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.



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.