For a certain kind of centrist liberal who is hypervigilant about the re-emergence of ’90s-era “political correctness,” the phrase trigger warning can be a little triggering. In theory, trigger warnings are merely little content notes for those who need a little more mental preparation for emotionally taxing material. But for some the phrase induces flashbacks and cold sweats, as if the P.C. police were about to forcibly convert you to spelling women as womyn.
Jeet Heer of the New Republic has an interesting rejoinder to those who are triggered every time a professor entertains the possibility of using trigger warnings in class. Trigger warnings, Heer argues, are less a product of “radical freaks” dominating academia and social media and more the result of “a thriving vernacular therapeutic culture, where ordinary citizens borrow concepts from psychology and use them as tools of self-improvement, often, in the process, forming distinct political and social identities.” Specifically, Heer argues, it’s not knee-jerk political correctness but the widespread popular understanding of post-traumatic stress disorder that’s at the root of this new enthusiasm for content warnings and safe spaces.
PTSD first emerged with veterans suffering from recurrent flashbacks to war trauma. The diagnosis has expanded as scientific evidence on memory has backed up the idea that “for certain people the memory of a trauma always exists, lying just below the surface of consciousness, ready to be triggered.” There’s also a growing belief—which surely needs more research—that even people who don’t have PTSD diagnoses can still be “triggered” into unnecessary emotional suffering when unpleasant memories are dredged up.
Trigger warnings, while imperfect, are usually attempts to reduce the chances of causing unnecessary pain to people with mental health issues. Many of the defenses of trigger warnings are persuasive. If your goal is for people to engage thoughtfully with emotionally challenging material, and that material causes a panic reaction, the lack of a trigger warning might actually be counterproductive to the ostensible goal of free discourse. Giving people a little mental space to prepare can make it easier for them to engage.
But while most of trigger warnings’ proponents mean well, there’s no scientific evidence to suggest that these warnings can prevent panic attacks or other manifestations of PTSD. As practiced in the real world, the trigger warning is less about preventive mental health care and more about social signaling of liberal credentials. You often see them being deployed online in feminist blog posts directly under a headline that has already told you what kind of material you’re dealing with. (In fact, the headline itself may have needed its own trigger warning.) Telling your audience twice only serves to let them know you’re a member of the trigger-warning tribe.
There is no doubt that the concept of trauma and triggers is being weaponized by some censorious lefties trying to score points. Everything from the Cancel Colbert dust-up to attempts to remove a silly statue from the Wellesley campus to the recent inchoate rage at Game of Thrones show that certain left-wingers will resort to insinuations of mass trauma if we don’t give into their demands.
On the other hand, none of it worked. Colbert got promoted. The Wellesley statue remains. Game of Thrones will continue to make bank for HBO. The P.C. police might irritate you, but they can’t parlay trigger warnings into a serious threat of censorship. When cautioning others not to be oversensitive, make sure to check yourself first.