Triggered: the Case for, and Limits of, Trigger Warnings in Tertiary Education

First published in 2016 with The Ethics Centre

In the great debate about political correctness, ‘trigger warnings’ is one of the most fiercely contested concepts. By demanding that audiences be warned of content and ideas that may be traumatic, proponents aim to protect the vulnerable from harm and exclusion. Meanwhile detractors describe such measures as ‘coddling of the mind’ and prelude to censorship.

And when this debate takes place in an academic setting, both the stakes and the ferocity of the debate are greatly amplified – universities worldwide are now confronted by student groups demanding that lecturers provide warnings of any topic that could conceivably traumatize a student, including but not limited to misogyny, the death penalty, calories in a food item, terrorism, drunk driving, racism, gun violence, homophobia, slavery, victim-blaming, abuse, swearing, child abuse, self-injury, suicide, and “anything that might inspire intrusive thoughts in people with OCD”.

On the face of it this list is an absurd burden to place on educators, covering virtually every topic and making nearly any class a minefield of trauma, and censorship in service of that trauma. However given as many as 50 percent of students have some trauma history, and that warningings could help them proactively manage their condition, surely harm avoidance justifies the extra work for academic staff?

If only it were so simple. Universities are, after all, the great institutions where the professionals and leaders of tomorrow are shaped – control over the language used in such places in turn influences what ideas and ideals are conveyed. And as a result, the simple question of trigger warnings is seen by many as nothing less than a battle for the future of politics itself.

This is illustrated by the central criticism of trigger warnings – that it amounts to censorship of ‘politically incorrect’ ideas. But while the suppression of speech is indeed a factor in political correctness in general, it simply doesn’t apply to trigger warnings specifically. Such warnings are just that: warnings. Information provided to audiences to allow them to make informed decisions, precisely the same as content advice for movies, television and radio. Given how common and unobtrusive such warnings already are, not to mention the vast volume of offensive content currently allowed under such rules, the risk of outright censorship appears minor to non-existent.

However this raises the more insidious form of suppression mention above; the control of language. Already academics have encountered students who use trigger warnings as a basis to police their language, hijacking lectures for political purposes and campaigning to university administration to bring teachers into line. While not a factor of the warnings themselves, such behavior is clearly enabled by them and leads to significant disruption of the learning experience. Critics of trigger warnings point to this as the suppression of debate by students, and argue that this is too great a threat to free speech to be justified, despite the mental health benefits to some.

However such an assessment ignores a pretty fundamental reality of universities; namely that academics have vastly more power than students. Teachers can literally remove troublesome students from their classes, and thanks to highly subjective marking criteria, can fail their work if they choose, putting their degree and future career at risk. In this context students policing the language of their significantly more powerful teachers may be viewed as a form of accountability; ways for the powerless to keep check on the powerful. Sure it may indeed be disruptive and obnoxious, but trigger warnings in this context will, if anything, promote debate rather than suppress it by giving students a basis to criticize their teachers. After all, if academics don’t like it then they can simply boot the offending student out of the room – ironically an act of severe censorship that no one appears to be objecting to.

A more compelling extension of this argument is the risk of echo chambers. While trigger warnings are intended for those who will have a traumatic response to certain content, there is the risk that other students may use these warnings to avoid content they find offensive or disagree with. Such behavior would play strongly into confirmation bias, inhibiting learning and constructive debate as students avoid any information that does not match their established opinions. However it is doubtful that simple trigger warnings – short phrases listing topics to be discussed – would have any more effect than the subject titles or course descriptions, both of which provide significantly more detail and are also provided before the class.

However this assumes that the phrasing of the trigger warnings is neutral – simple provision of information rather than loaded language designed to bias perception of the class. ‘Discussions of weight’ would be a neutral warning for example, whereas ‘fat-shaming’ is not since it implies both that the class takes a negative attitude to obesity and that such an attitude is incorrect or bigoted. Such loaded language may be used as a de facto blacklist designed to keep students away from classes deemed politically incorrect – however given the aforementioned power disparity between student campaigners and academic staff, it is hard to imagine such a situation coming about.

There is one additional argument against trigger warnings that nicely summarises the debate: some commentators argue that trigger warnings may actually be harmful to student mental health as a key part of treatment for trauma is exposure to ‘triggering’ material. While intuitively appealing this argument essentially suggests that, rather than being given the information necessary to manage their own mental health, victims of trauma should instead be exposed to it by surprise in an academic setting where the staff are neither trained nor prepared to assist them through the process. And while this is an utterly foolish argument in itself, it does raise a good point in that trigger warnings must not substitute for treatment.

Any student who legitimately requires such warnings also requires psychological treatment – trigger warnings may assist them to manage their conditions, but this is not a license to accept or normalize those conditions. Sadly, mental healthcare continues to suffer from a cultural stigma in most communities and is difficult to access for many – trigger warnings can help bridge this gap, but ultimately focus should be placed on the source of this problem rather than its management.