Header Ads

The Thing About "Triggered"

As a person who struggles with the trauma and omnipresence of mental illness, I have felt struck and catapulted into discussions that are triggering and hard to handle without a warning beforehand. The common misconception is that trigger warnings are simply for the over-sensitive, “politically correct,” and intended to silence any controversial opinions to protect us fragile-minded, liberal nutjob, lefty millennials. But I beg to differ. I believe that cultivating a safe space to discuss and debate in is critical to mutual respect. It is not prohibiting conversation, it is merely cautioning those who may have been deeply traumatized or affected by a topic and need to feel safe in their situation. In college-level academia particularly, trigger warnings are equated to censorship, yet this reveals an elementary, misinformed perception of what the differences in these things are. Trigger warnings are defined as, according to Google: “a statement at the start of a piece of writing, video, etc., alerting the reader or viewer to the fact that it contains potentially distressing material (often used to introduce a description of such content).”

Thus, trigger warnings are not intended to silence your opinions. They do not prohibit or exterminate the conversation or lesson from happening, they simply give you the option and safety to prepare yourself mentally or decide to skip out on a certain video shown in class, or a conversation. To those who still do not understand the necessity of this for many people, think about it this way.

Let’s say you’re a survivor of sexual assault. You have had a rough, particularly exhausting week and you are in your sociology class, and you are abruptly, suddenly thrown into a conversation about rape victims, or you are forced to watch a video depicting a disturbing video or film with a sexual assault scene. You have an anxiety attack, you feel like you cannot breathe, and your palms begin to sweat profusely. You begin to have flashbacks to your trauma. So, you are essentially being forced to potentially re-live your trauma on the basis of “intellectual and academic freedom.” Is freedom truly freedom if you, perhaps inadvertently, favor those who do not suffer from mental disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder or depression? Is freedom truly universal and nondiscriminatory if you are forcing someone to do something traumatizing and painful for them?

We absolutely should and must push our intellectual limits. We should explore and discover every opinion, idea, and concept, especially those we disagree with and may be uncomfortable with. Yet there is a definitive difference between this kind of intellectual liberty and forced exposure to painful triggers. I apologize if I do not wish to listen to yet another plethora of white, cisgender, heterosexual males discuss why rape victims are “asking for it”, why drunk rape “isn’t really rape”, and that feminists who have been raped are “ugly Feminazis” one more time. I am truly sorry if you find my need to leave the room disrespectful and antithetical to your intellectual freedom, but I really would rather stick forks into my eyeballs or spend a day with Vladimir Putin than tolerate any more of that. Or, the time my sexuality got demeaned and disregarded as mere “attention-seeking”, “disgusting” behavior. Although I am still unsure if the perpetrator truly believed I was attracted to pans or if she was smart enough to understand what the prefix means. Or when a rape scene in literature was brutally, graphically described by my teacher, without any notion that there could be, and most likely were several, sexual assault survivors in my class. Or when I was launched headfirst into a conversation about suicide and depression, being told adamantly by a fellow classmate that suicide is selfish, stupid, and idiotic. A good friend of mine who had, only a month ago, lost their friend to suicide was sitting in that room. They had to get up and walk to the restroom. I have countless memories of things that have ached and hurt so acutely I feel as if I was shot or stabbed, never able to process the wound. I could not allow my bleeding spots to turn into scabs, because they would be reopened countlessly and mercilessly.

Mental health is a blatantly stigmatized, societally inappropriate topic of conversation in American culture. It is no shock that we are unable to communicate or discuss mental illness well. In fact, we reject and underestimate the unfathomable depths and pain of mental illness because we are afraid that admitting we hurt in our heads makes us weak. We do not believe that our brains can malfunction the way our bodies do, but they do, and we cannot run from that unnerving truth any longer.

Trigger warnings are misconceived and misperceived, so it is unsurprising that so many of my peers and teachers disregard the direness of these considerations as stupid, melodramatic, and overly sensitive. Many will also argue that exposure therapy is an effective way to treat trauma and phobias- that is, essentially exposing survivors to similar situations as those they fear in safe circumstance. But you are not a therapist or doctor. If you are my peer or teacher, you do not have any right to decide when and where I should be exposed to reminders of my trauma. You are also neglecting the fact that I may not consider a classroom or school my safe space, that there are people in the room I would rather not share anything personal with.

I have been called just about every predictable, unoriginal woman-insult in the book: “feminist killjoy” (which is definitely true, albeit), Feminazi (no words on this one), feminist bitch (eh), angry lesbian witch (kinda true?), a “fucking idiot” for suggesting that women should have control over their reproductive systems, and a few more awesome ones. I am, as you may have inferred, unresponsive and immune to them by now. Sadly.

I am not a supporter of dismantling free speech or advocating for censorship to guard “oversensitivity.” For example, as a queer, Latina, young woman in Los Angeles, I have lived my entire life in a tightknit bubble of progressivism, what many call “political correctness” and what I call human respect, and a general understanding that we’re a blue state, so we should and do behave like one. I love my city but I also am harshly aware of the naivety it has embedded within my political beliefs. I felt sheer shock, disbelief, and terror boiling inside of me on November 8th, yet I soon realized that I was incredibly ignorant to not realize the reality of midwestern, Rust Belt states and their circumstances. I cannot blindly generalize and label every Trump supporter as a “bigoted, racist, homophobic asshole” or “ignorant and uneducated.” Of course I am wounded and stunned by the outcome of the election nevertheless, but, as depicted well in a recent Saturday Night Live skit, I feel like that white woman saying, in sheer surprise, “wait, America is racist?!”

