19 thoughts on “AS239: Eli and James on Trigger Warnings”

  1. I love Eli, I do. I think he is hilarious, and I happily opened my wallet for his podcasts, and would do so again. However, if one is going to shout on twitter about wanting to have a discussion of a topic, any topic, you should be prepared when that discussion started. Eli seemed to be under the impression that he would just be able to explain the actual definition of different terms, and James would just say “Oh, well that changes everything, how about some tea instead of having this debate?” every time James brought up an expert or a study, Eli had to say “well I’ve never read that one”. Even if he was absolutely correct, not knowing the basics of the other side of the argument makes you look like you don’t know what you’re talking about, and it forced Eli to make a lot of the same mistakes in reasoning that christians make; the christians he makes fun of for making those mistakes. He frequently fell back onto the NO True scotsman argument, made arguments from ignorance, arguments from authority, et al. besides that, as a disabled person myself, and one who has to deal with a lot of difficult environments during college, I have to say that Eli’s arguments felt more belittling than helpful.

    1. No fault of Eli’s that James wanted to discuss papers he never read. Pretty discourteous of James, actually. If you’re goal is to have a meaningful discussion about scientific literature, it’s best to share that literature with your interlocutors. Otherwise you’re actively preventing fruitful conversation.

      1. I completely agree. I’m a historian by trade, and if I wanted to have a meaningful discussion with you about the book, say, “Kill Anything That Moves” by Nick Turse, it would certainly not prove anything on my part if you’d never read it. However, Eli didn’t ask to have a discussion on the literature of the subject, he asked to have a discussion of the subject. part of knowing about the subject at hand is knowing the other side. So if I wanted to have a discussion with you about whether the Vietnam War was a well-fought and honorable war, you could bring in “Kill Anything That Moves” without it being discourteous. You would, rightfully, assume that I should have read it, or heard of its premiss at least, before asking you to debate a broad subject. Eli should have known these things. He should have known that there are other arguments against trigger warnings before calling for a debate. He should have read up on the literature himself in preparation for the debate. He even said he took time to read Dr. Lindsay’s book, which has precisely zero to do with the subject at hand. That time could have been better spent reading the different facets of the professional opinions, even if he disagreed with literally all of them. There were even moments when Eli said that he had read different experts or thinkers on various subjects, but could not defend precisely why they were wrong. His argument basically boiled down to “I worked with safe spaces in this small segment of society, and so I feel I know the subject well enough to debate it without having to know the professional thoughts on it simply because I know the definition of the term”. The first step in a good debate is to know what your opponent will argue, and how to defeat those arguments. Its why we, as presumable atheists, can defeat christians in debates so easily, because we know all the arguments and how to defeat them. Eli needed to prepare better.

        1. As a graduate student in my field, it’s not necessarily the case that you’ve read specific landmark papers, since the field generally develops around those studies and many papers later say the same thing when basing work off of those principles. Not to mention that it’s rare that ONE paper makes such huge impact, research fields go off a lot of corroborative data and consensus. And I’d have to confirm if the papers James brought up are as much of a landmark as he says they are.

          Perhaps my STEM field and this sociology work is too far-removed to be analogous, but I find it nitpicky to fault him for not reading them.

      2. “No fault of Eli’s that James wanted to discuss papers he never read.”
        Of course it’s not his fault. How couldn’t Eli ever have heard about them. That literature is only cited by people who are no-platformed, and demonized, and clearly wouldn’t be mentioned within safe spaces. :p

  2. This is one where James honestly lost me. At first I was totally on board with him regarding that a “trigger warning” is one of multiple tools/avenues of working with students who had PTSD, etc. and that there’s other tools as well going about the problem. But then he seemed eager to lump students avoiding classes and his victim culture thing into “trigger warnings”, which are separate problems. The only reason they appear to be tied together is because the super lefty Tumblr types are associated with all the safe space, trigger warning, social justice rhetoric, which is ridiculously far removed from classroom policy and procedures. If James’ argument is that Tumblr abuses X, I agree with him. One of the things I hate about Tumblr is that I tend to agree with a lot of things that they believe in, but they often have really stupid justifications for them and they carry out their beliefs in really stupid way. Coming from a social justice advocate, Tumblr is often toxic, and people shouldn’t take that BLOGGING site as a credible representation or source.

