasizes with each success until they are truly prepared for the adult world of work.
The fledgling manipulator enters the real world and goes on to nag and bully HR departments and media conglomerates. Trigger warnings may be one of the harmless perversions of higher education — they allow students to skip their homework and avoid grappling with difficult subjects — but their incipient evil lies in their granting power to those who haven’t earned it and don’t know how to wield it. This is a recipe for the downfall of civilization.
Here’s a lesson for students: you can’t engineer ugliness and suffering from the world, despite the century-long efforts to do so from one side of the political spectrum. The more you try, the worse things inevitably become. And if you choose to shield yourself from monstrousness, can you ever say you lived?
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s November 2021 World edition.