A few months ago, some colleges, notably UCSB and Oberlin College, have pushed for trigger warnings on class syllabi, with the reason that students with PTSD, anxiety, or other mental illnesses could be harmed by the material in the class if they weren’t warned about it ahead of time. This seems like a perfectly reasonable request, so of course a whole bunch of people with nothing better to do with their time objected to it. While nearly all of the objections outlined in these many articles are trite and easily refuted, they’re taken seriously by enough people to make them worth addressing. So I’ve compiled a list of all the horrible arguments used by the critics of trigger warnings, including quotes from their actual pieces, and exactly why every one of them is dead wrong:
Trigger warnings are censorship.
Invoking the specter of censorship is a surefire way to get people who don’t understand the issues to agree with you. Sometimes censorship is actually happening, and calling something “censorship” is justified. But other times, calls of “censorship” and “freeze peach” bear so little resemblance to any of the actual issues that it’s astounding that the author can get away with it. While most of the journalists writing about trigger warnings have done at least a modicum of research, a few have been unable to resist calling trigger warnings “a recent censorious trend” and that they are “sure to stifle the spirit of free and open inquiry that must exist at an institution of higher learning.”
And as Robert and Araz Shibley write,
[Trigger warnings are] of particular concern in fields where “triggering” subjects are likely to be important to the understanding of the subject matter; the warnings guarantee the result of a student body that is less informed and knowledgeable about the subject. Imagine attempting to lead a classroom discussion about, say, the Rape of Nanking in the context of a “trigger warning” campus. Virtually no detail of that or many other sorry chapters of human history is less than massively disturbing. Yet avoiding or glossing over the many distressing aspects of war—or, worse, allowing students to skip lessons on it altogether—will leave students with a very incomplete comprehension of the subject.
Admittedly, those are just two examples. But while the journalists have (for the most part) done their homework, the rest of the public has not. Take a look at this facebook thread that I participated in, where several commenters explicitly call trigger warnings “censorship” and even more allude to it. Notice how one person all but calls trigger warnings “censorship” in a reply to my comment where I explicitly say “trigger warnings aren’t censorship.”
And I’m hardly the only person saying this. Trigger warnings aren’t censorship in the same way that putting rating labels on movies or video games isn’t censorship. Rather than an attempt to suppress content that they feel is harmful, people asking for trigger warnings simply want to be told ahead of time that there is content that could be triggering. This lets them avoid it, if they need to, or prepare for it, so they can experience it just like everyone else. If anything, this is the opposite of censorship: by not blindsiding people with potential triggers, they can participate in class more freely. More voices are added to the discussion, which should benefit everyone.
And, anyone who doesn’t have triggers is free to ignore the warnings. Trigger warnings are for people with triggers, not for everyone. The material doesn’t change, whether trigger warnings are added or not. The books, movies, and discussions are the same. The only thing that changes is that now more people can experience the things and participate in the discussions. That’s all.
Students need to toughen up/not be coddled/not be so sensitive.
I think this is more of a “back in my day” sort of thing, where any attempt to give young people anything is met by a collective “young people are so soft” from the older generations. Despite having inherited crippling student debt, a shrinking education and science budget, a global catastrophe in climate change, a half dozen wars and military actions, a crippling national debt, and a whole host of other problems, young people get one nice thing and the older generations are on it like starving jackals on a steak.
The Shibley piece is literally titled, “Campus Trigger Warnings Threaten Speech and Treat Students Like Children.” The New York Times quotes Greg Lukianoff as saying, “Frankly it seems this is sort of an inevitable movement toward people increasingly expecting physical comfort and intellectual comfort in their lives.” (God forbid we get to be comfortable.) Ruth Fowler in Al Jazeera goes further, saying:
It’s hard not to think that the desire for trigger warnings isn’t simply evidence of a younger generation’s need to “toughen up,” but yet another manifestation of the very American desire to limit one’s experience to “pleasant” things rather than fully understanding the world around us.
And Jenny Jarvie of the New Republic is only slightly more charitable:
[Trigger warnings] reinforce the fear of words by depicting an ever-expanding number of articles and books as dangerous and requiring of regulation. By framing more public spaces, from the Internet to the college classroom, as full of infinite yet ill-defined hazards, trigger warnings encourage us to think of ourselves as more weak and fragile than we really are.
