A debate on the advisability of having trigger warnings in college courses began with this New Republic article.
When reading an article on some new phenomenon, fashion or fad, it's important to ask the kind of question people these days tend not to ask about lots of things: How common are these types of trigger warnings in colleges?*
They are probably quite rare, and mostly crop up by students asking for them (and perhaps not getting them), not by most colleges requiring them. The rarity matters if we are going to spend energy and effort on thinking about the issues. Indeed, one of my pet frustrations, these days, is people thinking that one nasty tweet, say, obviously and unavoidably means that the tweet is a representative of a giant movement. It may be but most likely we are always going to have a few nasty tweets, even after the world is made into a paradise.
Given that warning, the debate is worth following for some of the issues it brings up. Jill Filipovich writes about the feminism-linked part of trigger warnings by noting that they were at first used fairly narrowly on some feminists sites, and mostly in the context of sexual violence:
In the early days of feminist blogging, trigger warnings were generally about sexual assault, and posted with the understanding that lots of women are sexual assault survivors, lots of women read feminist blogs, and graphic descriptions of rape might lead to panic attacks or other reactions that will really ruin someone's day. Easy enough to give readers a little heads up – a trigger warning – so that they can decide to avoid that material if they know that discussion of rape triggers debilitating reactions.
She then gives examples of the proliferation of trigger warnings to a much wider class of topics, and explains the difficulty of using trigger warnings if they are intended to protect those suffering from PTSD:
It is true that everything on the above list might trigger a PTSD response in someone. The trouble with PTSD, though, is that its triggers are often unpredictable and individually specific – a certain smell, a particular song, being touched in that one way. It's impossible to account for all of them, because triggers are by their nature not particularly rational or universally foreseeable. Some are more common than others, though, which is why it seems reasonable enough for explicitly feminist spaces to include trigger warnings for things like assault and eating disorders.
College, though, is different. It is not a feminist blog. It is not a social justice Tumblr.
Tressie McMillan Cottom addresses trigger warnings in the context of college culture:
But, I’m not sure that’s at all the kind of deliberation universities are doing with their trigger warning policies. Call me cynical, but the “student-customer” movement is the soft power arm of the neo-liberal corporatization of higher education. No one should ever be uncomfortable because students do not pay to feel things like confusion or anger. That sounds very rational until we consider how the student-customer model doesn’t silence power so much as it stifles any discourse about how power acts on people.
Melissa McEwan notes that something akin to trigger warnings already exists in the wider society:
Film rating systems, which include warnings about certain types of content, including sexual and violent content, have existed for years. Although they are not typically broadcast at the beginning of a screening, with the exception of cable broadcasts where that has been standard practice for some time, viewers can easily access in trailers, reviews, and listings on sites like IMDb notes about the content of a film before viewing it. Newspapers, too, frequently offer notes about content at the top of in-depth investigative pieces about systemic abuse or violent crime, especially when there are graphic descriptions within the story. These sorts of habits already exist in some measure, which makes the alarmism about trigger warnings misplaced, at best.
This topic is difficult, even if we stick to the university context the New Republic article creates, because of the clashes of underlying values: fairness, inclusion, sensitivity to those who suffer from PTSD on the one side and the academic goals of debate, learning and challenging existing beliefs on the other side. Then there are these questions: What spaces should be (or can be) safe spaces (and for whom), how appending trigger warnings might affect the way students approach a topic, how not appending them might also affect the way the topic ends up being treated, and, how colleges would decide which phenomena deserve warnings and which do not, and finally, the whole question of the relationship between feminism and trigger warnings:
Then, simply, there is the fact that the universe does not treat its members as if they come hand-delivered in a box clearly marked "fragile". The world can be a desperately ugly place, especially for women. That feminist blogs try to carve out a little section of the world that is a teeny bit safer for their readers is a credit to many of those spaces. Colleges, though, are not intellectual or emotional safe zones. Nor should they be.
Trauma survivors need tools to manage their triggers and cope with every day life. Universities absolutely should prioritize their needs – by making sure that mental health care is adequately funded, widely available and destigmatized.
But they do students no favors by pretending that every piece of potentially upsetting, triggering or even emotionally devastating content comes with a warning sign.
But the fact is that the medical industry is not very good at treating PTSD. If it were, we wouldn't need to have this discussion, because all sufferers would have been quickly cured.
*From the article:
On college campuses across the country, a growing number of students are demanding trigger warnings on class content. Many instructors are obliging with alerts in handouts and before presentations, even emailing notes of caution ahead of class. At Scripps College, lecturers give warnings before presenting a core curriculum class, the “Histories of the Present: Violence," although some have questioned the value of such alerts when students are still required to attend class. Oberlin College has published an official document on triggers, advising faculty members to "be aware of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression," to remove triggering material when it doesn't "directly" contribute to learning goals and "strongly consider" developing a policy to make "triggering material" optional. Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, it states, is a novel that may "trigger readers who have experienced racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide and more." Warnings have been proposed even for books long considered suitable material for high-schoolers: Last month, a Rutgers University sophomore suggested that an alert for F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby say, "TW: suicide, domestic abuse and graphic violence."Bolds are mine.
What began as a way of moderating Internet forums for the vulnerable and mentally ill now threatens to define public discussion both online and off. The trigger warning signals not only the growing precautionary approach to words and ideas in the university, but a wider cultural hypersensitivity to harm and a paranoia about giving offense. And yet, for all the debate about the warnings on campuses and on the Internet, few are grappling with the ramifications for society as a whole.
Given the vast size of the college industry, these examples don't tell us how common trigger warnings in colleges are. If the list given here is the total of all such warnings, any problems are pretty much nonexistent.