TOPIC GUIDE: Trigger warnings

"Trigger warnings stifle debate"

PUBLISHED: 27 Jan 2017

AUTHOR: Anwar Oduro-Kwarteng

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In the summer of 2016, The University of Chicago created headlines when it sent a letter to all incoming students [Ref: Intellectual takeout] stating that, “we expect members of our community to be engaged in rigorous debate, discussion and even disagreement…Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so called ‘trigger warnings.’” [Ref: Intellectual takeout] For some, this was seen as a welcome intervention in the debate surrounding the nature of trigger warnings, and their increasing prevalence on university campuses in America [Ref: Guardian], and more recently the UK [Ref: Independent]. Originally conceived of in online communities “primarily for the benefit of people with post-traumatic stress disorder” [Ref: New York Times], critics of trigger warnings argue that their use has become more and more symptomatic of an attempt, “driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense.” [Ref: Atlantic] For supporters however, trigger warnings are merely a way of preparing students and readers for sensitive content that they may find offensive or upsetting for a variety of reasons [Ref: New York Times]. Trigger warnings, they insist, are not a means of shutting down and censoring debate about difficult subjects, but rather a more inclusive, sympathetic way of engaging everyone in the themes [Ref: New Republic]. So how should we judge trigger warnings? Do they set a dangerous precedent by attempting to, “quarantine the uncomfortable and dark dimensions of the human experience” [Ref: spiked], thus closing down open debate and discussion? Or are they a benign tool which helps, rather than hinders our ability to confront difficult and upsetting subjects, whilst taking into account the breadth of feelings and experiences that people have?

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This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.

What are trigger warnings?
The notion of triggering is grounded in clinical psychology, and dates back as far as 1918, when psychologists attempted to understand the ‘war neurosis’, later understood as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) [Ref: Oxford Dictionary] that veterans of the First World War often suffered [Ref: BuzzFeed]. More recently ‘triggering’ has been used to describe themes, words or subjects which may cause people anxiety, distress or upset, and trigger warnings have slowly become part of contemporary discourse. Simply put: “A trigger warning (or content note) alerts readers or viewers to violent and disturbing content, which could be sexual assault, racist violence, transphobic or homophobic slurs.” [Ref: Guardian] Controversially, some of the most revered works of the literary canon have come under the spotlight, with books such as Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice all being put forward as works which should contain trigger warnings due to their content and themes [Ref: Guardian]. Students from Columbia University in America for example, have argued that texts such as Ovid’s Metamorphosis can be triggering for students who are victims of sexual violence, and state that: “These texts, wrought with histories and narratives of exclusion and oppression, can be difficult to read and discuss as a survivor, a person of colour, or a student from a low income background.” [Ref: Columbia Spectator] Unsurprisingly, opinion regarding trigger warnings is polarised, with supporters and critics clashing over whether they help or hinder our ability to fully engage with potentially uncomfortable ideas, themes or imagery.   

Coddling young minds, stifling debate?
For some critics, trigger warnings symbolise the gradual and pernicious trend of infantilising students, with sociologist Frank Furedi arguing that: “The premise of the trigger warning crusade is that students cannot be trusted to engage with uncomfortable subjects.” [Ref: spiked] This is seen as problematic by opponents, because university should be, “a space where the student is challenged and sometimes frustrated, and sometimes deeply upset, a place where a student’s world expands and pushes them to reach the outer edges – not a place that contracts to meet the student exactly where they are.” [Ref: Guardian] Similarly, whilst having sympathy for potentially vulnerable students, for whom some themes may trigger painful memories, writer Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett worries that the current climate has created a situation where trigger warnings have, “become shorthand for ‘anything I don’t like’”, ultimately epitomising, “an increasingly nannying approach to language that is being used to shut down discourse and to silence.” [Ref: New Statesman] Another area of concern for critics, is that trigger warnings presume that we are fragile and need protecting from certain words, themes or ideas – playing into the wider discourse regarding our sensitivity about giving offense [Ref: New Republic]. Likewise, Jennie Jarvie notes that it is wrong to associate certain words or ideas with trauma, violence or harm, as it “promotes a rigid, overly deterministic approach to language”, and notes that, “words can inspire intense reactions, but they have no intrinsic danger.” [Ref: New Republic] She goes on to conclude that ultimately, trigger warnings stifle debate, because: “Engaging with ideas involves risk, and slapping warnings on them only undermines the principle of intellectual exploration.” [Ref: New Republic] Furthermore, one University of Chicago professor observes that such an environment is unhealthy for the open exchange of ideas, because, “anybody can claim offense or triggering about anything: liberals about conservative politics, pacifists against violence, women against sexism, minorities against bigotry, Jews against anti-Semitism, Muslims against any mention of Israel, creationists against evolution, religionists against atheism, and so on.” [Ref: New Republic]

