Trigger Warnings–A Ludicrous Step Toward Censorship

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Twenty years ago, critics such as Christina Hoff SommersDaphne Patai and Noretta Koertge, and Karen Lehrman described the bizarre “therapeutic pedagogy” in many women’s studies classrooms, where female students were frequently encouraged to share traumatic or intimate experiences in supportive “safe spaces.”  Today, at many colleges, academic therapism has spread to other fields.  Welcome to the age of the trigger warning.

The trigger-warning vogue began a few years ago on feminist websites, and then spread to other “social justice” blogs.  The idea behind them is that for people who have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), something that reminds them of the trauma can trigger painful flashbacks and panic attacks.  Initially, the warnings were primarily for sexual assault and partner abuse. Eventually, on some blogs, they spread to just about everything that could be potentially upsetting  to any person of politically correct sensitivities: sexism, racism, homophobia, “ableism,” “victim-blaming,” “slut-shaming,” “fat-shaming,” “body-shaming” and a host of other sins and oppressions.  (My personal favorite, from Melissa McEwan’s Shakesville site, is a warning for “discussion of gender policing”–that is, of norms dictating proper bounds of masculine and feminine behavior.  How startling to find such a discussion on a feminist blog!) Warnings for mere references to gun violence, suicide, self-harm and various mental disorders, as well as things that trigger phobias–from spiders to small holes (really)–have proliferated as well.

Trigger warnings have been the subject of some controversy in the feminist blogosphere.  Journalist and blogger Susannah Breslin wrote a scathing piece in 2010 ridiculing the practice as melodramatic nonsense, triggering (pun fully intended) a furious backlash in which she was called every name in the book, including slurs that might themselves be said to call for trigger warnings.  (Breslin also told me that for months after the controversy, she received emails from “an unhinged woman” telling her that she should be raped and killed.)

Now, according to a troubling report by free-lance journalist Jenny Jarvie in The New Republic, trigger warnings have arrived on college campuses.  It’s difficult to tell when this trend began, but blogposts discussing the use of such warnings in the classroom go back a couple of years.   In the latest development, some schools are now moving to make such warnings mandatory.  On February 26, the University of California-Santa Barbara student senate passed “A Resolution to Mandate Warnings for Triggering Content in Academic Settings,” asking that professors be required to give advance warnings of curriculum or discussion content that may trigger PTSD symptoms–and that students be allowed to skip “triggering” classes without losing points for attendance.

The UC-Santa Barbara resolution seems to be the first of its kind, but faculty guidelines recently posted on the Oberlin College website offer elaborate advice on trigger warnings.  Professors are told to “remove triggering material when it does not contribute directly to the course learning goals” and offer an explanation for using such material if they have to.  (Sample disclaimer: “We are reading this work in spite of the author’s racist frameworks because his work was foundational to establishing the field of anthropology, and because I think together we can challenge, deconstruct, and learn from his mistakes.”)  Amusingly, the guidelines also caution against such wordings as “This movie might be upsetting to some of you,” which “can sound patronizing”–presumably unlike instructions on how to draw “correct” conclusions from problematic material.  At my own alma mater, Rutgers University, the student newspaper, The Daily Targum, recently published a column by sophomore English major Philip Wythe advocating trigger warnings as “a safety system that allows full artistic expression, as well as psychological protection for those who need it.”

Some commenters on Jarvie’s New Republic piece defended classroom trigger warnings as a simple matter of courtesy and consideration, no more controversial than movie ratings or the warnings that precede disturbing material on television.  In principle, of course, there is nothing wrong with a course instructor giving notice if some of the material students will be required to read or watch is unusually graphic or gruesome–regardless of whether the students are PTSD sufferers.  (Back in my college days, I could have used a warning for the hara-kiri scene in Yukio Mishima’s short story Patriotism, which was part of the syllabus in one of my English classes and which I imprudently decided to read over lunch in the cafeteria.)

But the traditional content warning is not linked to any specific ideology or to any assumptions about the personal experience of the target audience.  By contrast, trigger warnings are rooted in the assumption that our colleges are full of walking wounded–victims/survivors of “the rape culture,” the violent capitalist patriarchy, and traumas that are nearly always inherently political and related to oppression.  The trigger-warning mindset ostensibly encourages traumatized people to remain stuck in their fragility; but it also cultivates entitlement and self-righteous outrage.  When several students get up and walk out of a classroom because the (female) professor uses an analogy involving rape to illustrate the difference between correlation and causation, it is doubtful that their walkout is prompted by a debilitating fit of panic and anxiety; moral indignation is a far more likely motive.

Jill Filipovic, a radical feminist writer and blogger who has surprisingly come out against trigger warnings in the academy–despite championing them in the blogosphere–sums it up well: “Generalized trigger warnings aren’t so much about helping people with PTSD as they are about a certain kind of performative feminism: they’re a low-stakes way to use the right language to identify yourself as conscious of social justice issues.”

