by Jen Izaakson
Inserting ‘trigger’ warnings above material that includes reference to violent content has become a notable tendency on the internet for at least the last two or three years. As the trend has grown, the nature of the material warranting a trigger warning – often abbreviated to TW – has broadened in scope. No longer reserved for citing or invoking characteristically traumatic events such as rape, trigger warnings began next to appear above discussions of sexism or racism. Then above texts referencing oppression, then above offensive or unpleasant content generally. They began to feature in relation to political or controversial topics such as abortion law, diet articles or mental-health policy documents. Trigger warnings have appeared above content that includes description of a fire, the death of a pet, and a love-triangle.
Tracing the evolution of the use of the TW is not intended to make a case against one particular use or another: rather, the entire use of the term ‘trigger’ in this way is misguided in all circumstances. What it means needs to be understood.
This article is not intended to sully the idea of considering others’ ‘feelings’, or, more particularly, to minimise the discomfort experienced by those who cannot regulate affective states as well as others. Rather, the claim is that it is vital to differentiate TWs and ‘content warnings’, used by news-media outlets for decades – usually denoted by some variant of the phrase ‘some of the images you are about to see may be distressing’. It is vital to stress that such ‘content warnings’ do not relate to trauma, or at least not in the simple and direct way implied. If we are to properly conceive of the full spectrum of human experience and corresponding mental phenomena, we cannot be afraid to try to tease apart such matters of the mind.
‘Trigger’ or ‘triggering’ are psychological terms encapsulating the reactivation of the affectual content of a prior traumatic experience that, crucially, initiates a physiological response. Drawing on this paradigm, in this article the term trauma is used in the strict psychological sense, rather than the common usage according to which it is used to mean general ‘disturbing experience’. It is the physiological response to trauma that gives it its definition and unique quality, as opposed to just ‘feeling’ a particular way – that is, an affective state in isolation.
Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is the most well-known variation of an illness where such ‘triggering’ occurs, resulting in panic attacks that affect the respiratory system, flashbacks, nightmares and so on. Originating in the concept of ‘shell shock’, this phenomenon was first recorded as suffered by soldiers returning from the first World War. PTSD became a diagnostic classification only as recently as 1980. The National Centre for PTSD, a US group unsurprisingly organised through the Department for Veterans, explains the distinction of PTSD as occurring from regular experience, a traumatic event conceptualised as a catastrophic stressor that was outside the range of usual human experience. The framers of the original PTSD diagnosis had in mind events such as war, torture, rape, the Nazi Holocaust, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, natural disasters (such as earthquakes, hurricanes, and volcano eruptions), and human-made disasters (such as factory explosions, airplane crashes, and automobile accidents). They considered traumatic events to be clearly different from the very painful stressors that constitute the normal vicissitudes of life such as divorce, failure, rejection, serious illness, financial reverses, and the like. (By this logic, adverse psychological responses to such ‘ordinary stressors’ would, in DSM-III terms, be characterized as Adjustment Disorders rather than PTSD.)
It’s clear that the danger in eliding or conflating unpleasant feelings of discomfort with trauma was guarded against from PTSD earliest conceptualisations.
Sigmund Freud provides a compelling and useful account of the mechanisms behind trauma and its symptoms. The ego contains a person’s capacities to defend against events and contain and/or regulate affect. Trauma is created when an event is so overwhelming it cannot be processed by the ego. This unprocessed excess is repressed into the unconscious and hidden from consciousness by the ego that cannot manage it. This is why trauma arises symbolically – to avoid this censor. The nature of trauma, therefore, is that it cannot be conjured through simple reference to the event (for example, rape) or its category (sexual violence). Its material is no longer the conscious representation of the thing itself – the traumatic material – but has been converted symbolically. This is why repressed trauma that cannot be borne reappears instead in disguised form: classically in dreams, when like the rest of our faculties our censoring ego is more limited, while we sleep.
