Point: Trigger warnings can do more harm than good

| Forum Editor

Social media has not been kind to the University of Chicago in the past week. By this point, the university’s plight has been widely documented—in an ill-fated attempt to protect “academic freedom” and give new meaning to freedom of speech on college campuses, the university wrote a letter to its incoming students saying “au revoir” to trigger warnings. While UChicago’s blunder may loom over the university for years to come, the logic is not far off: The trigger warning tends to do more harm than good in the classroom.

The trigger warning is not a new concept: It is simply a statement that tells a reader or viewer that there is distressing material ahead. It was invented as the internet began to take hold of the western world, when sexual abuse and violence support groups wanted to warn readers of graphic stories of rape and exploitation. Many television shows have also used trigger warnings in advance of incredibly graphic depictions of crimes and violence (see “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit” and “The Sopranos”). However, on college campuses, the trigger warning has become a more ubiquitous and constant part of life. There have been a variety of high profile cases in which students have made official requests to instate trigger warnings for iconic novels like “The Great Gatsby” (for misogynistic violence and domestic abuse) and even institute campus-wide trigger warning policies. Those students may have found themselves in unwelcoming academic environments, but the push toward the trigger warning has led to a variety of consequences for professors and the larger student body.

In 2014, seven humanities professors from a diverse set of colleges and universities published a piece on the flaws of trigger warnings. It has gone on to be cited frequently by major media organizations and presents a variety of arguments that call trigger warnings into question. The most intriguing argument by far is that the existence of the “trigger warning” may serve as a campus’ protection against addressing serious issues facing the community. The trigger warning can serve as an illusion that a campus is accepting of all races, sexual orientations and mental health issues. The focus shouldn’t be on identifying the many triggers that may exist for students but on combating the underlying issues associated with those traumatizing events.

The creation of trigger warnings also puts faculty in an immensely challenging position with their students.
They are not mental health professionals and certainly not experts in the mental health histories of their students—it is both impossible to accommodate all students’ pasts and then even more so challenging to work with students who are traumatized by events in class (without proper training). Further, a faculty member may be forced into censoring crucial material or omitting events in fear of losing their position at the university, especially those professors who are not on tenure and are dependent on yearly reviews to keep their job.

Perhaps most controversially, there is research on post-traumatic stress disorder showing that trauma is more likely to be caused by harmless cues (smells, sounds) than literary or visual representations of the trauma. Those results would debunk the efficacy of the trigger warning as a positive way to create acceptance for college students, since it means that professors cannot stave off trauma any more than an resident adviser, the cafeteria or a programming board screening a movie to students.

While I would never speak to the reality of students’ trauma or the necessity of creating classes that are respectful of the histories of racism, sexism and homophobia in our country, it is evident that the trigger warning comes with a variety of negative consequences for the college classroom. Worse, for students who do feel a need for trigger warnings, that term has become so pejorative on campuses that it may in fact benefit campuses to step away from that word. The University of Chicago likely had some of these concerns, and while the university completely blundered on delivering its message about trigger warnings to students, the university may have caught on to the need for a movement towards academic freedom that respects victimized and marginalized students without inhibiting curricula or the classroom.

To read another perspective on this issue, click here.

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