In discussions about social justice in the US these days, one often hears people claim that trigger warnings are necessary to protect people’s mental health and emotional well-being. When people call something triggering, they usually mean that it can instigate a feeling of recoil or panic. And when they talk about being triggered, they usually mean that they have had an adverse reaction to what someone has said or written about, often in relation to an issue related to ethnicity, sex, gender, class or another social identity. Such communications, which have also been labelled microaggressions in the American social justice lexicon, have increasingly garnered attention: the Global Language Monitor ranked microaggression as its top word of 2015. This increased attention has convinced many of the need for trigger warnings, even for material that is extremely unlikely to cause harm.
It is appropriate to care about people’s physical safety, mental health and emotional well-being. But many who advocate the use of trigger warnings seem to assume that safety, health and well-being are always best secured by removing or sequestering the external stimulus that triggered a person’s internal reaction. Sometimes this approach is justified, especially if the communication poses a clear risk of immediately provoking physical violence—for example, if it is a speech advocating aggression, given in front of an angry mob. However, in the absence of such circumstances, is there a better way to think about triggers, the experience of being triggered and the consequences that can result from triggering episodes?
The ancient Stoic philosophers—from the founder Zeno of Citium to the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius—seemed to think so (as did their predecessor, Aristotle, who established the peripatetic school). Today, many think of Stoicism as little more than a life hack for overcoming frustration or finding mental calm, something that is useful if you want to obtain a promotion at work or do more push-ups in the gym. And Stoicism has always been, as Nancy Sherman puts it, “a sort of athletic training for the soul … through discourse that chastens the mind.” But Stoic philosophy, which is rooted in virtue ethics, is about much more than mental equanimity. It reminds you that no one can make you feel or act in a particular way: as an adult with the capacity for reason, you, and only you, are responsible for how you choose to think, feel or act.
As the ancient Stoic and Roman statesman Seneca puts it, “We are not the subjects of a despot: each of us lays claim to his own freedom.” And, as the ancient Stoic philosopher Epictetus explains, when you accept the role of the victim, you are surrendering your will—allowing another person to control your mind and rob you of your freedom and agency. This idea repels him: “Fetter me? You will fetter my leg; but not Zeus himself can get the better of my free will.”
The Stoics understood virtue as a personal characteristic—an active, persistent tendency to think and act with wisdom, courage, justice and temperance—that one can intentionally develop by consistently choosing to respond to particular circumstances in a particular way. For example, as Julia Annas explains in Intelligent Virtue, if generosity is a virtue, a person’s virtuousness will be strengthened when she acts generously, and weakened when she acts stingily.
From this perspective, removing all potential triggers to negative thoughts or emotions robs us of the opportunity to develop our virtuousness—to build good character—thus leading us to the very opposite of what the Stoics (and Aristotle) thought of as the good life. Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff make a similar case in the Coddling the American Mind, arguing that efforts to remove triggering material from university courses, or to de-platform controversial speakers, far from being the best way to alleviate students’ anxieties, is teaching them “to think in distorted ways,” which “increases their likelihood of becoming fragile, anxious, and easily hurt.” Research on the effectiveness of cognitive behavioural therapy (the development of which was influenced by Stoic philosophy) similarly suggests that confronting your triggers—and using them as opportunities to cultivate resilience and positive habits of mind—makes people emotionally stronger, and supports them in learning to think and act for the better.
Even if we could somehow force other people to completely avoid any exposure to things that trigger them, this would neither reduce the power of the trigger, nor help them become stronger, more virtuous people. Running away from a trigger is only a temporary fix. The only way to reliably reduce our tendency to experience fear or anger is to work with our own minds and develop our own character. Modern adherents of Stoicism recognise that trigger warnings can be helpful for some people—for example, those with post-traumatic stress disorder. But they emphasise that the use of trigger warnings should be limited, precisely because they can rob us of a sense of agency and diminish our ability to achieve a true sense of well-being.
Triggers, Eudaimonia and Pleasure
Even having a fully developed Stoic attitude does not eliminate one’s emotional responses. No one is immune from those. We all have triggers. Sometimes we know what they are, but at other times they take us by surprise. All of us have at some point come across a stimulus that, despite being objectively harmless, has sent us straight into fight-or-flight mode. Being triggered doesn’t mean that there is anything wrong with us. It’s a normal part of the human experience. For example, for most people, seeing a spider triggers fear, and they tend to respond reflexively either by killing or fleeing from it. This is a normal, primeval response, even though only 30 species out of more than 43,000 have been linked to a human’s death.
