Beyond the Pros and Cons of Trigger Warnings: Collectivizing Healing

Beyond the Pros and Cons of Trigger Warnings: Collectivizing Healing
Andrea Smith

When I used to work as an anti-violence crisis counselor full-time, a counselor in another agency confided in me that she was currently being battered by her partner. She did not want anyone to know, however, because she feared losing her job. “People won’t think I have my act together enough to be in this movement if they know what I am going through,” as she explained why she did not think she could tell anyone. She was part of an anti-violence movement that she did not feel would support her. She had to address this violence on her own.

I was part of a larger collective that organized human rights/legal training for Native boarding school survivors. Frequently, survivors would drive literally hundreds of miles to attend at considerable expense because they really wanted this information. But when they arrived at the training, flashbacks from their years of boarding school abuse literally prevented them from walking through the door. A healing movement for boarding school survivors was being created that did not actually create space for survivors.

I was teaching a class on gender/racial violence when I noticed that one student repeatedly look disengaged and distant during the class. I presumed they were not interested in the material until one day they confided that one of authors we had read had abused them. They had tried to keep this information to themselves because they wanted to be a “good” student, but they were finding it too difficult to stay engaged in the class. I had created a learning space on racial/gender violence where a survivor of violence could not participate.

There is a continuing debate about the politics and efficacy of trigger warnings within activist, social media and academic spaces. There are merits to the various arguments on all sides of this discussion. However, sometimes what is missed is the larger context from which trigger warnings emerged. In particular, this intervention emerged from the recognition by many of us in the anti-violence movement that we were building a movement that continued to structurally marginalize survivors by privatizing healing. We had built movements that were supposed to be led by bad-ass organizers who were “healed” and thus had their acts together. If we in fact did not have our act together, this was an indication that we had not healed sufficiently to be part of the movement. We built movements around an idealized image of who were supposed to be rather than the people we actually were. The result was that we created a gendered and capitalist split in how we organized. Healing was relegated to the “private” sphere and became unacknowledged labor that we had to do on our own with a therapist or a few friends. Once we were healed, then we were allowed to enter the public sphere of organizing. Of course, since we continued to have problems, we continued to destroy our own organizing efforts internally with no space to even talk about what was going on.

Indigenous organizer Heather Milton-Lightening once prophetically declared at an Indigenous Women’s Network gathering many years ago that our movements were shunning people who might have issues, such as substance abuse. She called on us all to embrace whoever wants to be part of our movements as they are rather than as who we think they should be. The challenge for us, she noted, is to build movement structures that take into account the reality of how personal and collective trauma has impacted all of us.

Thus, trigger warnings cannot be viewed in isolation. Rather, they are part of a larger complex of practices designed to de-privatize and collective healing. They came out of the recognition that we are not unaffected by the political and intellectual work that we do. These practices also recognized that the labor of healing has to be shared by all. Trigger warnings are one of many practices that insist that one does not have to be silent about one’s healing journey – that one’s healing can occupy public and collective spaces. And healing can only truly happen when we take collective responsibility for creating structures and practices that enable healing.

Of course, all organizing strategies and practices can be co-opted. As Dian Million so brilliantly details in Therapeutic Nations, the colonial state has attempted to co-opt indigenous healing movements by framing Indigenous nations as dysfunctional people requiring therapeutic healing provided by the state rather than as nations requiring decolonization. And yet, as she also details, the fact of this co-optation cannot make us lose sight of the interventions made by indigenous healing movements, particularly those made by indigenous feminists. In particular, these movements have demonstrated that historical trauma impacts us on the individual and collective level and that we cannot decolonize without centering the impact of trauma in our organizing. And as Million further argues, rather than privatize our traumas, how can we rearticulate trauma as a place from which to develop what she calls “felt theory”–a place from which to understand our social and political conditions?

Thus, in the case of trigger warnings in particular, it is certainly the case that this intervention can be and is misused. I have seen white students say they are “triggered” by having to hear about racism. The intervention of trigger warnings also often shifts from asserting a public space to organize around trauma to creating a safe space from it. But just as Christina Hanhardt shows us that there is no such thing as a “safe space,” Roxane Gay shows us that there are no such things as “safe words.” Trigger warnings as well as ANY organizing practice we develop will be co-opted in order individualize and domesticate its potential impact on movement-building. But this reality should not make us lose sight of our larger vision of building holistic movements for liberation.

In the end, the question is not really about the pros and cons of trigger words. The questions are around, what are the organizing practices and strategies for building movements that recognize that settler colonialism, capitalism, white supremacy and heteropatriarchy have not left us unscathed? How do we create spaces to experiment with different strategies, as well as spaces to openly assess and change these strategies as they inevitably become co-opted? How do we create movements that make us collectively accountable for healing from individual and collective trauma? How do we create critical intellectual spaces that recognize that intellectual work is not disembodied and without material effects? How do we collectively reduce harm in our intellectual and political spaces? And finally, how can we build healing movements for liberation that can include us as we actually are rather than as the peoples we are supposed to be?