Melissa Scholke: Defending trigger warnings

Monday, September 21, 2015 - 7:05pm

When you live in an apartment occupied solely by English majors, some interesting revelations are bound to arise. The first thing you’d probably notice is the ever-present opportunity for generic living-room chats to morph into moments of thought-provoking literary discussion and analysis. You unintentionally begin to acquire full synopses and major plot points for books you’re not even reading, and discussion questions for classes you’re not even in. Many of my evenings this past week involved one of my roommates — as we sat doing homework — recanting grisly tales of bloodshed and violence from “The Iliad” while I brought up themes of sexuality and societal pressures within “Giovanni’s Room.”

These discussions led me to the realization that English majors — along with a multitude of students immersed in humanities courses — read, examine and analyze some of the most controversial topics out there. Sexuality, gender, race, discrimination, violence, inequality, injustice, tragedy, oppression and morality — more often than not — comprise the bulk of our subject matter. While these are crucial intellectual matters to discuss, for individuals who personally experienced certain forms of trauma, such as sexual assault, they may experience some difficulty as they initially engage with them.

Therefore, I was surprised to learn Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure of the American Association of University Professors, earlier this month, described “trigger warnings” as a “current threat to academic freedom” and stated the group’s opposition to the practice of issuing them to students.   

While Committee A argues against “trigger warnings” (in particular, mandated ones), its statement does make a clear distinction between “academic regulation” and “faculty judgment.” The report acknowledges the possibility of scenarios emerging where an instructor may find it necessary to forewarn students about concerning material, and it asserts the instructor’s personal right to do so.

However, merely mentioning the phrase “trigger warning” in the last few months has prompted an outpouring of critiques stigmatizing the phrase. Accompanied by this debate is a myriad of accusations that today’s college population is a mass of individuals who are “coddled,” “over-sensitive” and politically correct to a concerning degree. A recurring argument in the vast amount of commentary is that these warnings don’t exist in the real world, so providing them to students in their courses leaves them unprepared to handle similar issues once their college careers end.

Yet, warnings in the media aren’t a novel concept. Various media, for years, have been categorized according to a system of ratings to provide viewers with information about the content they’re consuming. Songs are frequently marked as explicit. Labeling on video games warns of questionable content. Granted, these ratings were originally instituted and primarily serve as safeguards for younger audiences. Yet even content that undisputedly is mainly intended for adult audiences still retains these warnings. If you go to an R-rated movie, the film's rating is still justified by a list of the potentially controversial images and themes that adult viewers (including those only a year away from legal adulthood) can expect to encounter. Television shows, such as “American Horror Story,” for example, feature warnings advising “viewer discretion” before the opening credits and still depict horrific imagery, unsettling themes and gruesome scenes of violence.

Sometimes, “trigger warnings” happen naturally, whether we use that particular term or not. A few days ago, as a friend messaged me about a newly released music video, he mentioned beforehand that there might be some potential content issues. Immediately after sending me a link to an article about the video, he followed up by saying it was difficult to watch but told me it was something that needed to be shared.

Students — regardless of any particular concentration — encounter challenging and discomforting topics in their studies. They personally experience and understand the reality of the complex and distressing issues that permeate our society. Rather than shy away from these issues, students often seek out discussions about racism, classism, sexism and injustice on their own in order to prepare to work to remedy them.

Advocating for a brief overview of potentially troubling content doesn’t equate to asking for an excuse to completely avoid potentially jarring material or texts one may not fully agree with. As students ask for information about particularly disturbing material beforehand, it’s a respectful request for the acknowledgement that not every student’s experiences are similar, and to avoid the assumption that every individual in a classroom will react the same way. The stigma that views these warnings as an extreme byproduct of an overly politically correct environment exaggerates their intent.

At the most basic level, “trigger warnings,” whether you choose to label them as such or not, are intended as preventative measures and simple warnings. For those affected by particular emotional traumas, this foresight isn’t meant to inhibit discussion. Rather, it allows students to prepare themselves and acknowledge any potential personal issues while they still continue to try and engage with the material, but in a different manner.