The Trouble with Trigger Warnings

After 3 years, debates about PC culture show no sign of abatement

By: Thomas Rose, Staff Writer

The debate over trigger warnings doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. 2013 was dubbed by some “the year of the trigger warning” when student officials at UC Santa Barbara asked for a mandate that professors teaching content which “may trigger the onset of symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder” include warnings of this content and allow students to forego those classes. Since then, the media has been involved in a vicious back-and-forth over a seemingly simple subject. Various outlets have decried the “wussification” of 21st century society, while others have applauded educators for accommodating their students’ mental health. Do trigger warnings, in fact, work? Are we, as students, obligated to encounter traumatic memories in pursuit of an education?

What exactly is a trigger warning, anyways? In an August 2016 article for The Huffington Post, Lindsay Holmes defines them as “potentially life-saving” advisories of content which may prompt pre-existing mental health conditions in those consuming it. Without these warnings, argues Holmes, victims of traumas such as sexual assault, violence, and hate crimes can be forced to expose themselves to “hateful and re-traumatizing rhetoric”. This experience can not only impede on the on a student’s academic ability, but can also have lasting mental health effects, making the road to recovery that much steeper.

In her article, “A Quick Lesson on What Trigger Warnings Actually Do”, Holmes chastises University of Chicago’s decision in releasing a welcome letter to students stating their official stance against trigger warnings and safe spaces. The University made headlines this summer when, citing a “commitment to academic freedom”, they wrote that they condone neither the use of these warnings, nor the creation of so-called “safe spaces” – havens, the University says, from “ideas and perspectives at odds with [students’] own.” Holmes goes on to make vague references to “studies” and “research” that suggest the use of trigger warnings may be effective, while admitting enquiries into the subject are wanting.

Equally convincing as Holmes’ argument is a 2014 article from The Pacific Standard, which posits that trigger warnings might actually do more harm than good. This position, seemingly backed up by a 2008 study by the American Institute of Medicine in Washington, D.C., argues that avoiding potential triggers enforces trauma, and that confronting and learning to move past difficult memories is the most effective way to deal with PTSD. Besides, argue the writers of the Standard, less than 10% of trauma survivors develop PTSD anyways, and “making trauma central to one’s identity” is considerably more harmful to mental health overall.

And so it goes, as one pores over search results concerning this contentious issue – professors who refuse to use trigger warnings fearing censorship, professors who insist on using them for ethical reasons. Kate Manne, an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Cornell University, even argues for use of trigger warnings but not amnesty from potentially triggering lectures in a September 2015 editorial in The New York Times. It is interesting to note, however, that even those who insist that trigger warnings are essential say that the facts seem to contradict their position. As of 2016, unnamed studies cited in multiple articles suggest that trigger warnings are not in use by most professors, and students “aren’t exactly demanding them”.

The latest news comes mere days before the writing of this article, when lecturer Gabriel Moshanska, of the University College London’s Anthropology department, issued a trigger warning and offer of amnesty to students who might be disturbed by images of bones or discussions of warfare after active military duty in what he calls a proactive move towards students’ mental health. Chairman of the British organization Campaign for Real Education, Chris McGovern, called the action symptomatic of “an overprotective nanny state” – a feeling echoed by journalists such as Reason.com’s Robby Soave. Soave argues that those who are traumatized by digging up bones “probably shouldn’t be studying archaeology” – a stance which seems to hold a certain amount of logical weight.

So what, if anything, can we glean from this seemingly never-ending back and forth? I, for one, am admittedly a bit of an idealist. As someone who tries to be cognisant of the privilege afforded me by my gender and race, I still find it difficult to accept the idea of “safe space”, feeling instead the focus should be placed on making less unsafe spaces. Trigger warnings, however, leave me squarely on the fence – while I am equally convinced by arguments for and against them, I have yet to encounter any in my time at Lakehead’s Orillia campus. While I should frankly be surprised if I did, I certainly wouldn’t worry about the decline of academia.

After reading extensively on both sides, it seems as if nothing can be done to fully please either camp. Those against trigger warnings see too much concern as “molly-coddling”, and those in favour see not enough as a “cold dismissal” of mental health issues. With research still lacking, at this point all one can do is hold firm in their personal opinions and hope for resolution. Though at this point, resolution may undoubtedly leave someone feeling slighted.