Trigger Warnings Should Be Issued Wisely


The term “trigger warning” has exploded on college campuses and the Internet. A trigger warning is meant to warn victims of trauma that descriptions of something “triggering” (such as violence or abuse) may appear. At schools, a trigger warning can be verbally delivered by a teacher, or it can be written, preceding the “triggering” material. It has become so widely recognized that it can be abbreviated to “TW.” It took several brutal wars for term “post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)” to emerge formally as a diagnosis in 1980, but the term “trigger warning” seems to have become commonplace in just a matter of months. Various boards and associations began labeling movies, music and video games, and Internet content followed soon thereafter. By the early 2000s, the idea of a trigger warning, although not the term itself, was creeping into online publications, specifically feminist forums. Trigger warnings first appeared on these forums with the intention to warn victims of sexual assault that they were about to enter discussions that might set off a disturbing flashback. Then in 2014, Rolling Stone published an article detailing an account of a gruesome rape on the University of Virginia’s campus. Although that story was later retracted, it initiated a nationwide conversation about sexual assault, specifically on college campuses. At this point, the correlation between trigger warnings and sexual assault could only lead to an increased use of trigger warnings on college campuses.

Before the age of 18, one in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused (Finkelhor, Hotaling, Lewis, & Smith, 1990). This statistic suggests that several students sitting in any given class  could be victims of abuse. It would be fair to warn them that they may come across a subject that may be particularly difficult for them. Trigger warnings are most often seen in the context of sexual assault, but they apply to other traumatic issues as well, like violence or abuse. As with anything, when it comes to trigger warnings, we must be empathetic and keep in mind that we may not know what goes on in the lives of others, or how someone may be affected by a discussion or a reading. Yet higher education is meant to challenge students, and it is important that we do not come at literature and other subjects from the mindset that we must all shy away from it if it makes us uncomfortable.

Since its incarnation, the term has been used, misused, and overused. What started off as a sincere way to warn victims of trauma to avoid or be cautious of sensitive material developed into a sensitivity that, in some instances, borders on absurdity. One website, “Shakesville,” went so far as to post a trigger warning on a photo of some dogs showing their teeth, stating that the dogs appear aggressive. Though trigger warnings were originally simply meant to help someone avoid content that might elicit a post-traumatic stress reaction, often they have evolved into a battle of hypersensitivity and political correctness.

            From the University of California, Santa Barbara to Oberlin College in Ohio, students have called on their schools to issue trigger warnings and trigger warning guidelines for their professors. “Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe, “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain, and “The Merchant of Venice” by Shakespeare: besides being extraordinary, what do these three works of literature share in common? At least two things: first, they are taught in the English curriculum at the Academy, and second, at the university level, students are labeling them as “triggering.” Students have challenged these works on the basis that they deal with colonialism, domestic abuse, racism, and anti-Semitism. Yet all of these texts discuss issues that exist in the real world. Not only that, but these texts reflect a time when some of these issues were accepted, and studying them leads us to understand why we must not revert to practices like colonialism. There is a difference between offering a trigger warning and shying away from material: these topics should be embraced as a way to learn about the problems that plague us, not ignored as a means of protecting us.

So what do we do about those who face PTSD? Trigger warnings assume that everyone should be protected from difficult topics, but this is wrong: professors should instead encourage open communication with students so that those suffering from trauma may prepare for or excuse themselves from a certain lecture or reading. They should issue these warnings exclusively as a means of cautioning victims of trauma, but should never discourage materialnot all students who have experienced a difficult situation desire to avoid material that discusses it. And while some people may truly benefit from trigger warnings, they are being viewed more and more often as ludicrous. To assure that that the original purpose of trigger warnings remains effective, they must be used responsibly. Unlimited trigger warnings allow for anyone to challenge material for any reason, which grants a role of self-importance that simply should not exist. In college classrooms, books that have been praised as works of the highest literary merit are being challenged. It is important to remember that literature is a reflection of the broad range of human experience . A student who is not at risk of suffering a traumatic flashback or remembering a disturbing memory should not shy away from texts that deal with difficult topics: discouraging the exploration of valuable literature for no good reason runs counter to the purpose of a college education.

At their root, trigger warnings are well-meaning. In this sense, trigger warnings are more than compassionate: they are vital. For some, there may be little worse than being forced to experience a traumatic flashback stuck in a room surrounded by classmates. But trigger warnings assume that all college students are victims, when in fact the majority of them are not. This approach that warns everyone, victim or not, limits academic freedom, and coddles students when they should be challenged. Students should be pushed to explore; after all, when they step out of college with a degree, they should also be entering society with a greater awareness that there are terrible issues they must face in the real world. Turning a blind eye to the world’s injustices will get us nowhere.