How The Trigger Warning Debate Misses the Point

by Daniel E. Solís y Martínez


Warning sign

In recent months, there has been a heated debate about the use of trigger warnings. Many folks have been arguing that we need trigger warnings (TWs) to create space to heal. This idea has received major pushback, especially when it comes to enforcing TWs on college campuses. In mainstream media, students who ask for trigger warnings are accused of being too “politically correct” and called names like “millennial babiesand intellectually swaddled college students.”


While this debate has helped to raise the profile of trigger warnings among the public, it is a limited conversation. Both sides of the dialogue have left out a major consideration: Why is it that so many of us carry trauma in the first place?

In other words, how can we do a better job of reducing harm while also working to heal?


I want to bring attention to the reality that trigger warnings alone cannot bring us liberation. In pointing out the limits of trigger warnings, my intention is not to minimize the experiences of trauma that make this tool necessary, but rather to offer a critique from a place of love.


As a first-generation college student at a white liberal arts college in Ohio, my working class, Los Angeles Salvadoreño experiences were rarely reflected in the classroom. I was slammed with the reality that higher education wasn’t built for people like me, and I was often exposed to painfully violent past experiences. I know firsthand how humiliating and terrifying it can be to experience overwhelming trauma activation. At the time, I hadn’t heard of trigger warnings but they could have helped me navigate my education in a more empowering and healing way.


While naming experiences of trauma is an important part of feminism and organizing, I worry that we expect TWs to do more work than they ever could. And I’m not alone in wondering this.


Trigger warnings were not created for everyday life. They were created by feminists on Tumblr and social media to respond to everyday activation of trauma online. These warnings were meant to shift power back to people with traumas so they could decide the terms under which they would engage with their triggers. Taking TWs offline was meant to provide survivors of trauma the space they need to care for themselves in face-to-face interactions as well.


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But in my experience, TWs often center individuals, rather than communities, emphasizing the acknowledgment of trauma without offering any actions to heal. TWs do not challenge the forces of oppression that cause us trauma. Instead, they offer the seductive feeling that words alone can make us safe.


I once attended a trauma training with mostly people of color. The trainers were negligent of how they opened space where folks were exposed to trauma triggers. As a result, several participants’ traumas were activated, leading to folks shutting down. I was discouraged by the way folks demanded that only their trauma be recognized and centered.


When others tried to share their painful experiences, or shift the discussion towards actions that could begin a process of healing, some participants blocked these efforts and silenced the trauma of others in the group. By seizing the space to have folks bear witness to their pain, these participants shut out others who desperately needed that space, too.


These actions hurt us all by creating a hierarchy of pain amongst people of color that discredits the lives of some, while elevating others. From a place of pain, or activation, it’s easy to avoid taking responsibility for community harm that we cause in the process of engaging with our personal trauma. The wounds created on that day have still not been healed. This has divided us from each other, making us weaker in our efforts to practice liberation together.


I came to realize that when we center our own trauma, we can lose the capacity to care about others and their struggles, especially when it’s not directly connected to our own pain. As a result, we miss out on powerful opportunities to connect our struggles in ways that would uplift all of us.


In this instance, I was disappointed that as a group, we did not have a strategy for healing other than repeatedly asking the workshop trainers for the use of trigger warnings. This experience, along with other similar experiences, has pushed me to reconsider the way we use TWs.


By choosing the quick fix of trigger warnings, I wonder if we have shirked our responsibility to be bridge-builders over the fractured and dangerous terrains that divide us?


Ngọc Loan Trần asks us to center our struggle on collective goals that transform both ourselves and the world. They offer us a pathway to genuinely call each other in through generous compassion, a practice that can help redefine the trigger warning debate by shifting our ideas of what TWs can do. Trần’s article challenged me to balance personal healing with showing up for others.


As Trần writes, “I am willing to offer compassion and patience as a way to build the road we are taking but have never seen before.” When we center compassion in the ways we think of, allow for, and share traumas, we can move away from divisions between our personal pain and the pain of others. Compassion can help us to feel validated, accepted and cared for simultaneously – critical needs for folks navigating trauma.


By naming our pains to each other through TWs, we can work to normalize the wounds we carry. We can build on these discussions by expanding our focus on the shared historical legacies of oppression that has caused our collective pain in the first place. In this way trigger warnings offer a bridge towards transformative power, rather than a means to distance us.


TWs are just the beginning of this work. We need to experiment with new ways of dialoguing that allow us to take responsibility, ways to hold each other accountable through practice such as restorative justice, ways to share and hold pain with real compassion for others, and ways to root our liberation practices in emotional justice.


With such immense work ahead of us, the battle over trigger warnings is a distraction. Let’s get on with deeper work to build a powerful movement that heals and helps each of us get free.

DSolis Photo

Daniel E. Solís y Martínez is an activist and community-based educator focused on building the skills and power of youth to dismantle oppressive structures and begin creating a just and liberated world. Solís y Martínez writes on queerness, Diasporic Salvadoreñ@ identity, youth work, spiritual activism, and grassroots herbal medicine.



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