Commentary | Trigger warnings are not censorship

Why the slippery slope argument doesn’t hold

With sensational titles like “Trigger Warning: College Kids are Human Veal” and “The Coddling of the American Mind,” recent commentary on trigger warnings has clearly been controversial. Two widely discussed viewpoints have arisen whose proponents are locked in apparent dichotomous opposition: those who support the use of trigger warnings on the grounds that they make classrooms and other spaces more accessible to people who have experienced trauma related to the subject at hand, and those who oppose them on the grounds that any form of trigger warning that makes its way into a lecture hall is necessarily nothing but the precursor of a larger assault on intellectual freedom. Censorship, it seems, has become the new point of dissent in a debate that originated on the basis of mental health. If current dialogue has failed to produce a consensus, it is simply because it has not been clear whether it is mental health or intellectual freedom that is at stake.

The authors of “The Coddling of the American Mind,” Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, begin their essay (published in the Atlantic) with the bold claim that a “movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offence.” However, a trigger warning merely consists of signalling in advance the presence of content that could be triggering for individuals suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or who have otherwise traumatic associations with the given topic, so that they can decide on their own terms how to engage with it. Nowhere do trigger warnings, by definition or in practice, endeavour to censor specific information. Rather, their explicit goal is the opposite: to advertise the presence of potentially sensitive topics, not to erase them.

Nowhere do trigger warnings, by definition or in practice, endeavour to censor specific information.

This misunderstanding is at the root of Lukianoff and Haidt’s tenuous claim that to endorse trigger warnings is to endorse an entire canon of other issues on the slippery slope toward the restriction of free speech and intellectual freedom. The writers assume that the application of trigger warnings is an implicit acknowledgement that some topics should be avoided entirely if they may make a student uncomfortable; supposedly seeking to protect intellectual freedom, the authors urge universities to “officially and strongly discourage trigger warnings.” Based on the same assumption, Lukianoff and Haidt also assert that trigger warnings are actually detrimental to mental health, as avoiding triggers only compounds anxieties, whereas facing them “rationally and critically” is the sole credible approach to recovery from trauma.

In practice, however, trigger warnings do not preclude a person from ever facing trauma triggers. On the contrary, trigger warnings merely alert students that they will encounter a potential trigger, and rather than necessarily compelling them to leave the lecture, give them time to reflect upon and reconcile themselves with the impending content instead of shocking them into a traumatic recollection. It is thus not surprising that Aaron Hanlon, assistant professor of English at Colby College and author of “The Trigger Warning Myth” in the New Republic, finds that “in my three years of teaching […] not one [student] has left class or failed to turn in an assignment because of a trigger warning.”

It appears that trigger warnings actually lead to a more purposeful and reflective approach to addressing trauma because of the element of control. To remove the warning is to undermine reason entirely, leaving only a visceral, involuntary, and inherently public reaction that would likely compound any residual feelings of trauma, shame, and humiliation. Is this what critics want when they speak of facing fears “rationally?” More likely, these critics’ fundamental lack of understanding about the purpose of trigger warnings makes them ill-equipped to assess whether trigger warnings live up to their intended purpose.

It is important to differentiate between trigger warnings and these perceived attempts to eliminate sensitive material entirely from courses.

Others have also argued that trigger warnings lose effectiveness simply due to their prevalence. In the Guardian article “We’ve gone too far with ‘trigger warnings,’” Jill Filipovic argues that proponents of trigger warnings have corrupted their purpose, proposing that “generalized trigger warnings aren’t so much about helping people with PTSD as they are about a certain kind of performative feminism,” whereby demanding a trigger warning “identifies you as even more aware, even more feminist, even more solicitous” than those who do not. The insinuation that being vocal about trigger warnings is necessarily insincere is condescendingly dismissive; besides, even if it were true, it is unclear how this would undermine the effectiveness of trigger warnings for those who need them.

It is clear that critics are mistaken in dismissing the effectiveness of trigger warnings with regards to accommodating mental health. What remains to be evaluated is the dubious association between trigger warnings and a broader ideology of censorship. The question that arises is whether trigger warnings are genuinely undermining rationalism and free speech, or whether this controversy is just the product of a reactionary and misguided assumption that trigger warnings aim to homogenize discourse on university campuses. It is because of the pedagogical nature of the university itself that this would be a legitimate concern; a university degree isn’t just meant to provide a well-curated collection of facts, it’s meant to promote and engender vital critical thinking skills, and expose students to culturally and contextually diverse ideas that challenge and refine their own views.

Lukianoff and Haidt allude to a number of widely-discussed instances where students have pushed to have certain information or views removed from campus, such as when law students at Harvard questioned how rape law was being taught, with some requesting that it be removed from exams or first year content altogether. Concern over attempted censure is valid (having lawyers who don’t understand the legality of rape is clearly not in the interest of survivors), but, as with many other viral examples of campus “censorship,” these students were not suggesting that the delicate subject not be taught, but rather that it be taught in a way that is more considerate toward survivors of sexual violence. It is important to differentiate between trigger warnings and these perceived attempts to eliminate sensitive material entirely from courses. The latter, as shown previously, can actually increase dialogue around controversial topics by making them more accessible to people who have experienced trauma.

If trigger warnings by definition do not censor, why have they been so closely associated with censorship? Since the debate has been polarizing from its inception, opponents of trigger warnings still see endorsing them as endorsing “everything else,” and believe that the presence of trigger warnings on campus will be the inauspicious beginning of a precipitous fall into thought policing. Better dialogue that overcomes perceived ideological incompatibility is needed: perhaps by embracing the ‘threatened’ rational and intellectual flexibility that they hold so dear, critics of trigger warnings will see that their use can be a nonintrusive, helpful, and considerate way of addressing PTSD and trauma triggers without marking the end of free speech. Only when trigger warnings are correctly understood for the purpose they serve can the pretension of implicit ideological ramifications be discarded; then, universities can move towards a more inclusive and considerate campus environment.

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