The clinical notion of triggering dates back far as 1918, when psychologists tried to make sense of “war neurosis” in World War I, and later World War II, veterans. The term “post-traumatic stress disorder” came into use after the Vietnam War, but was not recognized as a diagnosable affliction until 1980. Then, psychologists started to work with clients to identify possible PTSD “triggers,” or a sensory input that somehow resembles the original trauma. But anticipating them is notoriously difficult. They assume disparate and unpredictable forms. An essay, or film, or other piece of media might trigger a person, as could a sound or a smell, a physical space, a specific object, or a person…

While warning for triggers became expected in these specific communities, the advent of Twitter in 2006 and Tumblr in 2007, and the growth of Facebook in 2008, mainstreamed the term in a new way. People who used trigger warnings on their personal blogs began sharing content on Twitter and Facebook with the signifier…

While it’s clear that the phrase itself came to fruition online, the concept of triggering originated offline in psychological studies, trauma support groups, and feminist communities. Now it’s moving back offline in various capacities — most notably onto college campuses. Trigger warnings have even been requested before television programs.

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Trigger warnings in the classroom don’t censor material. Neither are they an excuse to avoid challenging subjects; instead, they offer students with post-traumatic stress disorder control over the situation so that they can interact with difficult material. They don’t protect “fragile personal sensibilities” or remove offensive content. They recognize and validate a real mental issue…

If students are suddenly confronted by material that makes them ill, black out or react violently, they are effectively prevented from learning. If their reaction happens in the classroom, they’ve halted the learning environment. No professor is going to teach over the rape victim who stumbles out in hysterics or the veteran who drops under a chair shouting…

When survivors say trigger warnings give them a sense of control and help them heal, the unaffected population must listen. Professors are expected to accommodate students with physical disabilities. Why then, when PTSD is a recognized disability, do we not do everything we can to help?

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“Any kind of blanket trigger policy is inimical to academic freedom,” said Lisa Hajjar, a sociology professor at the university here, who often uses graphic depictions of torture in her courses about war. “Any student can request some sort of individual accommodation, but to say we need some kind of one-size-fits-all approach is totally wrong. The presumption there is that students should not be forced to deal with something that makes them uncomfortable is absurd or even dangerous.”…

An associate professor of comparative American studies and a co-chairwoman of the task force, Ms. Raimondo said providing students with warnings would simply be “responsible pedagogical practice.”

“I quite object to the argument of ‘Kids today need to toughen up,’ ” she said. “That absolutely misses the reality that we’re dealing with. We have students coming to us with serious issues, and we need to deal with that respectfully and seriously.”…

“If I were a junior faculty member looking at this while putting my syllabus together, I’d be terrified,” Mr. Blecher said. “Any student who felt triggered by something that happened in class could file a complaint with the various procedures and judicial boards, and create a very tortuous process for anyone.”

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Does the phrase “spoilers” ring a bell?

Okay, so spoiler alerts get mocked, and there’s no doubt that some people get carried away, but if we’re being honest, most people comply, just like with Not Safe for Work labels — we agree that there’s a need to protect someone in some way from this content. In the course of an average conversation, you might not say trigger warning but I can bet you’ve asked someone if they’ve seen the finale of Breaking Bad or if they’ve ever watched Lost. Not to mention the years we all had to keep quiet about the fact that Bruce Willis was dead the whole time in The Sixth Sense. Did I spoil that one for you? Sorry…

The fact is, we adhere to these labels — NSFW, spoilers — out of common courtesy, and not because we think someone will genuinely be harmed by our revealing a secret from a plotline. With our consumption of media content changing, they’re our new community rules. And nobody wants to get a friend in trouble at work if they mistakenly open our funny, but slightly inappropriate emails at their desk. If we’re capable of this level of concern for each other, and for Internet strangers, isn’t it acceptable that we might grow that concern into a useful language for being courteous about each other’s possible triggers?…

[F]undamentally the issue at stake with trigger warnings is letting people make choices about their own psychological and emotional wellbeing. We provide a small service — a little warning note — and anyone who feels that right now, exposure to certain stimuli might do more harm than good gets to take a little step back without having to out themselves. They protect their privacy, and reserve the right to confront these issues on their own terms. Overall, this discussion is not about who gets to say what, when. It’s about who has to listen, to what and when. Free speech is hardly at issue here.

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It was almost inevitable, regardless of one’s personal politics, to find oneself—with bowed head, like an undergraduate Rubashov—accused of trespassing some previously unknown frontier of offense. I would soon learn never to object to the charge of privilege: it’s a phantom, something one possesses and abuses without knowing it. And like denying your alcoholism, a denial doubles as an acknowledgement that you’re afflicted with the disease…

I have often argued with conservative friends that the final ledger on political correctness wasn’t all negative. The casual racism once found in polite company, while certainly not eradicated, is almost unthinkable today. But my unilateral declaration of an end to the kulturkampf was depressingly naive. Because language cops are like pornographers: The stuff that was once seen as extreme has become quotidian, demanding that it be replaced with something even more extreme and confusing.

