Sunday 23 October 2016

Trigger Warnings are only restricting us

Patrica Casey

Published 22/09/2015 | 02:30

Trigger warnings were suggested for Downton Abbey
Trigger warnings were suggested for Downton Abbey

The term "trigger warnings" will be unknown to most people in this country but in many US campuses these have been elevated to compulsory status. A trigger warning is a prior indication that the material about to be shown/discussed contains information that is likely to trigger distress.

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To some extent we have been exposed to these warnings when, for example during a news item, we are advised that viewers or listeners may find aspects of the item distressing. With this foreknowledge the person is then free to tune out. The thinking behind these warnings, as commonly understood, is that vulnerable people are protected.

The term was first coined in the 1990s when psychologists/psychiatrists identified certain triggers that led to flashbacks in Vietnam War veterans whom they were treating. It then became appropriated by feminists who used the term to warn people of triggers relating to sexual assaults and eventually extending to everything form mention of self-harm to eating disorders.

Now, the problem with the term is that it isn't about protecting victims of major trauma, but it applies to those who simply become distressed. Applied in my field, I would not be able to discuss the possible role of child physical, sexual or emotional abuse in leading to later life depression without such a warning lest somebody, who may or may not have been exposed to these, might become distressed.

This then begs the question, how are medical students to learn if certain topics are out of bounds for fear of causing distress? The impact on the spontaneity of a tutorial, where clinical examples are discussed, would be stultifying if each tutor had to stop and consider whether the example would be likely to engender upset, not to mention the disruption as students left and returned to the group when the offending item was completed.

In Columbia University a group of four students petitioned their tutor to remove Ovid's Matamorphosis because of its depictions of rape and some have even called for trigger warnings for Downton Abbey. Shakespear's Titus Andronicus and King Lear surprisingly seem to have escaped so far.

Extending the warning to those who might simply be distressed is based on a perspective that regards young people as in need of cosseting. Certainly children are now much more protected in their play and daily activities than ever before and this has now extended into their adult lives.

An additional aspect of this debate is the role of emotion. According to the writer David D Burns in his book Feeling Good, emotions are no longer accepted as being a personal narrative but are proof that they are a true reflection of how things actually are and with that inevitably "the right not to be offended".

So when trigger warnings first came to attention, the idea was driven by the need to create a safe space for the very vulnerable, but this has now become so elastic as to be a requirement not to make anybody feel uncomfortable. It is doing this by limiting challenging discussion and censoring the words that are used.

Writing in the September issue of Atlantic, the authors Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt (September issue), point out that, protecting adults in this way is, in essence, infantalising them.

They argue cogently that this approach flies in the face of cognitive approaches to dealing with trauma in which avoidance, reinforced by these warning, is the opposite of what is required.

Confronting the problem is what therapists recommend so that distorted patterns of thinking are reversed. Thus the current approach of many American campuses has reinforced vulnerability and consequently led to an increase in mental health problems.

There is a necessity for colleges and universities to stimulate discussion and debate that challenge the received orthodoxies and allow students to think laterally, rather than cocooning them in intellectual cotton wool. After University, the world gets real and tough.

Students whose intellectual stimulation has taken place in a group-think laden, ossified and reified environment, are ill equipped to face the world of work and the hard graft of daily life.

Instead of stultifying students' intellects in an unchallenged comfort zone, universities should be exercising their young minds as did Socrates in his day. Socrates paid for this with his life, but his teaching ideals still live on despite the politically correct charged atmosphere of many universities at present.

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