Trigger Happy: The Imminent Threat of Mandatory Warnings
I’m sure no student would be satisfied with their education if their favorite sociology course skipped subjects like race, religion, and gender inequality. Even if sociology isn’t your cup of tea, avoiding important social issues creates ignorance to reality and pushes differing opinions deep within us, allowing them to fester. So, what’s standing in the way of these conversations? This past fall, American University’s Student Government has made demands of the university to implement mandatory trigger warnings in all classrooms. I’m sure everyone knows what trigger warnings are, and we’ve all probably seen them on syllabi or in emails about assigned readings. They serve an important purpose, but we don’t want to get too carried away. Advocates should take their feet off the gas pedal, because universities across the country are traversing a fine line between protecting trauma victims’ mental health and severely impeding classes by removing subjects that make people emotional. Trigger warnings can be easily misused, and requiring their use in all classes surely won’t help; mandatory implementation of trigger warnings will create limitations for students’ academic experiences and restrict the ability of professors to properly teach controversial material.
In the AU community, the debate over trigger warnings has taken center stage. In September 2015, AU’s Faculty Senate adopted a resolution against mandatory warnings: “Faculty may advise students before exposing them to controversial readings and other materials that are part of their curricula. However, the Faculty Senate does not endorse offering ‘trigger warnings’ or otherwise labeling controversial material in such a way that students construe it as an option to ‘opt out’.". Though they understand the benefit trigger warnings provide for students suffering from psychological trauma, the Senate draws a line at topics of controversy. In a response video, AUSG President Devontae Torriente provided his stance against the resolution: “The fact of the matter is, trigger warnings are necessary in order to make our academic spaces accessible to all students, especially those who have experienced trauma.". To the Student Government, implementation of mandatory warnings is the best way to ensure an academic space where everyone can feel welcomed.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the case; most classes don’t deal with subjects (like sexual assault, rape, or war crimes) that need warnings. If every class was required to have warnings of some kind, limitation on coursework would spiral out of control. Let’s look at a hypothetical. Topics of controversy, as the least appetizing part of many courses, start to be preceded by warnings. From there, more students want to talk less about these topics, and, eventually, professors would just drop them altogether. Those in support of mandatory warnings, like my peers in AUSG, probably beg to differ and see this hypothetical as overtly extreme. Psychological trauma is a serious issue, and it should be treated as such. I agree. That’s what trigger warnings are for, and I support its usage for such wholeheartedly. What my peers may not know is that much of the additional rationalization for mandatory warnings comes from psychological distortions. Psychologist Robert Shibley, in his essay, “Vindictive Protectiveness on Campus,” cites mindreading (the assumption that you know what people think without having sufficient evidence of their thought) and overgeneralizing (the perception of a global pattern of negatives on the basis of a single incident) as the main culprits. Students think that more people are asking for warnings for themselves, and they think that more people need warnings than those that actually suffer from trauma. Shibley argues that, despite the well-intentioned desires of advocates to help their classmates, the protective measures of mandatory warnings reinforce these distortions and potentially muddle the definition of subjects that require warnings. In his essay, Shibley also cites a concept known as “compassionate totalitarianism,” or the action of eliminating or removing any course material that could be interpreted as triggering. If topics of controversy are lumped into that category, discussion of social issues or politics, which incite strong emotional reactions, will be a thing of the past.
Psychological trauma is a serious issue, and it should be treated as such.
Both sides of the debate around mandatory trigger warnings agree that they have psychological benefit for those who suffer from trauma; despite this, opponents do not realize the dire consequences of mandatory warnings. If we all agree on the benefits, then the point of contention comes down to whether or not the sides see the writing on the wall—that the inevitable product of controversy avoidance will detriment the education of our student body and restrict professors from addressing important subjects. Mandatory warnings open a Pandora’s Box. If we don’t like what’s inside, we can’t just put it back.
For additional reading, here is a short piece by Roxane Gay describing her opinion of trigger warnings and their effectiveness as a survivor of sexual assault.