By: Avi Strauss  | 

Trigger Warnings: Insulating Thought and Opinion from Challenges

[Trigger Warning: Substantive Content Ahead]

If you were confused by the opening to this article, consider yourself lucky to have avoided the phenomenon of “trauma triggers” and “content notes” up until now. Trust me, you do not want these coming to a place near you.

Trigger warnings are the new, hip, cool way to demonstrate you are caring and sensitive.  Originally conceived and used on Feminist blogs and websites to warn rape victims of upcoming discussion of rape, they enable readers and viewers to censor what information they have to encounter or learn about. The intention is to prevent some traumatic response to material that reminds the reader of a past distressing experience. Should a student feel the content may upset their sensibilities or rubs them the wrong way, they can exercise their right against being made to feel uncomfortable and skip class or discharge their responsibility towards certain course material.

At face value, this seems to be a reasoned and carefully considered mechanism for the avoidance of unnecessary emotional grief and distress. If we have the opportunity to minimize and reduce the anguish victims of trauma must suffer, why would we not? However, while that may have been the original intent of the triggers, they have since been bastardized into a tool to avoid any and all opinion, information or content deemed potentially upsetting to a person’s sensibilities. Rather than serving as a means to protect the few students that may seriously require screening of their reading material, the expanded use of trigger warnings is slowly encouraging students to avoid opinions that they find unfavorable.

In some places on the internet, “trigger warnings” have become expected and those who refrain from suing them deemed discourteous and disrespectful. Critics of the warnings have even been called “certifiable a**h***s” among other insults. As a BuzzFeed article reported, trigger warnings have morphed from isolated alerts preceding graphic content into a phenomenon all its own.

On some college campuses, syllabi carry warnings for terrorism, gun violence, drones, discussion of racism, sexism, pregnancy, obesity, needles, medical procedures and spiders, among other things. Effectively this means that students can shield themselves from things they suspect they will be distressing, at all times, which has translated into the students avoiding ideas that challenge their own. Think abortion is a universal right reserved for all women until the day of birth? Never mind ever being challenged on that point. Disagree with the philosophical theories of Plato, Rousseau, Burke or Marx? Take half the semester of your basic philosophy course off. Think Israel is objectively an “apartheid state” which must be punished, sanctioned and stripped of legitimacy? Feel free to not read or watch anything in your Middle Eastern politics course that may say otherwise. And all these warnings are all flown under the flag of “sensitivity,”; better that you do not feel uncomfortable than actually learn something new that can enhance your overall approach to a topic.

[Content Note: Reasoned Analysis Advocating Open Debate Below]

Now I think most people can appreciate the legitimate concern of further victimizing the already maltreated. However, life’s vast and complex information cannot simply be divided and compartmentalized, specially designed to please and suit each person. Content warnings can not wash away the indignities of the past, the controversies of the present or the debates of the future. History must be studied. Opinions must be challenged. Emotions must be stirred.

In order to be a well educated and informed modern population, we need to be able to confront all ideas, whether easy to understand or hard to swallow. Isolation and avoidance of challenging facts and competing ideas can only serve to further polarize our already polarized political and social discourse. Can we really debate how to deal with the Islamic State if we cannot even read about the atrocities they commit? Would it be possible to have an honest conversation about race in America without addressing violent histories and the socially complex present? Perhaps those who who traumatic ties to these topics can be reasonably excused from reading or viewing this material, but broad avoidance and evasion from divisive, contentious or graphic content will only have a negative impact on civil and intellectual discourse.

Nowhere is this more important than in the college setting where most of these warnings are being instituted. Of all the stops in life, college is meant to be the most eye-opening, the most enlightening, the most rigorous intellectually. But all these things pre-suppose challenge. They require material to contest false premises and empty arguments. Colleges are meant to just test students on targeted material, but to test their thought and logical processes and sharpen them. Trigger warnings are doing just the opposite.

Perhaps in limited circumstances they would be desirable, shielding abuse victims or severely depressed persons from the torment of reliving past indignities and traumatic experience. But their expansion into larger and more comprehensive spheres is entirely troublesome. For instance, when a woman in an online forum complained of an unromantic engagement and certain bloggers told her to “get over it”, others responded that they were “triggering her” and should cease and desist. In another case, an openly homosexual woman used a trigger warning to introduce the idea of her using using the male’s bathroom. In yet another, a professor requested their students not use the world “violate” under the same premise. Clearly, the idea of “triggering” has been corrupted far beyond its original purpose to silence and ignore dissenting opinions.

Mature adults must be able to confront the injustice, violence and controversy in the world with all-inclusive understanding. No side in an argument can be permitted the privilege of hiding from opposing views. And colleges are supposed to be the fertile soil for students to develop the necessary comprehension skills to do just that. Blissful ignorance does a disservice to both the ignorant and those with whom they are supposed equals and it severely inhibits our ability to face a scary, chilling world.

[Heads-up: Conclusion Approaching]

Colleges reputations for rigor and thoroughness will necessarily be watered down by continued use of these warnings and students who cannot read a passage about slavery or gun violence or income inequality or pregnancy cannot possibly be expected to mature socially or intellectually. The world is full of contested topics, controversial ideas and discomforting events, but pretending they do not exist will not help solve with them. Only minds refined by a comprehensive understanding and approach will be able to combat them and ultimately work to improve the situations others deem too traumatic to even acknowledge exist.