Author: Rachel Cohn
On college campuses across the nation, students and faculty alike have locked horns over whether or not to include trigger warnings in classroom syllabi. While trigger warnings remain optional at Occidental, some colleges like UC Santa Barbara and Oberlin College recently began the process of adopting campus-wide policies that require professors to alert students of potentially disturbing content by using labels like “graphic violence,” “sexual assault” and “suicide” in class and on lists of required coursework.
Opponents, including President Obama and the authors Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt of a recent viral Atlantic Monthly article, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” have accused professors who adopt these types of policies of trying to protect students from different or unsettling views. While these individuals are right to have reservations about how trigger warnings are applied, they are wrong to equate trigger warnings with censorship.
Trigger warnings are problematic, not because they prevent engagement with difficult subject matter, but because they create a hierarchical ordering of trauma and attempt to address a wide range of personal experiences through a one-size-fits-all policy. In other words, trigger warnings reject what we already know about trauma: that everyone experiences and thus internalizes it in their own way.
There is a critical distinction to be made between the use of a trigger warning to allow students to mentally prepare for engaging with upsetting material and the use of a trigger warning to exempt students from coursework that may be unsettling because of personal circumstances. In 2014, Oberlin College released a statement online urging professors to remove triggering material that did not directly contribute to the goals of a course. Although the statement has since been deleted, it is evidence of the way trigger warnings can be used to justify skipping assignments or particular lectures.
The latter is not just absurd, but incredibly dangerous. Students are overwhelmed by all sorts of anxieties — not just those that stem from racism, sexism or classism, but also the equalizing fears that we all encounter, like how to evaluate success or what to do post-graduation. If we allow students to skip over all material that upset or provoked us, we wouldn’t be able to read Junot Diaz’s comedic fiction “This is How You Lose Her” as some have argued that the book promotes sexism.
Even a policy that enforces trigger warnings without offering exemptions from course work or paving the way for censorship is dangerous to student life. As with all labels, the use of trigger warnings demarcates lines of exclusion, in this instance between material that is traumatic and material that is not. In other words, trigger warnings for things like rape or incest tell students who have experienced these acts and feel deeply distressed by them that their emotional response is valid and that professors care about their emotional well-being. However, for individuals whose lived experiences are not addressed in trigger warnings, their emotional response is dismissed, implying that they have not encountered enough trauma to warrant a teacher’s cautionary message.
Some might argue that the solution to this problem is simply to label all material triggering. The feminist blog movement, which is often credited with popularizing the use of trigger warnings in online spaces, already encourages labeling depictions as disparate as kidnapping, eating disorders, animal abuse and abortion.
However, it is impossible to predict what types of material will be triggering for all students in a class, given our many different backgrounds and the varying amounts of stress and anxiety we derive from each experience. Moreover, it is often not the direct discussion of an incident itself, but a particular sensory detail like a song or a strong scent that conjures up a painful memory. These are largely unforeseeable and thus impossible to label in their entirety.
Even for students whose experiences are validated through trigger warnings, the labels do not necessarily serve their interests. It’s helpful to consider what a “sexual assault” trigger warning might imply on our own college campus. At Occidental, many survivors of sexual assault have been the ones spearheading movements for change, leading educational programs in the community, calling the most attention to injustice and mobilizing mass support to demand institutional reform to existing policy. To imply that the very students who engage with this issue in such an intimate way through their advocacy need to mentally prepare themselves for reading about sexual assault in a class isn’t just non-nonsensical, it’s insulting. In this way, trigger warnings perpetuate the stereotype that all who have experienced trauma are fragile and vulnerable.
If professors want to help students on campus who have suffered terrible traumas, they should be encouraging engagement and joining movements for systemic change. We need active forms of assistance — greater access to counseling, more transparency in school policies, improved diversity in our staff and faculty — not a couple of phrases interspersed among our coursework.
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