Trigger Warning: Academic Freedom at Risk

A trigger warning is a notice at the beginning of a book, video, blog post, etc. alerting the viewer that it contains potentially discomforting material. By construction, trigger warnings are not especially problematic; in essence, trigger warnings were designed as nothing more than the internet’s equivalent to a ‘PG-13’ or ‘R’ movie rating. Initially, such warnings were limited to feminist websites and aimed to protect victims of sexual assault. Over the course of the past generation or so, trigger warnings have worked their way into mainstream academia and, like many social justice initiatives on college campuses, the recent spread of trigger warnings is an example of good intentions gone bad.

Recently, the student senate at UC Santa Barbara passed a resolution requiring any professor whose class analyzes “content that may trigger the onset of symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder” to notify his or her students in advance, and permit any students who were concerned that the material would be triggering to them (whether they were diagnosed with PTSD or not) to skip the offending classes. Similarly, Oberlin College recently asked that professors remove any potentially triggering material that is not absolutely necessary for the academic goals of the class. Oberlin’s guidelines strongly urged professors to make any remaining triggering material optional for the students. Oberlin’s policy was later modified, but the fact that it was implemented in the first place is cause for concern.

Though such policies arise from good intentions, the unfortunate truth is that they will be abused. If professors are required to allow students to omit schoolwork as they see fit, students—whether victims of trauma or not—will undoubtedly use the opportunity to shirk responsibility for their class participation or assignments. Additionally, any unpopular opinions—whether expressed by students or professors—can be deemed “triggering” and, therefore, punishable by school rules, giving students a free pass to silence or ignore those they disagree with under the guise of protecting themselves from trauma.

Proponents of trigger warnings argue that the “slippery slope” argument (that is, the idea that trigger warnings could expand beyond explicit depictions of sexual violence and similarly disturbing material to include seemingly tame, everyday topics) amounts to nothing more than tomfoolery. As such, many do not consider trigger warnings a threat to academic freedom and open discourse. As it turns out, trigger warnings have already grown to include any and all material that can be triggering, which becomes particularly problematic when considered in context: after all, just about anything has the capacity to be triggering to someone. It’s no surprise, then, that trigger warnings now include everything from American flags to slimy things to animals in wigs. In essence, a student could expect trigger-related accommodations from their university in response to just about anything.

As a result of the ever-growing list of triggers, the increased pressure on colleges to use trigger warnings has been detrimental to academic freedom. Many professors are unable to teach about even slightly controversial topics or share unpopular opinions for fear that their students will take action against them. Seven humanities professors wrote in a letter to Inside Higher Ed that their colleagues have received “phone calls from deans and other administrators investigating student complaints that they have included ‘triggering’ material in their courses, with or without warnings.”

Additionally, Brandeis professor Donald Hindley was found guilty of racial harassment in 2007 after he used the word “wetback” (a racial slur against Hispanics) in his class on Latin American Politics. Hindley did not direct the slur at any individual; rather, he explained the origin of the word and then went on to criticize its use—all in a manner that was demonstrably relevant to the class. But to the trigger-happy administration at Brandeis, the use of that word in any context was enough to warrant punishment.

Francis Schmidt, an art professor at New Jersey’s Bergen Community College, was forced to take an unpaid leave of absence and seek psychiatric help after he posted a picture of his daughter wearing a shirt that said “I will take what is mine with fire & blood” (a Game of Thrones reference) on his Google+ account. Administrators, seemingly too busy calling out trigger violations to keep up with current television, considered the shirt a significant enough threat to students’ security to warrant punishment.

Perhaps the most troubling part of academia’s fixation with trigger warnings is the fact that research has shown again and again that trigger warnings do more harm than good for those who suffer from PTSD. Controlled exposure to triggering topics and images is the best treatment for PTSD, and complete avoidance of such ideas (as trigger warnings promote) can actually worsen the symptoms. Additionally, focusing on personal trauma (whether PTSD or not) as a central aspect of one’s identity in daily life, which is a necessity for anybody looking for sensitivity accommodations, is linked to poor mental health. And yet, college students continue to overwhelmingly support the increased use of trigger warnings.

Colleges that are unconvinced by the scientific evidence and insist on using trigger warnings should ensure that any trigger warnings they deem necessary are given in the course description before students register for classes. That way, students will know in advance that there will be some discussions about sensitive topics, and they will be able to do whatever they need to mentally prepare. Students who don’t think that the triggering content of the class will be a good fit for them can simply choose to take another class.

If colleges insist on keeping trigger warnings in the classroom, they must do so in a way that does not require all students to tailor their academic opportunities to fit the needs of the most sensitive person in the class. In order to maintain college classrooms’ role as bastions of free speech and exchange of ideas, lectures, readings, and assignments cannot be made optional to students in order to avoid distress. There’s an important line to be drawn between notifying students before they learn about a touchy subject and censoring substantial portions of a class’s content.

One thought on “Trigger Warning: Academic Freedom at Risk”

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