Rated R for Violence, Grisly Images, Some Nudity and Sexual Content. Photo contains graphic image; see story below for details. Viewer Discretion is Advised.
The concept has been around for a while, but in the case of trigger warnings, the terminology is relatively new and the intention a bit different. It’s a quick word of caution right at the beginning of movies, presentations, art shows and more about potentially harmful content.
So what’s different? What’s the conversation here?
Let’s start with a little history. The concept of trauma triggers has been around since the 1900s, but trigger warnings have only recently become a big conversation on college campuses–especially after the nation-wide call for investigation into cases of sexual violence on campus. According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, college-aged women are three times more likely to be victims of sexual assault.
Now that these numbers are finally coming to light, more and more campuses are calling for sensitivity on subjects that could potentially force survivors to relive one of the worst experiences of their lives.
I’m a student at GW, where this conversation is a big part of campus life. Students are asking professors to add trigger warnings to materials on their syllabi, and even to make some of the more potentially damaging materials (graphic videos, personal narratives, etc.) optional for students.
I hear about this on a daily basis, but when I went back home and mentioned it to my family, they had hardly heard of trigger warnings. The typical response for the unacquainted is something along the lines of “I’ve never heard of this. What’s the controversy?”
Here’s the controversy. There are many people who think trigger warnings are detrimental to campus life, and there are three big arguments against the implementation of trigger warnings into academia.
The first argument is that they don’t work. Richard J. McNally, author of “Hazards Ahead: The Problem with Trigger Warnings, According to the Research,” wrote: “According to a rigorous analysis by the Institute of Medicine, exposure therapy is the most efficacious treatment for PTSD, especially in civilians who have suffered trauma such as sexual assault.”
The second argument is that they make people too sensitive. In her article “In College and Hiding from Scary Ideas,” New York Times columnist Judith Shulevitz argued that college students need to broaden their field of vision while at school. Implementing things like trigger warnings is just shielding us from unfamiliar ideas and preventing us from seeing the world in different lights.
The final argument is that they take away freedom of speech. In an article by the Huffington Post, Middlebury Professor Laurie Essig argues that putting in trigger warnings infantilizes children. She is not alone. Many university professors believe that trigger warnings are erasing the opportunity for hard-hitting, progressive conversations about sensitive topics in classrooms.
So do these people have a point? It’s important to recognize that uncomfortable conversations will happen in life, and the absolute refusal to have these conversations is not what learning is about. But trigger warnings can be legitimately helpful to survivors who want to learn without feeling forced to relive their experiences in a college classroom.
Let’s rehash these arguments.
“They don’t work.” This depends on how trigger warnings are meant to “work.” The Institute of Medicine is not wrong; trigger warnings don’t offer a cure to trauma. But they’re not meant to be a cure. Students aren’t asking for a change to syllabi, merely a warning that allows survivors to take a deep breath and brace themselves before absorbing any potentially triggering material. How is that different from your average movie rating?
“They make people too sensitive.” But this is exactly what campuses are pushing for: a little more sensitivity and empathy towards survivors and the very real problem of sexual violence on campus. Justin Peligri in his GW Hatchet article “Why We Need Trigger Warnings,” explained that pushing for sensitivity is in fact the right thing to do for those one in five college-aged women who will experience a sexual assault on campus. But it goes beyond survivors; trigger warnings are meant to prepare other students who’d like to be in the right mindset when entering the classroom.
“They take away freedom of speech.” The idea that trigger warnings stifle new ideas and conversations in class implies that they act as a kind of censorship. Trigger warnings are warnings, not suppressors. They allow audiences to make an informed decision about what they read, watch and listen to. When people warn their audiences about the contents of their published material, everyone can freely choose their level of engagement in the media. Isn’t that the opposite of censorship?
Trigger warning advocates on campuses are accused of everything from hypersensitivity to self-infantilizing. Students ask for advanced notice on emotionally charged subjects discussed in class and get compared to children covering their ears and yelling, “La la la! I’m not listening!” When students ask for a warning, people automatically assume that means they don’t want to hear about the sensitive topic.
But that’s what college is for: discussing sensitive topics. What’s the harm in knowing about it beforehand?