Commentary: Trigger Warnings Debate

I’ve been trying to avoid “reactive” blog posts. There is a lot going on in the news and I was beginning to feel like my blog was just the place I went to react to those things. That said… I need to get this off my chest!

I was incredibly blessed in the college I went to. I had amazing peers and incredible professors.  Of course, my largest class also had like 25 people in it (maybe 30). Small classes meant we knew each other. Sometimes more about each other than we wanted to.

I can’t imagine not being able to go to  even the most boorish of the professors I had and saying, “Hey, you said we are going to talk about [Z], could you give me a head’s up when this is going to be covered so I can sit by the door? That way if the topic just gets to be too much, I’ll slip out for a few minutes and compose myself.”

If they didn’t already know the circumstances that made me uncomfortable with the topic, they were familiar enough with the student (e.g. “me”) to know I wasn’t just asking to skip a class because I’m lazy. Reputation (especially as the years went past) carried quickly from professor-to-professor and grace was given to students who were (a) consistent (if i’m ok with rape jokes at frat parties and then whine in class… that isn’t consistent) and (b) involved in other ways/places (I really stood up on human euthanasia so I’m not just trying to be lazy). And most of the professors would have given a little grace to a freshman, but by senior year – you were a known quantity.  I know this won’t necessarily be true at larger institutions (there are reasons I went to a small school!)

I do think that what (at least Chicago) is intended by the “no trigger warnings” is that the school is not going to make preemptive accommodations for every trigger. It’s good to have your ideas challenged. It’s healthy. It also can be very healthy to feel uncomfortable about a topic. That said, if it is causing someone UNDUE pain or reliving trauma… it is also fair for that person to be allowed to say “I need to extricate myself back to a safe place”

So I guess I’m saying that I think it would be reasonable for a college to say “we don’t guarantee athletes won’t be injured” “we don’t provide trigger warnings” AND to expect students to speak up when it hurts. It also means we might need to helping give coaches professors first aide training in how to appropriately respond. If we are comparing trauma to physical illness some of the same rules apply.  The number of people I had to tell that I had asthma (and no really, I can’t damn well breathe) … that onus was on me to communicate.

Occasionally, it would come up with very little warning: my biology teacher thought it would be “fun” to go into a field to grab flowers and plants to look at under a microscope. “No, no, leave all your bags, I’ll lock the door!” and I had to explain to him I need to carry my purse not because of my wallet/trust issues but because I have an inhaler in there and if you expect me to wade into pollen I’m gonna need it. Fortunately, I had enough practice before that moment that I was able to stand up for myself. Still, hearing some of the stories of “and suddenly the class was talking about [Z] and I wasn’t ok anymore…” I struggle… there is a piece of me that goes yeah… and?

And I don’t want to be dismissive of anyone’s trigger. God knows, I do understand what it’s like to walk through a door and suddenly feel like my throat is constricting itself because some [bleep] is smoking a cigarette. I also can understand that it is damn hard to even figure out mental triggers sometimes.

However, healthy boundaries means I am not responsible for anyone else’s emotional wellness. I am not a slave to carry your emotional labor. Neither is a school/a professor. And it means that schools need to find a way to allow boundaries without necessarily creating them. And it is damn hard to challenge an idea or a belief without stepping on someone’s boundaries. Schools are supposed to be a place of challenge. Being run by humans (classes are taught by humans!) they are probably going to mess up.

I just wish the conversation wasn’t be phrased as either “they MUST…” from/to both sides. That isn’t how boundaries work. Boundaries require both sides being in open, honest communication. I don’t know how a large institution like University of Chicago does that. I do have to say, I respect them for laying out their boundary clearly. Now I want to know how they are going to hear & respect a student’s boundary.