The trigger-warning debate presents faculty members and administrators with a difficult decision: Should they prioritize defending free speech or helping students feel emotionally safe?
The impetus for trigger warnings is a series of communications from the U.S. Department of Education advocating for protective learning environments. But to many people, pushback against trigger warnings and safe spaces is important because institutions should not shield students from uncomfortable messages, especially those challenging students’ own ideas. Parties concerned with trigger warnings include faculty groups such as the American Association of University Professors, which see warnings as interfering with core goals of education and infringing on free speech and academic freedom.
Buried amid the federal communiqués is the occasional acknowledgment -- which some might dismiss as lip service -- of traditional liberal ideals of open and free expression: “To be very clear, working to maintain safe learning communities does not, and must not, mean chilling free expression about the issues of the day … Protecting free speech means protecting the ability of your students, faculty, staff and members of the public to hold and express views that may be at odds with your institution's strongly held values.”
Advocates of trigger warnings, however, claim challenges to them belittle the sincerity of the people who call for warnings and ignore the distress suffered by students faced with upsetting content. “It is easy to make a stink about political correctness,” writes Michael Bugeja, who teaches media ethics and technology and social change at Iowa State University. “It is also easy to expound on it without including the perspectives of underrepresented groups.”
Advocates also reject the implication that those calling for warnings are intellectually lazy or oversensitive, or are manufacturing a problem for personal or political reasons. Grace Arnpriester, executive director of health and wellness for the undergraduate student government at American University, writes that “survivors of trauma deal with ‘hypervigilance’ that can lead to panic, anxiety, flashbacks or more -- all of which can be triggered by sensitive content.” Similarly, Bugeja, when writing about the cumulative impact of microaggressions, notes that “ … a cup of water weighs about eight ounces, until you hold it for an hour or longer. Then it weighs a ton. Weight doesn’t count; time does.”
Such analogies are contestable. For example, in her TED talk, psychologist Kelly McGonigal describes research following 30,000 adults for eight years. It shows that stress is not associated with premature death in the absence of the belief that stress is injurious to health: among adults who experienced the highest stress, but who did not believe it was inherently dangerous, mortality was actually lower than among those with the lowest stress. By convincing people that stress is their enemy, we may, paradoxically, be hurting them. Might there be a lesson here for advocates who argue for students’ need to seek safety whenever a painful topic is covered? Would it not be healthier to confront the stressor, process it and learn coping skills? Would not an eight-ounce cup feel lighter after practice lifting it?
Proponents of trigger warnings point out that most policies recommend rather than mandate warnings before sensitive material is introduced and provide a psychologically safe way for students to process it. Thus, they argue, the push for safe spaces and warnings is not inimical to freedom of speech or academic freedom. In fact, supporters claim such interventions are consistent with such freedoms because they allow students to participate in the discussion of sensitive material when they otherwise might not be able to do so.
Some potentially upsetting topics seem de rigueur for any informed student: a history class that involves reading about the Dred Scott decision in which the word “property” is used; a class on the Japanese invasion of China that includes information about the Rape of Nanking; a description of historical violence against innocents and animals in Steven Pinker’s Our Better Angels in a course on the role of central government; a reading about assisted suicide in a course on elder law; a course on rape law. Warned or not, students must be expected to understand that material, notwithstanding -- and in some cases because of -- its potentially disturbing nature. Such examples complicate the task of instructors, who must forecast which events warrant warnings.
Given the substantial differences among students in their personality, attitudes and experiences, such predictions are inevitably fraught with guesswork. For example, one professor’s discussions of climate change and the age of the Earth were deeply upsetting to some students. Another described a course on sex differences that included arguments of nature over nurture, which dismayed some students and led to an administrative suggestion to modify the content. Another described her lecture on animal rights that disturbed some students.
Given the ubiquity in the media of rapes, suicide bombings and violence, how can students navigate their occupational and social lives outside the protective bubble? Putting aside whether one supports trigger warnings, how do fragile individuals -- whom some online commenters have derisively referred to as “snowflakes”-- cope outside the classroom, in their places of work, in social settings, in following world events? Warnings do not prepare students for this reality outside the classroom where warnings are not given to brace oneself; instead, warnings may inadvertently make it more challenging for students to cope with this reality by shielding them from anxiety-provoking information. Compared with media representations, the classroom lecture would seem to offer an opportunity to learn coping skills that will prove useful in confronting the inevitable stressors of life.
A colleague recently received a complaint because the course textbook presented a list of factors statistically associated with sexual abuse of women. One factor was wearing sexually provocative clothing. The list was derived from controlled research. Even supposing that one of our colleague’s students was the victim of sexual violence, reading that list ought not induce a flare-up of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Good teachers can often anticipate and ward off such objections by helping students understand the distinction between association and blame. The only warning broad enough to cover such unanticipated alleged trauma-inducing readings would be along the lines of: "Something in this course may upset someone; some content may be disturbing to some listeners/viewers/readers." In fact, perhaps letters of admission to entering students ought to be accompanied by a general caution that “if you have PTSD you might wish to obtain treatment from a trauma specialist in how to cope, and make your professor aware of this so she or he can let you know when content may be uncomfortable.”
