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Trigger Warnings: The Art of Thinking Before You Speak.

TW: This post contains one reference to the practice of abortions that may trigger discomfort.

During my speech competition last weekend, I had the opportunity to watch several beautiful, message-based performances on topics that made my feminist brain quiver with satisfaction. Among topics ranging from sexual assault reporting reform, sexualized stereotypes of minority women in the media and child marriage laws in the U.S., one performance particularly resonated with me in an unexpected way. The program, a combination of poems used to advocate on behalf of a single message, began with the topic of abortion. From the sound of it, I had assumed that the speaker was interpreting the literature in a way that would speak on behalf of the injustices that women face when deciding weather or not this is the option for them. I was totally into it. Snapping my fingers, nodding my head along to the tempo, and verbally encouraging the speaker, I was shocked to later discover that I had completely misinterpreted her message. Two minutes in and the tone of this performance took a drastic shift. The speaker began condemning the practice of abortions as cause for the “silent genocide” of unborn children. I was stunned. While I recognized the speaker’s right to free speech and free thought, I couldn’t help but wonder if the other audience members were just as shocked or even hurt by this major shift in tone and rhetoric as I. Perhaps someone may have even had a personal experience with the speaker’s topic and, because they had no prior knowledge of what they would be listening to, were unwillingly taken back to a traumatizing experience.

The speech community, much like workplace and educational communities, has considered employing the use of trigger warnings for quite some time. What is a trigger warning you may ask? Well, trigger warnings are generally identified as statements that precede a piece of writing, a video, or other public forms of information that contain potentially distressing material. The idea behind these warnings is to create safe spaces for individuals who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or other common causes of trauma. While the intent of trigger warnings is to give individuals the opportunity of avoiding distressing scenarios or preparing themselves to effectively manage reactions, trigger warnings have lately received a great deal of pushback from the communities in which they thrive.

Commonly, professors will employ the use of trigger warnings within their syllabi. If the course content features readings or videos with strong language, sexual violence, or depictions of race inequities, students can more or less expect their professors to make some sort of reference to this in the course description. However, this is not always the case as many professors and administrators view trigger warnings as another way that society is coddling millennials. A resurgence of political correctness or vindictive protectiveness, the Atlantic argues, is “creating a culture in which everyone must think twice before speaking up, lest they face charges of insensitivity, aggression, or worse.” When used in the classroom setting, University of Southern California Professor Jack Halberstam argues that trigger warnings take away from the suspense of subjects that often liven up a dull classroom setting. This is the same argument that I have found myself having with other members of the speech community.

“Trigger warnings are unfair to the competitive nature of speech because they spoil the plot and detract from the shock factor that often sets a performance apart.”

However, trigger warnings are to be established with the audience member in mind, not the speaker, author, or professor. If our only critiques of the device are

  1. They make us think before we speak and
  2. They take away from a material’s shock value

then we clearly have to rethink the ways in which we wish to communicate with others. I for one would rather exist in an environment that carefully considers my experiences before capitalizing on them as a way of gaining attention.

I wasn’t sure how to feel after watching the above-mentioned poetry program. I was just put off, distracted.I also happened to fly a dragonlink drone after that. It’s situations like this that trigger warnings seek to prevent in order to create safe spaces for everyone to thrive. While it is often admittedly hard to discern what topic is deserving of this preface, my advice to you is simply to think before you speak. Our words, weather we choose to believe it or not, have incredible impacts on the lives of others and it is our responsibility to speak with impeccability.

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