Trauma-Informed Discourse in the Age of Incivility: Not Silencing Speech, But Enhancing It

By Steph Black, AU CAS

Everybody has a reaction to trigger warnings. And I get it. The concept has been so wildly blown out of proportion that it is seemingly impossible to find someone who doesn’t have an opinion on the use of them. Right-wing pundits thoroughly lambast them and left-wing activists preach them.

But when we take a step back and look at what trigger warnings are, we might be surprised by what we find. Let’s start from the beginning.

Trigger warnings didn’t stem from social media. They didn’t originate from liberals who didn’t want to see certain things online and they didn’t come from college students who didn’t want to be intellectually challenged.

The concept of trigger warning originated with psychologists who studied Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Those who suffer from PTSD (including survivors of sexual violence, people who experience accidents or freak weather, and combat veterans) can exhibit many symptoms, particularly intrusive memories and reliving the original traumatic events via flashback, recurrent thoughts, and nightmares. These can all be ‘triggered’ or brought on by internal and external stimuli.

Internal stimuli that can cause intrusive thoughts include anger, anxiety, certain memories, feelings of abandonment or frustration, racing heartbeats, pain, and even muscle tension. External stimuli that can cause intrusive thoughts include arguments, seeing news articles related to the traumatic event, witnessing similar traumatic events, certain smells, anniversaries of the incident, places, holidays, or seeing other people who also witnessed the traumatic event.

Constantly reliving these memories is extremely harmful as it creates a response called fear conditioning. Fear conditioning occurs when “these thoughts and images bring traumatic events vividly back to life, accompanied by the intense fear that the events originally evoked. Experiences that recall those early events trigger re-experiencing symptoms through a process that is rapid, unconscious, involuntary and automatic.”

Early usages of trigger warnings stemmed from this understanding and were used to alert traumatized people (people who had experienced trauma such as rape, physical assault, or war) that information that was about to be presented included something that might trigger the memories of their trauma.

Having seen the trigger warning, the traumatized person could use coping strategies they had learned during therapy (grounding, breathing exercises, or other relaxation methods) and avoid experiencing a flashback or other unwanted side effect of PTSD.

Those who are ‘trauma-informed’ have applied this principle to other areas. It’s not uncommon to hear the phrase ‘trauma-informed care’ or ‘trauma-informed advocacy.’

More specifically, a trauma-informed approach:

  • Realizes the widespread impact of trauma and understands potential paths for recovery;
  • Recognizes the signs and symptoms of trauma in clients, families, staff, and others involved with the system;
  • Responds by fully integrating knowledge about trauma into policies, procedures, and practices; and
  • Seeks to actively resist re-traumatization.

And while the connection might not be immediately obvious, the tenets of trauma-informed approached closely mirror the tenets of civil discourse. American University’s cutting-edge Project on Civil Discourse has outlined civil discourse as:

  • Truthful
  • Productive
  • Audience-based
  • About listening and talking
  • Each Speaker’s own responsibility

It is through these guidelines that discourse can be the most productive it can possibly be. When we consciously make the decision to hold conversations according to these tenets, our conversation can become less polarized, less hateful, and more productive.

When both civil discourse and trauma-informed practice come together, the implications of who can be engaged in conversation expands exponentially. Take, for example, the experiences of Amanda Nannarone, a law student at AU who worked for the Project on Civil Discourse. Nannarone, a trauma survivor, said she was caught off guard by a class discussion about a survivor of domestic violence.

“I got very upset during class, and I wasn’t expecting it,” she said in an interview. “Usually, if I can prepare for it, I know what I’m going into where I can make sure I have my stuff with me. For that class, I didn’t have it because I wasn’t expecting it.”

If Nannarone had known that this was going to be a part of the class discussion, perhaps she would have been better equipped to engage with the subject matter. There are countless others who have had similar experiences who would also benefit from classroom discussions, and discussions in general, that are framed with a trauma-informed, civil discourse lens.

Trauma-informed civil discourse is not about ideology. It is not about censoring or enforcing a singular kind of speech or debate. It is about believing that we, people of all backgrounds and experiences, are able to engage deeply with challenging subject matter on an even playing field. Employing the tenets of both trauma-informed practice and civil discourse is our best way forward to achieve that.

Steph is a Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies major at American University. Steph can be found reading next to her cat Goose, writing about feminism and Judaism, or protesting around the city for basic human rights. 

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