I teach ethics. Like many other subjects, including literature, theology, psychology, sociology, medicine, anthropology, history, and art history, proper study of this subject will expose students to material that ‘some may find distressing’. It would be impossible to teach it without this being the case.
There are of course ways of discussing such material which are better than others, which are more sensitive than others. But should any such material be heralded with a trigger warning that some may be distressed?
Of course a trigger warning which is aimed specifically at those who suffer from post-traumatic stress alerts to the possibility of a reaction that may go well beyond any usual distress that any ordinary feeling human being would experience at the portrayal of suffering. But the thing about post-traumatic stress is this: it’s governed by a bit of the brain that knows no rationality. Therefore, it’s next to impossible to predict what it might stick itself on to. In the years after our brush with the massacre at Port Arthur, I have had reason to be grateful that the fashion for long hair in men seems to have passed, for the sight of a young man with long blond hair is enough to bring out a strong urge to throw myself onto the floor under the nearest table. (And this, even though I have only ever seen Martin Bryant, with his long, wavy blond tresses, in photographs; apparently the imagination works overtime to create triggers that mere reality left out.) I imagine that many of the millions of Australians who also saw Bryant’s picture so many times in the news might guess that one: I remember a work colleague telling me that he could not understand why all the fair-haired men with long hair did not cut it short: to us, they all looked like Bryant, they all instilled a momentary, visceral fear. (Long blond hair = Where’s his guns?)
But what really triggered stress and panic in me was not what anyone else could possibly predict. It was white cars. This, presumably, because I’d found a woman shot dead inside a white Toyota Corolla hatchback. But why wasn’t it some other feature of the scene? Only my reptilian hindbrain could tell you, not that it’s capable of language.
So, one thing that follows is this: if a teacher takes out all the examples of, say, sexual assault, and replaces them with examples of, say, burglary, that might still be a trigger for some of the audience. In fact, a discussion of sexual assault in and of itself might not be a trigger for some survivors of sexual assault, if my own experience is anything to go by, because discussing the Port Arthur massacre, or shooting victims, in and of itself, was not.
Those who discuss potentially traumatic aspects of human experience, the dark and evil side of life, need to do so in ways which will help to enhance understanding, which will aid learning and discussion, and which exhibit the sort of sensitivity that no possible code could delineate with exactitude. And those who suffer from post-traumatic stress to the extent that they find their daily life, including their education, disrupted by the trauma, need help and support from professionals. Maybe I’m being too harsh, but I’m not at all sure that giving explicit ‘trigger warnings’ will necessarily serve any purpose. It won’t be possible to cover all bases without giving them constantly. And what should those whose trauma is triggered then do? Should the teacher avoid topics ‘just in case’? Should the student leave the class?
A few months after the Port Arthur massacre, someone arrived to take me to the coast for the weekend, in a white Toyota Corolla. ‘It’s a white Toyota Corolla,’ I gasped. He didn’t seem to think that was a problem – after all, it was a different model to the one involved in the shooting, he explained to me. Not having the slightest interest in cars, I had no idea that this was the case, and more to the point, nor did my brain. So, frozen with fear, what did I do?
I can only describe it like this: I stepped out of my body, stood behind myself, and using every ounce of strength I could muster, pushed myself into the front passenger seat of the car. And off we drove to the New South Wales south coast. Now, white cars sometimes remind me of the time when I could not walk past one without stopping to check if there was somebody shot dead inside. And sometimes, they don’t.