Trigger warnings and ableism

January 28, 2016

Trigger warnings for this article include: discussion of sexual violence, severe examples of PTSD episodes, descriptions of intimate partner violence

THE PURPOSE of this article is to dispel such common falsehoods about trigger warnings and establish what they actually are. The most common arguments against them are either arguing with a straw man, incredibly ableist, or both. In reality, trigger warnings are an important accessibility tool for people with disabilities resulting from trauma.

First, I need to contextualize the word trigger on regards in trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder. A trigger is any stimulus that makes a person with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or Complex PTSD (CPTSD) relive, flash back to, or experience severe anxiety or other emotional dysregulation related to their traumatic experiences.

Being triggered causes severe mental and physical reactions, including possible panic attacks, heart palpitations, heart attacks, mania, seizures, difficulty breathing, sense of impending doom, drug abuse, dissociation, self-injury and suicide attempts.

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A trigger warning is nothing but a small line of text or speech at the beginning of a piece warning the audience of content that may be triggering or extremely upsetting. They don't mean that the content is in any way blocked or censored. The audience decides what if anything to do with the warning, and they should be trusted to know what the best thing to do for themselves is.

Often, survivors of trauma will use a trigger warning to brace themselves for the content ahead. Sometimes they are used to decide to come back to something later, when one is in a better place emotionally. And yes, sometimes the subject matter is triggering enough for the individual to avoid the piece entirely, but such decisions are not made lightly and often are accompanied by strong feelings of shame for being mentally ill in the first place.

I reiterate the importance of trusting your audience. Content warnings are broader and can be useful to people who don't necessarily experience triggers, but who could still use a heads up for experiencing an attack of depression or anxiety not related to PTSD. However, trigger and content warnings are functionally the same thing, and the terms are often and quite logically used interchangeably.

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Neither are very different from things normalized in everyday modern life: age ratings for movies, television, and games, for example, or a warning before a news segment to the effect of, "The following footage is graphic. We recommend sending your children out of the room for the next few minutes." "The following program contains content which may not be suited for all viewers. Viewer discretion is advised."

While such warnings can also be used for censorship, they also serve the very obvious purpose in protecting children from violent, disturbing, and age-inappropriate content that could traumatize them, and protecting survivors as functional trigger warnings. It's a dialectic we need to recognize.

The same is true of trigger warnings themselves. They originated fairly recently in social justice-oriented circles, but are frequently used by mental health professionals. They were intended to protect survivors of trauma from unnecessary severe stress, in the process protecting their mental and physical health.

IT IS true that in some college campuses, a bastardization of trigger warnings is being used for censoring content from course material. But when this happens, it is a simple co-optation of an accessibility tool created by and for disabled survivors, not a real trigger warning.

Just as when Republicans co-opted disability activism surrounding accessibility for the Americans with Disabilities Act, the ruling class and professoriat are coopting this accessibility tool for their own ends. But instead, many on the left are largely falling for it, attacking disabled survivors in the process instead of showing solidarity with us. This is an ableist divide-and-conquer tactic, and it is working.

On the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which among other things requires most buildings to be accessible to the physically disabled: just because Republicans spearheaded and co-opted it doesn't mean it is without value.

It doesn't do nearly enough for disabled people--for instance, it comes with no enforcement or punitive measures and still allows us to be paid as low as 25 cents an hour in sheltered workshops--but what it does do is important nonetheless, and passing it was a victory for the radical activists behind it. Just because it represents cooptation doesn't mean it can't be important. The same dialectic is true of trigger warnings.

As for any individualist arguments about "coddling the mind," this is also not the case. Just the opposite, to use a trigger warning is an act of solidarity with survivors. It is important to note again that they began in social justice oriented circles when a new generation of people who experienced special oppressions spoke to each other about common experiences with racism, sexism, ableism and queerphobia and realized that they shared similar traumas in common as well.

Countless women of all ages, but largely young women, began to recognize that they were raped at some point in their lives, and that it was the result of structural misogyny, of rape culture. Women who were not sexual assault survivors also joined the movement in solidarity. Countless people of color and MOGAI (Marginalized Orientations, Gender Alignments and Intersex) people shared stories of hate crimes and stories of oppression in their everyday lives, and realized they shared traumas from structural oppression as well.

