Being Principled without Being a Sucker, Part 2: Trigger Warnings

In my last post, I talked about the way white supremacists exploit the idea of free speech in order to do violence, and how that ties into the general idea that manipulative people will exploit whatever principles you hold to get what they want.

Since trigger warnings, and mental health accommodations in general, are an issue I’m pretty passionate about, it occurs to me that all the hand-wringing about trigger warnings relates to this.  While the people ardently defending the free-speech rights of Nazis are ignoring the fact that the principle of free speech can be weaponized, the folks wringing their hands about trigger warnings seem to focus *solely* on how they could be twisted and misused.

“We shouldn’t expose people to traumatic images or stories without their consent,” is a pretty good principle. It’s founded on the concept of consent, it accounts for the fact that mental illness and trauma exist, and it emphasizes respect and kindness.

So, like any other principle, it can be manipulated. People can, potentially, falsely claim triggers they don’t actually have in order to get out of school assignments. Or they can claim to be traumatized in order to shut down discussions.

Those are legitimate issues that should be addressed if you’re a teacher figuring out how to accommodate students’ mental health needs or someone running any kind of online discussion community.


A lot of people immediately jump to “Therefore trigger warnings are bad.” But, again, the fact that manipulative people can twist and misuse something to get what they want, doesn’t make it a bad thing. They can do it with free speech, after all.

The fact that some students will make up outrageous lies to get out of work is pretty well known.  Grandparents dropping like flies before a big assignment is due is a common trope. And yet, what kind of asshole would a professor be who stated on their syllabus that deaths in the family are no excuse for missing classes or assignment deadlines? Same thing with illness.  Yes, some people will fake sick to get out of work or school, but the solution to that is not to make everyone come in when they’re puking or coughing up a lung.

To me, it’s interesting how “We have to defend the free-speech rights of Nazis!” and “We can’t have trigger warnings because people will abuse them!” are opposite sides of the same coin.  The first is, “This general principle is good, so we just have to accept that people are going to misuse it in ways that could literally destroy our country,” while the second is, “People could misuse this to gain minor competitive advantages, so it must be a horrible principle.”

In both cases, thinking critically about *how* we defend the principle is important. Just having a principle that you’ll give students a heads-up before exposing them to triggering material doesn’t mean they automatically get out of assignments that might be triggering. Some might, if that’s appropriate, but they could do an alternate assignment that addresses related ideas. Others might just need more time or some other minor tweak. For others, the heads-up might be all they need.

Likewise, having a principle that everyone is legally entitled to speak unless they’re defaming someone, shouting fire in a crowded theater, or inciting violence doesn’t require pretending that a group that’s openly planned violence is peaceful. It doesn’t require volunteering to give Nazis a platform, or continuing to employ someone after you find out they’re a member of the KKK.

Stay tuned for Part 3, where I tie in fat acceptance and talk about the principle of body autonomy and diet talk in FA spaces.


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