Trigger and Trigger Warnings

Freud’s statement after he left the Clark Lectures in 1909 that „America is a mistake” comes back to haunt us today. America has become a nation where more children are killed in a year than police officers, where it has become more dangerous to go to school than to drive a car. It has become easier for a young person to buy an assault weapon than to buy a bottle of beer and yet, more attention is given to someone who may utter an offensive statement than to a person who commits a brutal offense. America may not just be a mistake, but at present it is a country torn apart by its irreconcilable attitudes and attachments to violence.

How can we understand these incongruities and are we obligated to understand them? Sometimes, it may suffice to simply observe the contradictions, since understanding may, as Claude Lanzmann once said, simply be “obscene”. And yet, how it is that nowadays the controls on free thought and speech are more severe than the laws regulating gun control? How is it that university professors are obligated to warn their students with trigger warnings before they introduce potentially offensive material? And yet, no warning signals are given at elementary or middle schools when young men pull their triggers and kill innocent children and adolescents.

When Freud argues in Why War (1932/1933) “… that right and violence appear to us as antitheses” and “...that one has developed out of the other”, he had in mind that “conflicts of interest between men are settled by the use of violence.”[1] If we transfer this argument to the current socio-political situation in the USA, we may come to the bitter conclusion that this conflict of interest plays itself out over the fate and lives of children and the adults’ right to remain young and innocent. While young children are mercilessly killed in schools, adults demand to be treated like sensitive children, insisting to be warned and protected before they hear the harsh and sometimes traumatic truths of life. Something is rotten in the state of America when the symbolic fathers (in the guise of the Republican Party) only fight to protect the unborn children, refuse to vote for tougher gun controls, and produce a generation of young adults who need trigger warnings not to be emotionally bruised.

Jeanne Wolff Bernstein, Ph.D. is the past president, and supervising and personal analyst at the Psychoanalytic Institute of Northern California (PINC), San Francisco. She is on the faculty at PINC and at the NYU Post-Doctoral Program for Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy. She was the 2008 Fulbright-Freud Visiting Scholar of Psychoanalysis at the Sigmund Freud Museum, Vienna. She is a member and on the Board of the Wiener Arbeitskreis für Psychoanalyse and works now as a psychoanalyst in Vienna. She has published numerous articles on the interfaces between psychoanalysis, the visual arts and film. She is currently working on her book on Edouard Manet, Enframing The Gaze.


[1] Sigmund Freud (1931/32), Why War?, in: The Standard Edition vol. 22, 204.