What these criticisms are missing is that the people requesting trigger warnings often have mental illnesses or severe trauma. The message they’re collectively sending is that they experience literal harm when triggered, and that warnings are an attempt to prevent that harm. People with mental illness aren’t “weak” or “coddled,” they’re sick, and trigger warnings are an accommodation like access ramps and automatic doors are an accommodation. People don’t complain about access ramps, and say things like “Access ramps are an inevitable movement toward people increasingly expecting physical comfort and intellectual comfort in their lives.” And yet apparently those same people are perfectly willing to say it about trigger warnings.
Students might use this opportunity to avoid learning.
A common theme among critics is that a system of trigger warnings might be abused. The fear is that once people see what a particular class discussion or reading entails, they might skip it. Not because they can’t handle the material, but because they don’t want to. Fowler suggests that privileged students don’t want to face their privilege:
If there’s one book that privileged white middle-class college students could probably benefit from reading, it is [Chinua] Achebe’s superb novel [“Things Fall Apart”] — labeled “triggering” because of its references to colonial violence and suicide. While obviously there are a number of people in the University of California system who might find this book troubling because of their own experiences, a glance at the admissions by race might seem to suggest that the overwhelmingly white and Asian-American students could have a hard job relating to the perspective of the colonized in Achebe’s book. Or perhaps it is the role of colonizer that is triggering for these students?
The New York Times quotes professor Lisa Hajjar, who criticizes trigger warnings by saying, “Any kind of blanket trigger policy is inimical to academic freedom…. The presumption there is that students should not be forced to deal with something that makes them uncomfortable is absurd or even dangerous.” I agree with Hajjar, in that I believe students should be challenged and occasionally made uncomfortable in class. I disagree with the assumption that trigger warnings are going to prevent that.
Pretty much any system has potential for abuse. Defining the success of a system by the amount it is abused (or in this case, abused hypothetically) is being unfair. Miri Mogilevsky at the Daily Dot wrote an entire article addressing this point. I’ll quote part of it, but the entire piece is excellent:
Much of the panic about trigger warnings in classrooms also focuses on the fear that privileged students will avoid material that makes them uncomfortable. So if you put “TW: misogyny, sexual violence” on a syllabus next to an assignment, male students might think, “Ugh, I don’t want to read about that” and avoid it.
But privileged students already avoid material that makes them uncomfortable; that may be one reason you see way too few white students in courses on African-American literature. Trigger warnings might make this slightly easier, but it doesn’t fix the larger, systemic problem of people choosing not to engage with material that challenges their worldview.
Further, avoiding trigger warnings for the sake of tricking privileged students into reading material on racism, sexism, and other unpleasant topics means potentially triggering underprivileged students by refusing to warn them that the upcoming reading assignment concerns traumatic things they may have experienced. People who lack privilege relative to others are constantly being asked to sacrifice their mental health and safety for the sake of educating those others, and this is just a continuation of that unjust pattern.
In short, ensuring students’ mental health is taken care of is more important than tricking privileged students into reading that book. And privileged students probably weren’t going to read the book anyway. And as Mogilevsky and others point out, and as I mentioned above, trigger warnings actually help people engage with the material in a way that they couldn’t without the warning. By being informed of potential triggers, students can prepare for them and participate much more meaningfully. This is the opposite of “avoiding learning.”
We can’t put trigger warnings on everything.
I’ve never understood this type of argument. “If we can’t do the thing perfectly, we might as well not do it at all.” Why not just do it as best as we can and constantly work on trying to do it better? I feel like people who make this argument are just trying to justify their unwillingness to put in the work to make other people’s lives better. It takes a particular kind of callousness to say to someone who’s suffering, “I could make your life easier, but I can’t be bothered.”
Jill Filipovic at the Guardian writes,
There is the fact that the universe does not treat its members as if they come hand-delivered in a box clearly marked “fragile”. The world can be a desperately ugly place, especially for women. That feminist blogs try to carve out a little section of the world that is a teeny bit safer for their readers is a credit to many of those spaces. Colleges, though, are not intellectual or emotional safe zones. Nor should they be.
Trauma survivors need tools to manage their triggers and cope with every day life. Universities absolutely should prioritize their needs – by making sure that mental health care is adequately funded, widely available and destigmatized.
But they do students no favors by pretending that every piece of potentially upsetting, triggering or even emotionally devastating content comes with a warning sign.
