The place of trigger warnings in the classroom and beyond

There has been recent controversy over the suggestion to use trigger warnings in the classroom. Schools such as Oberlin College, Rutgers University and University of California, Santa Barbara have suggested that trigger warnings for subjects including suicide, rape and domestic abuse ought to be present on syllabi. This move has been met with ridicule and criticism. A trigger is something that sets off a memory of a traumatic event. This is most commonly associated with post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental illnesses. Triggers can be seemingly innocuous, like a name or a smell, or something more obvious like graphic descriptions of rape and violence.

A trigger warning is used to indicate that content in a blog post, book or movie could be “triggering” to an individual. For example, if someone with PTSD is exposed to a trigger, they may have flashbacks, feel as if they are reliving their trauma, have a panic attack or experience extreme discomfort.

The primary arguments against trigger warnings are that they indulge sensitivities; they are infantilizing or people simply need to learn to deal with things that upset them. People have argued that trigger warnings are a form of censorship. No one is taking away access to books or triggering material, however. PTSD is a serious mental health issue and I believe that trigger warnings are a reasonable accommodation for people who deal with it.

Critics claim triggers are a phenomenon borne from social justice communities on Tumblr. Wouldn’t psychologists, then, be “social justice warriors” when they discuss triggers with a client?

Feminists have popularized common usage of the trigger warning, but they did not invent it. Triggers are a legitimate issue for many people, some of which may be your classmates, students or friends.

As for the argument that trigger warnings coddle students, Meghan Daum from the Los Angeles Times presents a succinct rebuttal: “We may not have PTSD, but ... we customize our information delivery systems so we mostly see, hear and read what won’t upset us too much … But as we indulge in the great American pastime of accusing young people of being made of weaker stuff than their elders, we’d also do well to examine our own avoidance mechanisms.”

The concept of avoiding potentially upsetting material is neither radical nor novel; this is something we already do. Television programs warn viewers about graphic content. Movies and video games use rating systems. Science professors warn about videos or lessons containing blood or vomit. The argument that trigger warnings are infantilizing seems to be more of an issue relating to mental health issues, perhaps pointing a larger stigmatization of mental illness.

In college classrooms, finding a balance between what is reasonable and what is excessive is admittedly difficult, and I do not know if I have an answer. No one can accommodate every trigger, but perhaps professors should use their best judgment.

A brief warning either in class or on the syllabus about material containing graphic content is not unreasonable. Some have suggested that this could be abused; asking for accommodations due to PTSD can be embarrassing, and if someone is willing to feign PTSD to skip class, I hope that they would be a sad exception with poor morals.

Asking for accommodations – especially ones so personal – is not an easy thing to do, but it is something that some students do with or without trigger warnings. That being said, offering a brief trigger warning can encourage open dialogue between students and professors. A brief mention of graphic content can make giving small accommodations to a small number of students that much easier.