A Conversation On Trigger Warnings by Krupali Patel and Fred Ditzian

A Conversation On Trigger Warnings by Krupali Patel and Fred Ditzian

A few months ago a student of mine had a debate round that made me think about the way that we care about one another in debate. They flipped negative, just like most normal rounds would have, but the difference with this round was that before the round we asked the competitor not to read the narrative that he had been reading the entire tournament. As a survivor of sexual abuse and as a person living with depression, anxiety and multiple personality disorder my student was not yet ready to tell the world about what they had been through. They were not ready to engage in this debate demanding she speak her life because doing so would (and did) trigger traumatic experiences that compromised their ability to debate. However, the opposing debater decided to read their narrative anyway and the results were terrible for everyone involved. This was not an isolated incident. On multiple occasions, at several tournaments, we have asked people not to read triggering material but they read it anyway and it always yielded the same result.

This conversation is not new to debate, topic after topic has hit “too close to home,” however, there is no evidence suggesting that the debate community as a whole is knowledgeable about what it is like to deal with traumatic experiences as a debater or judge for that matter. It is also difficult to know who is dealing with a severely traumatic past however one estimate reported that “as many as 50 percent of students have some trauma history” (Smith). Often people equate being triggered as discomfort, but it is much more than that. One author describes being triggered as “To be triggered is to mentally and physically re-experience a past trauma in such an embodied manner that one’s affective response literally takes over the ability to be present in one’s bodymind(Carter). Admittedly Carter is not a necessarily a psychologist however Speckens et al describe the experience of reliving past trauma as:

“to represent stimuli that were present shortly before the moments with the largest emotional impact. They can be understood as stimuli that — through temporal association with the traumatic event — acquired the status of warning signals: stimuli, that if encountered again would indicate impending danger” (Speckens).

This impending sense of danger felt by traumatized students has real effects on their capacity to debate. A situation in which one student is paralyzed, in the realest sense, and struggling to use words is not one in which education can flourish. Education, being a pivotal part of debate, is inhibited when one or both students cannot engage in certain arguments. Like any other claim to education or fairness, the impact of trauma must be evaluated by judges and the debate community at large.

People sometimes make theory arguments claiming that opposing arguments prevented a true determination of a debate winner. They are almost always wrong. A case where a debater is triggered is the case where it is absolutely accurate. How can one determine the better debater when one debater is clearly at the disadvantage of being emotionally unable to continue the round? Fear of being re-traumatized can leave a student more focused on the fear of what their opponents might read than whether they can win the round. In this circumstance, the potential to face the horrors of re-traumatization swamps the other experiences the debate round normally contains. Debate is so competitive, and the marginal loss of precious time to prepare during the round can make or break someone’s experience. As a result telling who the better debater would have not  been possible in the same way that we cannot determine who the faster runner is when one of the contestants is wearing two ton shoes.

Even post round, debaters that have been triggered can take a while to recover from a triggering event, leaving someone emotionally exhausted. Students afraid of being triggered after every debate round could also be deterred from the activity out of fear of it happening again. While many of the sensitive discussions debate brings are important, the total value of this activity would be compromised if the participants are precluded from engaging in the discussion by temporarily reliving a traumatic experience.

Some judges have already begun to recognize the negligence of debaters to provide trigger warnings and have included trigger warning clauses in their paradigms to address the issue. This serves a pivotal role in educating students about the importance of trigger warnings since generally when judges ask for certain things students are more than willing to comply.

When someone disregards your needs in such a safe space violates the assumption of safety and trust often needed to hold such discussions in the first place. Reliving a traumatic experience can undermine a debater’s sense of personal safety because they are reliving a traumatic experience.  When our sense of safety is violated it becomes much more difficult to process the educational benefits. Edmondson gives a pretty strong reason why:

“Psychological safety does not imply a cozy environment in which people are necessarily close friends, nor does it suggest an absence of pressure or problems. Rather, it describes a climate in which the focus can be on productive discussion that enables early prevention of problems and accomplishment of shared goals, because people are less likely to focus on self-protection” (Edmondson).

The reason why we and other people in the debate community have made a push towards including trigger warnings as standard practice in debate rounds to prevent such events from occurring. Everyone has to share this debate space and devices like a trigger warning may provide ground for student to determine what boundaries are appropriate for discussion themselves. Trigger warnings are not an impossible request. They do not require debaters to go far out of their way in order to accommodate for someone who needs them. In reality they could potentially be saving someone from revisiting traumatic events.