Kevin Drum, at Mother Jones, echoes the complaint:
What I don’t get is what anyone thinks the point of this is. You’re never going to have trigger warnings in ordinary life, right? So even if universities started adopting broad trigger policies, it would accomplish nothing except to semi-protect sensitive students for a few more years of their lives, instead of teaching them how to deal with upsetting material.
And as one commenter put succinctly, “There is no trigger warning for life.”
The idea that we can’t do a thing perfectly doesn’t usually stop us. We pass laws, even though we know that some people will break them. We improve safety features on cars, even though no amount of safety will prevent all deaths. In fact, nothing we do is perfect, and yet in pretty much every other instance we shrug our shoulders and do the best we can. Why not here?
Another point these critics raised is the idea that if we use trigger warnings in college, students will be less prepared when they encounter triggering material later in life. Filipovic seems to actually believe that college students simply will not realize that real life doesn’t come with a trigger warning if they encounter them in college. Just how inept does she think college students are? The truth is, college students with mental illnesses are already fully aware of how triggering real life is. Likely, they’ve been experiencing it for years, and to argue, as Filipovic does, that they’ll somehow forget or not notice being triggered in “real life” (and why college doesn’t count as real life is beyond me) because they’re not triggered in college is ridiculous.
College is supposed to be uncomfortable.
I agree that college is a place where students’ ideas and beliefs about the world should be tested. Material should be challenging and thought-provoking, and it should make students uncomfortable with the world and their place in it. But there is a huge difference between “uncomfortable” and “triggering.” A lot of these critics seem to have this idea that “being triggered” is roughly equivalent to “feeling a little uneasy” when it’s much worse than that. PTSD flashbacks and anxiety attacks aren’t opportunities for character-building, they’re horrible episodes that cause immense harm to the sufferer, and sometimes to others. The fact that these critics seem to conflate them with “learning experiences” is ignorant and offensive.
Fowler’s entire article is an attempt to dismiss sufferers of PTSD and the trauma (she puts that word in scare quotes) they experience by pointing out that people in Afghanistan have it worse and they don’t have PTSD. (Or maybe they do. It’s not like Fowler has any idea.) Filipovic writes:
Students should be pushed to defend their ideas and to see the world from a variety of perspectives. Trigger warnings don’t just warn students of potentially triggering material; they effectively shut down particular lines of discussion with “that’s triggering”. Students should – and do – have the right to walk out of any classroom. But students should also accept the challenge of exploring their own beliefs and responding to disagreement.
Lukianoff, after complaining about the evils of being comfortable, writes, “It is only going to get harder to teach people that there is a real important and serious value to being offended. Part of that is talking about deadly serious and uncomfortable subjects.” Conor Friedersdorf at the Atlantic agrees: “Surely college students should know what’s coming when they set out to plumb human civilization. A huge part of it is a horror show. To spare us upset would require morphine.” Colleen Flaherty at Slate sums up, “Some critics of trigger warnings say that higher education is rooted in confronting uncomfortable ideas and experiences.”
Bill Ayers, at the Daily Kos, points out that the entire premise of college is to be challenging and uncomfortable:
The trigger warning—if it is to be used at all—should appear on the application to college itself: Please be aware that you will be challenged here, you will be exposed to ideas you cannot now imagine, you will experience times of cognitive dissonance and intellectual vertigo, and you will likely be transformed in some unscripted and unpredictable ways. If that doesn’t appeal to you, stay home in the comfort of your couch and your familiar books and things.
The students requesting trigger warnings are already aware of this. It’s hard not to be, when the entire point of college is to learn new things. College students (at least most college students) want to learn, and be challenged, and be made uncomfortable, and grow and develop in “unscripted and unpredictable ways.” But it’s difficult to do this and constantly suffer debilitating flashbacks at the same time. Trigger warnings are an effort to experience what college is supposed to be, not to avoid it. The students asking for trigger warnings are just trying to keep themselves safe while doing it.
Some people post trigger warnings for weird things.
This cliché is almost unavoidable in any article criticizing trigger warnings. How would Jonah Goldberg, writing for the LA Times, complete his self-righteous piece without the following bit?
Trigger warnings were provided for an ever-increasing, and ridiculous, list of “triggers.” For example, one website offers a trigger warning that it contains images of small holes, lest it terrify people suffering from trypophobia, which is — you guessed it — a fear of clusters of small holes.