It is truly no surprise that Trump won. I recently read the emotional, poignant Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. It is an autobiography detailing Vance’s tumultuous life as a young boy living in Kentucky and Ohio, two states vital to Trump’s landslide victory. This piece of emotional examination does an incredible job of allowing us outsiders a revealing peek, and insight, into the socioeconomics and personalities of those in these towns, many of them dirt-poor and exhausted by the stereotypes their homeland carries. While I clearly do not truly know the extent and existence of residents of these places from a single book, I do have a far better ability to look beyond my own beliefs and privilege.

I struggle to understand many things, and a lot of those things astound me consistently.
Yet trigger warnings do not interfere with free speech. They encourage it, foster it in a safe, accommodating way that allows survivors of trauma to delve into difficult topics without feeling attacked and thrown into a battlefield without a shield. When we feel prepared and informed, we go into these discomforting discussions with better preparation and emotional support. We do not fight to end these discussions, but to make them more inclusive and humane.

We cannot consistently use the now colloquial, Urban Dictionary, meme version of the word “triggered” without recognizing how it demeans and trivializes those, like me, who have gone through rough shit and who very much need trigger warnings. You are not “triggered” if your teacher says a curse word. If someone does something that bothers you. You are triggered when you have experienced something traumatic or emotionally exhausting, and a specific stimulus activates a reaction in you that you do not want to experience. To normalize the #triggered meme as an acceptable usage and perhaps often unconscious mocking of a very real, very inescapable word so many of us need to manage our trauma is not something we can condone or allow to happen.
The President-Elect would most likely not support trigger warnings or “safe spaces.” As we all know, he is the master manipulator and exploiter of the perils of “political correctness.” He thrives off of the strange perception that we as a generation have grown too oversensitive rather than simply exhausted. On the other hand, he does seem to be #triggered when anyone burns the American flag, according to his very formal, very intellectually stimulating press conference on Twitter. Censorship is fine with him if we dare to criticize a country we live in, but when it comes to protecting survivors from potentially hurting themselves or those around them, well, they should just toughen up and deal with it, I guess. Logical indeed. I know I sound bitter and that is because I most certainly am. If the President brags crudely, jovially, about sexually assaulting women and getting away with it, I am told it is merely “locker-room talk” and to quit my privileged whining. Why is it that I must accept, that so many have free passes to say things that break people like me apart? To be a woman in this election is a disconcerting, indescribable experience that still shakes me to my core. I am not allowed to complain. I am not allowed to fear, because this is democracy, or something. This is what democracy is supposed to look like, apparently. When our president-elect says these kinds of hard-hitting words and remarks, how does anyone expect us to have any other option besides using trigger warnings? I cannot listen to another one of Trump’s comments about women without losing some bit of my self-assurance and weakened faith in my fellow Americans. I need to know what I am getting myself into and how to deal with it without inadvertently activating my spiraling, cavernous rabbit-hole brain.

Another thing- many conservatives (and there are liberals, too) complaining persistently about 9s the grave intellectual threat of trigger warnings- an attack upon intellectual liberty and free speech. Yet many of these same people willingly censor themselves from things they feel “uncomfortable” about. Any marriage that is not strictly heterosexual, there is legislation providing get out of jail free cards, on the basis of “religious freedom.” You do not have to perform or watch. You want to pass legislation that prohibits women from breastfeeding in public. You do not want to watch. The irony is almost laughable.

Trigger warnings are not easy subjects to discuss, yet they are undoubtedly necessary. It is incredibly perilous to assume that every person is immune to reminders of potential past trauma. It is discriminatory to allow students to feel uncomfortable, unable to focus or work, and unsafe due to their mental disorders or trauma- trauma they certainly never wanted. It is a despicable thing to condone fear of censorship to overpower fear of reliving the most devastating experiences of your life.

So, we do not end the conversation. We prepare ourselves for it. We ensure that every person, regardless of their mental health, feels safe, respected, and able to participate in difficult discussions without unbearable pain or discomfort. No academic setting should equate “intellectual freedom” to discrimination and stigma around those who have lived through horrific experiences for the sake of expanding our intellectual horizons. We are not #triggered. We are through with feeling sorry for feeling what we feel. We do not need to apologize for being survivors and victims. We are as important as anyone else, and we do not deserve any less compassion or empathy. We do not believe ourselves weak because we need trigger warnings, we consider ourselves strong enough to ask for them.


Sofia Sears is a 17 year old writer, activist, and professional rapper on matters of the Founding Fathers. She is a self-proclaimed feminist killjoy, literary nerd, and political junkie. She has been published in various magazines, such as Rookie, Dark as Day, Sea Foam Mag, Cry Baby Zine, and others. She is editor-in-chief of the Odyssey Zine, a lit mag for queer and marginalized youth, and founder of Project Femme, an organization dedicated to uplifting and empowering young women of color and LGBTQ+ youth to get involved in politics and run for office. You can find her at The-Abditory.com.

No comments

Powered by Blogger.