‘Trigger’-ing Warnings

Dear Bowling Green State University students

I’d like to talk to you about something that happened on your campus recently. On Thursday, October 15th, the organization by which I am employed held an anti-abortion event on the area outside your student union. We used abortion victim pictures and videos to show what abortion does to preborn children, and our staff and volunteers were on site to hand out literature and talk to passers-by.

As you know, abortion always kills a preborn child, usually through such means as dismemberment and disembowelment. When you kill a human being through a graphic procedure, the results will necessarily be graphic. Given that the university is supposed to be the “marketplace of ideas,” it would seem to be the ideal place to talk about abortion. However, some of you apparently decided that our signs and video were too graphic and that students needed to be warned about our display in order to protect their psychological well-being. As such, a few of you made and displayed signs alerting students to the potential adverse emotional effects of our display. One of these signs read “TRIGGER HEAVY PROPAGANDA AHEAD! PRACTICE SELF-CARE”. You also expressed the opinion that campus should be a “safe area” where students can receive an education without being exposed to our “horrible, triggering, and false display.”

Now, I am a firm believer in freedom of speech. I fully support your right to hold trigger warning signs around our display. However, I have concerns about your signs, which I fear could cause emotional and psychological distress.

I grew up in the country. Once we were old enough to handle firearms responsibly, my father taught my brother and me to shoot and introduced us to hunting. I especially enjoyed hunting deer, which I did using a single-shot smooth-bore 12-gauge shotgun with a telescopic sight. One year, as I checked the zero on that gun in anticipation of opening day of deer season, I inadvertently positioned my head a little too close to the scope. Thus, when I fired the gun’s recoil caused the scope to strike me in the forehead just above my right eyebrow. For anyone who has never experienced this, it is very painful. To add insult to injury, the test shot revealed that the gun was not properly sighted in, which meant I had to fire it several more times as I adjusted the scope’s crosshairs. Every time I shot, I had to suppress the urge to flinch as I feared the scope hitting me in the face again. Fortunately, it did not. However, I was still left with a very noticeable bruise, a bit of swelling, a bad headache, and a distrust of what was formerly my favorite hunting gun.

As a result of this experience, the word “trigger” is in fact a trigger for me. Your signs, which included the word “trigger,” caused me psychological distress as I recalled the injury I sustained when the scope of that 12-gauge shotgun smacked me in the forehead and my corresponding distrust of scoped shotguns. Your talk of “safe zones” only exacerbated this, as the word “safe” reminds me of the word “safety,” which makes me think of safety mechanisms designed to prevent guns from firing, which reminds me of guns firing, which again reminds me of that unfortunate scope-bonking. And if your signs could trigger me, can you imagine the damage you might have done to someone who has been seriously injured by firearms? Or to men and women with PTSD as a result of military service?

If you ever decide to protest ours or a similar display in the future, I hope you will take the well-being of these people into account. Maybe you could refrain from using the word “trigger” on your signs. Or perhaps you could post another sign first that reads “WARNING: POTENTIALLY DISTURBING WARNING SIGN AHEAD.” I realize that could get to be a real pain. But if you’re serious about making sure that students don’t ever encounter any potentially upsetting materials without first being warned, I’m confident you’ll find a way to protect students from potentially upsetting trigger warnings.


Josh Bertsch