Trigger Warnings: Yay or Nay?

In Favor of Trigger Warnings on College Campuses

Trigger warnings function as accommodations for mentally ill students

Illustrator: Taylor Daniels

Illustrator: Taylor Daniels

The University of Chicago recently published a letter informing incoming freshman that they might learn about things that make them uncomfortable during their classes, and they would not receive trigger warnings or a guarantee of a safe space. These measures have been taken, it seems, for the purpose of fostering a challenging learning environment, rejecting censorship, and upholding academic freedom.

Here’s the important thing to note: trigger warnings don’t actually impede academic freedom. They’re not censorship.

The pushback against trigger warnings, and to an extent, safe spaces, really stems from a misunderstanding of their function, and stigma against mental illness. Let’s get into what trigger warnings are actually for.

A “trigger” is a word referring to things that could induce episodes of post-traumatic stress disorder for viewers. PTSD is commonly portrayed in media as a problem that war veterans experience, as with flashbacks to their time in active combat. However, PTSD is a condition that can affect anyone who experiences trauma. 94 percent of women who are raped experience PTSD within the first few weeks of the assault, and 30 percent of women continue to experience PTSD after nine months according to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs.

A study done by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center suggests that one in five women are sexually assaulted during their time in college. So, yes, it’s very likely that there’s someone in your class who has experienced trauma that has given them PTSD.

Being triggered induces flashbacks to the original traumatic event; what’s important to note is that it doesn’t involve just the flashback and the fear associated with it for the brief time the flashback occurs. People who suffer from PTSD live between flashbacks; their mental state is reset to the same state they were in immediately after the trauma with every flashback. This can last for days or weeks. Every time someone is triggered, it impedes their healing process and interferes with how they function in everyday life.

Trigger warnings were created online as an accommodation for people with PTSD. Creators of content containing depictions of common triggers of PTSD, like graphic depictions of combat, death, child abuse, pedophilia, and sexual assault, would put warnings at the top of articles; people in the audience who could be affected could then choose whether or not to view the material. In a classroom setting, the function of trigger warnings has shifted; rather than allow students to disengage with triggering material, trigger warnings serve as a way to give them more time to mentally prepare to engage with the material. For example, a student who knows in advance that a class will be discussing triggering material can schedule an extra therapy appointment the day of, or use other coping methods. Trigger warnings aren’t censorship; they’re simply additional tags or warnings on the material. They don’t encourage students to skip class or forgo assignments; they simply allow students to prepare and protect themselves.

Opponents of trigger warnings generally cite an attack on academic freedom. Colleges want to have an environment of learning that’s bigger than simply learning material; they want students to be presented with challenging viewpoints and perspectives different than what they’ve normally experienced.

Professors don’t want students to simply ignore any material that they disagree with or are offended by, and that’s understandable. However, trigger warnings don’t function as censorship or convenient ways to continue to be ignorant or unchallenged. They function as an accommodation for people with mental illnesses, and to take those accommodations away would be to further disenfranchise an already underrepresented group.

Rape culture on college campuses is already a hot topic, and it can’t be separated from the attitude against trigger warnings. Rape survivors in classes with professors who refuse to warn them about graphic depictions of rape are experiencing yet another layer of prejudice in the way colleges mistreat and mishandle their trauma.

What is so distasteful about the idea of accommodating mentally ill students? What is so coddling about putting a brief warning on graphic depictions of traumatic events? Trigger warnings do, in fact, exist in society already! TV programs with graphic content display a warning before the show starts; everyone who’s seen a movie knows there’s a rating system in place that displays the rating and tags for specific content before the movie. Trigger warnings are no burden on those who aren’t affected by triggering material, and are immeasurably helpful to those who are affected. In academia, trigger warnings should be seen as absolutely essential accommodations for those who have suffered trauma and PTSD and still make their best effort to pursue higher education and engage with their classwork. Don’t make it any harder for them than it is already by taking away their accommodations.

Live Without Warning, Learn Without Fear

On the Role of Safe Spaces and Trigger Warnings in Academic Settings

Recently, the University of Chicago distributed a letter to the incoming students of the class of 2020. It condemned trigger warnings and intellectual safe spaces as contrary to the university’s “commitment to academic freedom”. As expected, the letter was met with mixed reactions, but what about these topics that makes them so controversial? They originate from good intentions. Trigger warnings began in the world of clinical psychology to protect victims of trauma from painful recollections. Safe spaces originated as places where victims of violence or hate speech could go for help. However, the purpose they were meant to serve and what they actually accomplish are very different. In terms of mental health, some psychologists have serious doubts about the benefits they have and their existence on college campuses conflicts with academic freedom.

