In case you haven’t noticed, the fires of the Great Trigger Warning Debate are burning high again, this time in the halls of academia. Students at UCSB have called for trigger warnings in course syllabi, prompting the New York Times to equate dissociative spells, nightmares, and anxiety attacks with “squirming”. Now, along comes Pacific Standard with an article that tells us science says we shouldn’t give sexually assaulted students with PTSD even the same consideration we give television viewers who don’t like nudity on their screens.
As the article was written by Dr. Richard J. McNally, who directs clinical training for Harvard, I didn’t expect to find fault with the science he cited. This turned out to be mostly true. I found the argument presented in the article pretty appalling, however.
On a side note before I get to the arguments: You may well have the impression that “trigger” is a concept unique to post-traumatic stress disorder. If you do, you’re not alone. I saw someone on Twitter just a few days ago suggest that a broad view of trigger warnings was somehow appropriating the experience of PTSD sufferers. Reading the article won’t disabuse you of this notion–it’s entirely a discussion of PTSD–but this isn’t true.
Think of a trigger the way you’d think of a stimulus in classical behavioral psychology. It is an event that provokes a response over which someone has very little control. Pavlov’s bell was a salivation trigger in his dogs.
Of course, we’ve moved on a good bit from strict behavioral psychology, and people aren’t dogs. “Trigger” these days describes an event to which we react in a way that is significantly but not entirely automatic or beyond our conscious control. Suppressing a reaction to a trigger requires cognitive and emotional resources, executive function, but it can be done. “Trigger” now applies to events that provoke a wider variety of maladaptive responses as well, such as bingeing in someone with eating disorders or self-hatred in someone with depression.
But on with the article.