A case for trigger warnings

Ana López, Managing Editor

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Dear Jonathan Haidt: there are some occasions where trigger warnings are necessary and microaggressions are not comparable to a clumsy mistake. And no, that does not make the people whose identities are constantly subordinated and oppressed weak.

I think that your argument seems to forget about how power dynamics and the ways in which identity-based oppression and subordination has provided much of the architecture for our social interactions. Let me illustrate that for you through an example:

Let’s talk about trigger warnings. During the fall of 2017, I was enrolled in a class where we read the book “Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump” by David Neiwert. The title of the work reflects its content pretty well; it was about the rise of the radical right in the 2016 presidential election. Neiwert talks about issues of representation and general changes that might have led to the increase in this particular political ideology.

As a political science major, I think that discussing the context for certain beliefs and attitudes is incredibly enriching, even if those involve negative ideas that are directly addressed at one or many of my identities. I approached my assigned reading feeling engaged with the topic.

The problem is, however, that Neiwert used examples of horrible hate speech as evidence for his argument. Not only the mention of it but the repetition word by word of speech that invited for violence against minorities and was beyond offensive. The book contains, for example, most of Dylann Roof’s manifesto, a document that is pure hate speech. Dylann Roof is the person who walked into a church in Charleston, South Carolina and shot nine Black people because of their race.

In the same book, Neiwert describes the rise of anti-Hispanic attitudes using tweets and excerpts from blogs that contain hate speech against Latinxs and particularly against Mexicans as evidence. I felt physical discomfort while doing my homework. I was assigned to read repetitions of speech that characterized my existence as a Mexican person as fundamentally undesirable, wrong, evil, and deserving of harm. I wanted to vomit and I wanted to cry. Even if these attacks were not addressed directly to me personally, they were still addressed to a core aspect of my identity, an aspect of my identity that governs the way some people choose to interact with me. It is an aspect of my identity that has forced me to experience personal direct harmful comments and even hostile physical contact.

The repetition of the speech itself was not relevant to Neiwert’s argument. In fact, I would go as far as to claim that the inclusion of so much hate speech only tinted his book with a sensationalist, morbid character that took away from his core claims. In other words, it is possible to engage in discussions about ideologies and intolerance toward certain groups without forcing victims of this subordination to relive harmful experiences or experience harm.

I needed a trigger warning for that reading. I needed it because getting my undergraduate education should not be dependent on how much xenophobia and racism I am willing to endure. There should be a fundamental respect for my autonomy in deciding whether I am willing to put myself through these instances of hate speech. I wish I could have the opportunity to avoid those certain pages and still read about his argument. I do not think that that is an unreasonable request. Hate speech does do damage just by reproducing and printing it.

I encourage professors to think about this when assigning readings. A trigger warning is an acknowledgement of the audience’s autonomy, of their positionality in the world. It is a recognition of difference in how we interact in this world. It is an affirmation of freedom, as it provides the audience with the opportunity to engage to different degrees with topics that might be harmful for their identities.

That does not make me weak. In fact, the opportunity to chose to engage with these ideas having full knowledge of the content is empowering and conducive to true and free discourse in our search for the truth.

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