This commentary, written by Samuel Barr, originally appeared in The Federalist on December 1, 2015.
I will not warn any would-be readers of the psychological assault they might experience upon reading this article, for two reasons. First, I don’t want to do anything that might dissuade someone from reading a piece about a subject I care deeply about. Second, I find the idea of trigger warnings abhorrent.
During a recent survey of college students across the country by McLaughlin and Associates, 63 percent favored requiring their professors to label course material that might be discomforting. The fear here is that depictions of rape, domestic or child abuse, or any number of other subjects might upset people suffering from mental health issues. This is done with the best intentions, but in their paternalistic attempt to protect vulnerable minds, universities have crossed the boundary into full-blown condescension toward people with mental illness.
Before I go further, I should provide a little background about myself. My distaste for this latest intellectual fashion is born from my own ongoing struggles with mental health. I am a prime example of the type of person trigger warnings are designed to protect.
Victimhood Equals Self-Imprisonment
When I was ten an older boy abused me. The details are unimportant; suffice it to say that I was left emotionally devastated and suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Compounding the situation, I was diagnosed soon thereafter with Asperger Syndrome.
This deadly one-two punch left me feeling isolated from peers and adults, which sent me spiraling downward into a deep depression. I cursed God, fate, or whatever phantasmal force had singled me out for punishment. I became a victim, not because of what happened to me, but because of how I came to define myself.
Victimhood is a prison, and for years I was within it, forced to re-enact patterns of failure and to periodically relive the worst experiences of my life. My trauma became the lens through which I saw the world. As long as I remained trapped in the prison of victimhood, I hadn’t really survived my experience. It continued to dominate my life in many ways. It wasn’t until I started to redefine the narrative of my life that things got better. Even still, it took years of therapy, and coming to terms with some harsh truths about myself, to get to the point I am at today.
Trigger warnings are one of the latest fads in an ongoing cultural obsession with glorifying victimhood, and as a former victim I can confidently say there is nothing glorious about it. Contrary to the noble intentions of its supporters, trigger warnings do more to harm people with trauma backgrounds than help them.
We Need to Confront Our Traumas
Some opponents of trigger warnings can be dismissive of the realities that many people with mental illness live. Unlike them, I know that being triggered is all too real. Even as I write this, I can feel the black tendrils of my past threatening to pull me back into that place of despair.
Triggers can be a powerful force in our lives, but they do possesses a certain degree of inevitability. Trying to avoid all content that might be triggering is not only futile, but ultimately will only perpetuate the suffering of those with traumatic pasts. Learning to deal with what triggers us is an ongoing struggle for many people like me.
Compared to most of life, college is already a safe space. If we cannot confront our trauma within the pages of a book, how can we expect to navigate personal relationships or demanding jobs? Perhaps the most triggering experience for people like me, who have endured trauma in childhood, will be raising our own children (particularly as they approach the ages when traumatic events occurred in our lives).
Don’t Stigmatize My Struggles
In advancing the narrative that people with mental illness and PTSD are so fragile that they need to be protected at all times, universities not only fail to help people overcome their traumas, they increase the already toxic stigma against people with mental illness. In the last few decades, people with mental illnesses have made tremendous strides toward societal acceptance. Trigger warnings, in spite of contrary intentions, are a move in the opposite direction.
By promoting trigger warnings, universities fail in their primary purpose: to provide an environment for the free and robust exchange of ideas, which is essential to higher education. People with mental illnesses need to participate in this exchange, in part to further break down the walls between them and the general population, and for their own liberation from the prison of victimhood.
I’m not one usually prone to assigning some cosmic meaning to human suffering. But if my story does serve any higher purpose, I hope it will be to help educate others on some of the gritty realities of the world we live in. Most importantly, it allows me to empathize with others who suffer. Personal narratives have great power; how we choose to define ourselves helps to shape our reality. Trigger warnings define people with mental illness and PTSD as victims, imprisoning them in the past.
Changing one’s narrative is a long and arduous process, but it is possible. Confronting and overcoming what triggers us is a crucial step in this process. Today, I am no longer a victim. I am a survivor, and the difference this belief has made in my life is tremendous.
Samuel Barr is a rising student at Texas State University, and an intern at the Texas Public Policy Foundation in Austin, Texas.