Psychologists have observed that when patients with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or anxiety disorders are exposed to a trigger—a stimulus causing recollection of a traumatic event—it activates the amygdala and a conditioned response. A well-accepted way to help those suffering from disorders that cause response of this type such as depression, PTSD, or general anxiety disorder (GAD) is cognitive-behavioral therapy. Lizabeth Roemer and Susan Orsillo’s paper from Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice discusses research suggesting that “[t]he detrimental, maintaining effects of experiential avoidance are evident at several levels in the phenomenon of GAD worry. Attempts to control or stop worry are likely to be ineffective and may paradoxically increase worrisome thoughts or negative emotions associated with those thoughts[.]” Dr. Noam Shpancer Ph.D.’s article for Psychology Today, Overcoming Fear: The Only Way Out is Through, discusses the habituation principle—showing that repeated exposure to stimuli dulls the arousal of the nervous system—and its successful use in treating anxiety: “[t]he short-term discomfort of exposure is the price we must pay to purchase a valuable long-term asset–a life free from debilitating anxiety.” Science does not support safe spaces and trigger warnings. Providing victims of trauma with paths to avoiding confronting their fears is more detrimental in the long run than it is helpful. That said, not providing a path to avoidance is not the same as being permissive of insensitivity. People need to be considerate of others, but it is wrongheaded to try to help victims of trauma by allowing them to ignore their problems.

An additional contributing factor to the controversy of safe spaces and trigger warnings is how they have evolved. Greg Lukianoff, author of The Coddling of the American Mind, mentioned in an interview with the editor of The Atlantic that websites hosting graphic discussions about sexual assault and other traumatic subjects were progressively requested to add additional subjects to their list of trigger warnings until they included more than two dozen topics. There are two important aspects to how these ideas have changed. One is the frailty of human emotion and the other is the idea that no one who has experienced trauma should receive preferential treatment. Safe spaces have become less about avoiding violence, threats, or harassment and more about marginalized groups surrounding themselves with like-minded individuals, so creating a positive feedback loop, reinforcing their pre-existing attitudes and beliefs. Trigger warnings, have changed from a courtesy to victims of trauma to a means by of hiding from ideas or opinions contrary to your worldview and never growing or changing as a person. Instead of their original, narrowly-defined roles, these ideas have been co-opted by blogosphere communities like Tumblr and LiveJournal throughout the 2010s. Well-meaning or not, the support groups they created quickly got out of hand, with compassion and encouragement growing into extreme ideas that posited that people struggling with trauma were perfect or infallible in their behaviors and actions. Shifts in society and politics have made people more hostile toward opposing ideologies than ever before but providing these protections works against improving this problem. Creating places in which people can surround themselves with like-minded individuals, regardless of the reason, will create an echo chamber of ideas, further severing minorities from the community at large. “Safe spaces” implies that other spaces are inherently unsafe, perpetuating anxieties, and creating a self-fulfilling prophecy by putting members of marginalized groups further into the periphery and further disintegrating them from the community at large. These concepts, while good at heart, can insulate individuals from viewpoints at odds with their own and can intensify feelings of isolation and social ineptitude.

Because these concepts can create a path for individuals to avoid dissenting ideas and opinions, academics worry about the role trigger warnings and safe spaces have taken on in universities. They stand at odds with academic freedom, allowing students to hide from ideas and information that they’re uncomfortable with. In a National Coalition Against Censorship survey there were, “94 reports of sex-related trigger warnings, including from art history teachers displaying homoerotic images and studio drawing teachers importuned to announce nudity and help ‘conservative students … feel more in control of the material.’” Many professors feel pressured to self-censor lectures. The Departments of Justice and Education’s broad definitions of sexual harassment as including unwelcome speech have professors fearing for their jobs. Refusal to cooperate with trigger warning requirements can lead to harassment claims. These changes have empowered students to use their emotions as weapons to force administrative action and have forced educators to cater to emotional hypersensitivity. It is decidedly within the goals of higher education to introduce students to new and sometimes uncomfortable ideas. This is not the same as insensitive with impunity. We need spaces where it is safe to broach difficult topics and discuss ideas openly but it is damaging to the integrity of the learning process if we allow these to become homogenous groups. If we are not able to make a change then the process of learning will be damaged. Either these concepts must be torn from their implications and made into services that are more beneficial to academic communities and more reflective of best practices in psychology or they must be done away with.