    As an aside, I’ve always found that the “ANYTHING could be a trigger” argument to not be that helpful within the context of a classroom. As James knows, included in every syllabus is a notification of reasonable accommodation for disabilities, etc. If a student literally can’t be exposed to certain material without going into a panic attack (which is far more than someone “being uncomfortable” like kids watching The Crying Game), then it’s the student’s responsibility if he feels like it to talk to the professor at the beginning of the semester about it. The professor should be able to give a notice at the beginning of class when that material is going to pop up (something that takes two seconds), and work to provide alternative assignments if needed. This puts the student in more control, whether he needs to mentally prepare for certain content, look away for a minute, or just take a lecture off. “Odd” accommodations happen all the time. In my graduating class there was a student who couldn’t see red, so he asked the professors not to use that color when possible on the whiteboard, and the professors stopped. It didn’t mean completely eliminating red from the program, it means a student was more responsible for his education. If we care about student responsibility, talking to an educator about your hurdles seems like perfectly reasonable adult behavior that happens in the real world, such as talking to your boss, etc.

  3. It was satisfying to hear Eli point out the way terms were being so casually conflated during this discussion, particularly clinical terms (e.g., avoidance, regression, exposure).

    While James seemed pretty well informed about the clinical literature, he didn’t seem to have an appreciation for the realities of clinical practice. In trauma work which utilizes exposure, not only is it important that people be “in a safe environment,” but that they are prepared to monitor their subjective level of distress, and crucially, that they recognize a decrease in distress before the exposure ends. As Eli noted, poorly structured exposure techniques, including a previously widely accepted practice called Critical Incident Stress Debriefing, have been found to be likely harmful by researchers, potentially leading to more intense symptoms.

    Broadly speaking, experiences are traumatic when they overwhelm our ability to cope in the moment. More than just prescribing a course of CBT, trauma work involves supporting individuals as they reconstruct their trauma narrative, validating their experience and the impact it has had on them, and re-establishing their sense of agency and control in ways that don’t cause their own distress (e.g., substance use, self-injury, obsessive-compulsive behaviors). As such, it is critically important that individuals engaged in treatment for trauma be able to control the pace of their disclosure.

    As James rightly seems to suggest, college professors should not be expected to design their classes with the intention of treating trauma, but classes and institutions can take steps to become more trauma-informed. Offering “trigger warnings” is not meant to treat trauma, nor to negate potentially distressing responses, but to give individuals who are concurrently dealing with historical or recent trauma the ability to navigate their exposure to potentially retraumatizing material.

    James often seems to conflate trigger warnings with avoidance, neglecting their potential use as more of a “head’s up” that enables people to remain engaged with the material rather than becoming distressed, threatened, and unable to focus.

    With that said, I think an important aspect of this discussion that went unaddressed is the implicit assumption that altering the system of academia somehow diminishes it. Having completed a graduate program in mental health counseling, I have seen the value of incorporating self-care at a structural level by an administration that models responsiveness to feedback and multicultural competency. This is a strength in a program designed to produce competent clinicians and fosters an appreciation for the value of clinical work.

    Previously, I obtained another graduate degree at a significantly more academically rigorous institution, in which we took a maladaptive sort of pride in our school’s competitive rates of student suicide. It is, of course, anecdotal evidence, but I found myself able to engage material and peers in a far more nuanced, empathetic, humanistic manner at my most recent program.

    I don’t mean to dismiss the value of long-established, intellectually rigorous institutions, but it is absurd to imply that their ability to impart knowledge is somehow threatened by the incorporation of emotional literacy, cultural competence, and sensitivity to students’ well-being.

    Moreover, while it may be slightly outside the scope of this discussion, I find the vitriol that tends to be directed at advocates for social justice, as alluded to by Eli, to be infuriating. Students who participate in higher education are tremendously capable, and those students who do so while also struggling with mental illness, trauma, poverty, racism, homophobia, internalized disenfranchisement, disability, etc. have a remarkable strength. To challenge a system and advocate for oneself or for others takes courage and vulnerability, particularly when you’re aware that any signal you give that you are struggling will be used as evidence that you aren’t good/smart/strong enough. To call that advocacy “entitlement”, to label it as pathologically regressive or avoidant, and to suggest that survivors of rape and violence aren’t fit to deal with “the real world” is both disgusting and ignorant.

    Thanks for having this discussion.

