The Case for Trigger Warnings

Lindsey Dahms-Nolan | Jul 28, 2021
7 min read

The Opinions Expressed In This Blog Post Are Solely Those of the Author And Not Necessarily Those Of DebateDrills

Let’s talk about how we talk about sexual assault. In particular, I want to focus on how it is talked about when we debate about it over an hour-long period at top speed with an adjudicator in the back - how we approach conversations about sexual assault and other forms of trauma in a competitive strategy game. This description of debate is somewhat reductive (and perhaps subjective, as you may not agree with me on whether or not debate is a game), but the pressures of competition are an undeniable factor in all in-round exchanges. So, let’s talk.

How can we have these debates in a way that preserves access? Notice that I did not say comfort, I said access. The extent to which a debater is comfortable with particular content is not indicative of whether or not that content has resulted in inclusion/exclusion for that debater. Here is an example: a cismale debater may be uncomfortable with a debate about feminism, either as a result of unfamiliarity with the literature, or from confrontation with a literature base that reveals how his scholarship (or, in some cases, actions) are potentially problematic. The same can be said for debates on race, ability, queerness, and their intersections. There is a level of discomfort inherent in confrontations of privilege and those uncomfortable moments have the potential to be productive, or at the very least, to make space for discussions of power dynamics within the activity. Thus, debaters experiencing discomfort as a result of confronting their own privilege or handling an unfamiliar argument (or both) do not experience exclusion as a result of their exposure to that content - often, they learn something.

Here is an example of content that has the potential to result in exclusion: suppose a debater who has experienced the trauma of sexual assault is debating an opponent who, unbeknowst to them, will read a position that discusses the particularities of a very similar trauma in excruciating detail. For some of you, reading the preceding sentence will produce a visceral reaction; perhaps you, in the course of debating or judging, have encountered this exact scenario and were forced to adjudicate or participate in a debate that not only made you uncomfortable, but evoked a physiological and/or psychological response that impacted your ability to participate in the debate. For those of you who attempted this hypothetical and concluded there was no tangible risk of exclusion, I would like you to consider another: think about the worst thing that has ever happened to you. Now imagine, if you would, entering a debate room only to discover (after the speech has already begun) that your opponent has chosen to describe that exact event (or something incredibly similar to it) in perfect detail.

Would you want to listen to that? Would you feel ready to debate it for an hour in front of (at least) two strangers? Regardless of your answers to those questions, I implore you to consider the feelings of someone who would have answered no. What is so hurtful about these debates is that there is no equitable alternative for debaters thrust into them. If you do not want to discuss traumatic content, what recourse do you have? Do you leave them room? You would forfeit, and likely face questions from your judge, tab, your coach - not to mention your peers at the tournament. So what, then? You stay in the room and…? Are you able to debate at your best? Maybe not, but you can sidestep traumatic content as best you can by making an argument about trigger warnings. But if your judge doesn’t buy it? What if you invest your entire strategy (remember, this is a strategic, competitive activity) into an argument about the value of trigger warnings, only to lose on an argument like “allowing these discussions outweighs”? Or, what if your judge simply “doesn’t vote” on that?

I cannot fathom a world in which allowing that debate to happen without prior disclosure could be fair. I will leave you with a final example - in high school, I experienced one of the worst things that has ever happened to me. It was perpetrated by a member of the debate community, which complicated not only my ability to compete but my feelings about the activity and my role in it. For a while, tournaments were a trigger for me - I feared what would happen should I run into this person or someone from their squad. Would you have suggested I not compete? Debating opponents with similar builds, hair color, or voice was a trigger for me - I was reminded at once of how small and powerless I felt the moment when I experienced one of the worst things that has ever happened to me. Debating new affs or negative positions that centered graphic discussions of sexual assault was a trigger for me - it was always a terrifying surprise that knocked the wind out of me and left me feeling humiliated every time.

I chose to compete and I understood that I would face opponents who were likely to remind me of someone I was very much afraid of. What my experience (and the experiences of so many others) illustrates is that triggers, while not always predictable or explainable, often operate on a sliding scale. Only one of the triggers that I mentioned was within someone’s control and it was the trigger that made these debates inaccessible - the mere fact that I competed in those rounds did not render them accessible. Access should not be measured by whether or not students can literally exist in a space, but by whether or not they can freely engage in that space for its intended purpose. For now, the best way to ensure access for debaters who have experienced trauma is to enforce the use of trigger warnings when that trauma is discussed in-round, especially when discussion of that trauma is described in detail.

How that disclosure happens, however is crucial. Here is what I believe is the necessary, bare minimum requirement for disclosure of such content (including but not limited to: sexual assault, racialized violence, and self-harm):

Trigger warnings as they are currently used are often ineffectual or incomplete; there is a difference between reading a card that references sexual assault once in an un-highlighted portion of your card and predicating your offense on the use of sexual assault as a metaphor for an opponent’s argument (a debate that I watched play out) and that distinction should be clear in your content warning. Reading a “trigger warning” at the top of your AC/NC is not actually a trigger warning - the point is to give your opponents an opportunity to decide whether or not they are comfortable with the content you are reading, not to give them a quick heads up as you read whatever you want anyway.

To the extent that debate is caught in the same power dynamics that shape institutions outside of the activity, some discussion of how those dynamics operate imbues the space with unique opportunities for not only catharsis, but community-building. I use the example of sexual assault often in this piece, but there are a multitude of other traumas derived from the various “isms” folks with one or multiple marginalized identities face. The point of this post is not to discourage those discussions, but to open them as much as possible. Our community is only educational if it is accessible and providing content warnings is not itself a radical act - it is (and should be) the bare minimum for engagement.

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