Rhetorical Trauma: Trigger Warnings & Sensitive Students

This presentation examines the public conversation about trigger warnings in college classes, which has for several years now served to frame a variety of issues in higher education, from Title IX policy and sexual assault to Black student activism to campus carry legislation. Queer and feminist scholars, joined by a chorus of pundits, have criticized student advocates of trigger warnings by painting them as coddled, fragile, and weak, yet simultaneously powerful, censorious, and disruptive. In this presentation, I track the trope of “sensitivity” in arguments about trigger warnings. Preceding the advent of national marriage equality by just over a year, debate about trigger warnings has persisted with few evolutions in the course of the argument.

In this presentation, I contend that accusing students of being too sensitive is a way of both diminishing the harm that students are saying they face and of diminishing the credibility of students as rhetorical agents. I reframe the ways that trauma and sensitivity have been (mis)aligned and conflated. Drawing on recent post-human rhetorical theory, I contend that disparaging sensitivity is a way of covering over a shared rhetorical exposedness, that is, an ability to be affected by and in language. What critics of trigger warnings have repudiated as hypersensitivity—a vulnerability to injurious words—is actually a condition of possibility for rhetoric (understood, broadly, as addressed language).

I begin by contextualizing the use of trigger warnings as an accessibility practice designed by and for people dealing with the aftermath of trauma (Simpkins & Orem 2015). As disability studies scholars have argued, access to education should not be conflated with “safety” or with shielding from intellectual engagement; on the contrary, accessibility is a prerequisite for ensuring that students with disabilities can fully participate in the classroom (Carter 2015). Queer and feminist scholars who are committed to critical pedagogy have an opportunity to build solidarity with disability studies scholars on this issue.

I then offer a topological reading of the queer disavowal of sensitivity exemplified by Jack Halberstam’s 2014 Bully Bloggers post, “You Are Triggering Me! The Neoliberal Rhetoric of Harm, Danger and Trauma,” an argument recently renewed by Halberstam’s publication of “Trigger Happy: From Content Warning to Censorship” in Signs (online now, and forthcoming in winter 2017). I contend that this disavowal of sensitivity exhibits”certain masculinism”—a certainty about the rationality and impenetrability of one’s critique, which banks on secondarizing femininity and reserving self-sufficiency, coherence, and constancy as masculine privileges.

Sensitivity represents a vulnerability to wounding that, in the context of trigger warnings, takes place in language. Drawing on theories of address by Emmanuel Levinas, Judith Butler, and Diane Davis, I argue that being wounded or affected in language is also a “trauma,” that is, a disruption in the appropriation of experience to meaning. Such disruptions open a distance in which a rhetorical subject (one who speaks or writes) can take responsibility for the violence entailed by this affection. Sensitivity, on this view, describes a prior receptivity to address that makes both teaching and learning possible. The rhetorical trauma of being affected in language, I hold, wounds and opens everyone, and it implicates teachers and students in an ethical and fundamentally rhetorical relation. Rejecting sensitivity ultimately can do nothing to change this: instead, queer and feminist scholars ought to take up the ethical obligation presented by even our most sensitive students.


Carter, Angela. “Teaching with Trauma: Trigger Warnings, Feminism, and Disability Pedagogy.” Disability Studies Quarterly 35.2 (2015): Web. 3 December 2015.

Simpkins, Neil and Sarah Orem. “Weepy Rhetoric: Trigger Warnings and the Work of Making Mental Illness Visible in the Writing Classroom.” enculturation: a journal of rhetoric, writing, and culture. 19 (2015): Web. 16 December 2015.


Part of panel Queering Pedagogy
October 1, 2016, 14:30–16:15