Warned Too Late: Triggers and Television

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One of my favorite quotes in Alice in Wonderland is said by the Caterpillar: “Wait!” he tells Alice, who is hastening on her way. “I have something important to say!”

Ultimately, that’s why I’m writing about trigger warnings now. I know the subject has already been put through its paces, all over the media, for three years at least. Still, dear reader, tarry a moment. I have something important to say.

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You know, when I was a young director, and I directed the Bacchae at Yale, my impulse, when Pentheus has been killed by his mother and the Furies, and they….cut off his head, my impulse was that the thing to do was to get a head from the New Haven morgue and pass it around the audience. I wanted Agave to bring on a real head and that this head should be passed around the audience so that somehow people realized that this stuff was real, see, that it was real stuff. Now, the actress playing Agave absolutely refused to do it..
-Andre Gregory, My Dinner with Andre

I’m sensitive, and I’d like to stay that way.
-Jewel

Trigger warnings are useless. If you don’t believe me, read this succinct, excellent Wikipedia article on “trauma triggers.” It cites actual specialists in the psychology of trauma:

In an interview about trigger warnings for The Daily Telegraph, Professor Metin Basoglu, a psychologist internationally recognised for his trauma research, said that “instead of encouraging a culture of avoidance, [the media] should be encouraging exposure. Most trauma survivors avoid situations that remind them of the experience. Avoidance means helplessness and helplessness means depression. That’s not good.” Richard J. McNally, a Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, wrote in the Pacific Standard that “trigger warnings are designed to help survivors avoid reminders of their trauma, thereby preventing emotional discomfort. Yet avoidance reinforces PTSD. Conversely, systematic exposure to triggers and the memories they provoke is the most effective means of overcoming the disorder.” McNally’s article cites several academic studies of PTSD sufferers in support of these claims.

In other words, even if mandatory trigger warnings didn’t threaten both academic freedoms and the intellectual scope of college classes, they would still be inadvisable from a purely therapeutic standpoint. Avoidance is not a viable strategy for coping with PTSD. Admittedly, encountering a graphic scene of violence in a novel is not “systematic exposure” to a trigger, but it is a heavily mediated trigger. As text, it is apprehended indirectly, through the imagination. The classroom is a relatively safe space, one where students can and do have panic attacks and suddenly depart without explanation. Students express minority views, challenge their professors, and ask for sympathy from their teachers and peers. While exposure to a trigger can be unpleasant, it is not dangerous or psychologically harmful. On the other hand, it may very well be psychologically harmful for students to insulate themselves against such moments, especially when the classroom gives them a built-in forum for working through their reactions to strongly affecting works of art.

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Trauma triggers are not analogous to the things we’d perhaps like them to resemble, such as disabilities or allergies. They’re not like allergies because, again, they’re not harmful: intense, unpleasant feelings are not necessarily bad for you. They’re not like disabilities, either. Reasonable accommodation of disability means “any change to a job, the work environment, or the way things are usually done that allows an individual with a disability to apply for a job, perform job functions, or enjoy equal access to benefits available to other individuals in the workplace” (U.S. Office of Personnel Management). Absenting oneself from a class or pushing for a revised syllabus doesn’t create equal access. It is just a symptom of PTSD, metastasized, to everyone’s detriment. You can’t celebrate access to a classroom if you’ve gone and censored the lesson.

One recent blog post about trigger warnings, which went slightly viral, put things very bluntly:

You could just make it routine for disability services to ask students seeking accommodations whether they have any triggers and then send an email to professors along the lines of “students who are considering taking your class in fantasy literature are triggered by teddy bears, zombies, and discussion of Hogwarts sorting. Are any of these involved in the class? If so, could you eliminate them without harming the educational purpose of the course?”

There it is: could you eliminate [certain images/incidents]. The perfunctory end of the sentence, “without harming the educational purpose of the course,” fixes nothing. A good course, like a good novel, is holistic. It articulates something about the professor’s field of study. If anything could have been different, it would have been. Asking professors to pinch-hit for troublesome texts is a very cynical request. It means you think a college syllabus is selected basically at random, based on some lame theme the instructor dreamed up purely for the sake of appearances. I’m happy to say that professors are usually held to a much higher standard.

