To Warn or Not to Warn: On the Importance of Trigger Warnings



With a new school year just underway, it would seem remiss not to mention one of the most fiercely debated topics circulating around Facebook this past summer: trigger warnings. For any readers who do not know, trigger warnings are exactly what they sound like. They are advanced warnings offered to students by professors who are teaching controversial material which may trigger an extreme emotional response. If a professor was giving a lecture on rape laws as portrayed in the Torah/Old Testament, for example, or discussing child abuse or a novel about gang violence, he or she may choose to prepare students for the severity of the discussion before it actually begins.

The idea seems harmless enough. Did our professors not teach us in our speech classes that it is of the utmost importance to cater to our audiences? Part of that would be to preface potentially controversial material with a “hey, just to let you know what’s coming up next,” no? Apparently, however, not all agree. Some “experts” have recently exploded out of the woodwork claiming that trigger warnings do more harm than good. In their article “The Coddling of the American Mind,” Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt claim that trigger warnings offer students an out to avoid any kind of exposure to controversial topics, giving students the ultimate voice of authority in the classroom. Trigger warnings supposedly allow them to “hide” from things they do not wish to see or hear or read, thereby effectively causing everyone, including the professor, to “play nice” for the benefit of the few who just do not care to address these kinds of social issues.  Not only does this violate the academic freedoms guaranteed particularly to tenured professors, but Lukianoff and Haidt go one step further to claim that “[a]ccording to the most basic tenets of psychology, helping people with anxiety disorders avoid the things they fear is misguided.”  While this statement may indeed be true, these “experts” fail to recognize that trigger warnings are a valuable and revealing teaching strategy which can actually help students become more receptive to the material, proving that Lukianoff and Haidt are the ones who are, in this situation, misguided.

It is astonishing to me that people who do not have to live with a mental illness spout off great claims about how people who do live with these kinds of disorders should be “handled” in an academic setting. As a college student who is actually living with chronic Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), trigger warnings have been invaluable to me, not because they help me to avoid my triggers, but because they prepare me to face my triggers head-on. To offer a relevant analogy: Delving into controversial material without a trigger warning is like being forced into a fistfight with a blindfold on and your shoelaces tying your sneakers together; sure, your fists may be up, but how can you fight if you cannot see what is coming or even be able to move out of the way? Having a trigger warning, however, allows you to go in with your eyes wide open, fists up, and feet planted firmly on the ground. I liken facing triggers to a fight because, for someone living with a mental illness, facing triggers in everyday life is a constant battle, and it takes an enormous amount of energy and no shortage of positive coping strategies which may or may not prove helpful. Trigger warnings are not designed to help students avoid, but to help students prepare.

It is important for these so-called “experts” to realize that there are students like myself out there who have never used a trigger warning as an excuse to skip a class or to avoid certain assignments. These warnings help students like me to be able to process information that my brain would have otherwise flatly rejected. There have been times in classes when my professors have chosen not to give any warnings, and as a result, I have spent half of the class sitting in the back of the room shaking, panicking, and unable to speak or process any information because I have been blindsided by the sudden presence of a trigger. This is because, especially in the case of PTSD, it can be nearly if not fully impossible for me to control my emotional responses to certain events. This is a natural defense mechanism of the brain: when faced with a threatening situation, the brain can shut parts of itself down to protect itself from further traumatization. With a trigger warning, however, I can anticipate the presence of upsetting information, which gives me time to put into place defensive coping strategies which will allow me to participate without shutting down completely. Even if it means I have to excuse myself for two minutes to take a deep breath and collect my thoughts, I am still better equipped to handle the situation when I know for certain what is coming and can utilize preemptive coping mechanisms to make the discussion at least somewhat easier to process.
I believe that the debate which has emerged thus far amongst academics regarding trigger warnings is missing a crucial piece of the argument. That is, students who are actually affected by the presence of trigger warnings, or lack thereof, due to mental illness should have a voice somewhere in this debate. Of course there is always the possibility that some students will use the warnings as an excuse not to come to class or not to do an assignment, but that does not make the practice any less valuable to those who feel that they need the warning to prepare themselves adequately for controversial discussion. Trigger warnings are not about limiting exposure, but rather about creating a safe space for students with mental illnesses to discuss information they may not have otherwise been willing to tackle. These warnings act as a direct signal from the professor to his/her students, as if to say, “I see you; I acknowledge your struggle; and I will do everything in my power to make sure that this information is presented to you with respect and dignity so as not to compromise your safety or well-being in my classroom.” And as someone living with PTSD, I can say with confidence that this is all we can ever ask for.

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