All of this is the unsurprising result of teaching soft-headed but well-intentioned college students that if we can control language, we can control behavior. But these handy phrases-as-argument both skirt and ultimately suffocate real debate, often demanding feelings be valued above reality (This recent Huffington Post headline says it all: “Anti-Vaccine Mom Feels Bullied”).

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The world is a triggering place. As a woman in a world rife with sexism, I am consistently exposed to imagery and behaviour that I find insulting, offensive, or upsetting. But I want to be able to discuss that reality and that imagery within academic and public spaces, not be protected from it. In fact, these are some of the few spaces where such issues can be discussed in a challenging and nuanced way.

During the many months I spent in feminist film theory courses, I watched a number of upsetting rape scenes on film, as well as engaging with pornographic imagery and generally violent or upsetting material. Much of that imagery will stick with me and trouble me forever. Yet I still consider it to have been a valuable part of my learning experience. Taking that material out of the curriculum isn’t going to protect marginalized people from it, nor will it better enable us to critique that material…

Will discussions of vaginas, for example, be removed from the curriculum on account of “cissexism”? What about discussions of eating disorders or war or suicide or racism? If discussions of women’s bodies are deemed offensive, should they be avoided? There are so many conversations that would never have happened in my gender studies seminars had professors avoided discussions of “racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, able-ism, and other issues of privilege and oppression.” Beyond that, students would likely have felt even more afraid to speak up about controversial topics than they already do, lest they inadvertently “trigger” a classmate.

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It’s perfectly reasonable for a survivor of violence to ask a professor for a heads up if the reading list includes a piece with graphic descriptions of rape or violence, for example. But generalized trigger warnings aren’t so much about helping people with PTSD as they are about a certain kind of performative feminism: they’re a low-stakes way to use the right language to identify yourself as conscious of social justice issues. Even better is demanding a trigger warning – that identifies you as even more aware, even more feminist, even more solicitous than the person who failed to adequately provide such a warning…

But the space between comfort and freedom is not actually where universities should seek to situate college students. Students should be pushed to defend their ideas and to see the world from a variety of perspectives. Trigger warnings don’t just warn students of potentially triggering material; they effectively shut down particular lines of discussion with “that’s triggering”. Students should – and do – have the right to walk out of any classroom. But students should also accept the challenge of exploring their own beliefs and responding to disagreement. Trigger warnings, of course, don’t always shut down that kind of interrogation, but if feminist blogs are any example, they quickly become a way to short-circuit uncomfortable, unpopular or offensive arguments.

That should concern those of us who love literature, but it should particularly trouble the feminist and anti-racist bookworms among us. Trigger warnings are largely perceived as protecting young women and, to a lesser extent, other marginalized groups – people of color, LGBT people, people with mental illnesses. That the warnings hinge on topics that are more likely to affect the lives of marginalized groups contributes to the general perception of members of those groups as weak, vulnerable and “other”

And there’s something lost when students are warned before they read Achebe or Diaz or Woolf, and when they read those writers first through the lens of trauma and fear.

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As the list of trigger warning–worthy topics continues to grow, there’s scant research demonstrating how words “trigger” or how warnings might help. Most psychological research on P.T.S.D. suggests that, for those who have experienced trauma, “triggers” can be complex and unpredictable, appearing in many forms, from sounds to smells to weather conditions and times of the year. In this sense, anything can be a trigger—a musky cologne, a ditsy pop song, a footprint in the snow.

As a means of navigating the Internet, or setting the tone for academic discussion, the trigger warning is unhelpful. Once we start imposing alerts on the basis of potential trauma, where do we stop? One of the problems with the concept of triggering—understanding words as devices that activate a mechanism or cause a situation—is it promotes a rigid, overly deterministic approach to language. There is no rational basis for applying warnings because there is no objective measure of words’ potential harm. Of course, words can inspire intense reactions, but they have no intrinsic danger. Two people who have endured similarly painful experiences, from rape to war, can read the same material and respond in wholly different ways…

Trigger warnings are presented as a gesture of empathy, but the irony is they lead only to more solipsism, an over-preoccupation with one’s own feelings—much to the detriment of society as a whole. Structuring public life around the most fragile personal sensitivities will only restrict all of our horizons. Engaging with ideas involves risk, and slapping warnings on them only undermines the principle of intellectual exploration. We cannot anticipate every potential trigger—the world, like the Internet, is too large and unwieldy. But even if we could, why would we want to? Bending the world to accommodate our personal frailties does not help us overcome them.