OK. Enough of this. Let’s accept, at least for now, the hypothesis that trigger warnings are bullshit. Well-intentioned bullshit, certainly, but also cynical and pathological. Then the question changes from “which side are you on” to “why are trigger warnings so popular”? Why has a whole student-led movement arisen on their behalf?

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The answer, like all good trauma, is buried in the past. Most college students have been traumatized by works of art, just not at college. They were traumatized much earlier by movies, video games, and television shows, because there weren’t any adults around to talk them through each disturbing scene. Here in the U.S., we are saddled with a terrible, arbitrary, colossally stupid ratings agency called The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). The MPAA staggers content according to the viewer’s age, so the older you are, the more sex, profanity, and violence you’re allowed to consume.

Video games are rated the same way: if your game is rated “M” for “Mature,” then it includes people blowing up or dying otherwise hideous deaths, and (probably) coitus, too. If it is rated “T” for “Teen,” then people blow up in a clean, sanitary way, and don’t get past second base. If it is rated “[I don’t know]” for “[All ages?]”, then it is a video game I definitely haven’t purchased, and could be some form of Tetris.

What a mess. If you’re a kid, you live for the possibility of watching an “R”-rated film without parental supervision. Why? Well, obviously, because that means you are an adult, doing what adults do. If you are a teenager, you pirate copies of NC-17 flicks. Nor does this end once you turn seventeen. From then on, you will faithfully buy the “UNRATED!” version of every film you want to own, in the hopes of seeing even more than you saw when the film hit theaters. Like the clean version of a rap song, where every bad word is just mysteriously not there, you’re constantly denied, yet aware of, some other better version containing all the unfiltered, brutal, naked, uncut entertainment. Once you have that, then you really WILL be entertained, in FULL. And is that not, ladies and gentlemen, why you are here?

See, the concept of “entertainment” is good business. Entertainment doesn’t require any explanation. It just is. It is a single evanescent twinge of pleasure: your pleasure. That is all a film like The Dark Knight Rises is trying to deliver. If you’re old enough to see it, then it supposedly requires no explanation. You can take it all in unharmed. If you’re too young, and see it illegally, then of course there’s nobody around to offer any explanations. We, as a society, do not believe in talking about art. We rate it instead.

Yet the core of the traumatic event is not some particular image of sex or violence, but rather anything society, as a whole, understands, but the viewer does not. Children do not have a very clear understanding of sex, or of death, because we hide both from them. They have, hopefully, no frame of reference for graphic violence. If you read studies about children who are exposed to lots of graphic TV, you quickly learn that the supposedly inherent problems with seeing violence stem from the child’s incomprehension. “Mean-world” syndrome — basically, a form of pediatric depression — or dissociating acts from their consequences (“you can do anything you can get away with”) are symptoms of a child’s clumsy attempt to theorize cinematic violence on her own.

A trigger warning shields graphic content from discussion and critique. It treats the text like an armed, easily detonated explosive. It treats the text like television. There is no evidence that written texts work the same way, for people with PTSD, as images, television, or even loud sounds. But the calls for “trigger warnings” do not concern themselves with such details, because they are not about real, localized, diagnosed PTSD. They are ploys to forestall adulthood. The child does for himself what the parent did not do by putting the dangerous material out of reach. There it hangs, suspended, dark and tempting, symbol of that deferred crossing over into the bloody, filthy, adult Real. When we tell students that “the real world doesn’t come with trigger warnings,” we are actually confirming their worst fears. Trigger warnings are the price we pay, eventually, for letting the MPAA and other such agencies define, in the name of entertainment, what it means to be adult and mature.

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The Caterpillar tells Alice, “keep your temper.” It’s a standard phrase, but he also means that Alice should keep her finish, and stay the way she is. She is curious, and unafraid of the world.

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