As we approach the start of a new school year, it’s time to think about students and education, schools and learning. A concept that has been popping up on my radar for a while is that of “trigger warnings.” When some people and publications post links to articles online that include very graphic or shocking content, sometimes the introductions include the words “trigger warning” and whatever the topic might cover (“trigger warning: rape, attack”). Trigger warnings are to inform people that something might cause alarm or a strong emotional response, a recurrence or a reminder of a past trauma. Then, you can choose whether you want to engage with the content or avoid it.
There is a debate going in higher education about trigger warnings and whether or not they become a detriment to learning. Syllabus contents and lectures are being challenged for their triggering topics on the one hand; that learning can’t happen when one is reliving a traumatic experience. On the other hand, it’s argued that, by skipping the topic due to it being too graphic or potentially traumatic, the risk is that we’re being over-sensitive and providing a disservice to the learning process. That’s an oversimplification and I’m not going to get into that here; instead, I’d rather talk about stopping trauma to begin with.
We’re not in a post-traumatic society. We’re still living what the trigger warnings are about. A college student carried a mattress around campus last year to silently protest campus sexual assault, after her alleged rapist was cleared in a campus hearing. Trans students are campaigning “We Just Need to Pee” because of not being able to use the restrooms that align with their gender identities. Bullying is being written out of policy, but is still a moment-to-moment reality for so many in the rainbow community in our schools. Triggers come later, the trauma is now.
Stop the trauma.
Some trauma is out of our control. Sometimes people are victims of trauma and the situation could not have been avoided with any help of a bystander. What if we can help someone avoid trauma in our daily lives, though? Like plainclothes superheroes? Perhaps when we proactively anticipate and cope ahead for what could be a difficult situation we reduce the chance of a trauma occurring. When we proactively anticipate a difficulty, we can offer to go to the restroom with our trans friends using the buddy system, thereby potentially avoiding conflict (or offering assistance during conflict). When we are prepared for a scenario of bullying, we know ahead of time how to interject and speak up, how to offer support, and how to contact the correct authorities at the school in case the bullying could not be quelled. That when we ask for help or offer help, we might turn around a situation that could have been traumatic and is remembered for the positive that came out of it, instead. It’s a story of victory, rather than a story that would require a trigger alert.
Let’s continue to try to author our own stories on our own terms, demanding support from our schools as well asking support from our friends and family.
With you in solidarity,