Photo Courtesy of The Post

April 22, 2016

BLOGGIN’ IN ALL CAPS | In Defense of Trigger Warnings — or Maybe Basic Empathy

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At Ohio University, the “graffiti wall” is a canvas for self-expression and free-speech. Anyone is free to write a message on the wall. It became the center of a campus-wide controversy when members of the Ohio University College Republicans painted the message, “TRIGGER WARNING: THERE ARE NO SAFE SPACES IN REAL LIFE! YOU CAN’T WALL OFF THE 1ST AMENDMENT,” on April 13 according to The Post.

The act was a response to the decisions of OU Greek life governing bodies to not approve any social events involving alcohol during Greek Week in response to unnamed sorority and fraternity members writing the phrases “Trump 2016” and “Build the Wall.”

The OU Greek life governing bodies did not sanction individual members because “they were within their rights speech.” But they did call the phrases “offensive and hurtful to many individuals as it is directly tied to the Hispanic/Latino/a community, makes them feel marginalized, and the message was interpreted that they do not belong at Ohio University,” according to a letter to the OU Greek community.

I believe that the graffiti wall incident highlights key issues regarding the discourse on safe spaces.

A lack of empathy. The OU College Republican’s explained that the they tagged the wall because they “wanted their voices heard, even if it’s an unpopular opinion.” I agree with them there — they are entitled their opinion, which is at best offensive and at worst racist (but that is an entirely different topic). But my problem is with the way they respond to the community of Hispanic and Latino Students who are telling them that they perceive their message as offensive. There were a million and one ways that the OU College Republicans could have communicated their commitment to championing the right to free speech, but they chose to do so by invalidating the Hispanic and Latino community’s experiences and evoking the very imagery that was originally considered offensive.

For instance, if someone called me a chink, I would tell them to not do that again because I find the term offensive. While they technically have the right to say whatever they want, I would hope that they wouldn’t respond, “I have the right to my unpopular opinion, you chink.” From my limited perspective, it appears that the OU College Republicans were so consumed with the breach of their right to free speech, they devoted no attention to engage with the Hispanic and Latino community to try to understand why they were so offended. In the name of free speech, I hope we don’t become callous to the fact that our words affect other people and start acting like jerks to one another.

Making General Attacks Against Trigger Warnings. The rhetoric of the grafitti message seems to imply that safe spaces are inherently futile or even hinders students’ abilities to live in “real life.” Similarly, in a scathing critique of safe spaces, Jill Filipovic is quick to make sweeping statements on those who ask for trigger warnings: “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 . . . 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.”

I wonder how Filipovic would discern between those who are making “reasonable” requests and those who are “demanding” trigger warnings. Should every person who suffers from PTSD have to disclose their traumatic experience in order to differentiate themselves? How do we separate individuals who ask for a “heads up” from those who “demand” trigger warnings — are we to rest assured that those belonging to the latter category would somehow give away their identity by wearing a “I’M AN ANGRY FEMINIST” t-shirt, because of course they are in the majority since Filipovic insists that they are? I find it ironic that Filipovic criticizes “generalized trigger warnings” with a generalized conclusion about the reason people ask for trigger warnings. While I acknowledge there may exist certain people who are interested in “performing feminism” rather than legitimately asking for trigger warnings, I do not believe that it is a reason to make sweeping statements that invalidate real traumatic experiences and real oppression.

Because let’s go back to why the uses trigger warnings proliferated to begin with: to warn survivors of PTSD of content that could possible trigger them to re-experience their trauma. While many self-appointed cultural critics and trauma experts lurk the comment section of Op-Ed articles to inform trauma survivors that while they suffered horrible circumstances, they should try to cope with their trauma instead of avoiding it, I disagree. First, I think it’s a flowered up way of saying — just get over it — which is incredibly insensitive. Second, although I agree that trauma survivors shouldn’t be branded as weak and fragile creatures, certain triggering experiences can make survivors feel weak and fragile. Since trauma is a subjective experience, isn’t it logical to think that everyone will take a different amount of time to come to grips with their trauma and have a different path of recovery? If so, I don’t think anyone has the right — even if he or she was once a victim of trauma themselves — to tell someone how and at what speed they should learn to cope.

Because triggers can be unexpected and highly specific to an individual, navigating the boundaries of trigger warnings is difficult. In order to prioritize the needs and well-being of victims, trigger warnings have ballooned to encompass categories that many would deem melodramatic or frivolous. There are certainly ways to criticize those who use trigger warnings as feminist props and be cognizant of its effect on free-speech and academic freedom without resorting to generalizations that characterizes those who use them as “in college and hiding from scary ideas.” But ultimately, during more theoretical discussions on trigger warnings and their effect on free speech or academic freedom — discussions which I believe are important to have — I hope we do not forget to empathise with the people affected by our dialogues in the heat of an argument.