Freedom of Speech: In Defense of Trigger Warnings

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Anyone who spends time on the internet is no doubt familiar with the concept of trigger warnings: notices of sensitive or disturbing material in writing, film or other media. Anyone who spends time in the academic and social justice arenas of the internet is no doubt also familiar with the controversy beginning to surround that concept.

In the past two weeks, two articles concerning the use of trigger warnings on college campuses have been brought to my attention. ‘The Coddling of the American Mind,’ written by Greg Lukianoff, the president and CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, and Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist and NYU professor, and published in this month’s issue of The Atlantic, utterly condemns any use of trigger warnings as a contributing factor in the mental health crisis on college campuses, saying it promotes distorted, emotional thinking and prevents students from engaging with reality.

In response to this article, New Republic magazine published ‘The Trigger Warning Myth,’ which offers a moderated but confident defense of trigger warnings as a useful tool when used judiciously by individual professors. In it, Aaron Hanlon, a professor of English at Colby College, points out what he believes to be a mistake in Lukianoff and Haidt’s understanding of trigger warnings. They see trigger warnings as a form of censorship; Hanlon says almost the exact opposite. Trigger warnings, he claims, are only necessary because of free speech. If a professor were not going to teach sensitive or controversial material, he would not bother warning his students.

It should go without saying that in the academic arena, students and faculty alike ought to be prepared to encounter controversial and sensitive subject matter. For while activism is increasingly becoming a part of campus culture, college will always be, primarily, the realm of ideas, and in a democracy, ideas are not restricted. An American history professor cannot stop teaching about slavery and Jim Crow simply because institutionalized racism is offensive. A law professor cannot stop lecturing on rape law just because rape is deeply disturbing.

What a professor can do is issue warnings. Most of the professors I have encountered do so. They say, “Just a heads up, we’ll be reading a fairly graphic piece for class next week,” or “The language might be a little shocking, but here’s why we’re going to read it.” And there is nothing wrong with that. Lukianoff and Haidt claim that these warnings aid both malcontents who like creating problems and people with legitimate trauma or anxieties in avoiding reality and spreading their misconceptions to the general populace, but Hanlon makes—not without some humor—the point that a warning about sensitive material will often intrigue rather than turn away. And if it does turn them away, then that is a problem either of individual intellectual laziness or personal troubles, not a broader issue of censorship or emotional fragility.

And therein, I believe, lies the problem: that those who absolutely condemn trigger warnings are making too broad an issue of it. Lukianoff and Haidt use big psychological terms like “catastrophizing,” “magnification,” and “negative filtering,” but if these are problems, Hanlon says, then they cannot stem from so small a thing as trigger warnings. Trigger warnings, if used properly, are case-specific tools implemented at the instructor’s discretion. They cannot be codified into a set of rules simply because they come from courtesy and common sense, which are always determined by circumstance. You cannot legislate common sense, nor can you routinely, institutionally punish the lack of it.

Hence trigger warnings can never be required by the rules of any institution, but neither should they be discouraged, as Lukianoff and Haidt suggest they be. They are courtesies shown by professors aware of their students’ struggles and sensitivities, nothing more. Certainly they can be abused, but if they are, that is not the fault of the warnings themselves. People should not be discouraged from showing consideration to others just because some may take advantage of it. 

Some may claim that trigger warnings come at an intellectual detriment to our college students, and some may claim that they ought to be universally required, but both sides ought to consider the moral price paid by a society that actively condemns common sense and individual discretion. There is, as always, a middle ground, and it is in the hands of individual professors and students. There is a reason why thoughtlessness cannot be illegal, and it is the same reason why courtesy cannot be required by law. That is what it means to live in a democracy.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: VICTORIA NELSON

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As of summer 2015, I’m a rising junior at the University of Dallas in Irving, TX. I’m studying Philosophy, with an eye on a possible double major with English. I’m not sure what exactly I want to do with that yet, but I know I want to change the world, so I write a lot and talk even more. I have a lot of ideas that I’m excited to share with people. I try to be a writer, and I fancy myself a philosopher, but mostly I’m just a lover of life.

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