But Are Warnings Effective?
We know of no systematic evidence that students’ mental health and academic success are impeded by the lack of safe spaces and trigger warnings. In fact, recent clinical science provides grounds for thinking that warnings may be counterproductive because they may inadvertently encourage avoidance behavior, which can fuel pre-existing anxiety (here). Many of us do not object to optional trigger warnings.
Our worry, however, is that once warnings become mandatory, they can become political tools. We have seen unfortunate examples of professors investigated because their syllabus neglected to warn students about some wording that one student found offensive, and who then pursued it for political reasons unrelated to PTSD. It is not obvious that any a priori rubric can distinguish legitimate content to be warned about from content that some students oppose for sociopolitical or personal reasons (e.g., anger at perceived “victim shaming”).
Some academics fear that because PTSD and the allied acute stress disorder (a DSM-5 diagnosis) are covered under the Americans With Disabilities Act, failure to take into consideration potential triggers is a violation of the law. If true, that could lead to mandatory safe spaces and trigger warnings and possibly pressure to amend course content that some find disturbing. As one commentator on Inside Higher Ed argued, “Once trigger warnings are established, it is easy to put more and more topics in the restricted category, and then an easy step to say that these topics cannot be addressed at all.” Instructors teaching evolution have been assailed by students when the real issue is not PTSD but providing equal time for teaching variants of creationism. Another person commented, “When a small group of Christian fundamentalists in my anthropology class objected to my teaching ‘evolution’ on the ground that some students ‘don't believe in it,’ I treated them as gently as possible; but, I also steadfastly refused to alter the curriculum on the basis of their peculiar mythology.”
As illustrated by this example, an ideological rift frequently exists between proponents and opponents of trigger warnings. One does not hear much about the need for greater empathy or safe spaces for students holding conservative viewpoints. For example, few openly advocate that professors give Southern students trigger warnings or safe spaces before assigning readings that depict their ancestors as pro-slavery or pro-Jim Crow, or that depict social conservatives as racist or homophobic. Numerous topics are regarded as upsetting hate speech when viewed from one side of the political aisle (e.g., Black Lives Matter) but not from the other side (e.g., Blue Lives Matter).
We can envision several ways of approaching these contentious issues, some of which can be undertaken by students and others by professors. Online Rate My Professor evaluations could include comments about sensitive content to inform future students. That might partially obviate the need for trigger warnings, as prospective students could read previous students’ comments, although the risk of false positives cannot be ignored. Professors cannot anticipate every student’s sensitivities. At least in the case of nonrequired courses, students could be told it is their responsibility to read the course comments and the syllabus and skim the reading list before enrolling.
Are campuses moving toward a scheme in which administrators must keep a continually updated list of topics that might require warnings, and maintain a hearing board for professors who violate them? Will nonconforming faculty be required to enroll in formal sensitivity training or worse, risk administrative censure or even termination? And what about fairness to all positions: Will colleges and universities require sensitivity training for professors who exhibit insensitivity toward conservative or fundamentalist religious beliefs, for example?
Some in higher education argue that providing students with trigger warnings means taking students seriously. Others, however, contend that trigger warnings are a means of pandering to those harboring a broader agenda that encroaches on academic freedom and leads to administrative initiatives that add to the already burdensome academic bureaucracy. Students can use warnings not to prepare for a discussion of sensitive material but rather to pre-empt a reading or a presenter whom they argue is somehow trauma inducing.
In November 2015, for example, Yale University students took great offense at a statement by Erika Christakis that administrators should not tell students what types of Halloween costume are racist or culturally insensitive. Many Yale students were not interested in open discussion of her view, demanding she be fired because she rendered their residence hall an unsafe space.
Large-scale national studies show that stress, coupled with the belief that stress negatively affects health, contributes to poor health outcomes. Educational institutions should make students aware of the linkages among stress, the perception that stress is inherently negative, and their health; coping strategies should include confronting stressors, not ducking them. This insight should begin early, starting with campus tours and college acceptance letters.
The One-Time-Only Trigger Warning
With these considerations in mind, we propose that the following trigger warning be given to students on their first day of college. We provisionally suggest that it be termed the One-Time-Only Trigger Warning:
"Over the course of the next four years you will be encountering a number of topics that you may find emotionally challenging, even difficult. If some of this stuff makes you feel uncomfortable, that’s perfectly normal, and we encourage you to talk to us and your friends about it. But bear in mind that a liberal arts education is designed to confront you with things that challenge and at times even threaten your worldviews. So if you feel intellectually or emotionally disturbed by what you learn in class, don’t assume that you should be concerned. It may only mean that you are engaging with novel perspectives, which is what college is all about."