    1. I struggled for a while about whether or not to reply to your comment, because I feel your comment was well-intentioned. yet, it also harbors a thought process which I feel is harmful, or at the very least places an obstacle in the path of those people you claimed to respect in your post. I will address it merely from the perspective of a disabled person, as that is what I am. For clarification’s sake, I am totally blind, and a college graduate. Your comment, second to last line of your post, discussed how you feel that people who are disabled and go to college have a special kind of strength. This is ablist thinking, and I wish I could find the societal switch that would turn it off. There is nothing strong about advocating for yourself. I have no strength for getting through college that you didn’t for, I presume, getting through college, or that my sighted peers didn’t. It is no strength to do what is necessary. Some necessary things are difficult to do, but that does not mean you have a special kind of strength for doing them. It simply means you did them. Part of being blind and going to college is constantly reminding professors to have your documents brailled, read what is on a powerpoint, so on and so forth. That is our reality as blind people. Part of going to college in a wheelchair is making sure you leave in enough time to get to the ramps and go on the elevator. Part of having a service dog, which I do, is figuring out how you can schedule your class with enough time to feed it and take it to the bathroom. Its part of our lives that is, and this is key, absolutely unavoidable.

      That is where I think the discussion of trigger warnings is harmed by thoughts such as yours, which again I think were well-intentioned. If you present us as people who require a special kind of strength to do a normal activity such as going to class, you are infantilizing us. Its an extension of the thought process that causes me to have to explain to fully grown adults how I, a 26 year old man, can dress myself in the morning; yes, that frequently happens. That is the key thing which I think is not, and certainly Eli and James didn’t, addressed in the discussion of trigger warnings. It is a responsibility of the person who has the disability, blindness, wheelchair or PTSD, to advocate for themselves.

      Sometimes that disability precludes you from certain things. I, as a totally blind person, cannot take tennis classes, and could not be an art historian. I had to give up those dreams as a child. I had to realize I was never going to be a pilot, which was my childhood dream. That is part of having a disability. If I had PTSD, and I went into a class, the first thing I would do, warning or no, is go through the course outline, and see what I might be triggered by. I know a girl, for example, who can’t see soldiers being killed in movies. Were I her, I would go through and make sure we weren’t watching any films about that. I’d research the films we were going to watch, to make sure they didn’t have them. Then I would personally go to the professor and figure out something I could do. If that class was a history of World war II, I might have to drop the class. Just like I would have to drop a class on the history of impressionist painting as a totally blind person.

      we need to stop treating disabled people, no matter the disability, as if we’re special. We’re not special. We are simply people who have a hand of cards, and we play them as best we can. This is why I disagree with trigger warnings going any farther than a sentence on a page at the beginning of class. anything more removes the responsibility of the disabled person of self-advocation, and that is a huge disservice to the disabled person. Because, and James did make a somewhat flippant remark to this, the world has no trigger warnings. Now that I am out of college and searching for a job, there is nothing keeping me safe as a blind person. If I want something done, I either do it myself, or it doesn’t get done. Treating disabled people as if that isn’t a fact of life is an enormous disservice, and that is what trigger warnings do.

      That was rambly, and I apologize, but I hope it all made sense. I will happily answer any questions you have, except how I dress myself in the morning, I won’t answer that.

      1. I really appreciate that you chose to respond.

        I apologize for implying that it takes a remarkable strength for people who are not able-bodied to do what others can. You’re completely right that this is an infantilizing conceptualization. It was disrespectful, and again, I apologize. I will try to be more aware in the future.

        With that said, I would like to rephrase my comment and speak more for myself. It did not take “remarkable strength” for me to graduate college compared to someone who did not experience my mental health symptoms, which were severe, life-threatening, and stigmatized to the extent that I did not seek treatment (my school’s student handbook included a clause that students who are deemed to pose “a danger to themselves” will be dismissed for their own safety). It did take a great deal of strength for me to attend classes and meaningfully engage my coursework, while dealing with dyslexia, intrusive thoughts, suicidal ideation, self-injury, disordered eating, and severe depression. I don’t mean to imply that this was a virtuous “special” strength of character; I mean that it was really hard.

        Moreover, the expectation that I could summon that strength through force of will, and that failing to do so was proof that I was indeed flawed and unfit for the real world did not enable me to “build character” so much as it enabled me to waste a lot of time, energy, and potential.

        Often when I speak with others about college, it is taken for granted that students will graduate, as if that were automatic and requires minimal effort on the part of the student. The point I wish I had made is that engaging in higher education is a difficult endeavor, and it’s challenging in many ways we do not often remember or appreciate. It is more difficult for some than others (e.g., some people are smarter, some people have more free time to study, some people are more analytically minded, etc.), but it is not an easy four years in numerous life-domains (e.g., mentally, socially emotionally, etc.). I object to the notion that students advocating for change in a system that does not adequately support their education and well-being can be characterized as students demanding not to be challenged.

        Again, I thank you for pointing out that my earlier comment did not convey what I had hoped it would.

