Thursday, December 3, 2015

Trigger Warnings

There has been a lot of talk (and debate) about “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings.” Before explaining what I support, I am going to explain what I do not support. I find this to be a good practice regardless of the topic. Therefore, first, I do not support the type of “safe space” that stops you from being confronted by a truth that makes you uncomfortable. For example, apparently at Oklahoma Wesleyan recently, a student objected to a sermon on 1 Corinthians 13 because it made him feel bad. As the university president replied, that is the point of a sermon. It is to bring you to confession, not to make you feel good about yourself. As Jesus said, “Go and sin no more.” This kind of requested “safe space” I do not support.

Similarly, the main desire for “trigger warnings” which I do not support is that which begs for an excusal from education. For example, there were students trying to use “trigger warnings” and “against their morals” as a way to excuse themselves from completing the work required by the syllabus. I do not recall the particular book, but the point of the educational system is to stretch you in more ways than just your brain capacity. Thus, again, this I do not support. While there may be other forms of “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings,” as these are the ones that seem to be most derided, I felt the need to address them.

As for the kind I support, I will explain with a personal example. In 2011, the summer following the Joplin tornado, I was working at the electronics recycler. For this job, we were being utilized to remove copper wiring, electronics, and appliances from damaged houses. During these removal operations, I was frequently exposed to very visible evidence of the destruction of people's lives. I saw pictures smashed, family heirlooms shattered, and on occasion the former resident weeping. While our apartment was approximately a half mile off the path and the only damage we suffered was a flat tire, I was affected. I know many had trouble coping, but my method was to stuff it down. I volunteered every spare hour at College Heights. Since I have trouble with identifying and handling emotions, I was attempting to bury them and pretend I was okay. However, that was not successful and I broke down crying to one of my closest professors. I thought this resolved the issues, but I still developed an affinity to tornadoes.

In 2013, as I began training at Verizon Wireless, we were discussing the Disaster Relief Team. (In case you were unaware, aside from emergency responders, Verizon is often the first on the scene during disasters.) Well, in the presentation on their work, the trainers played a video. I thought it would just be about the equipment they used such as generators and portable towers. However, the video showed clips of actual disasters, including the Joplin tornado path. Inside, I started to freak out. My breathing became difficult, so I accused myself from the room. My trainer and a classmate followed me out and stayed with me as I had a panic attack. It was my first ever, as far as I am aware. About a year or so later a counselor decided I had most likely developed mild PTSD from the work I did in the aftermath of the tornado. I never wanted to live again in a tornado area, which is ironic considering in middle school I wanted to be a trained storm chaser. However, thanks to working through it, I am coping with living here in St. Louis, even though tornadoes are once again an imminent possibility.

Now, some may say the video and following panic attack benefitted me. They may say it was a catalyst to overcoming the PTSD and phobia. However, I have a few objections to those assertions. First, no, it did not. It actually did more harm because for the next few days in training I could feel how tense I was. Anytime the projector was on, my “spidey sense” may as well have been blaring. Not to mention the panic attack itself had me outside the classroom for at least half an hour. This delayed my training as well as my coworkers. Second, the purpose of a classroom is to teach and engage, not to cause you to deal with intense mental issues. They can initiate the thought to deal with them, but it should be personal desire as well as relationships that are the actual catalyst. (Yes, I recognize the “initiation” or the first encounter with the thought of dealing with your issues may come from class but I believe that is different from a catalyst.)

One other objection that has been posited toward me is that if we are to enact “trigger warnings” then that will impede or delay the teaching, whether on certain books of the Bible such as Genesis or classical pieces such as Hamlet. Rape, murder, incest, etc is throughout much of literature in all levels of education. I agree that trigger warnings may add a slight burden and increase the introductory period for the books. However, I believe that is a small price to pay. Whether that is a quick 15 second mention before that training video that we are about to view disaster zones or a 15 minute discussion prior to Shakespeare, it is better than a student or the whole class from becoming derailed by a panic attack.

We have warnings for activities and videos that may cause epilectics to go into a seizure but nobody mocks them. Nobody berates them for asking for a warning. Why must those asking for trigger warnings be treated differently? My thought is there is a physical versus mental aspect. For example, a few of my friends have fibromyalgia. I have limited understanding of the disease (disorder?) but I know that it is largely an invisible disability, similar to autism. However, it can be just as debilitating as a much more visible disability such as being blind or on crutches. The reaction is harsh from what I have heard when a person with an “invisible disability” parks in a handicap spot versus one with a visible disability. I have seen the viral stories of hateful notes about “misuse of the handicap spot.” Well, I believe that is in part why people will get behind the epilectic warning but not the PTSD warning. They feel one is “all in their head.” (I realize that is a slightly poor analogy considering the neurological basis for epilepsy.)


Therefore, while I realize some may be trying to game the system and avoid an educational experience, that is not true of all or even most. There are many, myself included, who want trigger warnings and safe spaces for the very opposite reason. I want to learn. That is the whole point of showing up to class or training, even if it is ungodly early. However, I want the chance to learn without having to be in high alert.  

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