Jarvie provides the following list, complete with links, which are not shown here:
Alerts have been applied to topics as diverse as sex, pregnancy, addiction, bullying, suicide, sizeism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, slut shaming, victim-blaming, alcohol, blood, insects, small holes, and animals in wigs.
Filipovic tops her:
Trigger warnings, and their cousin the “content note”, are now included for a whole slew of potentially offensive or upsetting content, including but not limited to: misogyny, the death penalty, calories in a food item, terrorism, drunk driving, how much a person weighs, racism, gun violence, Stand Your Ground laws, drones, homophobia, PTSD, slavery, victim-blaming, abuse, swearing, child abuse, self-injury, suicide, talk of drug use, descriptions of medical procedures, corpses, skulls, skeletons, needles, discussion of “isms,” neuroatypical shaming, slurs (including “stupid” or “dumb”), kidnapping, dental trauma, discussions of sex (even consensual), death or dying, spiders, insects, snakes, vomit, pregnancy, childbirth, blood, scarification, Nazi paraphernalia, slimy things, holes and “anything that might inspire intrusive thoughts in people with OCD“.
The idea is to highlight instances of trigger warnings “going too far.” And the consequences for this overuse are… never really stated, actually. Honestly, the worst thing that could happen from an overabundance of trigger warnings is that the writer spends a little extra time typing. The best case scenario is that someone with a more obscure trigger gets warned before seeing something potentially traumatic.
Further, many of those triggers seem absurd out of context, but are often put there for very specific reasons. Melissa McEwan of Shakesville, a longtime user and supporter of trigger warnings (and the inventor of “the content note”) writes, “I really dislike the compilations of supposedly absurd TWs/CNs. What might appear “extreme” may be a writer’s consideration for a specific reader. If you interact with your community a lot, you might be more aware of individual readers’ needs.” Just because Jarvie and Filipovic find some of these triggers absurd doesn’t mean the people who use them do.
Some people are triggered by weird things.
It seems hypocritical to both criticize people for using obscure triggers, and to criticize the whole effort because some people are triggered by obscure things. It’s a classic Catch-22, and it’s far more common than it should be. For instance, later in her piece, Jarvie posts this:
Most psychological research on P.T.S.D. suggests that, for those who have experienced trauma, “triggers” can be complex and unpredictable, appearing in many forms, from sounds to smells to weather conditions and times of the year. In this sense, anything can be a trigger—a musky cologne, a ditsy pop song, a footprint in the snow.
Not to be outdone (again) Filipovic posts this paragraph literally right after her list of obscure triggers, with no awareness of the contradiction:
It is true that everything on the above list might trigger a PTSD response in someone. The trouble with PTSD, though, is that its triggers are often unpredictable and individually specific – a certain smell, a particular song, being touched in that one way. It’s impossible to account for all of them, because triggers are by their nature not particularly rational or universally foreseeable.
So the problem with triggers is that they’re too specific, until we actually attempt to create warnings for them, and then they’re “ridiculous,” to use Goldberg’s word. Sure, that’s entirely consistent and not a double standard at all. Right.
Another complaint is that triggers are “unpredictable” and “complex,” rendering all attempts at trigger warnings impossible. I will note that Filipovic doesn’t actually provide a source for that statement, although Jarvie does. The problem is that the linked source says nothing like what Jarvie says it does. Read it for yourself and see.
Both of these critics seem to treat trigger warnings as something a group of writers (or in the case of colleges, administrators) decided to implement in the hope that it would help readers or students, respectively, suffering from mental illness. But that’s exactly backwards. In pretty much all cases, a trigger warning is requested by those with mental illness because it helps them. I would wager that most of the “obscure” trigger warnings listed above were requested by a reader or multiple readers of that site, and the writers implemented it as a courtesy.
So what Jarvie and Filipovic are really saying is less “writers and administrators are wrong about what helps people with mental illness” and more “people with mental illness are wrong about what helps themselves.” And that’s a bold claim to make. I would be leery of anyone, even researchers, making the claim that people with mental illness are wrong about their own experiences.
And this is the crux of the issue. Many of these articles have framed the issue as “administrations are imposing trigger warnings on faculty in a misguided effort to help students” when the reality is “students are requesting trigger warnings from faculty in an effort to help themselves.” Personally, I try to stand behind nearly every effort by a group of people to empower themselves and make their environment safer. Maybe these critics should think more about where they stand.