Trigger Warning: This content criticizes trigger warnings and may be triggering to people.

One of the classes I’m taking this semester as an elective is Adolescent Psychology. I originally signed up because adolescence (defined in this class as spanning the ages 10 to 24 in the average person) is one my favorite periods during the lifespan. Sure, it’s unpleasant and stressful for a lot of people going through it and their parents, but it’s also the time when identity typically emerges as a salient issue for a person, and as far as personality goes, adolescents are really starting to develop their personalities and are learning to deal with issues as their own advocates (indeed, some start to lie to their parents in an attempt to handle more and more on their own) in a way similar to some adults (though usually lacking the same level of proficiency). At the same time, therapeutic interventions to troubled adolescents can do a ton of good because adolescents are yet to be set in their ways, still changing and exploring a lot, extremely plastic when compared with adults. In many ways, it’s a magical time where if you can help a person, you can achieve dramatic results with them.

However, although I was really excited about the topic and our syllabus-assigned textbook is quite good, the course itself has been largely a disappointment. Rather than teaching with the level of nuance and sophistication in our textbook (which I repeat is excellent), our prof instead posts chatty, rambling, grossly oversimplified chapters, bolded Comic Sans, no less, of a “textbook” which he has written and teaches from that. He tends to be rather preachy about his personal beliefs and values, and even when I agree with his positions (which does happen), I hate the way he presents them and that he imposes them upon our class, time that I would rather be using to learn about, of all things, adolescent psychology. Our prof editorializes a lot on a variety of tangential issues that have little to nothing with the course. For example, he spent three class periods hosting an in-class debate on whether or not the minimum wage should be raised with the flimsy excuse that it was to teach us critical thinking because our prof says that adolescence is the period where critical thinking is able to be taught to students.

I’m far from the only non-traditional student in this class, which has a population of about 150 students. Several others are obviously older and have shared during class discussions that they have children and jobs, that they’ve gone out there and lived life. However, virtually every assignment assumes that the respondent is an adolescent and starts from that point (I have to preface every one with something like “I’m not an adolescent, but in order to do answer this question, here’s what I remember about my adolescent years…”), and our prof seems more interested in morally edifying us and instilling critical thinking skills in our presumably adolescent brains than actually teaching about how adolescents think and behave.

The pinnacle of this was a recent class that was supposed to be part of the unit on moral development in adolescence. Our prof was absent for a Passover celebration but sent the TA in to show us a movie on factory farming, of all things. Y’know, one of those movies in which they show the awful conditions that animals go through as part of large-scale commercial meat production. Before putting on the movie, the TA said that the movie was extreme and that she was going to show it us, although she didn’t know why our prof wanted us to watch it. Great vote of confidence there.

After watching it, I really don’t know either. It was gruesome and unsettling. I’ve seen similar videos in the past – one in particular passed around on Facebook when Facebook was young in the early 2000-sies. I’m an omnivore now but have been occasionally vegetarian in the past. I love meat with a fiery passion and find I feel happier and healthier when I’m eating animal protein rather than existing on soy, but I’ve struggled a lot with feeling morally conflicted that I’m walking around with shreds of animal muscle stuck between my teeth, moving through my intestines, reconstituting to form my own body, etc. And yes, I know there are farms out there with better conditions than the factory farms, but animals are still being killed, and there’s a degree of cruelty I have to accept to eat meat, even if I buy from a local family farm where I pay for a cow to be raised humanely for me to be slaughtered one day (as some of them do).

My personal issue with showing the video is that I balk at how our prof conflated a lesson in moral edification (“Factory farms are bad, and you should choose more humane meat suppliers and not support companies, like fast food and other large chain restaurants, that utilize those products by eating their food either.”) with teaching us about moral development. I guess in a sense it could be argued that it’s hands-on learning to learn by having your morality develop on a particular issue and observe how that happens, yada yada yada, but I’m not really buying it.

A lot of the other students got up and stormed out during the video, and the TA ended up only playing the first 5 minutes of the 10-minute movie because so many of them were disturbed.  At the next class, one girl complained that she was so unsettled she had to go home for the day and miss her other classes. Remarkably, many complained that we weren’t warned that the video was disturbing. We were. We got your standard trigger warning. It didn’t matter. People stayed until the video began, didn’t walk out until after they were triggered. However, my classmates persisted in complaining there should have been a trigger warning. They were upset that the lesson disturbed them.

I found all of this interesting and started researching the issue, and sure enough, “trigger warnings” are starting to be explored in the context of higher education. I found this Slate post on a trigger warning policy at Oberlin that was overturned because of the difficulty it posed to educators. Frankly, education itself can be very unsettling as a lot of your core beliefs and values can be challenged by new things you learn, and not only that, the world can be a very troubling place.

This got me thinking. Trigger warnings are EVERYWHERE out there on the internet. I decided to investigate a bit more and see what the Intarwebs consider proper trigger warning etiquette to be.  One post I found identified the following topical categories as potentially worthy of a trigger warning:

  • graphic descriptions of or extensive discussion of abuse, especially sexual abuse or torture
  • graphic descriptions of or extensive discussion of self-harming behaviour such as suicide, self-inflicted injuries or disordered eating
  • depictions, especially lengthy or psychologically realistic ones, of the mental state of someone suffering abuse or engaging in self-harming behaviour
  • discussion of eating-disordered behavior or body shaming
  • depiction or discussion of violence
  • depiction or discussion of particular kinds of consensual sexual activity (BDSM, homosexual encounters, heterosexual encounters…)
  • depiction or discussion of any consensual sexual activity
  • depiction or discussion of discriminatory attitudes or actions, such as sexism or racism

It occurred to me as I read this list that I have posted content with virtually every one of these on this blog, and undoubtedly, as a lot of traffic swings through here, I’ve triggered at least one person.

I wonder why this doesn’t bother me.

I have a trauma history and suffered extensive symptoms myself for some time. I know how terrible the experience can be. In fact, there was an acute phase following a psychiatric hospitalization in which I limited myself to children’s media because I couldn’t cope with the panic attacks, the vertigo, the vomiting that being triggered would cause.

However, I did find that especially as time passed, being triggered was not the end of the world, and I finally healed by learning to tolerate the distress and uneasiness that my triggers caused. Avoiding them completely would have meant avoiding life, which was okay and necessary in the short term but not feasible for me in the long run.

Healing hurt like hell, but it was necessary.

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I don’t want to give trigger warnings. First, it’s tedious, and I like being able to write openly, honestly, and spontaneously, and yes, I like being able to surprise my reader, even if those surprises end up leading to a very dark place. I’ve read some good arguments for providing trigger warnings that make me feel like a bigot for choosing not to do so – chiefly, that I’m not accommodating PTSD and trauma sufferers and thereby discriminating against what is a valid disability.

But as much as I recognize the value of doing so, I don’t like warning readers I’m about to share my darkest truths. For what it’s worth, some days I feel I should come with a giant trigger warning hanging over my head.

But yeah, it’s interesting to see students demanding trigger warnings — just another manifestation of internet practices bleeding into everyday life.

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