The same happened to the disabled community, speaking together about hate crimes, the compound failures of special education, and the staggering amounts of targeted sexual assaults experienced within the disabled community.

When the people began to see the traumas they had in common, it became recognized that many, many people in their communities experience triggers as well. We have to recognize that, medically, experiencing triggers is a disabling condition, and PTSD itself is a major disability. Therefore, spaces needed to be made more accessible to them if such a large chunk of the community was to be able to participate.

Trigger warnings were intended to ease the suffering of being triggered and make online spaces more accessible to trauma survivors. This way, more survivors have been able to participate in political discourse than before, and they should be celebrated for that accomplishment.

THIS ARTICLE from the Atlantic made the rounds in many socialist circles online as a trump card of sorts in this debate, but it's not only factually incorrect, but also provides an infantilizing, ableist caricature of people with PTSD and CPTSD.

This reinforces the false notion propped up by U.S. imperialism that only war veterans get PTSD by outright portraying those who need trigger warnings as a toddler in a "College" T-shirt (a reference to the offensive cult classic Animal House). This reaction to this offensive article with its offensive choice in imagery just shows further how the divide-and-conquer tactic is working, and disabled survivors are being thrown under the bus for it.

This was not in any way written with survivors in mind--just bourgeois ideology that disabled people should pull themselves up by their bootstraps and just get their minds together. "Learn to deal with/grow from your triggers" is a common refrain of this, and there is a related expression in the disabled community, concern sometimes masks contempt. We learn to see through it after long enough. The left push against trigger warnings is in fact ableist and reactionary, and is something we as Marxists cannot participate in.

Trigger warnings do not harm mental health. They are used by some mental health professionals to ensure mental wellness. From what I outlined before, their uses should be clearer now. A warning gives the survivor a chance to prepare themselves for the triggering content with tactics learned through therapy.

It is a monumental over-ask to expect us to be able to use the skills you suggest we learn without a chance to do so via a trigger warning, again putting the burden on the disabled person to ensure inclusion, and not the other way around. Including a trigger warning can prevent the serious consequences of being triggered.

Allow me to elaborate the importance of this with an example from a work of fiction. There is a famous scene in the popular show Grey's Anatomy from episode 19 of season 5 in which a character named Owen Hunt, an Iraq veteran with PTSD, is laying awake next to his sleeping girlfriend Cristina. He is staring up at the blades of the rotating ceiling fan, and that stimulus triggers him, reminding him of the spinning blades of a helicopter.

He has a flashback to when he was fighting in Iraq, and while dissociating, he gets on top of Cristina and begins to choke her. Owen had no intention of doing this. He wasn't even aware it was happening; this is just one example of what being triggered can look like, and it is deadly serious. Cristina's roommates intervene and she walks away without any serious physical injuries. Later, when Cristina learns how he got triggered by the fan, she hammers it right out of the ceiling, making their bedroom accessible to him.

Like the fan, not all triggers can be accounted for. People can get triggered by sounds, scents and their own thoughts. But for the external triggers we can control, it is simple accessibility (which to be clear is a human right that we can't treat as optional) that demands reasonable accommodations in the form of trigger warnings.

Another useful and creative idea to that end is to hold scent-free events, which would prevent many scent triggers and help people with sensory sensitivities. And when potentially triggering content is obvious, it is hardly an imposition to ask the author to include a brief trigger warning at the beginning. Trauma is more of an imposition to the survivor than the trigger warning is to the author.

Just as the ADA rightly required most buildings to be accessible via ramps and elevators, just as we should strive to ensure our events are held in such accessible spaces, we should strive to include survivors with the addition of simple trigger warnings before triggering content. This is not some fickle act of coddling, but an issue of access and health care.

To attack trigger warnings is analogous to attacking ramps because Republicans spearheaded the ADA. Disabled survivors need to know they will be able to attend events with the greatest possible effort made to ensure their access needs, including trigger warnings. Disabled accessibility is a human right.
Rebecca Binns, from the Internet