        That said, I am afraid I have to disagree with you, hopefully respectfully, when you write that there is nothing strong about advocating for yourself. I do agree with the need to challenge the patronizing idea that people with disabilities have “a special kind of strength” unknowable to the able-bodied. In my experience though, accepting that a situation is harmful/invalidating/impossible, assessing your practical needs, and asking for those needs to be met requires vulnerability and strength.

        Moreover, while I don’t mean to dismiss your point about trigger warnings conveying a damaging message that “fragile people can’t handle X,” I think it’s important to recognize that this isn’t the only valid interpretation. It would be tremendously invalidating to say that someone needs trigger warnings solely because they are part of a marginalized group (e.g., “you’re a woman, so you need to be warned about the misogyny in this text”), but how is it not invalidating to respond to someone requesting these warnings, for themselves, that you know better about what they need? Why is your self-advocacy simply a matter of taking responsibility, but their self-advocacy is infantile and self-sabotaging?

        Again, I thank you for sharing your perspective and for calling me out. I will definitely be more careful in the future.

  4. Where do the people who require trigger warnings go when they are not in class? Do they live in institutions? If they don’t, how do they avoid being triggered by their dentist or the checker at the grocery store or the guy at the deli or the ticket taker at the movie theater or the barista at Starbucks? You guys live in a world that didn’t exist forty years ago.

    I lived in a town of approximately 500,000 people for fourteen years where on any given day a quarter of the school kids had bologna sandwiches, a quarter had tuna fish sandwiches and FUCKING HALF OF THEM had peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and no one I knew ever heard of even one kid having, much less dying of, a peanut allergy. The friggin’ school, for chrissake, sold roasted peanuts by the bag on movie day to fund field trips and stuff. What happened? It’s not like peanut allergies were rare where and when I grew up, they were fucking unheard of!

    I wonder what I would be like today if my whole life someone had been walking in front of and beside me every moment making sure I was not upset by anything? Who would have been looking out for them, making sure they were never upset? And who would have been looking out for those people who were looking out for the people who were looking out for me?

    Have I been living in a bubble? Or outside of one? Where you guys live reminds me of HG Wells’ “The Time Machine” with Orwellian overtones. I like it better in (or out of) my bubble (as the case may be).

    1. As you rightly point out, the world isn’t full of people who are so sensitive that they are unable to handle any potential upset or minor setback without breaking down completely. People are multifaceted and resilient, and when we talk about social justice and trigger warnings, we tend to lose sight of that. We propose some non-existent caricatures who are overly susceptible to any potential slight rather than recognizing that the people we’re discussing are complex and capable, and that they’ve been exposed, sometimes repeatedly, to extreme experiences, dismissal and invalidation from people in positions to help, as well as the same societal expectations we’ve all been given that it’s all on us to get over our own shit (even when we lack access to the skills and tools that would enable us to do so).

      Moreover, we characterize these people as being “cushioned” and protected from reality. As James noted during the discussion, there are students in social work programs who struggle to complete required courses due to triggering subject matter, but what wasn’t commented on is that during these programs, internships, and as professionals, these students are volunteering to expose themselves to trauma, the manifestations of injustice, and a never-ending series of genuinely heart-breaking stories and situations. Some of these students have faced similar experiences in the past, or even concurrently during their programs.

      Yes, it is an enormous problem if students use the threat of being triggered to avoid learning what are likely to be essential skills for their particular field, but it is absurd to characterize them as protected and cushioned because they are asking for changes in teaching methods that will enable them to learn and engage with their difficult work in a safe and effective way.

      Physicians have among the highest risks of dying by suicide as a profession. Historically, a foundational aspect to healthcare has been professional detachment. It’s been presented as a necessary protection for medical professionals, which enables them to do deal with potentially traumatic aspects of their job (e.g., surgery, making end-of-life decisions, assessing risk). Recent research suggests that rather than protecting doctors, this detachment likely increases the risk for burnout, depression, and suicide. Interventions which foster mindfulness, reflection, and empathy have demonstrated significant potential to reduce those risks. When people criticize “protective bubbles,” they ignore that “the real world” is not a given state, but a system we construct as we participate in it. Medical schools which incorporate teaching empathy and emotional awareness are not failing to prepare their students for the real world, but rather better preparing them to survive in a stressful environment while also taking steps to address the harm that is caused by their professional culture.

