Lately the growing presence of trigger warnings on college campuses has come under fire in the news. Many fear that these precautionary notices impede intellectual growth and restrict academic freedom, and a great deal of criticism of their use has made its way into mainstream media.
The trigger warning grew out of a practice developed to help people with PTSD avoid added anxiety and stress.
They are intended to prevent those who have suffered trauma from experiencing unwanted flashbacks, emotional breakdown or other unpleasant effects pertaining to the event or events.
They have long been implemented on self-help and feminist websites in order to help readers avoid or appropriately prepare themselves for content that may evoke painful emotional responses.
Trigger warnings have successfully made online forums into safer spaces. The adoption of the practice in college courses ensures that classrooms, too, are safe for people of all backgrounds and experiences.
Opponents of their use on college campuses argue that “real life” does not include trigger warnings, claiming that schools are doing students a disservice by failing to prepare them for the future. Professors who include trigger warnings on their syllabi are accused of “coddling” students. Those who fear that these added precautions are a sign of weakness, however, grossly overlook the underlying factors of mental and emotional trauma and its aftermath.
Criticism of trigger warnings is often based on the idea that college is a time for intellectual growth and emotional development, and that in order for this to happen, students must be challenged. The very same reasoning, however, can be employed to justify their use.
Advance notice allows students who have suffered trauma to move forward in a safe environment, instead of emotionally moving backward. It is difficult for such students to productively engage in course material when they are in a state of emotional or mental distress that temporarily overcomes rationality.
Trigger warnings do not enable students to skip readings and assignments–instead, warnings allow studentsto properly prepare for course material.
Students with high sensitivity to particular topics are not skimping on class preparation; on the contrary, they most likely expend more time and energy working through material that is singularly difficult for them than the average student.
When students are presented with appropriate warnings as professors see fit, they can actively manage their anxiety both before and during the potentially triggering experience. In contradiction to the argument that opponents often present, they allow for more, not less, engagement in the class. Of course, professors cannot foresee every instance of potentially triggering material. There will be times when even the most cautious professors encounter students who are triggered by course readings and assignments.
Critics often point to the inherent unpredictability of triggers as a reason not to issue a warning at all. The majority of instances that are likely to cause severe emotional distress, however, are easy to predict, and there is no reason to force students to enter into them blindly.
Some professors have reported using a slightly different approach. At the beginning of the course, they tell students to inform them of special issues that could infringe on their ability to learn while remaining mentally healthy. This method has more or less the same effect.
However, while it potentially facilitates a conversation between professors and students about specific issues, it is unlikely that all students who may be affected by material will be comfortable sharing their experiences, and therefore this strategy may not reach its target audience.
Despite the objections of skeptics, academic freedom is not in danger as a result of the recent growth in the use of trigger warnings.
They do not restrict the type of information that professors can share with their students, nor the ways in which they choose to convey it. Trigger warnings can be employed without restricting the free exchange of ideas on college campuses. Most schools leave the circumstances and extent of their use to each professor’s discretion. The end goal is not to limit education, but to provide a safe atmosphere in which it can take place.
Such warnings are not intended to prevent people from being offended. Material that is merely offensive to certain political or religious outlooks does not justify a warning. Cautionary notices should be aimed at preventing a state of panic, not a state of anger.
Providing advance notice of sensitive material in no way encroaches on the learning of others. Most can ignore them without a second thought, while those at whom they are aimed to warn benefit immensely.
In fact, fellow students of trauma victims can also gain from them: the reminder that some classmates have suffered from the experiences that most only read about can sensitize the rest of the students to the emotions and needs of others.
Some critics have protested that there is a growing “hypersensitivity to harm,” particularly in colleges and universities, and that trigger warnings are simply the newest form of this development.
It is hard to understand how anyone could view a greater understanding and acceptance of human emotion as a negative change; perhaps an increase in sensitization would be accompanied by a decrease in the events that cause anxiety and mental health instability in the first place.
Regardless, trigger warnings would more accurately be characterized as indicators of our growing tolerance and understanding, not increased vulnerability.
Although trigger warnings have come up against significant criticism lately, their use does more good than harm. Ideally, they intend to facilitate a safe setting for mental and emotional development, without restricting intellectual freedom.