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

Steph Black headshot
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. 

The Value of Bringing Speakers to Campus

By Yazan Hanouneh, AU SPA ’20

Something unique to our education at American University is the idea of being academically engaged at all times. When students step out of their classrooms, they know that there are endless educational opportunities at AU and across D.C. There is no end to the knowledge we as AU students can seek, from on- and off-campus events to downtown internships.

What’s even more unique to AU is what our students congregate around and get excited about. The Super Bowl? Just another Sunday. But election night? Students can either attend one of a seemingly infinite number of watch parties on campus or join their entire residence hall floor with their eyes glued to the TV. This trait comes from an inherent desire within AU students to contribute to the world around them, affirming a commitment to public service that has defined American University for over 125 years.

These unique characteristics of AU yield two interesting questions:

  • How can we bring these aspects together to provide students with an educational opportunity that will inspire them to amplify their commitment to public service?
  • How do we have civil and educational conversations on the ideals of this commitment to public service?

One of the most powerful solutions to these questions are speaker engagement events, which provide students with access to some of the most powerful changemakers from across the globe. These events allow students to engage with leaders and ideas they either celebrate or disagree with.

At AU, the majority of these major speaking events are hosted by the Kennedy Political Union (KPU) within the AU Student Government. For 50 years, KPU has served as the student-run, student-funded, and nonpartisan lecture group on AU’s campus, helping to inspire students and initiate difficult conversations by inviting global and local leaders with various political ideologies to speak at AU. You may have attended some of our most recent events with the Parkland Students, Loretta Lynch, Elizabeth Warren, Carly Fiorina, and Malala Yousafzai.

Student takes a selfie with Senator Elizabeth Warren
An excited student takes a photo with Senator Elizabeth Warren.

In KPU, we play an important role in promoting civil discourse and discussion on AU’s campus by giving students the opportunity to explore topics further and get excited about inspiring leaders. When Malala Yousafzai came, students waited in line for hours just for a chance to hear her speak on girls’ education. And when the Parkland Students came, we filled up Bender Arena and brought the national discussion on gun control and civic engagement down to AU’s campus.

But beyond the excitement that speakers generate, there is real benefit to bringing them to campus, even the controversial ones. These speakers provide valuable insight and inspiration for students seeking careers in service, even if students have different perspectives about our events. One student may leave saying “I am so inspired by this speaker and I want to be just like them one day,” while another may say “I strongly disagree with what they said and I’m going to commit myself to pursuing the opposite policies that I believe in.”

This is the value in bringing speakers to campus and how KPU answers the questions posed above about our commitment to public service. Students constantly get excited about the events KPU hosts and use them as a means for civil conversation. The power of KPU events is not just what students experience at the lecture, but rather the conversations an event will ignite elsewhere on campus.

Student in audience asks a question to the Parkland students
A student in the audience asks a question to the Parkland students.

One prime example of this was when we hosted the Parkland students on campus. Prior to the event, one student had written an article highlighting why they didn’t think KPU should bring David Hogg to campus. After they posted the article on Facebook, multiple students proceeded to comment on their post respectfully disagreeing. These individuals then continued to engage in respectful debate over this issue and even after the event these conversations continued elsewhere on campus, such as in the lounges of the first-year residence halls.

Since KPU does not take a stance on any of the speakers we bring, this conversation is one of the greatest indicators of a successful event, as it has achieved its purpose of stimulating dialogue on campus.

As the Director of KPU, I work with 19 other passionate students on our team to decide which speakers we invite to our campus. We work our hardest to ensure that students have the opportunity to hear from leaders from a variety of ideological backgrounds and that we use our resources to amplify the voices of marginalized and underrepresented communities. It’s not only a key mission of our work, but a responsibility.

This responsibility to provide a forum for students to engage in civil discourse is especially relevant in our current political climate, where it is often easy to disregard other opinions as invalid. Guest speakers help break down that barrier by establishing a sense of credibility in what is brought to the conversation, even the controversial ones. More importantly, civil conversation is what helps unite us, and it’s important that we continue to take advantage of it during our time at American University.

Yazan Hanouneh is a Junior at American University studying Political Science. He currently serves as the Director of the Kennedy Political Union and as an AUx1 Peer Facilitator. Previously, he served as the President of the AU College Democrats.

Weekly News Digest, No. 10

Crowd standing in a public square

Welcome to the tenth installment of the Project on Civil Discourse’s Weekly News Digest, hosted on our Real Talk blog.

Last Tuesday, Project on Civil Discourse Director Lara Schwartz appeared on The Kojo Nnamdi Showfor the show: “Belonging, Civility, Ugh: What Happens When Commonly Held Ideals Backfire.” Schwartz talked with guests Howard Ross and Philippa Hughes and guest host Marc Fisher about the interplay between belonging and civility and their importance during the holidy season. Listen to the show.

Solomon Self wrote about his experiences with civility and discussion while studying abroad in Thessaloniki, Greece this semester. He writes: “None of these conversations and educational moments would have been possible if we had simply written each other off based on initial impressions, reacted angrily to hearing opinions counter to our own, or felt indignant about comments made from ignorance and a lack of understanding of each other’s home countries.”

Upcoming Events

On Thursday, December 6th, Robert George and Cornel West will speak at American University about “The Purpose of a Liberal Education.” George, a conservative legal scholar at Princeton University, and West, a liberal philosophy professor at Harvard University, will discuss free speech, liberal arts education, and truth. The School of Public Affairs’ Political Theory Institute is hosting the lecture, which will be held at 5:30PM in Constitution Hall, East Campus. To learn more or RSVP, visit the event page.

