This is a cross-post from The Geeky Press, a writing collective I run.
“Students with unusually intense responses to academic cues should be referred to student-health services, where they can be evaluated and receive evidence-based treatments so that they can participate fully in the life of the university.” — Sarah Roff, fourth-year resident in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington Medical Center, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Trigger warnings as they are being used in higher education and the humanities should be put back on the shelf, chalked up a failed experiment in empathy.Before I unpack that argument, let me briefly summarize the trigger warning kerfluffle for those who aren’t knee-deep in the humanities culture.
The idea of a trigger warning this: If you are introducing a topic that might include material likely to cause someone to experience a trauma, you are ethically required to include a warning so that people won’t experience or re-live a trauma.
The idea gained popularity on feminist blogs, where authors would let readers know if they were writing about a topics such as rape or sexual violence. It was, by and large, a courtesy that individuals who were so inclined would give their readers.
On the surface, this idea of warning people about potentially disturbing content feltright. I know very few people who want to be surprised by a violent rape scene in a movie, or a gory death in a television program, or a discussion about debilitating addiction.
The problem came when thefeelingthat came from the courtesy of individuals became dogma accepted as a scientific truth. Todaya growing number of voices, including several student bodies, are pushing for universities to include trigger warnings in all course material.
Professors, writers, and other artists are rightfully concerned about the impact of trigger warnings on academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas. However, there’s a bigger problem: trigger warnings don’t work.
“I am also skeptical that labeling sensitive material with trigger warnings will prevent distress,” Roff wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education. “The scientific literature about trauma teaches us that it seeps into peoples lives by networks of association.”
Understanding the Trigger Warning Argument, or My Addiction to Triggers
Before I go forward it’s important to take a moment to clarify that while I don’t think trigger warnings are being used in a scientifically sound way, I do believe that triggers exist.