Trigger Warnings: A Response to Silha Lecturer Randall L. Kennedy

When I first heard the topic of the Silha Lecture this year, I was ecstatic. Finally there was going to be a discussion surrounding campus climate, trigger warnings, and cultural appropriation. I shared the event widely, talking about it with my friends and sharing my excitement that a scholar from Harvard was going to discuss something that I was so passionate about.

Boy, was I surprised to find that this was NOT what I got. While there was so much to touch on and so many points that Professor Kennedy raised that I wholeheartedly agree with, there was a turning point in his lecture where I became royally pissed. Professor Kennedy referred to himself as a lucky professor, calling himself a “paid student” because he continues to learn new things in his position.  Well then sir, I would be happy to educate you on something you know nothing about: Trigger Warnings.

A trigger warning is a verbal or written warning to alert your audience that the content coming up could be potentially traumatic, particularly to those with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and victims of sexual assault or abuse. It’s ironic that someone with such a decorated background wasn’t even educated on simple definitions or the fact that a “trigger” is recognized by the DSM-5, but took the time to share his opinion on the matter.

Professor Kennedy,

During your lecture, you used the term ‘trauma’ and ‘traumatized’ very liberally, using it to describe people being “grossed out” or “offended” by gory or graphic content, but that isn’t what a trigger is. A trigger warning isn't to protect someone who’s offended or uncomfortable, or to stifle learning in difficult environments. It’s to protect victims of actual trauma (exposure to actual threat or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence) from re-exposing themselves to that trauma. It’s not someone crying because they’re looking at or learning about something that a reasonable person would find disturbing or graphic.

Clearly, in all your study of law and politics, you’ve never taken the time to read the DSM-5, so I’ll so kindly share with you what the DSM-5 states will happen to someone who’s confronted with a trigger. “The disturbance...causes clinically significant distress or impairment in the individual’s social interactions, capacity to work or other important areas of functioning.”

When I explained this to you during the Q & A, you dismissed it and continued to say that you ‘understood’ where I was coming from. But I don’t think you did. In fact, I hope you don’t. I don’t want anyone to truly understand how I feel and understand the pain of trauma, because that means they have experienced the same type of trauma I have. When you dismiss the idea that professors should be required to use trigger warnings in their classrooms because it supposedly infringes on your freedom of speech or freedom of expression, you’re dismissing the validity of someone’s trauma.

The best part of all of this is that you (with what I am assuming was good intention) said that there are services that are offered to help students deal with these things. I agree with you, there are services that are offered to help them deal with sustaining a healthy mental state. However, you couldn’t really offer any more detail than that. So let me expand on those resources for you. While I can’t speak to Harvard University, I can speak to my home, the U. We have the Boynton Health Center, Student Counseling Services, the Disability Resources Center, the Aurora Center, and the Behavioral Consultation Team; and those are just the big names. I’m grateful to be a part of a campus that offers these to me. When you went on to say that having a student expose themselves to a trigger will help them “move on” from that trauma, I was appalled.  Sure, that’s the end goal, but facing your trauma head-on isn’t something you do in an uncontrolled environment surrounded by strangers and a professor that doesn’t even see the legitimacy of your trauma in the first place. That is something you do with a licensed professional or in a controlled environment.

I don’t need to grow up, I don’t need to ‘face reality’ or be less sensitive. I’m not asking to be coddled or have my hand held. I don’t need to be shown what’s out there to “get used to it.” I don’t think you understand the amount of “reality” I was hit with when I experienced what I did, or the amount of strength that’s required to even survive trauma. A trauma trigger doesn’t have an expiration date. It doesn’t suddenly have less impact on you because you’re an adult or a student in law school.

There will always be an ongoing conversation about what rights students have in the classroom. That was what your whole lecture was about. I believe that students should feel relatively safe at school. I’m going to assume you also believe this based on the topic of your lecture. No reasonable person would disagree with that statement. But blind-siding a student who is a victim of trauma with something that makes them relive their trauma is just cruel and certainly takes away any feeling of safety in a classroom.

While you’re concerned with someone infringing on your freedom of speech and expression, I’m concerned with exposing myself to a trauma that causes me anxiety attacks, panic attacks, rapid change in blood pressure, the inability to breathe, and stifles my ability to learn. I don't see how asking you to let me know if triggering content is coming up infringes on your first amendment rights, rather, I see it as you caring about my well-being as your student, and as a human being.