Pathological, noticeable: another note on trigger warnings

First, an acknowledgment: everyone other than Judith Shulevitz is sick of talking about trigger warnings by now. It seems like every blogger in the U.S., including me, wrote a piece on trigger warnings sometime in the last year or two, and by now the argument has mostly lost steam. The kids are self-infantilizing! The schools are insensitive! We go round in circles.

I find my own opinion shifting depending on my companions. Amongst feminist peers, I am skeptical of trigger warnings ability to truly make classrooms safer and more productive. Faced with critics, I find myself eager to defend the very real needs of young people trying to learn the best they can in white male-dominated educational institutions. And, to be frank, I’m mostly bored by the conversation at this point.

But on Wednesday, Jeet Heer got me thinking about trigger warnings again with a piece in the New Republic that explored students’ claim to rhetoric of trauma and therapy. Heer traces the history of PTSD, starting with the experiences of military veterans — which, the author argues, led to trauma as a form of political identity, which some students now employ today in demands for notes on syllabi.

triggerwarningHeer is ambivalent about this “triumph of the therapeutic,” in which “psychiatric ideas have become part of the common coin of everyday life”: “These [trauma-based] identities might seem as though they are excessively focused on victimization or identity politics,” he writes, “but association can lead to political empowerment. Participation in self-help has given once marginalized groups a new way to organize and give voice to their complaints and their needs.”

While Heer doesn’t quite say this, it’s noteworthy that not all students demanding trigger warnings in fact suffer from PTSD. The word “trigger,” then, has expanded from a distinct, medicalized term to generally describe a sudden instigation of extreme disturbance. I’ll admit that’s a move that makes me uncomfortable, both because it threatens to elide the distinct needs of students with PTSD and because conversations grow murkier when the harm we seek to avoid is less clear.

But to understand the need for a language of trauma, we can’t forget about power, and that’s where my sympathies reemerge. While Heer focuses on a predominantly (though not exclusively) male battlefield of mental health, women and other marginalized young people have largely led student demands for trigger warnings. And to put it bluntly: these students have a hard time convincing others to take their hurt seriously. How many students whose universities tried to keep us out until the last half century or so — women students, students of color, queer students, students with disabilities, undocumented students — have tried to voice pain at the ways our classes teach books and history as though they didn’t contain our lives? And how many times have we been ignored? Just two months ago, a professor at my law school told me that he couldn’t do anything to improve the unit on rape law in our crim classes until he had evidence that the mistreatment rose to the level of legal liability. (Lawyers, amirite?)

No wonder, then, that students feel they need to latch on to a language of pathology, even a pathology that isn’t theirs, to demand what they need. Hurt and pain and anger aren’t enough for universities to care, but maybe medicalizing those same betrayals could work. I don’t have PTSD and I don’t feel the need for trigger warnings, so I don’t feel well positioned to pass judgment in either direction. But, as Heer also finds, it’s hard not to empathize with those whose vulnerability is their only effective tool.


Washington, DC

Alexandra Brodsky was a senior editor at During her four years at the site, she wrote about gender violence, reproductive justice, and education equity and ran the site's book review column. She is now a Skadden Fellow at the National Women's Law Center and also serves as the Board Chair of Know Your IX, a national student-led movement to end gender violence, which she co-founded and previously co-directed. Alexandra has written for publications including the New York Times, the Atlantic, the Guardian, and the Nation, and she is the co-editor of The Feminist Utopia Project: 57 Visions of a Wildly Better Future. She has spoken about violence against women and reproductive justice at campuses across the country and on MSNBC, ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, FOX, ESPN, and NPR.

Alexandra Brodsky was a senior editor at

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