However, just because an emotional response is normal doesn’t mean that we must eliminate everything that might evoke that response. For example, even though it is normal to be afraid of spiders, most people would agree that is unnecessary to respond to this trigger by killing all spiders—or even all venomous ones. That’s because most people recognise that it is not a problem to simply feel an urge to kill a spider (or to run away from it). A problem arises only if we allow our triggered state to automatically dictate our thoughts and actions—or if we use it to try to dictate the thoughts and actions of others. As Epictetus observes, “It is not events that disturb people, it is their judgements concerning them.” Spiders are a case in point: since only one-tenth of one percent of spider species have been linked to human mortality, it is only our irrational instinctive thoughts that deem all spiders bad. Most spiders are not bad: our mistaken thinking makes it so.
Our instinct to kill or flee spiders developed for a reason: some encounters with spiders could kill us. But nature has also equipped us with a capacity for reason, which we can use to pause, assess the apparent threat, see it more clearly and take the action that is most appropriate to the situation. For example, over the last 18 months or so, we have seen humanity’s capacity for reason operate on a global scale under the threat of the coronavirus and the urgent need to develop a vaccine. Even though information about the risks of dying from Covid-19 has now become a fear trigger for many older people and people in high-risk groups and their loved-ones, most people have not responded to that trigger by burying their heads in the sand. Instead, they have used that information to rationally adapt their behaviour in accordance with the facts at hand.
The desire to minimise threats posed by factors in our external environments is not frivolous. For example, even though information about dying from Covid-19 is a triggering external stimulus, few would argue that wanting to be free from that trigger is self-centred or capricious. But reason enables us to understand that how we decide to think about a trigger, adapt to it and respond to the perceived threat can make the difference between developing a resilient and virtuous character, and remaining vulnerable, helpless and overreactive.
We can learn something about how to manage triggers from the ancient Stoic philosophers, who described the kinds of thoughts and behaviour that are most likely to help people flourish. The Stoics believed that to achieve a well-lived life (eudaimonia), we must accept the realities of our own nature and of the environment in which we live. As John Sellars notes, the Stoics started from the premise that human beings have a primal instinct for self-preservation—not merely preservation of their physical selves, but preservation of their moral characters. And the Stoics inferred from this that only behaviours that cultivate virtue (wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance) have intrinsic value and can guarantee a good life.
From the Stoic perspective, experiences of pleasure and pain (which include experiences of being triggered) are not inherently good or bad, because they have no bearing on one’s character in and of themselves. Good people don’t always or automatically enjoy a pleasurable life and bad people don’t necessarily suffer. Rather, it is how we respond to the experience of pain or pleasure that matters, because our responses shape our character. When we consistently respond by acting virtuously—that is, with courage, justice, temperance and wisdom—to both pleasurable and painful experiences, we strengthen our character and thus become more likely to flourish and experience a well-lived life. What do Stoic ethics suggest about the best way to respond to triggers?
Temperance is behaving appropriately in full awareness that we must deal with our triggers, we don’t need to indulge them or go into meltdown. Likewise, temperance is about calmly supporting those who are triggered, not encouraging them to indulge their fears, but constructively helping them to see virtue as a way forward. You cultivate the Stoic virtue of wisdom when you recognise certain facts: that triggering experiences are merely automatic primal responses, which the Stoics called phantasiai (impressions); that being triggered does not define anyone’s character; that what triggers you does not necessarily trigger others; that triggers are not necessarily anyone’s fault; and that blaming yourself or others for triggering you will prevent you from flourishing. You cultivate the Stoic virtue of courage when you allow yourself to encounter triggers, take ownership of your reactions to them, recognise that you are not materially harmed by them and thereby become increasingly inured to them. It is not courageous to face triggers simply for the sake of it or to prove a point: it is courageous to do so because you recognise the value of sculpting good character. You cultivate the Stoic virtue of justice when you avoid blaming others unfairly because they triggered you, or, for that matter, because they were triggered by something you said or did. You also cultivate the quality of justice in yourself when you recognise that it is impossible to create a trigger-free world, and avoid making someone else responsible for your well-being or demanding she be fired or silenced because she is associated with your trigger.
