In the field of traumatic stress, “triggering” means that some stimulus elicits overwhelming memories of trauma or symptoms of PTSD or other serious mental health struggle. It does not mean that some reminder of human cruelty or tragedy invokes feelings of discomfort, sadness, anxiety or anger. Negative feelings are not in and of themselves damaging; rather, they are an important part of learning and growing, including in the classroom. Human memory works such that when substantial “triggering” does occur it is often the consequence of seemingly innocuous experiences like smells or sounds, rather than intentional discussion of trauma. What really matters is the social support and context in which that reminder occurs. The contemplative garden would likely constitute a very positive context for most survivors.
I suspect that Stanford administrators’ intentions behind prohibiting the plaque are good: They want to protect students from further harm. However, the question really is which is worse: seeming to erase a woman’s experience of interpersonal and institutional betrayal, or risking causing people distress when they visit a contemplative garden?
Research shows that while violence is harmful, one of the factors that most strongly predicts people’s outcomes is how their friends, family and institutions respond when they disclose their experience. I am concerned that denying Miller’s and students’ request for a plaque is corrosive for Stanford’s community and reputation, and directly harmful to Chanel Miller and other survivors on campus.
It is of course possible that someone who sees the plaque will be “triggered.” However, such an experience can happen anywhere, including in a classroom. What matters is what comes next: What support is available for students who need it? For the garden, in addition to the plaque of Chanel Miller’s choosing, there could (with Miller’s agreement) be some history provided and some resources suggested too.
Adding a plaque that memorializes Miller’s voice is a crucial opportunity for Stanford to lead with courage. I strongly suspect the placement of the plaque with Chanel Miller’s quote of her choosing will quickly be understood as an act of such institutional courage. I predict Stanford will come to be deeply proud of this courage, just as it will come to be proud of Chanel Miller.
— Jennifer J. Freyd, Ph.D. in Psychology at Stanford ’83, Professor of Psychology at University of Oregon