By this account, what is distinctive about the traumatic material we may carry round in our minds is that it has necessarily been disguised. Upon examination, this is self-evident; something that is traumatic is that which we are unable to confront, in order to be defended from such a confrontation, it must be disguised. If the phenomena could be processed at the time of the event, if they did not overwhelm us and thus create trauma, there would be no need for repression. For this reason accessing trauma is not straightforward. It cannot be foreseen as to when it may arise again, nor what might ‘trigger’ it. No warning could guarantee that something would not – or would – ‘trigger’ traumatic material’s re-emergence. Because it has been disguised and stored in the unconscious through the system of repression, it is accessed symbolically, rather than in any straightforward representational way. What ‘triggers’ a panic attack is typically unexpected and counter-intuitive, ranging from smells, lighting, sound, among many other unnoticed – and therefore not later disguised – things that remain from the traumatic event. The affect becomes dislocated from its original source.
Consider the famous case of Freud’s patient Emma Eckstein, who arrived to him age twenty-seven with various psychosomatic complaints. This psychoanalytic encounter would provide one of the first recorded examples of a recovered memory of a traumatic event and its psychic aftermath. A shopkeeper sexually assaulted Eckstein at age seven. The man grabbed the young girl: she reacted with great fright, and the man laughed at her fearful response. In the following days, Eckstein returned to the shop regularly, having apparently submerged all memory of the assault. It was only years later, when she heard two boys in another store laughing, that Eckstein first suffered an attack of panic. Access to the traumatic excess was symbolised by the laughter, heard on the second occasion from the boys and rekindling the first, during the sexual assault. This lead to increasing access to the repressed traumatic material, with Eckstein developing a phobia of shops, and many psychosomatic illnesses meaning that, without understanding why, she could not leave home. It was eventually through analysis that she was able to remember fully what had happened.
This theory of trauma is not controversial. Either we agree trauma exists in this, its psychologically defined form – that of unprocessed material repressed yet active, carted around inside us – or we have to empty trauma precisely of its traumatic contents and thus deny its existence altogether. There are some who attempt this, including reactionary lawyers who defend child sex abusers by denying the very existence of recovered memories (the barrister Barbara Hewson is a choice example).
Such denials are at once peculiar and unconvincing; we are all aware of making conscious memories that were once unconscious. Who among us has not tried to recall the name of a childhood friend, searching and ‘racking our brains’ to no avail, to have the name ‘pop up’ in the middle of the night, or days later? The memory was simply beyond our consciousness, but still stored within memory. Because forgetting a name is not a traumatic event, this kind of bringing forth of unconscious knowledge into consciousness is usually relatively straightforward.
The problem with the use of TWs links with a wider one of language and its politics, and of the casualisation of the clinical. The way in which anxiety is discussed is emblematic. We might well say we are ‘feeling anxious’ to express nervousness, but this is not the same as the condition of clinical anxiety. A student may feel anxious as they anticipate an examination, due to the prospect of the loss of self-esteem brought by possible failure, but unless the anxiety is raised to a level of excess that they cannot contain, the student is not experiencing clinical anxiety.
The clinical framework would require the accompaniment of a physiological response in the form of an anxiety attack – fainting, impaired physical movement, slowed or rapid breathing, and so on – or a demonstrable behavioural response, such as being unable to attend the exam due to vomiting or fear of doing so. In the medical sense, people are not anxious because they believe they are and declare it so – someone is anxious if there is an accompanying behavioural component to their internal state that meets certain criteria. As with traumatic material, anxiety does not exist purely in the affect: the excess of mental phenomena that the person cannot process finds a way to manifest.
The possible resulting manifestations are well-known: phobias, self-isolation, obssessiveness, compulsions of regimes around living such as rules regarding cleanliness and strictness of eating. These are all regarded as anxiety disorders. The common usage of the word ‘anxiety’ remains outside these boundaries. How valid or invalid specific criteria for clinical categories are can of course be debated, but it is that clinical framework and phraseology from which the concepts of trauma, anxiety and triggering are derived so they might at least appear relevant to such a discussion.
To reduce trauma to include content we might find ‘distressing’ is not damaging because it circumvents, ignores or is an affront to constructed clinical categories, but because it equates the non-traumatic – the upsetting, perhaps, but the non-traumatic – with the traumatic, dissolving the difference. Feeling uncomfortable is not, in and of itself, a mental-health issue. For those with PTSD, to have the magnitude of their mental life equated with mere discomfort, nervousness or a similar affective state that does not carry with it crushing physical and physiological symptoms is not just inaccurate in obliterating such distinctions; the gravity of the problem here is that such obliteration serves as a degradation of mental-health problems and a profound abasement of trauma.
