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“Insert Trigger Warning Here” Ethics

By Rachel Hanebutt
16 Mar 2015
Breaking Rules – By mr.smashy

While 2013 was declared the “Year of the Trigger Warning,” it is important to revisit the idea of adding trigger warnings to course syllabi and discussions. Some universities have gone as far as to require faculty to warn students of any topic that might “challenge their thinking.” The question of when it is ethical to use a trigger warning and when it is okay not to use one forces us to think about the implications trigger warnings have on every educational environment.

The origin of a “trigger warning” comes from the allusion of firing a weapon or “setting someone off” psychologically.  Triggering a past experience or PTSD becomes a major issue for all educators, however, when does preoccupation with trigger warnings impede on a student’s mental capacity to learn a subject and fully engage with material?  Of even greater importance, would providing trigger warnings for certain classes or lectures prevent students from attending, simply due to their perception of the topic? At one extreme, students would be appropriately protected from a subject they are not psychologically ready to handle. At the other extreme, students would miss out on opportunities to learn objectively about controversial subjects.

In an in-depth discussion of trigger warnings by Bioethics.net’s Craig Klugman, “Trigger Warning: This Post May Ask You To Think,” both sides of this issue are discussed.  One example provides a faculty member’s concerns for students being “hijacked” by material that is too awful for them, thus, disabling them from participating fully in the learning process.  Another example, however, expresses the reality that it is impossible for a faculty member to know exactly what triggers his or her students have, and if a student’s triggers warrant a trigger warning.  By nature, ethics, and in this case, bioethics, often require discussions of “tough questions” and conversations that are impossible to have without some discomfort.

The article contends, “Education is meant to challenge individuals, to expand their horizons, to help them to reflect and reconsider their own perspectives and beliefs.” Likening a protected education to that of using Google to learn individually, this Bioethicist clearly sees the importance of protecting the academic environment by putting a limit on trigger warnings.

Additionally, overuse of trigger warnings make these warnings meaningless in a sense.  The purpose of using trigger warnings are to draw advanced notice to spare a reader of an unfavorable experience.  If trigger warnings are normalized to every discussion, every lecture, and every syllabi, instances in which trigger warnings would no longer be noteworthy to students and participants.

This critique of trigger warnings is not to trivialize the attention to sensitivity due to students with PTSD or other mental health issues. Support for trigger warnings should also not be a free pass for shielding students from “real world” discussions of challenging topics.  As Klugman suggests, “A person who is never challenged is a person who never develops into an engaged citizen of the world and a fully realized human being.” Trigger warning ethics plays a big role in shaping the tone of education in the future.

At what point is it unethical to omit a trigger warning? At what point is it ethical to do the very same thing?

Rachel graduated from DePauw in 2015 and was a Political Science and Education Studies major from Huntingburg, Indiana. She received a Master's from the Mind, Brain, and Education program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
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