If you've been on a college campus recently, you've heard talk about trigger warnings. This is the first in a series examining the controversial topic.
Above, UNC education professor Kathleen Brown talks about perceptions of “normal.” Photo from the News & Observer.
This is the first in a series of posts about trigger warnings on college campuses.
If you’ve been on a college campus recently, you’ve probably heard people talking about “trigger warnings.” We also often see the phrase pop up in political discussions, especially when we’re talking about free speech. And if you pay attention to higher education drama, you’ve seen the letter from the University of Chicago telling freshmen it doesn’t support them.
Before we can talk about these issues, we first have to know the definitions and information behind them. Here are five of the most commonly asked questions when talking about trigger warnings.
What is a trigger warning?
A trigger warning is a statement written or read out loud that states specific topics that will be addressed in an upcoming conversation. The purpose of a trigger warning is to warn participants that a topic is about to be discussed. Participants should prepare themselves to talk about it or hear about it, and if they can’t, they have the opportunity to leave the conversation. Not everyone who deals with the issue being discussed may feel the need to leave the room, but they should not feel like they will be ostracized if they do need to.
Trigger warnings date back to the 1980s, when post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was recognized by doctors as a diagnosable condition. Doctors realized that patients who suffered from PTSD could relive the event if they saw, heard or smelled something — a trigger. Trigger warnings also became popular on the internet as early as the late 1990s, when bloggers used it to brace readers for explicit content about topics like rape or eating disorders.
How does this relate to mental health?
Arguably, the only reason these terms exist are to protect mental health. A trigger warning’s goal isn’t to say, “Now we’re going to talk about issues that people have very strong opinions on, so everyone play nice and don’t be offensive.” Instead, it’s to say, “Now we’re going to talk about something that people may be struggling with in this room, so let’s keep that in mind before we speak.” For example, if a class is talking about sexual assault, you don’t know who in that room has been sexually assaulted. You don’t know if they’ve come forward or how far they are in the process of dealing with it. Talking about that issue in a way that attacks sexual assault victims could be triggering and cause reactions that could harm a person’s mental health.
How does this relate to free speech?
This is where the debate begins.
Some people feel that trigger warnings censor free speech. Greg Lukianoff, a constitutional lawyer, and Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist, wrote an article for The Atlantic where they say trigger warnings have created a culture of “vindictive protectiveness”: “The ultimate aim, it seems, is to turn campuses into ‘safe spaces’ where young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable.”
Others say that trigger warnings help to challenge students without causing them to relive their traumatic experiences. Kate Manne, an assistant professor at Cornell University, wrote an article for The New York Times defending her choice to use trigger warnings in her classes. She writes: “The thought behind trigger warnings isn’t just that these states [of PTSD] are unpleasant (although they certainly are). It’s that they temporarily render people unable to focus, regardless of their desire or determination to do so. Trigger warnings can work to prevent or counteract this.”
Up next: Author Morgan Howard talks to people on both sides of the trigger warning debate.2 comments