A Less-Than-Nice Note on Content Warnings

by Cole Flaherty

CW: Anxiety, panic attacks, sexual assault, child porn.

There are some issues that some of us just cannot bear to hear about, and it is absolutely never okay for someone to decide what another debater (or another person at all) can and cannot safely experience. That is what this whole argument is about, full stop. This is a clash between vulnerable debaters who have undergone traumatic experiences, and privileged debaters who cannot comprehend that, first, there are some issues you shouldn’t commodify for a ballot, and second, that others can have a different experience and mindset than you.

The current (not for much longer) topic is a wonderful time to be having this discussion. Teams are egregiously reading arguments about incredibly sensitive issues that debaters have had uncomfortable experiences with. Arguments about child porn surfaced at the very first tournament on this topic – Blue Key. Child porn can be triggering beyond belief to people who were victims of childhood sexual trauma, and emotionally stressful to parents and pretty much anyone with a heart. The argument itself is only half the problem. Everything we do in a debate round is done for a ballot – nobody conceded rounds to talk about child porn. Instead, debaters used reprehensively in depth descriptions of childhood sexual exploitation to bolster their weighing arguments to help them win the ballot. Not only are debaters commodifying a sensitive issue, they are alienating everyone in the room with them. This is why trigger warnings are necessary – if you are going to commodify the suffering of vulnerable minorities, at least don’t traumatize your opponents while doing it. Trigger warnings allow opponents to say, “hey, we can’t discuss that argument in round or experience it safely,” or at least allow them to prepare themselves. If you read arguments about a sensitive topic and do not offer a trigger warning, you are brazenly admitting that the only person’s safety in the round you care about is your own. 

This is not the only problematic argument run on this topic. With a little more research, crafty debaters have discovered that arguments about sexual assault committed by ISIS are a neat trick to pick up some more ballots. This, too, is run without a trigger warning often. I can tell you with 100 percent confidence that these arguments have caused very bad memories to resurface in my fellow debaters causing panic and anxiety in the middle of debate rounds, which are already incredibly vulnerable spaces for most of us.

This is ridiculous. We can do better. Fiat is illusory, and safety matters more than education – stop commodifying issues at the direct harm of your opponents to pick up a sympathy ballot in an activity you probably already have enough from for your resume. 

Let’s address the absolute nonsense coming from the cesspool of the internet debate community. 

“What arguments do we deem triggering? Everyone could be exposed to trauma from different events.”

First of all, this wouldn’t be a problem if we disclosed our cases like literally every other debate event does, but that’s just my two cents. In practice, this is no different than the eager conservative in your local news Facebook comments section asking commenters to “define assault rifle” when they know damn well what we are talking about. It’s very clear that in depth descriptions of events that affect some of us very immensely and require years of therapy to recover from (sexual assault and rape) are the issue here. Literally no one wants you to trigger warn your poverty impacts, because those are things we are all used to debating and are prepared to handle. You don’t walk into a debate about computer cybersecurity expecting some random debater from three states over to talk about the worst moment of your entire life. In summary, stop it. You know exactly what we are talking about.

“Trigger warnings actually deepen the trauma experienced.”

First, this only happens if you still read the argument after you trigger warn your opponents and they ask you not to read the argument. If you do that, one, you are the worst of the worst, and two, of course you are going to worsen the trauma. You just told your opponents that you literally do not care about their experience or wishes. And if I seem reactionary, I’m not. The study published in Clinical Psychology Science is literally based on this concept – that is, trigger warning the subject and exposing them to the content anyways. This wouldn’t be an issue if you just listened to other people and showed some compassion, and maybe prepped out a case that didn’t commodify vulnerable experiences for ballots. Second, the argument that they deepen the trauma is based on the finding that trigger warnings enable constant avoidance of the trauma. That’s not true, they just allow debaters to interrogate their trauma in a safe space with a therapist and love and support instead of with an adversarial debate format in front of an unknown judge and an unknown debater who probably barely passed AP Psychology. Third, the study y’all are citing literally doesn’t assess the impact of trigger warnings on sexual assault related trauma.

Moral of the story is: cut it out. Stop pretending like you have a degree in psychology to retroactively justify traumatizing other debaters. Say you’re sorry, don’t run commodifying arguments, and start reading trigger warnings.

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