Trigger Warnings enable open conversation, free speech

Credit: Anna Boyle/ Credit: Anna Boyle/
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My younger sister has a tree nut allergy. For her, that means that eating cashews or almonds or pistachios does horrible things to her body. She throws up. She breaks out in hives. She goes into anaphylactic shock.

No one has ever accused her of faking her allergy to get out of eating foods she doesn’t like. No one has ever told her not to eat in a restaurant if she has to avoid certain items on the menu. No one has tried to coerce her into gradually exposing herself to the allergens she reacts to — while such treatment does work in many cases, it’s obvious that only doctors are qualified to make that call. No one claims that warnings placed on food labels to protect her limit what other people can consume.

Yet if we apply this scenario to mental health rather than physical health, we find ourselves in the middle of a vicious debate about trigger warnings.

This discussion has become particularly prominent across college campuses recently as students and instructors struggle to foster an academic environment that is open as well as safe for all members of the community.

The University of Chicago started off the school year by informing new students that trigger warnings and other notices of sensitive material would not be used on the campus. The school believes that sheltering students from discomfort can be harmful in the long run, and cited a commitment to free speech and a belief in the importance of debate as their primary reasoning for this decision.

“Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings,’” Jay Ellison, the Dean of Students, stated in a letter to incoming freshmen. He continued, saying, “We do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”

In response, over 150 faculty members of the university published a letter of their own, also addressed to the students. This letter, though it did not mention trigger warnings directly, did make a point to state that requests for such notices are often closely linked to “ongoing issues of bias, intolerance, and trauma that affect our intellectual exchanges.”

“To start a conversation by declaring that such requests are not worth making is an affront to the basic principles of liberal education and participatory democracy,” the faculty claimed. They encouraged students to speak out about their rights in order to create a space where they are best able to learn.

This thinking seems to fall in line with that of many other colleges throughout the country, including the University of California, Santa Barbara and Oberlin College, that have actually asked professors to include trigger warnings in their syllabi in order to alert students to uncomfortable material.

So are trigger warnings potentially dangerous to free speech, or is the University of Chicago making a misinformed decision that is threatening the mental health and comfort of their students? In reality, it may be a little of both.

It is unfortunate, but hard to deny that our culture’s use of the term “trigger warning” as a whole has spiraled out of control recently. In an opinion piece for The Guardian, Jill Filipovic identifies a danger in what she calls a “general trigger warning” — that, in listing every topic in a book or film that students may find uncomfortable, professors risk coloring reactions to the material as well as highlighting certain aspects as more impactful, just because they could be traumatic.

Even worse is when professors simply remove mention of the triggering material. Instead of merely warning students so that they can prepare themselves, this reaction leans more toward protective censorship, which brings the flow and development of ideas to a halt.Some particularly devious students may even view the confusion surrounding the application of trigger warnings as a convenient way to get excused from an assignment without a negative effect on their grade.

But stopping the misuse of the term “trigger warning” and holding students accountable for their work is drastically different from failing to acknowledge the benefits that advanced notice of difficult topics may have for students who have recently suffered trauma. Because that is what trigger warnings were initially intended to do: to alert students that they will be faced with difficult material, so that they can mentally prepare themselves and arrive in control of the situation and ready to contribute. They don’t help you avoid something you don’t like. They don’t censor the speech of others. They protect people from discomfort, panic attacks, and worse reactions that come from being unprepared to face something that threatens their mental health.

That’s not to say that the University of Chicago doesn’t care about their students’ mental health. In all likelihood, the school’s understanding of the purpose of trigger warnings has been colored by the many inflated or just plain wrong applications that seem to pervade public discussion of late.

But with a narrower definition in mind, there are people with genuine needs that must be respected, and the University of Chicago has done them a disservice by shutting down discussions about accommodations.

The simple truth is that trigger warnings are ultimately empowering to people who, for one reason or another, might suffer if taken off guard by a topic. The advance warning can help to prevent panic attacks, and can also allow students to speak to therapists or friends about the best way to handle the lesson. Instructors can even offer alternative readings or viewings for course material that involves a lot of sexual violence or other graphic material.

There are those who claim that people who might need trigger warnings don’t belong in college. “Real life doesn’t have trigger warnings,” some may say, “Students shouldn’t get away with being coddled,” but in real life, it’s actually relatively easy to avoid subjects that make you uneasy. If you’re terrified of jump scares, your friends probably won’t invite you on a trip to a haunted house. If the sight of blood makes you queasy, you can take comfort in the fact that movies and video games must have warnings that alert consumers to violent content.

College, on the other hand, is for many students a chance to push at boundaries, to take on difficult subjects and learn more about the world than you would be exposed to in your everyday life. With the proper application of trigger warnings, it should make conversations accessible for everyone who might have valuable insight. If trigger warnings are used to warn, not to censor, then all students will feel in control of course material, and campuses can remain both open to discussions and safe for their students.