Monday, May 26, 2014


I have serious questions about efforts to attach trigger warnings to works taught in schools. I agree that some people have post-traumatic stress reactions to material the rest of us can tolerate, but I think warning advocates often want to put labels on anything unpleasant, or any depiction of a moral outrage, regardless of whether it's likely to trigger post-traumatic stress in the vulnerable. Is that really how triggers work for the traumatized?

In yesterday's New York Times Magazine, there was a story by Jeneen Interlandi about a new role-playing therapy for PTSD victims. Interlandi's story follws Eugene, an Iraq War veteran whose PTSD is triggered most profoundly by an incident in which he killed a young man who failed to stop at a checkpoint. The young man turned out to be unarmed. Eugene saw the grief of the young man's mother when she discovered the body, and this still haunts him.

Interlandi watched Eugene go through a couple of role-playing sessions led by a researcher named Bessel van der Kolk. This happened in group sessions, with various members of the group playing participants in the incident. Van der Kolk asked Interlandi herself to play the dead man's mother, and she did so.

Some time later, Interlandi contacted Eugene and asked him whether the therapy had helped him. He said it had -- temporarily. Then his PTSD was triggered again.

By what?
... he was trying to figure out what triggered the relapse. He thought it had something to do with a painting he saw. He attended an Asian art fair earlier in the week, and an Arab dealer was selling some contemporary paintings; most of them were of soldiers, but one was of a woman. She looked like me, he said. He remembered staring at it and freezing up.
A mother whose grief weighs on Eugene is played by another woman in a therapy session, and then Eugene sees a painting that resembles the substitute grieving mother and his PTSD returns full force. If you're crafting trigger warnings, how do you warn against something like that?

This reminds me of Dark Avenger's comment in response to my earlier post on trigger warnings:
In my limited experience(caution, one anecdote does not equal data) people who have had trauma in their past or PTSD due to bad life experiences get triggered by very specific things, not mentions of a subject/topics related to their trauma.

Ex: My mother survived 18 months in a civilian concentration camp run by the Japanese Imperial Army in Shanghai, China. She could talk about some of her life there without emotion, other subjects, there were still strong feelings that came to the surface when she spoke of them.

I once left a short-wave radio on, and I didn't know the frequency was one used by Japanese radio stations/ham operators as well as the program I had been taping by a timer-controlled cassette recorder.

Well, she heard Japanese coming out of said SW radio, and as she stated, "It scared the shit out of me." It immediately took her back to the camp, psychologically speaking.

It was one of the few times I really saw her in a rage. She knew that it was an accident on my fault, but it still didn't lessen her reaction to it....
I suspect that people who craft trigger warnings focusing on large injustices ("Trigger warning: racism; rape culture") do so because it serves as a substitute for being able to vanquish the large injustices themselves. Fighting injustice is hard, and you can never succeed outright -- but you can place large neon warning signs around depictions of large injustices and feel you've accomplished something.

But does that serve the needs of trauma survivors, or does it serve your own? I'm not sure.


Victor said...

"Seeing" something that triggers a reaction, is just one trigger.

Then there's touch - the feel of something may trigger a reaction.

Also, taste and sound can trigger reactions.

"Hearing," is also a powerful triggers. Turn on an Oldies radio channel, listen to the songs, and see if you can't remember the places and times you heard them - especially, the first time.

But the greatest triggers may be olfactory.
"Smells" trigger enormously reactions - good, and terrible.

My late father couldn't stand the smell of turnips, because they reminded him of the Nazi Concentration and Work Camps he and his family were in - where, often, the thin gruel they were served had turnips in it; the Germans guards got the few potato's and meat scraps left, and the prisoners got whatever was left over.
For Thanksgiving, since a lot of us love turnips, I had to be the one who peeled and mashed them - and you could see my father almost gagging at the smell and sight of them.
"Smell," is an extraordinarily powerful trigger.

I'm not kidding when ask this:
"How do we guard against ALL potential triggers?"

I wish we could, but I don't think we can.

Anonymous said...

It seems like there are very literal trigger/warning connections -- warning potential rape survivors that a depiction of rape is impending, most prominently -- and then there are these metonyms that no one can reasonably anticipate, like turnips or fleeting images, which trigger without warning. I don't think anyone who would want to codify trigger warnings is thinking of metonymic triggers. That's why I feel like most "trigger warnings" aren't really driven by thinking about how PTSD seems to work in a clinical sense, but rather by a more generalized kind of sensitivity and respect towards those who have suffered extreme pain.

Philo Vaihinger said...

You do realize this whole thing is just bullshit to allow more in your face denunciations of racism, sexism, and on and on. A PC propaganda opportunity, in other words. All the concern is just bullshit.

wriggles said...

I suspect that people who craft trigger warnings focusing on large injustices ("Trigger warning: racism; rape culture") do so because it serves as a substitute for being able to vanquish the large injustices themselves.

On-line T/W's are often about expectation. When people are in what they would deem a friendly space, they'll tend to let their guard down.

That can make for a greater sensitivity to things that might otherwise be shrugged off under normal circumstances.