Many have wondered how we can implement a system of trigger warnings, one technique that some students found helpful was disclosing what material is triggering to them. Another could be asking your opponent before the round to not read certain arguments if you find them to be too much for you. One helpful judge suggested once to us that we switch sides for the debate in the case that the other debater did not have another affirmative case to read. Since there are ways that the round can be good for both students, the only question remains that the debate round is functional for everyone involved, students and judge.

Others have also asked what to do once re-traumatization has occurred to which we say there are things that we can do to deal with trauma within the educational space. For starters, we can recognize when people go into survival mode and respond in a compassionate way. The signs for this include: a “deer-in-the-headlights” look, an increase in the pace of breath, restlessness, or the appearance of being on the verge of tears (Dorado). Some ways in which those who are traumatized can help themselves is through: exercise, hugs, crying, humor, music, and arts (Levin). Something as simple as asking if everything is okay can help ameliorate the feelings that accompany re-traumatization.

Even if you do not like what we have to say in this article it is the opinion of the writers of this article that if judges, educators and students care about the health of students dealing with trauma then it is on all of us to ensure the best result possible.We also do not claim to have all of the answers, especially considering that trigger warnings is a more recent topic which is why we suggest you increase your understanding of students dealing with traumatic experiences. We have included some sources that talk in depth about the issue and hope you read them to facilitate an informed discussion on trigger warnings.

Here is a collection of articles based in education and trauma and ways to overcome it that we think might be useful if the information that we provided wasn’t all that.

http://www.nctsn.org/resources/get-help-now

https://www.dropbox.com/sh/8y5xxb8gch4f5bk/AAB0KuMTw-GW_6qrY7xoHAfJa?dl=0

Works Cited

Carter, Angela M. “Teaching with Trauma: Disability Pedagogy, Feminism, and the Trigger Warnings Debate | Carter | Disability Studies Quarterly.” Disability Studies Quarterly.  Web. 20 Feb. 2016.

Dorado, Joyce, and Vicki Zakrzewski. “How to Help a Traumatized Child in the Classroom.”  Greater Good. 23 Oct. 2013. Web. 12 Mar. 2016.

Edmondson, Amy C. “Psychological Safety, Trust, and Learning in Organizations: A Group-level Lens.” Research Gate (2011). Web. 20 Feb. 2016.

Levin, Patti. “David Baldwin’s Trauma Information Pages.” Common Responses to Trauma &                 Coping Strategies. Web. 12 Mar. 2016.

Noble, Lauren. “The William F. Buckley, Jr. Program at Yale: ALMOST HALF (49%) OF U.S.  COLLEGE STUDENTS “INTIMIDATED” BY PROFESSORS WHEN SHARING DIFFERING BELIEFS: SURVEY.” McLaughlin Associates. 26 Oct. 2015. Web. 20 Feb. 2016.

Speckens, Anne E.m., Anke Ehlers, Ann Hackmann, and David M. Clark. “Changes in Intrusive Memories Associated with Imaginal Reliving in Posttraumatic Stress Disorder.” Journal   of Anxiety Disorders 20.3 (2006): 328-41. Web.

“What’s All This About Trigger Warnings?” National Coalition Against Censorship (2015). Web. 20 Feb. 2016.

Zurbriggen, Eileen L. “Preventing Secondary Traumatization in the Undergraduate Classroom: Lessons from Theory and Clinical Practice.” Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy 3.3 (2011): 223-28. Web.

  • Krupali Patel

    Hey Salim! Thank you so much for the positive feedback. I personally think that a situation like that is a hard one, and one I was in for many years. The easy answer for me to give would be to say that people should have the ability to say please don’t run this and it’s none of your business why. In your example of a survivor of rape that response merits at least some confidentiality since the trigger could be that a close friend experienced the abuse or a family member. This provides some marginal security for a debater. However I know that both raises a question and does not fully solve the problem. First certain people would argue that this merits people claiming triggers when in fact they are not triggered and to that I must say those people are simply despicable. If winning a debate round is so important to someone that they have to fake trauma then there doesn’t seem to be a place in an activity meant to be safe like debate for them.

    As far as the balance goes, disclosing triggers on the wiki is a pretty decent solution considering it gives people the chance to prepare for important debates with different positions. Debaters have 2 other prelim rounds to read their Aff or neg and have the capacity to talk safely about issues that are important to them, but for one round for the sake of the debate community it would be important for them to consider the needs of others as well.

  • Salim Damerdji

    Thanks for writing this article.

