In defense of trigger warnings

Sunday, November 15, 2015 - 5:48pm

Last week, the University’s Young Americans for Freedom chapter constructed a wall in the Diag that protested “Political Correctness: The Iron Curtain of the University.” It had phrases like “offensive,” “social justice,” “safe spaces” and “newspeak” spray-painted on them.

But the one phrase stood out most, in sprawling blue letters across the lower center of the wall: “Trigger Warning.”

Few other phrases on media platforms right now spark the same kind of contentious debate that “trigger warning” does, and there are intellectual leaders with impressive credentials on both ends of the spectrum. The debate over trigger warnings, which centers on the use of these warnings on college campuses, fits into a larger context of reenergized interest in social justice and political correctness, but it also deserves to be separated from that. Unlike the pursuit of social justice, trigger warnings on syllabi could someday reach a consensus in University policy.

Trigger warnings in classrooms — preceding lectures, readings, films, photographs, discussions, etc. — are presented as a semi-formal “heads-up” that the material deals with sensitive subject matter that could be upsetting for some. Trigger warnings often precede content about war violence or sexual assault/abuse/trauma, but they can also alert the reader to material including sexism, racism, homophobia, self-destructive behavior or suicide.

Arguments against trigger warnings stem from worries about censoring class materials, coddling students, stunting intellectual growth and inhibiting the freedoms of others. Many University professors believe that students should be exposed to difficult material and won’t grow intellectually if they don’t; they feel threatened that they could get in trouble for students feeling “unsafe” in their classrooms. Many students resent the usage of trigger warnings, claiming that the overreactions or sensitivities of some students shouldn’t hinder the intellectual pursuits of others.

The negative rhetoric that surrounds trigger warnings overwhelmingly constructs an image of the coddled college student, inviting ridicule on every word in that phrase. But trigger warnings aren’t about coddling students or protecting sensitive feelings. They aren’t about shielding people from difficult material. Trigger warnings themselves don’t constitute censorship.

To deny the utility of trigger warnings — especially for war veterans and survivors of sexual assault — is insulting and dismissive of traumatic experiences. Claiming that trigger warnings perpetuate a culture of victimhood is the equivalent of saying “suck it up” or “move on” — which isn’t psychologically sound advice.

My Resident Adviser put it well: “I feel like people are sometimes against trigger warnings because they feel like we can’t expect to be protected from the bad things in life. But the reason trigger warnings exist is that some people haven’t been protected from the dark things in life.”

I’m in a Literature of Abolition class, and we’re studying “12 Years a Slave.” This film has graphic, violent scenes that include physical abuse and rape. My professor told all of us beforehand that we would be watching it in class and that if anyone preferred to watch it by themselves at home rather than in a classroom setting, we were welcome to do that.

She didn’t use the phrase “trigger warning,” but she was effectually giving one. By giving a content warning and a choice in how, when and where we wanted to view this film, she was granting us the agency to know how we learn best. She wasn’t “coddling” us — she was giving us choices that didn’t impact the learning opportunities of our classmates.

Personally, I took advantage of that choice. I watched “12 Years a Slave” in a class setting last year, surrounded by people I didn’t know, and though I wanted to leave the room during the sexual assault and rape scenes, I was sitting in the front of the class — I felt like I didn’t want to disrupt everyone by getting up. But I felt emotionally jerked. I had trouble breathing for the rest of the day; I had to skip my next class and avoid my friends, so I wouldn’t worry them.

I appreciate having the option to watch it by myself for this class.

Yes, in the “real world” there are going to be times when we will witness things that we’d rather not — but you’d be hard pressed to find a time outside of university classes when you’d have to sit through an intense portrayal of something without having the option to prepare or remove yourself from the situation if you needed. You can walk out of a movie theater; you can put down a book or exit a conversation.

The debate over trigger warnings in the context of art in classrooms, where it’s being used explicitly as an educational tool to deepen our comprehensive understanding of a topic, is especially intriguing because artwork is often designed to elicit emotional responses — like “12 Years a Slave.” But artwork isn’t simply an educational tool. There is a distinction to be made that is lacking from debates I see around trigger warnings preceding exposure to artworks.

Art can be offensive, which can make it controversial. But there should be a difference in how we treat controversial pieces of art and pieces of art that have the potential to be triggering  though they are often both. In classrooms, students should be confronted with topics and discussions — and yes, artwork — that make them challenge themselves, their assumptions and beliefs. But no one should be confronted with topics, discussions or artwork that could potentially make them feel unsafe, without warning. And despite popular opinion, it isn’t impossible to reconcile these ideas.

Another aspect that’s skirted around in discussions about trigger warnings is the fact that intellectual growth is not the only kind of personal growth that matters in college. Using trigger warnings in our classrooms doesn’t hinder our intellectual growth; it fosters our emotional growth. The recognizance that some have had experiences that others haven’t is a lesson in empathy and awareness. By asking for trigger or content warnings, students are making concerted efforts to recognize that none of us check our experiences at the classroom door — we carry them in with us.

Even people who have experienced trauma have spoken against trigger warnings, a notable example being Roxane Gay. Trigger warnings aren’t a one-size-fits-all type of deal, and trigger warnings themselves don’t mean we will always feel safe; we can’t prepare ourselves for being triggered suddenly on the street with no preparation in a “real world” situation. As Gay points out in her book “Bad Feminist,” “there is nothing words on the screen can do that has not already been done.”

I agree with this. Nothing preceded by the phrase “trigger warning” is going to be as harmful as whatever happened that created triggers for a person in the first place.

But that being said — in a learning community, why not have the option for making choices that will make us feel safer when we’re trying to learn?