Stop Mocking Trigger Warnings; you look like a jerk

Content Warning: Abuse.

I was sitting in a class with my laptop open, trying to save some links and close some tabs while a classmate was reading a handout the professor distributed.

The professor peered over the lid to see what I was doing since I obviously wasn’t paying attention to the poetry reading.

I gave a sheepish grin, but instantly felt ashamed. I spent the rest of that class period trying to decide what to do, wishing I was somewhere else, and trying to remain as small as possible. I couldn’t pay attention at all.

Well that’s strange.

Yeah, it is. It doesn’t make sense as a reaction. “Normal people” would just shrug and go back to paying attention. I am a grown man and all it took was a peek over my screen from a professor to throw me into a vortex of bad thoughts.


Kristen and I were playing Euchre with friends the other night, and my partner broke a rule and the other team got two points. No big deal, except I didn’t know that was a rule. I got very serious and argumentative. I said I had never heard of that rule. Kristen knew something was up.


Those reactions don’t make sense by themselves. Why is someone over 21 behaving that way? Why can’t he be an adult about it?

Well, I did. I tried to, anyway. I didn’t run screaming from either room. I spoke calmly.

When I told my counselor about the laptop incident, she said it sounded like a trauma trigger.

A trauma trigger, she told me, is when something traumatic happened in your past, and then something happens that reminds you of it. Even if your conscious memory doesn’t remember it, your body does. Your “lizard brain,” as my counselor calls it, jumps into fight, flight, or hide mode.


When I was a kid, my dad had a furniture store where he pretended to try to teach me. But a customer would arrive, and, bored as I was with teaching myself Algebra, I would open up my computer and learn computer programming or write a story. (I learned more from this than I ever did from his “lessons.”) But then my dad would come back to where I was, and if he caught me doing something other than my schoolwork, I would be in trouble. My dad believed in spanking, so getting caught might well just lead to getting hit.

I think that was what my body remembered when my professor invaded my privacy. That grin I gave was an automatic reaction, like what I would do when my dad caught me. It was an attempt to look innocent and avoid punishment.


One time at camp I was playing soccer. I was having fun, and then the group decided to play with different rules where only four specified players were allowed across the center line to the other team’s area. These players had a name, like “chargers” or something, that everybody who played soccer on a team seemed to understand. All I heard was the name, and who they were. Nobody bothered to explain what it meant that these four and no more were to be whatever it was they were supposed to be.

When the whistle blew again, I dashed off across the field to the other side where the ball was in play, and people started shouting at me like I had done something wrong, but I was just playing the game by the rules I knew. I sulked for a while because it wasn’t fair that I had gotten yelled at for breaking a rule nobody had explained to me, and then I went down to play basketball because I was pretty sure I understood those rules.

That reaction, of course, probably came from my dad, where him yelling usually meant he was about to “spank” me. You know: hit me, on the bottom, with a board.

Even if my brain didn’t remember those stories that night playing Euchre when the rules seemed to change without warning, my body did. I started doing the only thing that had worked to at least delay being hit: Arguing. Arguing that I didn’t deserve what was about to happen to me. (I never did, but the trouble was convincing my dad).


When I was triggered, when these things happened to me that reminded me of trauma from earlier in my life, I stopped paying attention. I got argumentative about two points in a friendly game I hadn’t been paying close attention to anyway.

That’s really when I started to understand what “trigger warnings” are for. They let you know something is coming that might remind you and your body of something negative from your past, like abuse, and give you an opportunity to decide if you want to engage with that particular thing just now.

So I can only assume that when people post stories that other people are supposed to disagree with and then comment, “Triggered,” they fundamentally misunderstand what triggering is.

Either that or they’re just jerks.

I think there’s this fear that having to give people advance warning when something will come up that is a trauma trigger for a significant portion of the population will somehow result in loss of freedom of speech. Anything could be a trigger, after all. Even Ovid, for instance, got a request for a trigger warning in 2015, and insensitive jerks, who had never experienced the trauma the story triggered, suggested that the request’s authors “grow up.”

I think I have the response those bullies deserve:

No. You grow up.

Grown-ups don’t bully people who have experienced trauma and try to take them by surprise with reminders of that trauma, or try to delegetimize those experiences.

Just because someone doesn’t like something, doesn’t mean they’re “triggered” by it.
(And just because they don’t like something doesn’t mean they’re not triggered by it, either).

Using “triggered” to insult people you think won’t agree with something you’ve said is an attempt to delegitimize the very real and physical experience of being triggered. Which makes you look a lot like a bully.

Hearing about different political opinions shouldn’t be triggering to most people – unless your political opinions are that women or minorities should be oppressed, for example. Then you’re just a terrible person.

What happens then? Terrible people (Milo, for example) complain that other people are too sensitive. They’re like bullies who run around the schoolyard and punch people, then call them babies when they cry. Which really just makes them evil.

Now that I think about it, some grown-ups do bully people.

We call them villains.

Being triggered and being offended are not the same thing.


FAQ

Q. If anything could possibly be a trigger, why bother with warnings at all, or why not give trigger warnings for everything?
A. Because some things are more likely to trigger people than other things. Oberlin college (referenced in the Washington Post article) suggests things like “racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression.” I would include abuse, violence, and suicide in that list. Controversial political opinions need not apply unless they’re advocating those things.

Q. But… but the classics!
A. That’s not a question, but sometimes “classical” writers and artists wrote and drew some frickin’ horrible things, and people who experienced similar horrible things at least deserve a warning.

Q. I’m really angry about this post because I think I should never have to take other people’s feelings into account. Will you delete my comment if it violates your comment policy?
A. So fast it’ll make your head spin.

David M Schell About David M Schell
David M. Schell is a doubter, a believer, and a skeptic. He writes about God and stuff. He is happily married to Kristen, and that's why his posts don't come out as often or as angry.

  • My husband and I read The Body Keeps The Score to understand PTSD better. It’s a fabulous read and speaks to the body memory that you experienced.