Defenders of trigger warnings see them as a way to protect student psyches while avoiding actual abridgements of speech, a compromise between censorship and laissez-faire.  Yet the institutionalization of such warnings clearly promotes the idea that student sensitivities must be coddled and protected–even at the cost of letting students skip uncomfortable material–and that the classroom should be an intellectual and emotional “safe space.” Censorship, as Oberlin’s admonition to avoid “triggering” material deemed insufficiently relevant to the purpose of the course suggests, cannot be far behind.

Cathy Young

Cathy Young, a columnist for Newsday, is a regular contributor to Real Clear Politics and Reason.

24 thoughts on “Trigger Warnings–A Ludicrous Step Toward Censorship

  1. Its painfully obvious that academic trigger warnings are just a way to try to blend the impulse to censor, with a patina of medical urgency…and yet only for people on the left. If a member of the NRA claimed to be “triggered” by pro-gun control arguments, or a conservative Christian claimed to be “triggered” by discussion of homosexual activity, such people would be ignored, if not actually punished themselves for making “inappropriate” claims. The left wants to use the idea that leftists are somehow medically harmed (“PTSD”) by hearing right-wing ideas, as a way to censor right-wing ideas. Its extremely transparent, and is quite sickening in its duplicity and cowardice. If someone supports academic trigger warnings, they’re either a hopelessly naive fool, or are an advocate of censorhip ie., an enemy Western civilization

  2. We must remove the Peanuts comic strip and destroy all copies because it portrays Lucy as a “bossy” girl, crushing the spirit of every girl who reads a comic strip.

  3. At some point these students will leave the “safe” grounds of the collage campus and arrive in the real world where so far I have not encountered any “triggering” warnings. Having spent the last thirty-five years working in restaurant/food service I suggest that when the degree in wymns/underwater basket weaving doesn’t pan out they may need to check out retail instead because waiting tables will be a shock to their system…

  4. I am all for mocking silly trigger warnings, and I think they’re hilarious myself. I’ve used “#tw: reality” on posts in the past.
    But this comes across as mean-spirited and dismissive of real problems and real attempts to solve them. I don’t think censorship is an inevitable outcome, and indeed, I’ve seen trigger warnings lead to increased freedom to use or refer to upsetting topics, because they allow the people who can’t deal with a thing to self-select out of it.
    People always go a little crazy with a new idea. The underlying idea of recognizing that some things are highly disruptive to a few people and that a cheap way to warn those people so they don’t have to deal with those things is a sound one. And it’s not “encouraging traumatized people to remain stuck in their fragility” any more than telling people not to walk on a broken leg is.
    A little compassion would go a long way here. We’re still learning a lot about how people get damaged, and how they heal, but the most fundamental thing I’ve picked up over the years is this: Our assumption that lack of strength is a moral failing is fundamentally stupid.
    Your piece comes across very much as thinking that it is a moral failing for someone to be too damaged to handle things. I can’t imagine you’d treat obvious physical injuries the same way.

  5. “…a column by sophomore English major Philip Wythe advocating trigger warnings as ‘a safety system that allows full artistic expression, as well as psychological protection for those who need it.'”
    Is this an example of the “critical thinking” we hear so much about? Or is it just run-of-the-mill doublethink?

  6. I can just see it now. Students will be allowed to skip the history class material and get an automatic 100% on the test for any material about the founders, and the civil war, because it deals with slavery and oppression, and would trigger repressed memories of racism and oppression. I suppose any material on women before they got the vote would also be out of bounds.

  7. How can you possibly learn anything new if you are never exposed to challenging or “uncomfortable” ideas or concepts? Isn’t that what higher education is suppose to be about? Challenging established schools of thoughts, experiment, expostulate!
    If you make your “safe place to learn” too safe, you don’t actually learn. You just have your existing preconceptions reinforced. That’s not learning, it’s conditioning.

  8. I teach an Anatomy & Physiology course. It’s not a terribly controversial subject, but I’m sure some students find some content upsetting. A discussion of neoplasia, along with a slide of a seemingly innoucuous but actually malignant tumor, may bring up painful memories for a student who has lost a loved one to cancer. The study of nutrition may make a student (or instructor!) who needs to lose weight uncomfortable. It would seem that any discussion of the male reproductive system would be seen as a trigger by some feminists.
    I present factual material in a professional manner, although I do occasionally use a touch of humor to lighten the mood on topics students find difficult or embarrassing. I expect students to conduct themselves respectfully and to meet the challenges of learning the material presented. It is especially important for students to learn to deal with sensitive subjects calmly and professionally- not avoid talking about them. It seems that modern feminists are bound and determined to turn back the clock to a time when women were seen as too fragile to deal with, or even hear about difficult or disturbing subjects.

  9. I suppose if I had to put a trigger warning on my corporate law classes, it would go something like this: “This class contains material that will be offensive to any anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, post-colonialist, marxist, communist, anarchist, or community activist, and in particular, to anyone who thinks profit is a dirty word.”

