Five days ago, the New York Times had one of its occasional debates in which several people write short pieces on a controversial issue. This one was called “Do Trigger Warnings Work?“, and there were two people on the “yes” side and one on the “no” side, so it’s not balanced. Nor are there data adduced (though one person mentions the existence of data), so at least the “yes” votes, are based purely on people’s “lived experience.” The whole debate was inspired by the letter sent by the Dean of my university to incoming first-year students, saying that the University of Chicago did not mandate trigger warnings, intellectual safe spaces, nor the disinviting of controversial speakers.
Before I summarize the arguments, I’ll once again give my own take on trigger warnings. First, I don’t think they should be mandatory at any university; decisions about whether or how to implement them should be left to the faculty.
How would I use them? Well, if I were presenting something that I thought was generally disturbing, like pictures of dead bodies, or wounds, or harrowing testimony (being an evolutionist, I never have to do this), I’d warn students in class on the day of presentation. I would not, however, issue trigger warnings for things like food and drink, violence, or things that people don’t find generally upsetting (see the mention of The Iliad below). Rather, I’d announce at the beginning of class that if students find some subjects disturbing, they should come to me in private in advance to let me know, and I would try to warn that student (privately) beforehand.
What I would not do, however, which at least one of the pro-trigger-warning people suggest, is to let these students have alternative assignments that are not as “triggering.” That is, I would not change the material or my syllabus, either for the class or for individual students. If a student has a problem, I would warn them privately but they’d still be responsible for facing the material. This is based on the finding that exposure to “triggering” material is the only way to surmount one’s phobia. Of course, I am not a therapist and so students who are triggered by things they encounter frequently would be well advised, as one debater notes, to seek treatment.
Actually, you can read the three pieces yourself, but I’ll comment briefly:
“It just seems like the right thing to do“ by Elana Newman, the R. M. McFarlin professor of psychology at the University of Tulsa, a research director at the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, and the co-director of the Tulsa Institute of Trauma, Adversity and Injustice.
Newman’s piece is actually sensible. She has no evidence that trigger warnings work, but says that several of her students have been grateful for warnings, as it allows them to confer with their therapist in advance. This of course means you have to put out the warning before the class, and given the list of things that some students find triggering, that’s impractical as a general tactic. But she also notes this:
Can trigger warnings be harmful? Although a student has never said this to me, I can imagine that explicit cautions may promote anxiety or expectations for an unpleasant emotional experience. Several graduates have told me that while my intentions were noble, the warnings were useless. They simply had no tools to understand their experiences at that time. Some said they felt nauseous, panicked, had flashbacks or engaged in avoidance activities after class that they did not understand. So the warnings were at best inert for them. Others told me they understood their responses to these reminders but they could not control them nor were they interested in working on them at that time. Interestingly, not one student ever held me responsible for those reactions.
“Trust me, trigger warnings are helpful” by Sofie Karasek, the director of education and co-founder of End Rape On Campus.
Karasek is the most SJW-ish of the three debaters. She also describes herself as a “sexual assault survivor,” which surely influences her take. (I can’t find any evidence that Karasek, who is only 22, actually teaches students.) While adducing no evidence for the efficacy of trigger warnings save one anecdote, she recommends allowing those who might be triggered to study alternative material, a stand I don’t agree with (again, they should be in therapy):
It is not that difficult issues should not be taught — it is that they should be taught with nuance. Allowing a military veteran to skip a screening of Pearl Harbor or to opt for a less graphic version of a chapter about the Vietnam War is not succumbing to “political correctness” or interfering with learning; it is treating people with basic decency and respect.
You could also say that it is coddling students who should have exposure therapy. And what do you do with a book like The Iliad, which is full of violence and, indeed, has been subject to trigger warnings for “graphic violence,” “sexual violence,” and “suicide”? What alternative work of literature can you give them? None that I can think of. (The Bible, of course, is larded with violence and sex; should schools of theology issue trigger warnings for scripture?) In the end, Karasek goes off on a Regressive Leftist detour that doesn’t seem that relevant, and also is heavily weighted with identity politics and the promotion of her ideological agenda in class:
We are in a period of revitalized storytelling activism, from Black Lives Matter to#SayHerName. These stories are profoundly important because they open our culture’s eyes to systemic injustices that have long been ignored. Thoughtfulfacilitation from professors is crucial in these heavy conversations. For instance, asking, “Does anyone have anything to add, or a different opinion?” in response to a classmate characterizing all veterans as Islamophobes or all rape victims as liars encourages students to question sweeping and harmful generalizations.
Individuals from communities that are disproportionately affected by societal injustices are sometimes hesitant to participate. For instance, though I am open about being a sexual assault survivor, many people are not, in part because of the stigma associated with it. And frankly, while sometimes I might be willing to engage with someone who doesn’t believe that rape is “a real problem,” many times, I would rather preserve my mental health. In this situation, I would be more likely to participate if I saw my professor debunk myths about sexual violence with statistics and evidence-based research. When we silence marginalized voices by refusing to create a respectful atmosphere, we damage the educational experience for all of our students.
“If you need a trigger warning, you need P.T.S.D. treatment” by Richard J. McNally, a professor of psychology and the director of clinical training in the department of psychology at Harvard University. He is the author of “Remembering Trauma.”
McNally, who probably has the most knowledge about this issue from a psychological standpoint, draws a distinction between “trauma” and full-blown “P.T.S.D” (post-traumatic stress disorder), which, I think is recognized as a proper distinction by psychologists and psychiatrists. His solution is not to give trigger warnings to either group, because—at least for P.T.S.D. sufferers—they’re counterproductive. (That, of course, presumes that the sufferer is getting therapy, which he recommends. If they’re not, what would he do?) He does imply that there are data bearing on this issue, though he doesn’t cite any. He does say this:
Epidemiological studies show that many people are exposed to trauma in their lives, and most have had transient stress symptoms. But only a minority fails to recover, thereby developing P.T.S.D. Students with P.T.S.D. are those most likely to have adverse emotional reactions to curricular material, not those with trauma histories whose acute stress responses have dissipated.
However, trigger warnings are countertherapeutic because they encourage avoidance of reminders of trauma, and avoidance maintains P.T.S.D. Severe emotional reactions triggered by course material are a signal that students need to prioritize their mental health and obtain evidence-based, cognitive-behavioral therapies that will help them overcome P.T.S.D. These therapies involve gradual, systematic exposure to traumatic memories until their capacity to trigger distress diminishes.
Rather than issuing trigger warnings, universities can best serve students by facilitating access to effective and proven treatments for P.T.S.D. and other mental health problems.
This seems a bit harsh, for if I was going to show a picture of, say, somebody with a terrible war injury, I wouldn’t hesitate to warn students just before. Even if you don’t have P.T.S.D., maybe you can be more prepared—or even, in this one case, look away.
To see the diversity of subjects that people have said should be subjected to trigger warnings, here’s a list from Kyriarchy and Privilege:
You can see how difficult it would be to have to issue trigger warnings for people—look at the last item, for instance!
Finally, of the three items mentioned in the University of Chicago letter—trigger warnings, safe spaces, and a policy not to disinvite speakers—trigger warnings is the one most easily resolve. The University was not saying they cannot or should not be used, but that the U of C doesn’t mandate them; it leaves them up to faculty. Safe spaces is a difficult issue that the letter might have discussed in more detail, though it specified “INTELLECTUAL safe spaces,” i.e., free discussion in the classroom. And I see no good argument against my University’s policy of not disinviting speakers. I have little doubt that it will soon have a policy, too, for sanctioning students who try to interrupt or “shut down” speakers.