Trigger Warnings: The Myth Versus the Reality

By Electra Arnade

After Mark Burstein’s Convocation “For Mature Audiences Only” in September, the issue of Lawrence being “too politically correct” or not has been a hot-button topic on campus. Many articles have come out arguing for and against the concept of the “oversensitive college student” and it is a current issue that continues to warrant discussion throughout this school year. The concept of the trigger warning is something that very often gets attacked and I believe these attacks are often unwarranted.

A trigger warning is a term often thrown around to suggest that college students nowadays are too darn sensitive to topics that are difficult and upsetting. However, a trigger warning is defined by Google as “a statement at the start of a piece of writing, video, etc., alerting the reader or viewer to the fact that it contains potentially distressing material (often used to introduce a description of such content.)” For example, a trigger warning was issued before the “Fun Home” Freshman Studies lecture, which discussed issues such as homophobia and suicide, which might be a personal subject to some.

Looking at the definition, it becomes clear that trigger warnings are not about censorship. Instead, they are more comparable to a rating scale at a movie theatre. When people see R-rated movies, they know what they are getting into. Perhaps another comparison is to a warning label on cookies containing tree nuts. If someone with a nut allergy bites into a cookie that is not labeled, nobody tells them not to be upset about it. It is cautionary.

What administrators or teachers are concerned about is the possibility of students using trigger warnings to opt-out of course material that might be upsetting and instead ask for material that does not contain potential triggers. Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt write for The Atlantic in “The Coddling of the American Mind,“ “when students come to expect trigger warnings for any material that makes them uncomfortable, the easiest way for faculty to stay out of trouble is to avoid material that might upset the most sensitive student in the class.” They are worried students will use it as an excuse to slack off or shut out dissenting ideas or even further administrative change to curriculum. If that were so, there would be reason to grumble.

In my personal classroom experience as a college student, I have dealt with many difficult ideas in the classroom that involve sensitive topics. The gradual incorporation of trigger warnings has not done much except acknowledge the teachers’ willingness to understand different needs that students may have. I have not seen anyone advocating changing course material. This understanding is a misrepresentation of what college students really want to accomplish by implementing trigger warnings.

In the context of people who struggle with anxiety disorders and Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, for whom trigger warnings are intended for, it gives them autonomy in terms of confronting material that might cause anxiety attacks or flashbacks. In exposure therapy, which is a type of treatment for phobias, the feared stimuli are exposed to the person gradually through consent. Trigger warnings are a way of asking people for consent before seeing images that have the potential to cause them harm.

I believe that the “oversensitive college student” stereotype is just that—a stereotype used to reduce and demean what college students are actually looking for when participating in student activism. It can provide a barrier for anyone who works in a college from listening to students, especially those with mental illness who need accommodation. We are in a time where we are more aware of mental health issues than ever. Perhaps it is just representative of our growth as a society and our ability to acknowledge the needs of many.

The stereotype also dismisses the need for legitimate student-driven movements by portraying students as too emotional or sensitive to have their own understanding of how material is handled and silences student voices that might have a lot to say. Trigger warnings are only part of a conversation that is beginning between students and the world.

People are scared of students shutting out opposing ideas while also shutting down what many college students believe in. Our nation should be listening to college students instead of condemning them. I believe Mark Burstein would agree. In his convocation, although he was cautious on the use of trigger warnings, he asked for a facilitation of conversation between students and teachers. This is the conversation. College students have reason to ask for accommodation and sensitivity for their peers so they can better their education and not censor it.