  10. P.S., I recommend someone at one or more of these institutions contact FIRE.org and discuss with them a preemptive lawsuit regarding the inherently chilling nature of these propositions.

  11. Oh, GEEZ. Like the assault on free speech inherent in “PC” garbage wasn’t already enough, now we have to be “warned” in advance if a class on “Racism in 1800s America” actually mentions slavery??
    =========================================
    “A function of free speech under our system of government is to INVITE DISPUTE. It may indeed best serve its high purposes when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger. Speech is often provocative and challenging. It may strike at prejudices and preconceptions and have profound unsettling effects as it presses for acceptance of an idea.”
    – Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas –
    =========================================
    How can you POSSIBLY have free speech whenever you can’t say anything that people might find offensive? What kind of lackwit IDIOT can’t grasp this?
    Does The Left today UTTERLY fail to grasp that the mere IDEA of equal rights for women, blacks, and gays has, at times, been considered seriously offensive? That the notion of antisemitism was itself once an offensive idea to ATTACK?
    Who do they think was burning Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Huck Finn, Catcher In The Rye, Black Like Me? Bibliophiles?
    Wow. Someone needs to Get A Clue. And no, it’s not me.

  12. Thanks for writing this, Cathy.
    I sometimes wonder if things like “trigger warnings” and the “perforrmative feminism” (love that!) behind them are really about the non-survivors discomfort with the survivors’ experience.
    There are a lot of trauma survivors out there who do not publicly identify themselves as such. They do not use their experience to claim a special perspective, or to excuse socially unacceptable behavior. They not only do not ask for such accomodations as trigger warnings, but find the very concept patronizing and contemptible. Non-survivors do not recognize them as survivors because they seem so “normal”. They are professionlly successful, satisfied in their personal lives and socially well-adjusted. And they are that way because no one, except perhaps closest friends and the therapist they see every Monday morning or Wednesday at lunch or whatever, knows that they are survivors, and therefore no one treats them like they are fragile, so they had to adjust to the rules of the world if they want to get by.
    Resiliancy, resourcefulness, self-actualization, the desire to just move on and not live in the trauma-these are good things. The infantilization implicit in “trigger warnings” impede their development.

  13. I eagerly await the day that, when we have our Bush- and Obama-induced fiscal crisis, these utter, total morons are defunded en masse and forced to get real jobs. Considering the skill sets that they have, that will probably consist of cleaning toilets.

  14. Thanks for writing this, Cathy.
    I sometimes wonder if things like “trigger warnings” and the “perforrmative feminism” (love that!) behind them are really about the non-survivors discomfort with the survivors’ experience.
    There are a lot of trauma survivors out there who do not publicly identify themselves as such. They do not use their experience to claim a special perspective, or to excuse socially unacceptable behavior. They not only do not ask for such accomodations as trigger warnings, but find the very concept patronizing and contemptible. Non-survivors do not recognize them as survivors because they seem so “normal”. They are professionlly successful, satisfied in their personal lives and socially well-adjusted. And they are that way because no one, except perhaps closest friends and the therapist they see every Monday morning or Wednesday at lunch or whatever, knows that they are survivors, and therefore no one treats them like they are fragile, so they had to adjust to the rules of the world if they want to get by.
    Resiliancy, resourcefulness, self-actualization, the desire to just move on and not live in the trauma-these are good things. The infantilization implicit in “trigger warnings” impede their development.

  15. Maybe Obamacare is right in mandating that children be kept on their parents health insurance until they are 26, and maybe even 36. These “students” need to stay at home with mom and dad to avoid the ubiquitous TS in PTSD. They don’t need free birth control they need mom.

  16. The obvious countermeasure to Trigger Warnings is to Trigger Warning EVERYTHING.
    All papers- including astrophysics papers, menus, ads for mundane student activities, ad nauseum. Print Tshirts, hats, beer cozies.
    It would show how ridiculous the thing is.
    WARNING (non trigger)- its been established that these nuts don’t appreciate humor or ridicule- so it has to be A LOT at once.
    Pity the poor naive fraternity that prints Trigger Warning Tees by themselves – they will be kicked off campus quicker than you can say Duke Lacrosse.

  17. After a lifetime in the practice of psychiatry which began in the mid 1970’s in a VA where problems associated with Agent Orange were “au courant” and when PTSD got its start, I can honestly say I never saw a case of either one. And I saw a lot of patients.
    In my opinion, both “ailments” are a sophisticated version of cultural hysteria. With the help of the media, the “diseases” become reified and disseminated.
    Sorry, but that’s how it is.

  18. “When an organization becomes feminized, priority shifts from efficient and profitable production of goods and services to development of labarynthine rules for the comfort and security of women. Ossification and organizational death are inevitable.” – Uncle Elmer

  19. With respect to Ms. Young, and I’ve read enough of her that when I say “with respect” I mean “with respect,” I don’t think the purpose is to protect the delicate psyches of students. I think the purpose is basically to prevent people from expressing any possible idea that the left might not like.

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