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?
DEBATE IN CONTEXT
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.
University of Chicago letter to incoming 2016 students
Intellectual takeout 2016
Trigger warnings: what do they do?
BBC News 24 February 2014
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
Jenny Jarvie New Republic 4 March 2014
A quick lesson on what trigger warnings actually do
Lindsay Holmes Huffington Post 26 August 2016
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
Katy Waldman Slate 5 September 2016
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.
Ika Willis The Conversation 9 October 2016
Trigger warnings about war graves do not mollycoddle archaeology students, they are essential
Tony Pollard The Conversation 30 September 2016
Trigger warnings, safe spaces, and free speech, too
Sophie Downes New Yok Times 10 September 2016
University of Chicago triggers a fresh debate about free speech on campus
Economist 30 August 2016
How trigger warnings silence religious students
Alan Levinovitz Atlantic 30 August 2016
Chicago’s anti-safe spaces letter isn’t about academic freedom. It’s about power
Kevin Gannon Vox 26 August 2016
I use trigger warnings – but I’m not mollycoddling my students
Onni Gust Guardian 14 June 2016
Stephen Fry pointed out something important: trigger warnings are oppressive too
Hannah Fearn Independent 13 April 2016
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.
IN THE NEWS
Relevant recent news stories from a variety of sources, which ensure students have an up to date awareness of the state of the debate.
Crucifixion may be too distressing, theology students warned
Telegraph 5 January 2017
Bible students are warned…you may find the crucifixion too upsetting
Daily Mail 4 January 2017
UK universities issue trigger warnings to warn students of potentially upsetting material
Independent 9 October 2016
University of Chicago rejects safe spaces and trigger warnings in letter to students
Telegraph 26 August 2016
University of Chicago tells freshmen it does support trigger warnings or safe spaces
Chicago Tribune 25 August 2016
Oxford University law students being issued with trigger warnings before lectures
Independent 10 May 2016
Duke University students refuse to read Fun Home over gay themes and nudity
Huffington Post 25 August 2015
US students request trigger warnings on literature
Guardian 19 May 2014
Warning: the literary canon could make students squirm
New York Times 17 May 2014
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