Training Wheels

What do you think of when you hear the phrase, “trigger warning?”

You may think of this as an unnecessary precaution taken in an overly-sensitive world. The phrase may mean that something extremely disturbing is coming up in whatever media you are consuming. Or it may mean nothing to you.

A quick Google Image search reveals images like this: the “special snowflake” college student who requires a safe space, free of all triggers. This image clearly shows that anyone who is offended (which I have to mention, is NOT the same as being triggered) by a micro-aggression is brainless.

Before we go any further, let me talk about the difference between being offended and triggered, as there seems to be some confusion about that in the general world. The dictionary definition of “offended” is: resentful or annoyed, typically as a result of a perceived insult. I think anyone reading this can remember a time they felt resentful or annoyed. Maybe you were really looking forward to seeing your friend and she cancelled on you at the last minute, so you begin to resent her flakiness. Maybe you got stuck in traffic on the way to an important presentation. That would be really annoying and quite stressful.

When people refer to being “triggered,” this is more than an annoyance. When someone is triggered this means they are experiencing a flashback to a severely upsetting memory or event, they are dissociating in response to triggering stimuli, or they are experiencing urges to use maladaptive coping skills, which can range anywhere from self-mutilating behavior, eating disorder behavior, to drug and alcohol abuse. (These are just a few examples.)

The word “triggered” gets thrown around a lot on college campuses and in relation to college students. Many people think that these students are being overly sensitive about the media they are required to consume for classes when they request a trigger warning. And yes, while I am in support of trigger warnings for students, I also agree that there has to be a line drawn somewhere.

With that being said, let me tell you about my day. I have been sitting in a classroom in one of the older buildings on campus with a handful of other transfer students, listening to videos and lectures given by a nineteen-year-old rising sophomore. (As per my last post, we’ll call her Jenny.) Jenny is very bubbly and energetic, and she understands that watching forty-five minute videos on academic honesty is not the most fun part of the college experience.

We had so few people show up today that Jenny combined our group with next door’s group, so I was in a slightly fuller classroom. As is normal, there was always that one person who felt compelled to shout out everything that was on his mind at any point in which he could interject. We were watching a video of a presentation basically about social justice, and within that presentation was another video. Before the recorded speaker played the short clip, she said something along the lines of, “This video contains strong language. We do note condone this kind of language, but feel that it is necessary to accurately portray the contents of the video. If you feel the need to excuse yourself, please do so at any time.”

This little aside was basically a wordy trigger warning. I did think it was a little silly to warn college students that we were going to hear swear words, but I was shocked when not only my classmates, but Jenny and the other student advisor burst into laughter and started cracking jokes, “Oh no! Not a bad word! I’ve never heard a bad word before! Is anybody afraid of bad words?” Everyone was cackling.

The video played. No one was offended, let alone triggered. We got out early, and I went home. But I could not stop thinking about this bizarre dichotomy. All of the official materials I’ve received from my college go out of their way to be inclusive, understanding, and compassionate. And yet, these two student leaders, who I assume had to go through some kind of selection process to represent the school were openly mocking anyone who had different sensibilities than they did.

I decided I needed to speak up. What if there had been a person who found themselves triggered by the language in the video or something else in the presentation? How would that individual felt trying to take care of their emotional well-being in a distressing situation with the additional stress caused by a room full of people who thought this was a meaningless trigger?

So, I sent an email to my Jenny, who had said it was okay to contact her with ideas to improve this orientation. I reread the email about a million times before I sent it, tried to word it as politely as possible, and still thought I must have come off sounding like a jerk. In the email, I used the “compliment sandwich,” a handy trick I learned from my mom when I was in middle school and had to peer review my classmates’ papers. The idea is that you start with something positive, “Thanks for all the hard work you’ve done on preparing…” then add the constructive criticism, “I felt that X could have been better handled by…” and end with another compliment, “I really appreciate you taking the time to…” It might sound silly, but trust me, it’s saved me from sounding like an obnoxious writing snob many times and also works well in other situations.

Jenny took a couple of hours to respond to my email, during which I texted a few friends to say I was very anxious, debated whether or not I should have sent it, and considered faking my own death to avoid having to see anyone from my group tomorrow.

The basic premise of what I wanted her to understand was that in an environment that is supposed to be a safe space for people, it was her job as a leader to foster that safety. She did email me back to thank me for the feedback and to let me know she’d passed it on to her supervisor, and that was that.

In the end, I felt better having said my piece, even if no immediate changes come from it. I anticipate learning many things in college, both inside and outside the classroom. I didn’t have to make my concerns known to Jenny, but I chose to take a small risk and make my voice heard, something I never would have done in the past. I am also expecting to gain a lot from listening to others’ points of view, whether it’s in class by reading books written by authors from a different religion, race, or ethnicity than myself, or if it’s from having a casual conversation with an international student. To me, college is about expanding my horizons and my comfort zone; I will meet people I would have never otherwise encountered, write about subjects I normally would not. This is all part of the college experience.

When it comes to expanding the comfort zone, trigger warnings can play a few different roles here. Again, there is a difference between being uncomfortable and being triggered. For example, I have recently been reading Jenny Zhang’s books. I finished her collection of poetry My Baby First Birthday, and found it quite enjoyable. It was definitely challenging and used a lot of language I would not personally use. It left me thinking about white privilege, among many other things. Sure, it may have been uncomfortable to read a poem that uses extremely derogatory language towards women, but it wasn’t triggering to the extent that I felt I needed to stop reading the book. In her short story collection, Sour Heart, I did choose to skip over the second story because I knew that it involved the rape of a child, and I felt that I wouldn’t be able to handle that subject matter. Ultimately, it was up to me to decide if reading the story was a good idea or not.

Let’s back up to touch on one other term I used previously: safe space. What does that phrase mean to you?

The truth is, everyone needs a safe space, that is a place where they are free to fully express themselves. It may not even be a physical location, though in some cases it could be a place such as the kitchen or a gaming room. A safe space could be a healthy relationship, in which one partner can say, “Hey, I’m feeling really stressed out about…” and feel supported by the other with equal give-and-take. A safe space could be a group of friends who accepts you for who you are, even the parts of yourself you don’t like.

A college should be a safe space. It is full of young adults at varying degrees of actual adulthood, all trying to find their way in the real world. If there is no safe space on campus for these students to do a test-run of their ideas, then how will they be able to function in the real world? If students are not supported by professors, other students, and faculty on campus, if they do not feel safe enough to share the ideas and values that guide them, where else can they feel safe enough to do that?

A safe space is sort of like the training wheels on a bicycle. They’re very important when you’re taking that first, hesitant pedal down the block. As you learn to ride your bike more skillfully, you may feel comfortable taking the training wheels off. Similarly, it may be daunting for you to raise your hand in a classroom and say, “Actually, I disagree. Here’s why.” (I know it is for me!) But the more I practice crafting a logical argument, using my voice, and firmly stating my opinions, the easier it will be for me to do that, even when I don’t feel totally safe.

In conclusion, I believe it is ultimately up to the individual to request trigger warnings for sensitive topics. No one can anticipate every trigger that a student may have. But if we can foster an environment of safety, more and more people will feel comfortable using their voices and taking care of themselves, which in turn, inspires others. I think we could all benefit from a kinder, more thoughtful society.