Trigger warnings (definition in the link) are a mainstay on many blogs and internet forums. People are also now starting to use them in books and on classroom syllabi. In response to this, there’s been a huge surge in articles discussing the ethics of using them. Most of these pieces worry that they do more harm than good.
Here’s a sampling of articles, op eds, and blog posts:
Salon. New York Times. NYT Op Ed. New Republic. Los Angeles Times. The Atlantic. NY Mag. Huff Po. Mother Jones. Jezebel.
If you google “trigger warnings” and under “search tools” set the time frame to within one week (as of today, May 26th), you’ll find dozens more of them.
I take it that most of us can easily imagine the main arguments for using trigger warnings in the classroom: you are giving people a heads about about the material they are about to encounter, so that they can make better informed decisions about how and whether to engage the material, and you are signaling that you understand the severity of the material and consider it a valid decision if students to do not wish to engage the material at this time.
There are a lot of arguments in these articles against using trigger warnings in such a way. Many of them are bad arguments–they conflate serious trauma with any level of momentary discomfort, they seem to not understand how PTSD and anxiety disorders work at the most basic level, they trade on stereotypes of feminists wanting to keep people in a state of perpetual victimhood (thanks to Kate Manne for pointing this one out), and they don’t acknowledge the sheer levels of paternalism involved in their suggestions.
There are, however, some very thoughtful arguments and considerations that raise concerns about how we use trigger warnings and how we follow through with them. I quote some below, along with points in favor of using trigger warnings in the classroom. Comments are open and moderated.
“As someone who studies PTSD from several different perspectives and works with people who actually have PTSD, I think what is interesting about this conversation is that it seems like a basic understanding of trauma and PTSD is almost entirely missing. People who truly have PTSD are ‘triggered’ all the time. By many things. Most of which are not directly related to their trauma. Noises, smells, tastes, phrases, tactile experiences, thoughts, etc. etc. One of the most – if not the most – disruptive part of having PTSD is isolation. Feeling like what you’ve experienced is something that no one else can understand. Feeling like you are not like everyone else and never will be again. If we slap trigger warnings on books that mention war, I worry that we are further isolating the people who need just the opposite. I worry – particularly when it comes to combat related PTSD which the NYT article addresses – that we are sending a message that says, “You’re right. What you’ve been through is so terrible, what you’ve done is so inhuman that we cannot even talk about it.” I worry that though this is intended to come from a protective place that it sends the opposite message. The message that the rest of us don’t want to hear it, don’t want to have to worry about your emotions spilling over. People who have been traumatized – in my opinion – don’t need to be protected from being re-triggered. What they need is empathy. Instead of trigger warnings on syllabi, maybe we should have some classes (and trainings for profs) that attempt to understand trauma and PTSD so that we can all be better witnesses instead of just continuing to shut it all away.”
–Mary Catherine McDonald, philosopher
“I’ve used […trigger warnings] for graphic/sensitive material in my ethics classes (e.g., FGM, sexual assault) for a number of different reasons. Most obviously, there are students who really do need to opt out of discussions which may leave them feeling vulnerable and reeling because of past trauma. Nobody has opted to opt out yet, but I have been thanked for the warning, because it helped a student mentally prepare for what they were aware (and were aware that I was aware) could be an emotionally wrenching discussion. Also, as that brings out, being given a choice can be valuable in its expressive or symbolic value, even if it isn’t exercised or something which it would be good for that particular student to exercise in this instance. Namely, it says to them that opting out would be respected by me and that I am not assuming that they are all clearly going to be fine with talking through anything and everything which might be important to talk about in an ethics class in particular. And that they are not being excluded from philosophy in general if they are not prepared to participate in a more or less unpredictable discussion of (e.g.) bodily mutilation or sexual assault. Finally, and equally importantly, it signals to everyone else – i.e., the students who have no need whatsoever to opt out of the discussion – that this is a morally serious subject which we are going to approach in a morally serious way, remembering that what we are talking about real lives, real bodies, and real social practices.”
–Kate Manne, philosopher
“…It’s almost utterly unpredictable what will trigger people. It’s often not the topics themselves, but the smallest thing that unless someone *knows* is a trigger for me (for example), there’s no way they could have given adequate warning. And given my intersectional identity, things that are triggers for other people with sufficiently similar identities may not be triggers for me. This is related to the dilution worry: we’d have to essentially say: “This course may contain triggers.” If we tried to list them all, we’d fail (because we can’t predict how something we think is benign and unrelated is really someone’s #1 trigger) and the list would be massive.”
–Rachel McKinnon, philosopher
“…part of what we as educators, parents and students have to recognize is that classroom spaces in which difficult topics like trauma, rape, war, race and sexuality are discussed are already unsafe. When students of color who have endured racism have to hear racially insensitive comments from other students who are in the process of learning, the classroom is unsafe. The classroom is unsafe for trans students who are often referred to by the wrong gender pronoun by both students and teachers. The classroom is unsafe for rape survivors who encounter students in the process of learning why getting drunk at a party does not mean a woman deserves to be raped.”
–Brittney Cooper, writer, Salon (linked above)
“I kind of know where these critics are coming from, because I used to be one of them. I publicly joked that sappy songs required trigger warnings, and I privately complained that they were as infantilizing as spoiler alerts. But now that trigger warnings have gone mainstream, I find I’ve come full circle. Why should trigger warnings bother me? Like many of trigger warnings’ loudest opponents, I have noticed, I have no firsthand experience with rape or racial discrimination or cissexism. And a few words at the beginning of an article (or on a seminar syllabus) are no skin off my un-traumatized nose. In fact, what now strikes me most about trigger warnings is how small a request they are, in proportion to the backlash they incite. What is it about about this entirely free gesture of empathy that makes people so outraged? In their distress, critics have entirely overlooked an important distinction: Oberlin students aren’t trying to get out of reading Mrs. Dalloway because they’re special, sensitive snowflakes, or even get it removed from syllabi. They just want a three-word note on the syllabus giving them a heads-up that it addresses suicide. If that’s all it takes for instructors to prevent the shock it could cause a student who has been suicidal, it is, to me, a no-brainer.”
–Kat Stoeffel, writer, NY Mag (linked above)
“Kids in college are thought of as these young, naïve, uncorrupted youngsters who need knowledge dropped on them hard, but it gives me pause to acknowledge how many of them have been sexually assaulted or seen trauma already. Regardless of what you think we should do about that, it’s heartbreaking to think that some students begin an experience meant to challenge them already deeply challenged and fragile enough that they aren’t able to experience the positive cognitive dissonance being offered through an education.”
–Tracy Moore, writer, Jezebel (linked above)