Civility During the Holidays

In the weeks before Thanksgiving, Doug Friednash and Amy McCarthy wrote for The Denver Postand Eater, respectively, about civility at the dinner table. While Thanksgiving has passed, their broader messages remain relevant during the rest of the holiday season.

Friednash writes that “civility needs to be on the Thanksgiving menu” this year, highlighting national examples of where civility has both failed and succeeded. Rather than arguing at the dinner table, we should exercise our right to vote instead. Friednash closes: “People that disagree with how we see the world may be our opponents, but they need not be our enemies. They can be our frenemies.”

McCarthy disagrees, writing that “you’re morally obligated to call out your racist relatives at Thanksgiving.” McCarthy discusses the bystander effect, the balance between unity and our core values, and the influence that family has on one’s political views. It’s possible, she argues, to ‘call out’ your relatives or have conversations about charged topics while remaining civil.

Civility as a Buzzword

Earlier this year, Kate Knibbs wrote about the word ‘civility’ for The Wringer’s Lexicon series. In the wake of public protests against Trump administration officials, civility “became the week’s talking point.” Knibbs writes about the original concept of the word and its transition from justice to order. There is a tension between “the idea of civility as decorum and civility as a moral imperative” and it is currently being used to describe “how citizens are permitted to address their public servants.”

Civility and Protest

Peter Beinart writes about the standards of civil disobedience in The Atlantic after protestors assembled at FOX News host Tucker Carlson’s home in the wake of the midterm elections. He argues that some protests violate standards of civil disobedience, which is defined by John Rawls as a “public, non-violent, and conscientious breach of law undertaken with the aim of bringing about a change in laws or government policies.” Beinart uses this test to analyze recent protests, from kneeling during the NFL anthem to chanting at DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielson at a Mexican restaurant.

Thanks for reading!

Introducing American University’s Project on Civil Discourse

After the presidential election, my relationship with many of my friends and classmates changed – especially those back home in Ohio. I couldn’t reconcile what I heard them say with the people I thought I knew. I couldn’t understand, let alone relate to, their thoughts and positions on the issues that were directly affecting my classmates at American University. I desperately wanted to learn about the roots of their beliefs, but I couldn’t see past words I saw as ignorant or hateful.

On the night of the election itself, I watched personal relationships dissolve as my dormmates reacted to the results in their own way. When I went to class the next morning, these dormmates turned into classmates and that tension remained. As students at American, we’re familiar with the ideological conflicts that play out in any politically-oriented class, but after the election it was different. Everything had become so much more serious and real.

These struggles – ones that have become familiar to many over the past months and years – led to my interest in the Project on Civil Discourse. The Project encourages productive, truthful discourse that contributes to our learning community and the world around us. It encourages students to understand speech not just as a matter of rights, but of responsibilities, values, and opportunities. Using the Building My Voice tool as a starting point, each of us must decide how and why we choose to use our voice in our community. And it’s not just what we say ourselves, but how we listen and engage in a dialogue with others.

By making deliberate choices about how we listen and use our voices, we realize our responsibility for the things we say and we begin to productively contribute to our community.


College is an all-encompassing community, tying one’s personal, academic, and professional lives together with few boundaries. At the nation’s most politically active university, this creates a passionate, tension-filled environment. Looking back at the climate on campus after the election, I wish my peers and I had the tools and resources necessary to solve our problems in the classrooms and dorms. 

Through peer-led discussions and workshops, teaching resources for faculty, and distinguished guest speakers, the Project on Civil Discourse will help to make that wish a reality. Based in the School of Public Affairs, the Project will operate university-wide by the 2019-20 school year, where it will help students gain the skills and understanding they need to engage in productive, truthful discourse. This will further American University’s mission as an institution of higher education, while teaching students how to engage in their communities after graduation.

Photo of Kerwin Hall from the Quad
Credit: American University.

I spent much of my first year at American listening to those around me talk about their perspectives and approaches to issues that I only had one understanding of while growing up in the Midwest. I began to recognize how I used my voice in the classroom and around campus, both in what I said and how I said it. As I work for the Project on Civil Discourse this year, I know I will continue to take ownership of my voice and use it to improve our American University community.

When I graduate next May, I plan to use this voice to advocate for the changes my next community needs. It’s no surprise that the national political arena frequently lacks the civil discourse we wish it had – we see that in the news every day. But many don’t realize this lack of discourse has trickled down to their local communities.

This summer, I interned for the city manager’s office in my hometown. Over the three months I was home, I watched my city’s residents repeatedly attempt to block different projects that would benefit our city. They were so firm in their opposition that they were able to stop one construction project from even entering a community feedback and planning phase. Residents spoke without listening, finally reaching a point where they were unable to even agree to hold a discussion over the issue.

Local government plays a crucial role in our everyday lives, and it’s essential that we contribute our voices to shape our communities. By training students in civil discourse principles and techniques, the Project will equip them to facilitate and contribute to the conversations that should and need to be taking place.


I recognize that what I write is informed by my experiences alone, and that other students, faculty, and staff at American University experience our campus and political climate differently. Throughout the year, I’ll be working to give my fellow Eagles the space to share their own perspectives on civil discourse and their experiences with it, and I’ll be listening – a part of productive discourse.

To learn more about the Project on Civil Discourse, visit our website and continue to follow our blog. If you’re an undergraduate student at American and are interested in applying to become a peer facilitator, learn more here.

If you would like to share a unique perspective on civil discourse or an informative experience at American University or in your community, I encourage you to email me at