A Few Thoughts on Trigger Warnings

Trigger warnings were one of last year’s hot topics, with a piece on the issue appearing in almost every major news outlet. It remains to be seen whether they will occupy the same amount of column space this year, but I doubt the conversation is over – and I expect the debate will continue on college campuses in particular.

This post is primarily an attempt to put my own thoughts in order, and find a way to express the strong emotional reactions I have surrounding the trigger warning debate in a more articulate way. One thing that has been frustrating to me about the entire back and forth that has been the online discussion has been the mockery and denigration of student voices: the majority of thinkpieces took the position that college students asking for trigger warnings were overly sensitive at best and attempting to censor professors at worst, with a few exceptions. As a recent graduate of a college which has seen intense intra-community debate over this very issue, I wanted to deposit my two cents on some of my problems with the anti-trigger warning voices.

First of all, I would like to acknowledge that I understand the anxiety professors feel over what might seem like a demand that they limit their teaching and self-censor, especially among professors of gender or race studies for whom triggering subjects are endemic to their field. I can even understand the fear that by giving students trigger warnings – or, to use my preferred terminology, content warnings – colleges might cripple students’ ability to deal with the real world. (Though I disagree profoundly with this idea – the very dividing line between “college” and “real life” that is so frequently drawn acknowledges that college is an artificial environment, and academia has to acknowledge that its primary goal is hardly to give its students practical survival skills.)

However – and this is a big however – both of these reasons ultimately come from fear rather than logic. For instance, the majority of requests for content warnings are not requests to remove controversial material from syllabi, but rather requests to note such material ahead of time. More alarmingly, however, the dismissal of all discussion of content warnings as coming from students’ desires to be “coddled” or “protected” is to ignore the very real issues at hand.

Content warning opponents claim, among other things, that discomfort is an important and necessary part of learning and growing. There is undeniable truth to this: being uncomfortable is a sign that one’s limits are being pushed, after all, and it is only by testing limits that we can find them, and perhaps more importantly, can challenge our preconceived notions of the world. (A white person coming to understand white privilege for the first time, for instance, will undoubtedly feel uncomfortable.) However, what this seemingly simple statement masks is that for a number of students, there is a difference between “uncomfortable” and “unsafe.” Certainly a good learning environment may productively make students uncomfortable; perhaps it even should. However, I can think of no circumstance in which feeling unsafe is conducive to education.

For the student suddenly confronted with discussion of rape as metaphoric violence against the state, for example,”uncomfortable” may not be sufficient to describe their reaction. Whether or not they are clinically triggered (and more on the rehashing of what constitutes PTSD or a clinical trigger later), that student may find themselves in a state of distress that renders them incapable of focusing on the material at hand, let alone engaging with it or learning from it. In such a situation, advance warning could make the difference in this hypothetical student’s ability to participate.

To figure a request for content warnings as a desire to avoid “discomfort” is to pretend that all discomfort is created equal, and that there is no difference between the uncomfortable sensation that comes with a preconception being challenged and the uncomfortable sensation that comes with a reminder that you are not physically or mentally safe.

Adjacent to this is the idea, frequently brought up, that content warning proponents are unaware of clinical definitions of PTSD, or must demonstrate a certain level of reaction for a subject to qualify as a “trigger.” Even without acknowledging that people may have very different looking responses, many of which are not outwardly visible, this criticism assumes an ability of these critics to adjudicate what qualifies as “real” or “authentic” trauma. It is very nearly a demand to prove it: demonstrate your suffering or we will not believe it is real. Of course, that very attitude is far from conducive to creating an environment in which students would feel capable of volunteering themselves to be examined for whether or not they fit proper victim criteria.

Doing so becomes more difficult still with recognition of the power dynamics between students and professors. Writing on the topic of content warnings often seems to assume that students have immense power – that looming on the horizon is a student takeover of the classroom, that college students are a sort of creature under the bed, constantly lurking and ready to tear vulnerable professors to shreds.

Of course, in reality the dynamic is quite a bit more complicated. Professors retain a great deal of power and authority over students, if only by virtue of age and position. Professors and students are not on equal footing. Acting as though they are – or even as though students occupy a more powerful position – is both disingenuous and dishonest. This imbalance is one of the main problems with the suggested approach some content-warning opponents propose: that students simply approach professors one-on-one to request assistance or raise concerns about a course and its content.

Doing so may require revealing information about past trauma that the student may wish kept private – or else assumptions about personal history that may or may not be accurate. It may also, depending on the professor, be an intensely anxiety-provoking process. Furthermore, the ability of students to even have face to face access to their professors varies wildly. It is incredibly unlikely that all students have equal access and ability to discuss sensitive material with their professors, let alone inclination to do so. As mentioned above, accusations of oversensitivity and coddling run rampant hardly create an environment in which someone is likely to feel comfortable requesting accommodations.

What all of this comes down to, however, at least for me, is that content warnings are a band-aid solution for two reasons.

The first is the fact that, content warnings or not, student safety and comfort in the classroom has far more to do with professorial attitude and classroom dynamics than it does with the content of the lessons alone. The gap between a classroom that allows debate over the morality of rape as an abstract concept versus one that acknowledges upfront a commitment to respectful conversation while discussing the rape of Lucretia in Livy is as wide as a chasm (both real examples, by the by). A gender studies professor discussing violence against women in the context of historical oppression may feel very different from a professor who discusses violence against women as an abstract or metaphorical part of literature, disconnected from history and reality.

The ability of students to not only respect but trust their professors, and believe that their words will be taken seriously, is a large part of the antidote to the communication breakdown between the two sides of the content warning debate. Equally important is the willingness of professors to listen to what is really being said by advocates for content warnings, rather than leaping to worst conclusions or going on the defensive. These are sensitive subjects, obviously, often touching on discriminatory or oppressive structures that are deeply embedded in our culture and therefore in our education. Intellectual freedom is vital to the continued health of universities and colleges, but intellectual freedom should not mean an absence of compassion.

Really, though, in my opinion the increased visibility of the content warning/trigger warning debate is a symptom of a larger problem: academia remains extremely white and male, and still hostile to those who do not fit that template. Higher education is still adjusting to the reality that their students come from more diverse backgrounds, and that an education tailored to a wealthy, white, and male audience may no longer fit – and might hurt.

As Roxane Gay wrote in an article on student activism:

“American colleges and universities have always been incubators for the privileged, and the only people who continue to operate there with some guarantee of physical and emotional safety are white, heterosexual men. Is it any wonder, then, that students are demanding a basic guarantee of safety?”

Ultimately, of course, content/trigger warnings cannot encompass all experiences. As many writers have noted, triggers often have little to do with the traumatic event and can be smells or sensations that might seem totally innocuous to others. There is no way to prevent harm to every student in every college – but there is a relatively simple means of potentially minimizing that harm. The system is far from ideal, and has many potential problems, but I, at least, would rather have some system in place than none. To make a comparison: mental health facilities have become more common at colleges in the past decade. Many are still understaffed, underfunded, or function poorly. However, that they are present at all seems better than to go back to a time when students struggling with depression, anxiety, or other illnesses had no recourse but to drop out.

The people most likely to want or need content warnings, it seems to me, are precisely those people most vulnerable and least represented in higher education.

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2 thoughts on “A Few Thoughts on Trigger Warnings

  1. This was good. And really helpful. Your voice is clear, calm, respectful–and embodies the ideal of compassion that you suggest can help with this tough issue. Thanks. I think I’ll share it with two Harper boys.

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