Do we need trigger warnings?
From a practical point of view, supporters maintain that trigger warnings acknowledge the psychological trauma that some have suffered in their lives, and can help alleviate the distress that they may feel if painful memories are triggered my certain themes [Ref: Huffington Post]. Like a note before a film or television programme warning viewers about the content, trigger warnings do no harm, with advocates pointing out that: “The cost to students who don’t need trigger warnings, is…minimal.” [Ref: New York Times] Moreover, “It’s hardly anti-intellectual or emotionally damaging to anticipate that other people may react to traumatic material with negative emotions, particularly if they suffer from PTSD”, argues English professor Aaron R. Hanlon - “its human to engage others with empathy.” [Ref: New Republic] And for supporters, the empathy that trigger warnings exhibit towards potentially vulnerable students, is key in creating the conditions for allowing everyone to participate in difficult discussions. The broader debate is intrinsically linked to the contentious idea of ‘safe spaces’ [Ref: Oxford Dictionary] – which many argue are meant to make us feel comfortable and at ease, and free to engage in discussion without anxiety or harassment. As such, advocates reject the assertion made by critics that trigger warnings stifle debate, and instead claim that: “Students, as well as teachers see trigger warnings as a way of opening up discussion, rather than closing it down” [Ref: The Conversation], because they “allow those who are sensitive to these subjects to prepare themselves for reading about them, and better manage their reactions.” [Ref: New York Times] Others note that they are key for integrating vulnerable groups that are often marginalised, such as ethnic minorities and women, into wider debates around contentious themes or words that they may find difficult to engage with [Ref: Columbia Spectator]. In this way: “A trigger warning doesn’t have to be an act of censorship or a straightjacketing of interpretation; it can be a starting point for a [wide] ranging discussion that ultimately challenges students’ points of view.” [Ref: New Republic] With these arguments in mind; do trigger warnings stifle debate, or do they empower students to engage with difficult subjects?


It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.


Trigger warnings are educational suicide

Frank Furedi spiked 29 June 2015

Life is triggering. The best literature should be too

Jerry A. Coyne New Republic 14 May 2015

We’ve gone too far with trigger warnings

Jill Filipovic Guardian 5 March 2014

Trigger happy

Jenny Jarvie New Republic 4 March 2014


A quick lesson on what trigger warnings actually do

Lindsay Holmes Huffington Post 26 August 2016

Why I use trigger warnings

Kate Mann New York Times 19 September 2015

My students need trigger warnings, and professors do too

Aaron R. Hanlon New Republic 18 May 2015

Trigger warnings: what they’re really about

Laurie Penny New Statesman 21 May 2014


The trapdoor of trigger words

Katy Waldman Slate 5 September 2016

The big uneasy

Nathan Heller New Yorker 30 May 2016

The coddling of the American mind

Greg Lukianoff & Jonathan Haidt Atlantic September 2015


Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.


Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.

In praise of trigger warnings

Ika Willis The Conversation 9 October 2016

Trigger warnings, safe spaces, and free speech, too

Sophie Downes New Yok Times 10 September 2016

How trigger warnings silence religious students

Alan Levinovitz Atlantic 30 August 2016

The trigger warning myth

Aaron R. Hanlon New Republic 14 August 2015

Our identities matter in core classrooms

Kai Johnson, Tanika Lynch, Elizabeth Monroe & Tracey Wang Columbia Spectator 30 April 2015

Trigger warnings: more harm than good?

Florence Waters Telegraph 4 October 2014

Trigger warnings: a gun to the head of literature

Tiffany Jenkins spiked 22 May 2014

What’s really important about trigger warnings

Soraya Chemaly Huffington Post 20 May 2014

How the trigger warning took over the internet

Ali Vingiano BuzzFeed 5 May 2014

Trigger warnings needed in classroom

Philip Wythe Daily Targum 18 February 2014

Why I don’t agree with trigger warnings

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett New Statesman 29 January 2013


Links to organisations, campaign groups and official bodies who are referenced within the Topic Guide or which will be of use in providing additional research information.


Victim Culture

Moral Maze BBC Radio 4 20 June 2015

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