    I cannot believe people refused to read a different aff in the situation outlined at the start of the article. I’m not sure who was judging those rounds, but, to me, that merits an immediate L0 if any situation does. Unlike a normal theory argument where substance is skewed, it’s literally a debater’s ability to debate that’s skewed. Why in the WORLD would you evaluate this round on the flow?? That just rewards the aff’s absurdly callous behavior…

    One issue with trigger warnings is that they force folks to admit something incredibly personal in a public space. So say the aff wants to read an advantage about rape, and asks if discussions about rape trigger anyone in the room. Victims of rape should NOT be forced to tell a room of strangers or acquaintances about that past in order to avoid being triggered. It’s hard enough for them to talk to their friends about it. Now they have to tell people they don’t trust? Knowing the debate community, there’s no way gossip like “x person’s triggered by z” won’t spread.

    I think that the view that topics like domestic violence, sexual assault, and rape shouldn’t be allowed at all in debate is a tempting one. These issues genuinely affect many students, and people shouldn’t have to disclose their trauma to others. On the other hand, there definitely are good reasons to think debaters interested in reading feminism cases shouldn’t be deprived of such important topics to analyze. I’m not sure where the balance is, and I’m curious what you two think.

    • LR

      There’s a lot of problems with saying it deserves a loss though. What if it was the kids only non-lay Aff? And wasn’t the trigger warning already there, the negative debater knew what was going to happen? To me, it seems like if you win the flip, and have a trigger warning, the other debater has done all they resonably can be expected to do. After all, the neg could’ve chosen Aff, as they obviously knew what the Aff was. It seems to set a bad precedent to demand a loss for triggering when there’s already a trigger warning, and especially when the debater chooses to flip neg. I’m sure this particular case is a legitimate triggering, but there are tons of non-scuplous debaters out there who’s first response to narratives or even most kritical affs may become claiming a trigger. It seems better to institute trigger warnings and ask to switch sides, not demand losses.

      • Salim Damerdji

        It’s a bit questionable (both logically and ethically) to accuse the neg of deliberately trying to debate an aff that would trigger them. Reread the first paragraph of this article and explain to me how a debater with that background would get an edge AND desire getting that edge by debating a narrative that she was incredibly uncomfortable engaging.

        You’re of course right that if one debater flipped neg after knowing the aff would read the narrative no matter what, and then turned down the opportunity to switch sides, then that undermines their sincerity. My strong suspicion is that this is not what happened in the actual round. Presumably when they flipped, the neg thought the aff had another broken or unbroken AC they could read – that’s not unreasonable. Or maybe they thought the aff could put something together during the night before the round. (Fred suggested this was a possibility to me privately.)

        I’m well-aware that I’m asking the affirmative to put him/herself at a competitive disadvantage by reading an aff that’s not their a-strat. (This shouldn’t be such a big deal. Just write another aff.) I guess I have to ask whether that debater cares more about winning or more about the well-being of those around them. I’d assume debaters reading narratives at least have the pretense of sincerely caring about this activity beyond just a game.

        You seem to suggest trigger warnings are a panacea on their own. But, trigger warnings mean little if anything unless the other person has the ability to consent to entering that discussion. If you care about other people, you shouldn’t force them to relive traumatic experiences. A heads up doesn’t cut it.

        W/r/t “non-scuplous [sic]” debaters, I know they exist, but I don’t think they’d do something so obviously public and shady as lie about possible triggers. Putting aside for the moment the social sanctions they’d face, this is just next-level unethical in comparison to stealing prep. In any case, I’ve never heard of anyone doing this. It’s just not as common or as serious of an issue as pushing folks who’ve experienced domestic violence, assault, rape, etc to relive those experiences without their consent.

    • Krupali Patel

      Hey Salim! Thank you so much for the positive feedback. I personally think that a situation like that is a hard one, and one I was in for many years. The easy answer for me to give would be to say that people should have the ability to say please don’t run this and it’s none of your business why. In your example of a survivor of rape that response merits at least some confidentiality since the trigger could be that a close friend experienced the abuse or a family member. This provides some marginal security for a debater. However I know that both raises a question and does not fully solve the problem. First certain people would argue that this merits people claiming triggers when in fact they are not triggered and to that I must say those people are simply despicable. If winning a debate round is so important to someone that they have to fake trauma then there doesn’t seem to be a place in an activity meant to be safe like debate for them.

      As far as the balance goes, disclosing triggers on the wiki is a pretty decent solution considering it gives people the chance to prepare for important debates with different positions. Debaters have 2 other prelim rounds to read their Aff or neg and have the capacity to talk safely about issues that are important to them, but for one round for the sake of the debate community it would be important for them to consider the needs of others as well.