The Incompatibility of Trigger Warnings with Learning

Spencer Caron ’20

Opinions Editor

At this point, the premise of the so-called free speech debate is familiar to those who have paid attention. For the most part, far-left progressive students, and sometimes far-left faculty members, claim that an individual or idea is so odious that it ought to be censored outright, or at least controlled. Free speech advocates then lament the degradation of the Academy, criticizing the three pillars of speech suppression: trigger warnings, safe spaces, and the protesting of right-of-center speakers. Right-Left distinctions aside, social commentators are largely correct in pointing out the infantilizing and regressive aspects of safe spaces and the reflexive desire to shut down those with whom one disagrees, but trigger warnings are so counterproductive and nonsensical that they deserve specific critical attention. Thankfully, I have not attended a class in which trigger warnings were issued, but I do belong to a generation of college students at whose school the phenomenon is all too common.


A trigger warning is first and foremost very rarely called for. On first glance, one may think  that in a science course where graphic imagery would be discussed or shown, a trigger warning may be necessary. Surely, a professor would not want to make a student faint; but can one convincingly argue that a student prone to fainting at, say, the sight of blood should be pursuing a course of study that requires such graphic imagery? Outside of the science example, one moves into the territory of the humanities, where the heated, though largely misguided, debate about trigger warnings has really been held. Here, one assumes a trigger warning is issued when a distressing topic is to be discussed. Among these topics are most likely sexual violence, targeted hate crimes, and child abuse. This list is clearly not exhaustive, but, if I am to pay respect to the actual phenomena of being “triggered” into a distressing physical reaction, I need to refrain (at least from now) from adding to the list of topics that are merely difficult to discuss.


Interesting to note, however, are how few classes in the Academy deal with truly trigger-inducing reactions. Namely, there simply are not many classes in the Academy that would repeatedly and thoroughly discuss topics that could actually trigger a physio-emotional reaction. Though the following may ring unsympathetic, if the field in which a student is majoring does frequently address topics of sexual violence, abuse, etc., then the student finds himself in more or less the same place as the queasy student in the science class. That is, a discipline X literally ceases to be discipline X the minute trigger warnings are employed to avoid its potentially distressing subject matter. If, however, this particular university fosters an environment of trigger-warning type policies, the professor runs the risk of being disciplined if they lower a student’s grade who leaves the classroom, refuses to do a reading, etc.


If, however, one feels that I have been addressing the usage of trigger warnings in too narrow, too prescriptive of a manner, I would argue that any extension of trigger warnings beyond those topics that could elicit a PTSD type reaction is even less acceptable at the college level. In other words, if a trigger warning is issued before the topic of race, gender identity, or any other hot-button social issue is discussed, than the Academy itself fails to be an academy. Surely, there are case-by-case exceptions to be made for students who have been diagnosed with a post-traumatic stress disorder who are completing a common requirement, for instance, but the average student is not due trigger warning protection. In fact, such “protection” is utterly infantilizing, and runs counter to nearly every institute of higher learning mission statement.


Ironically, from what I can gather, those disciplines—Anthropology, sociology, gender studies, and even English to some extent—that are most prone to issuing trigger warnings are the disciplines that are supposed to be helping society solve seemingly intractable issues. So, what exactly are free speech advocates calling for in criticizing trigger warnings? Ironic also is the fact that on many campuses, it is statistically unlikely that these topics are being addressed in a way that is insensitive to historically marginalized groups. (A 2016 Econ Journal Watch study finds liberal professors outnumber conservative ones 12 to 1.)  


In other words, it is highly unlikely that a gender studies professor would begin class starting, “Today we will be entertaining the idea that rape-culture is a myth, and the statistics gathered by on-campus gender groups are misleading and perhaps even statistically erroneous.” For the sake of argument, let us assume this is the opening statement of that day’s class; I would argue that students who have to dismiss themselves from class, barring exceedingly rare extenuating circumstances, cannot be considered rigorous students. If the following seems to betray partisanship, I hold the same opinion of students who would feel the need to transfer colleges if, say, a religious studies professor investigates Christ’s non-normative sexual identity. The above hypotheticals may seem to portray students as hyperbolically sensitive, but I urge one to read Jonathan Haidt’s piece, “How Trigger Warnings are Hurting Mental Health on Campus,” in The Atlantic for details on how some students call for trigger warnings before reading “The Great Gatsby.”


To be clear, orthodoxy within a discipline is not inherently invidious, nor is it unique to the three fields mentioned above. An average philosophy department in the United States seriously lacks eastern and Islamic philosophers, and secular universities may do well to offer more courses in the way of medieval scholasticism. This said, a trigger warning cannot sensically be issued in science courses, for the courses are designed to prepare students who will eventually be “hands-on” with the material. The humanities are nearly equally infertile grounds for trigger warnings, as one cannot be expected to diagnose, address, and potentially cure, social ills if one is unable to engage with the material. In this regard, trigger warnings are patently bad ideas. I would like to see stories of trigger warnings wane in popularity, but the cynic voice in me suggests that, all else equal, waning mention of trigger warnings may be evidence that tough issues have ceased to be critically discussed in certain classrooms at all; an even worse idea, indeed.

Photo courtesy of The Washington Post.

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