Further, the implicit idea that those suffering from traumatic stress have the same response to a specific stimuli is not accurate. In fact, such a fallacy serves to narrow subjectivity, founding a monolithic category that reduces the psychic richness of hundreds of thousands of minds. It’s often found that victims of violence find content – in books, films, art – about similar violent events or listening to others who have had similar experiences or talking about their own reparative. That’s known as the ‘talking cure’, or therapy.
There is also an aspect of recovery known as ‘healthy depression’, or as Melanie Klein coined it, ‘mourning’. This is not clinical depression, or melancholia, as Freud distinguished it, but a restorative processing of an overwhelming loss or traumatic event. It feels similar to clinical depression, but does not have the distinguishing components of self-hatred or suicide ideation. This is a necessary part of recovering, though it may not feel pleasant, the ability to go through this process has the reward of reparation.
Given the nature of trauma outlined here, it should be clear that trigger warnings cannot, by definition, assuage any traumas that do exist. But there are other ramifications to the misuse of such warnings.
Aside from their abasement of trauma, their potential for counter-productivity by encouraging an avoidance of material that can prove to be reparative, trigger warnings do not make sense on their own terms. Take the following: ‘trigger warning: violence’. The trigger warning necessarily mentions the issue it is supposedly trying to hide from view – how on earth could it warn about content without indicating content? Of course, it could be a warning of more graphic content, but in such a context that one is attempting not to trigger a PTSD who has suffered violence of any kind, the net is cast far wider by a general warning than by the specifics of the content it supposedly warns against.
But any problem with trigger warnings’ internal logic does not compare with the real danger of how TWs can be weaponised by those with power. There have been cases of lecturers who have not had their contracts renewed after exposing students to unsettling texts such as those of anti-colonialist writer Edward Said. As Northwestern University Professor, Lara Kipniss, writes, ‘emotional discomfort is [now] regarded as equivalent to material injury, and all injuries have to be remediated’.
The emergence of right-wing panic over ‘trigger warnings’ curbing so-called freedom of speech at universities is by now well-trodden ground, but a more serious worry is they lay the ground for the right – used by those who think our campuses are being policed by the oversensitive, but in fact desire a right to be racist or homophobic. The use of trigger warnings by the right to shut down discussions of racism or sexual violence, and the removal of literature that examines those issues will not only erode the richness of Higher Education, but serve to prevent students from engaging in collective discussion about strategies to challenge and address racism and sexual violence.
The wider political problem here is huge – given the banalisation of trauma and usage of ‘triggering’ based on the fundamental misunderstanding outlined above, people are being given a ‘get out of jail free’ card to avoid dealing with important political issues. And, of course, trigger warnings come from a place of extreme privilege. Beyond the safe bubble of university campuses, among the Black Lives Matter protesters are likely those profoundly traumatised by their family members, neighbours, friends, comrades, being gunned down in the street by the police. They are in no position to avoid either conversations about police brutality and state violence or indeed those actual things; they’re still going to be harassed the next time they go out, they will still face down the guns pointed at their protests, they can reasonably fear being killed by the police every time they go out. Who gets to be the victim is a question of power, the protests will continue and the police officers will sue the families of the men they kill, as has already begun to happen, claiming that committing murder was traumatic.
These are not all of the issues with trigger warnings – there is much to be said about the culture they feed into, their relationship to radical organising, politics and strategies, but to discuss these extensively is beyond the remit of this piece.
What drives the rise of trigger warnings is unlikely to be a conscious attempt to shut down discussion of politics or intentional misdirection regarding how trauma works. But it is still vital to oppose trigger warnings from a different perspective to the usual anti-political correctness protestors because they obfuscate how trauma exists in the mind. The debate around TWs cannot continue to be staged as a fight between those on the side of liberation politics and those who want to deny oppression exists, which (bar a few well-meaning university lecturers and commentators) remain the significant camps. Incorporating how the mind works, the unconscious, repression and other facets of the psyche into an analysis of subjectivity and political life is a hopefully a useful starting point for a more fruitful discussion.
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