The ancient Epicureans, rivals of the Stoics, defined the good life differently and thought that it could be achieved by seeking rational pleasures and avoiding unnecessary physical or emotional pain. Their goal was to experience ataraxia (tranquillity or equanimity—a state of mind free from distress and worry). Epicureans use a hedonic well-being framing and consequently, for them, the purpose of acting virtuously is not to build character, but to experience tranquil pleasure. In ancient Greece, Epicureans tended to seek tranquillity by withdrawing from the public sphere to the comfort of their private gardens, where they were protected from many experiences that might otherwise perturb them (that is, they tried to protect themselves from what, today, we might call triggers).
Epicurean ideas are important if you agree with the fragility premise: what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker. While today’s social media activists don’t entirely shield themselves from public debate, there are parallels between them and the Epicureans. Most of their activism is done in the relative comfort of their homes—Epicurean gardens into which they can retreat further should things online become unpleasant. Ryan Broadfoot has coined the term extroverted Epicureanism to describe their activities. This description seems particularly fitting in light of Tim O’Keefe’s observation: “The Epicureans spent a great deal of energy trying to make plausible the contention that all activity, even apparently self-sacrificing activity or activity done solely for the sake of virtue or what is noble, is in fact directed toward obtaining pleasure for oneself.” Massimo Pigliucci has made similar observations.
Understanding the Epicurean mindset helps explain why so many activists, upon discovering what they consider a trigger, feel moved to publicly advocate protecting people from it, and to punish anyone responsible for causing it, whether through words or deeds. These activists have in effect adopted both the Epicureans’ hedonic framing of well-being and the fragility premise. As we write elsewhere:
It is no secret that we all derive huge amounts of pleasure when we are seen to be doing the right thing by the people we value. Likewise, we all have a huge incentive not to put ourselves in a position where we might become vulnerable to attack. The evidence might show us that we are wrong but, if we’re operating hedonically, we definitely have a vested interest in ignoring it (truth hurts).
Avoiding Triggers Does Not Promote Virtue
The different approaches advocated by Stoic and Epicurean philosophy can shed light on the phenomenon of cancel culture: the sudden forceful effort—by vast numbers of people on social media, or by socially prominent people—to ostracise from society anyone whom they believe has said or done something disgraceful or insensitive that might result in someone taking offence or feeling harmed. Cancel culture is a mechanism for promoting what its practitioners see as social justice. Naturally, these practitioners value protecting the feelings of members of their ingroup. From an Epicurean perspective, the logic of cancel culture seems clear: if feeling emotional pain is the worst thing that can happen to you, what could be more noble than to create safe spaces (Epicurean gardens), and remove from sight any messages or people who trigger you—or who make others in your ingroup feel uncomfortable? The problem arises when cancelling is done without regard to whether ostracising the person involved is a just or proportionate punishment. The problem is compounded when people act as though their group’s pleasure is the sole good, and their group’s emotional pain the sole bad.
Some right-wingers have dismissed triggered people on the left as snowflakes, suggesting that they melt at the mere exposure to certain ideas. But being triggered is a universal human experience. People of all political stripes are susceptible to behaving badly when they hear or see something they don’t like. It’s just that different people (and groups) are triggered by different stimuli. For example, on the left, some students have been triggered by canonical texts, while, on the right, some haven’t been able to bear the sight of Colin Kaepernick kneeling in protest during the singing of the US national anthem.
What determines how we react to our own and others’ triggers is not our political beliefs, but our philosophical beliefs about how best to achieve personal well-being. The Stoic understanding of well-being is grounded in the belief that cultivating virtue (wisdom, courage, justice and temperance) is more important than comfort—or even, sometimes, physical safety—because it is the only practice that leads to the optimal human state: eudaimonia.
AStoic view of cancel culture doesn’t imply that trigger warnings are never appropriate, or that no one should ever be ostracised for any reason. It does suggest that we should critically evaluate blunt policy instruments (such as blanket university statements on free speech) as well as instances of backlash on social media. It calls on us to properly account for the nuances of debates and the intentions of those involved. A Stoic view also suggests that we should critically evaluate all claims, regardless of their origin, and notice which positions on the left, right and centre fall short. This means engaging in dialogue—and criticising positions rather than people. When Stoics take a side, it should be the side of reason. And that requires us to cultivate both the wisdom that will enable us to decide what is reasonable, and the sense of justice that will enable us to be fair to those with whom we agree and disagree.
While there is no virtue in having been triggered, and no virtue in abruptly cancelling anyone deemed to be a trigger without careful thought, there is virtue in attending to how we think about our triggers and how we manage our experience of being triggered. There is also virtue in considering how we might best help other people manage their own experiences of being triggered—should they ask for our help.