      It’s easy to focus on “PC culture” as totalitarian language police. You mention Orwell, and it I feel compelled to respond that a central theme of Orwell’s writing was his disgust at the lack of decency and respect for humanity that results from systems, regardless of their foundational ideals. It’s easy to look at the critique of language as the kind of threat Orwell would have railed against, but what about the thuggish assertions that these people need to face “reality” (e.g., conform to a system that is categorically indifferent to their humanity and well-being)? It’s easy to see censorship and leap to a shallow invocation of 1984, but a slightly more nuanced argument could be made that Orwell would have been considerably more offended by people who exist comfortably in an unequal society wrapping themselves in the stirring words of revolutionaries and subversives to perpetuate that dehumanizing system.

      1. I guess what scares me most about New Age living in the Workplace of the Day After Tomorrow is that there seem to be two classes of people, no three, I guess; The rude bastards who harm the victims through their insensitivity, the victims themselves and the Supervisor Class, i.e. Eli and yourself, who will tell us all what we’re doing wrong and what we need to do instead and tell us when we’ve been bad and nod to us knowingly when we’ve behaved acceptably.

        Nope. You can have yourselves. I don’t knowingly harm anyone, but involvement in this stuff to the level you guys have achieved—up to your eyeballs—is exhausting and sort of institutionally narcissistic. And hopelessly circular. You guys are a classic example of being “wrapped around the axle.” I have other things to do.

        1. Thank you for elaborating. It helps me see where you’re coming from, and where I think we disagree. It sounds like when I (or another member of the self-appointed “Supervisor Class”) critique or challenge something you say, you feel admonished and unfairly judged. I apologize for that; it feels shitty and invalidating to be held to someone else’s moral standard, particularly if you lack the ability to challenge that standard.

          Where I think we disagree is your assertion that social justice advocacy is something being done to students by some independent third party made up of busy-bodies and narcissists. From my perspective, advocacy rises from within, and requests for trigger warnings are made by those who are/have been affected. I don’t see a Supervisor Class infantilizing the rest of society, but rather engaged individuals advocating for changes which will strengthen academic culture and address genuine harm and inequality inadvertently perpetuated by that system.

          I’m glad to hear you don’t knowingly harm people, and that you reject the characterization that you’re some kind of rude asshole for speaking against trigger warnings. But, as you noted by including the word “knowingly,” there are instances in which we, despite our best intentions, do harm to others in ways we don’t appreciate. While it might feel like social justice advocates are chastising you for failing to read their minds (e.g., warning of idiosyncratic triggers) and demanding you alter your behavior to fit into a morally acceptable standard, another perspective is that they are pointing out when something harms them. You’re free to dismiss that, characterize the problem as “people being too sensitive,” and to determine how much of your time you’re willing to spend trying to help people.

          Thanks again for giving me a better sense of where you’re coming from.

          1. You’re some variety of academic, right? Probably in the social sciences? The barely-veiled patronizing smarm, condescension and passive aggression are very familiar. My only solace is in the utter validation of my decision to retire early, and it seems, not a minute too soon.

  5. James had me leaning towards his side until he displayed motivated reasoning by citing the American College of Pediatrics (yes, I realize it was in a prior discussion). It poisoned the well for the other sources he kept referring to and made me wonder if they were also fringe elements in their field – like those meteorologists that are climate change deniers. It indicated to me that besides not being an expert in the field himself, he’s not sure who the real experts are.

    The other time he struck out with me was when he suggested that people are reasonable, so having fringe speakers at a university is fine. I’m bothered by this because I don’t know what the boundaries are, but people are clearly not reasonable – particularly in groups (Google “elevator experiment”) – or there would be no religion.

  6. trigger warnings are just a courtesy. why do they even warrant such a long discussion? because the argument is turning into banning course material or allowing students to avoid topics essential to their college course.

    warning is fine, silencing is the problem.

    1. eli seems to be trying to come down on the side of REQUIRING trigger warnings and also the liberty of professors not to honor triggers (by letting students avoid them). it seems dishonest, since the entire issue of why trigger warnings are controversial is that students expect to be allowed to avoid the material. if the trigger does not need to be honored, what good does it do? students ARE catastrophizing. the claim that reading about something unpleasant can trigger ‘ptsd’ is absurd and would have been unheard of 10 years ago, somehow kids weren’t claiming to have breakdowns over literature back then.

  7. James seems a little pedantic and kind of argues in riddles at times. I still don’t see the connection between trigger warnings causing the issue of people skipping out on class. If students aren’t finishing their classes then they should fail.

    Avoidance and warnings are not the same thing. I’m sorry but you were clearly making a connection that isn’t there in my view. You also keep flip slopping your arguments to fit your position.

    Next are we going to argue if the PG rating system causes kids to skip high school.

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