Trigger Warnings Valuable in Academic Settings

editorial board

Last year, the Wheel decided to add trigger warnings on stories where we cover sexual assault.

We believe that, especially with reports of sexual assault around our campus, it was an easy, harmless addition to the beginning of our stories that might alert students of potentially triggering material.

There has recently been growing controversy over the use of trigger warnings both in the media and academia. A recent op-ed by Harvey Silverglate in The Wall Street Journal titled “Liberals Are Killing the Liberal Arts” condemns the use of trigger warnings for stifling freedom of speech.

Trigger warnings are perceived by some to verge on censorship, or at the very least to deter people from reading content they might otherwise have read. We have come a long way since the age of complete censorship and are glad that members of society today, at times, feel comfortable to talk about what previously was considered unthinkable. We are now able to acknowledge the realities of violence and recognize the many calamities that occur on a day-to-day basis. Critics argue that the presence of trigger warnings above articles prevents certain readers from exposing themselves to unsettling content. Further, when used to describe books, critics argue that trigger warnings oversimplify the content, which might dissuade students from considering them as worthwhile reads.

“The risk of oversimplification is easily countered by the fact that students will go on to read the book and experience its full complexity,” Huffington Post editor Claire Fallon writes in response to the latter allegation. “It’s hard to imagine that 10 words of warning about a graphic scene would carry more weight than the experience of reading the book itself.” Such slippery-slope arguments that trigger warnings coddle our society or that they oversimplify books completely disregard the essential function of trigger warnings in news media.

Trigger warnings serve a very specific purpose, which is to avoid causing unnecessary harm towards those who have been physically or psychologically traumatized. It is not that trigger warnings try to solely limit offense; people who have encountered sexual assault and other traumatic experiences have been shown to exhibit symptoms similar to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), including people that have directly experienced genocide, sexual assault or racial violence. A trigger warning makes readers who have undergone such traumatic experiences aware that the article they are about to read contains themes that might trigger those bad memories, and it allows such readers to prepare themselves for the content or to choose not to read it.

​We want to emphasize the difference between a warning and censorship. Trigger warnings serve as a public service, informing people of potentially offensive or triggering content. We do not encourage professors or media providers to censor or choose not to use or show material because it may be triggering, but instead they should allow people to be informed about sensitive issues that the material may contain. There are many people at this University, a diverse community, who may have had traumatic experiences, and they should be given the opportunity to know if an article or book will contain triggering information.

​Additionally, the idea of trigger warnings is not a new one. While some people may have negative connotations with the phrase, warnings for sensitive material have existed for decades, such as with the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), which has been warning moviegoers of violence, sexuality and profanity since the 1920s.​ Additionally, many people have lobbied for news television channels to warn viewers when they show disturbing images, such as when broadcasting the beheadings of Western journalists by ISIS agents or live footage of the Boston Marathon bombing, where dead and wounded bodies are shown.

Trigger warning should also be utilized in the classroom. Trigger warnings in course atlas descriptions and syllabi are appropriate. Just like in the headlines, trigger warnings do not by any means necessitate nonparticipation by the sensitive student; rather, they afford such students the decision of exposing themselves to potential triggers, just like movie ratings afford moviegoers the right to make an informed decision.

Not every material dealing with triggering content necessarily needs a label — the concept of trigger warnings can be applied through simple communication. Professors should make an effort to communicate when lectures or reading will deal with sensitive, potentially painful content. What is the harm in doing this, when it might prepare someone who could be affected? The effects of these very real situations of sexual, racial and other kinds of violence are such that affected people can have symptoms of anxiety.

We encourage professors to include trigger warnings in their syllabi and warn students when a class discussion may be particularly triggering. They should be understanding when students need to miss or excuse themselves from class due to triggering material. Students should not have to choose between their participation grade and the risk of being forced to relive distressful memories.

Many people take spoiler alerts pretty seriously and take great strides to make sure that movies and television shows are not ruined for us — things that we encounter not personally but on a screen. Why can we not practice the same due diligence when it comes to actual human encounters?

The cost is virtually nil, but the potential benefit is the avoidance of triggering sensitive readers. Why not take our mental health and that of our peers seriously?

The above staff editorial represents the majority opinion of the Wheel’s editorial board.