Trigger warnings fail to divide along classic lines

I’m really fascinated lately by how the concept of “trigger warnings” has divided various North American communities–academics, political pundits, students, abuse victims, civil rights advocates, etc. Mostly I’m fascinated because the issue doesn’t divide cleanly along traditional battle lines like “left/right,” “progressive/conservative,” “male/female,” “individualist/collectivist,” etc.

There is now (2015, Fall) a compelling description of how this issue, arguably run amok, basically shut down one professor’s course. This piece is notable because it’s not the standard rant about hypersensitive students, written by people who have very little sociocultural vulnerability–it’s a narrative from a professor attempting to expose and celebrate minority sexuality in film, a prof who doubles as a rape crisis counselor, a professor (sadly, this seems relevant) who is female and an ethnic minority. Demands from a few (apparently highly fragile) students derailed what appears to have been a relevant, informative, iconoclastic, and edgy class. In other words, the things college should be about, in any “good liberal’s” fondest daydreams, were shut down by other liberals.

So it’s getting pretty interesting. It’s liberals against liberals up in here. Educators against educators. Students against students. I’ve got more pat phrases like that, but I’ll stop now.

Notably, not everyone is convinced that trigger warnings are destroying America. And my own experience, at a “public liberal arts” university in the Northeast/Midwest, has not included any “PC tyranny;” but, then again, I’m a middle-aged white male, so perhaps I’m not going to bear the brunt of this kind of thing even if it is happening around me. Some of my colleagues report increasing emotional fragility of students in regards to classroom content, but I have mainly noticed increased fragility in regards to reading between class periods and finding test questions based on lecture content that was not in the PowerPoint slides.

I was slightly surprised to find that AAUP has published an official statement about trigger warnings, calling them “infantilizing and anti-intellectual.” I don’t know that I’m comfortable going quite so far down that road, but I do recognize that the desire to protect the psychologically vulnerable can rub uncomfortably against other core values, particularly free speech. 

Actually, I have had one experience since 2014 that seemed telling about the “trigger warning” issue: A student complained to higher-ups about me (not about anything remotely relevant to trigger warnings or vulnerable demographics) and then, apparently to lend extra “punch” to the complaint, added that something in a class presentation could be seen as sexual. So a student naturally went in this direction in an attempt to focus negative administrative attention on a teacher. It appears that, at least in some students’ minds, then, PC speech is a potential weapon. I find that interesting. I also note that, if I were capable of making introductory statistics sexually suggestive, (a) more students might attend class on a regular basis, and (b) these grown-up adult students would probably survive.

For my part, I am in favor of kindness, consideration, warning students before presenting particularly challenging or potentially traumatizing content, and then treating them like the adults they are. I realize some students are more fragile than others, and that the latter half of this policy might cause psychological discomfort to some people, sometimes. However, the policy of avoiding all material currently considered “triggering” by the most inclusive definitions will, I believe, cause far more harm, both by restricting intellectual pursuits and by reinforcing an attitude of fear toward difficult thoughts and feelings. Life is difficult. This statement is not (and should never be) a justification for causing pain, but is an acceptance of existential realities and a call to confront them in order to build resilient thinkers who will continue to confront them (hopefully more effectively) in the next generation. Giving “trigger warnings” is something teachers have done, probably for centuries, for obvious reasons. Only the “trigger warning” label is new; the practice is quite old. But allowing the desire to be protected from psychological discomfort to become a top priority in education threatens both the American conceptualization of free speech and a far more global and ancient tradition of intellectual inquiry: you go where the evidence leads, even if it goes somewhere scary. Modeling this is important for students’ own development, not to mention for going intellectually onward and upward and keep totalitarianism at bay and whatnot.

So my vote (and my policy) will be, for the moment, to warn when possible, but to try not to let the desire to avoid immediate classroom discomfort sabotage our ability to confront the very uncomfortable realities of our world, the ones to which our students will be (and are) exposed once they leave the classroom, and the ones we expect them to wrestle with when we are lying in nursing homes hoping our colostomy bags will be changed a little more frequently.


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