By Sam Barr
I will not warn any would-be readers of the impending psychological assault they might experience upon reading this piece, for two reasons. First, I don’t want to do anything that might dissuade someone from reading a piece about a subject I care deeply about. Second, I find the idea of trigger warnings abhorrent.
Trigger warning are labels given to texts, videos, or other course materials on sensitive topics that might be unsettling to people with mental health issues, usually designed to give such students an option of opting out of certain assignments. While this is done with the best intentions, it is my belief that in their paternalistic attempt to protect vulnerable minds, universities have crossed the boundary into full-blown condescension toward people with mental illness.
Before I go further, I should probably provide a little background about myself, lest the reader think me more callous than I actually am. My distaste for this latest intellectual fashion is born from my own ongoing struggles with mental health. In short I am a prime example of the type of person trigger warnings are designed to protect.
When I was ten I was abused by an older boy, the details of which are unimportant; suffice to say that I was left emotionally devastated and suffering from PTSD. Compounding the situation, I was diagnosed soon thereafter with Asperger Syndrome. This deadly one-two punch left me feeling isolated from peers and adults, which in turn sent me spiraling downward into a deep depression. I cursed God, fate, or whatever phantasmal force had singled me out for punishment. I became a victim, not because of what happened to me, but because of how I came to define myself.
Victimhood is a prison, and for years I was within it, forced to reenact patterns of failure, and to periodically relive the worst experiences of my life. My trauma became the lens through which I saw the world. It wasn’t until I started to redefine the narrative of my life that things got better for me. Even still, it took years of therapy, and coming to terms with some harsh truths about myself, to get to the point I am at today.
Trigger warnings are one of the latest fads in an ongoing cultural obsession with glorifying victimhood, and as a former victim I can say with confidence there is nothing glorious about it. Contrary to the noble intentions of its supporters, I believe trigger warnings do more to harm people with trauma backgrounds than help them.
Unlike some opponents of trigger warnings, I know that being triggered is all too real. Even as I write this piece I can feel the black tendrils of my past threatening to pull me back into that place of despair. I also recognize that triggers have a certain level of inevitability. Trying to avoid all content that might be triggering is not only futile, but ultimately will serve only to perpetuate the suffering of those with traumatic pasts. Learning to deal with what triggers us is an ongoing struggle for many people like myself with traumatic pasts. If we can’t confront them in a relatively safe environment like school classes, how can we be expected to function in more stressful situations?
In advancing the narrative that people with mental illness and PTSD are so fragile that they need to be protected at all times, universities not only fail to help people overcome their trauma, they increase the already toxic stigma against people with mental illness. In the last few decades, people with mental illnesses have made tremendous strides towards being accepted by society at large. Trigger warnings are a move in the opposite direction.
Finally, by promoting trigger warnings, universities are failing in their primary purpose: to provide an environment for the free and robust exchange of ideas, which is essential to higher education. People with mental illnesses need to participate in this exchange, in part to further break down the walls between them and the general population, and also for their own liberation from the prison of victimhood.
I’m not one usually prone to assigning some cosmic meaning to human suffering, but, if my story does serve any higher purpose, it is educating others on some of the gritty realities of the world we live in. Most importantly, it allows me to empathize with others who suffer. Personal narratives have great power; how we choose to define ourselves helps to shape our reality. Changing one’s narrative is a long and arduous process. Confronting and overcoming what triggers us is a crucial step in this process.
Today, I am no longer a victim, I am a survivor, and the difference it has had in my life is tremendous.