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Trigger Warnings and the Perils of Mission Creep

By Benjamin Rossi
6 Mar 2023

In a recent column, Eli Schantz presents a compelling case for trigger warnings. He argues that such warnings are communicative acts that express respect for students grappling with trauma and the desire to support them in that struggle. They are, in short, a “basic act of kindness,” akin to showing solicitude for a friend’s feelings before broaching a difficult subject with them.

All of this sounds very reasonable, and indeed, were trigger warnings only used to show care and concern for those suffering from traumatic events, there might be little to object to. The trouble is that, in the real world, the use of trigger warnings has undergone mission creep: it has expanded beyond anything remotely related to trauma. Most worryingly, trigger warnings are now often used to signal that the curricular material for which the warning is given contains morally problematic or offensive content. In what follows, I will address two kinds of trigger warning mission creep and offer a suggestion for what we should do about them.

Schantz’s argument itself illustrates one kind of mission creep. The term “trigger warning” suggests, of course, that the purpose of the warning has something to do with preventing triggering — the onset of traumatic stress. This was, indeed, the original purpose of such warnings when they first emerged in online spaces where sexual violence and abuse were discussed. However, Schantz insists that “trigger warnings are not about minimizing emotional distress or intrusive thoughts,” but about expressing respect. Of course, if that is their purpose, then there is no reason why trigger warnings should be limited only to curricular material or activities likely to trigger traumatic stress; any reference to potentially traumatic events, ranging from parental divorce to sexual abuse, warrants a trigger warning. Furthermore, there is then no longer much justification for limiting trigger warnings to expressing respect for those who suffered traumatic experiences — surely those who have suffered in any way deserve respect and compassion at least as much.

Schantz might point out that showing kindness is an imperfect duty: it does not follow from his argument that an instructor is obligated to provide trigger warnings prior to every reference to potentially traumatic events, or in deference to any every kind of suffering. Again, though, the real-world application of his conclusion must be our guide in evaluating the argument. If students came to believe that trigger warnings are acts of compassion and kindness, it is not hard to imagine how the reputation of professors who fail to provide them would fare.

One factor enabling trigger warning mission creep of this kind is the increasing prevalence of the idea that potentially traumatic experiences invariably lead to trauma, with the corollary that most college students are traumatized. Schantz appears to endorse this view when he identifies the group consisting of students who have had potentially traumatic experiences, such as adverse childhood events, with the group of those who are “deeply and unforgettably traumatized.” In fact, while numerous studies confirm that a majority of incoming college students have experienced potentially traumatic events — most commonly, the sudden unexpected death or serious illness of a loved one — there is little evidence that most of these students suffer traumatic stress or functional impairment from these experiences. Interestingly, these findings call into question both the Amna Khalid/Jonathan Haidt line that college students are somehow more fragile than they once were, and the argument that trigger warnings are a reasonable response to widespread trauma among college students.

The kind of mission creep that truly worries me, however, is different from what I have so far discussed. It is undeniable that trigger warnings are now often utilized not with a view to addressing trauma, but to signal that the curricular content at issue contains something morally problematic or offensive. How else to explain putting a trigger warning on Peter Pan because of its “odd perspectives on gender,” or trigger warnings for blasphemy? A quick Google search unearthed two nearly identical documents from the University of Michigan and University of Connecticut providing guidance to faculty for the use of trigger warnings. They both state that the terms “trigger warning” and “content warning” can be used “interchangeably,” with the latter defined as a warning of content that “may offend or upset some people.” In other words, the idea that trigger warnings are meant only to address trauma is passé in the academy; as the University of Michigan document boldly states, “content and trigger warnings are intended to serve all students . . .” (emphasis added).

What is the effect in the classroom of expanding the scope of trigger warnings to “sensitive” content? I’m not entirely sure, but one indication comes from an incident at Hamline University I’ve written about previously. There, an adjunct art professor provided a trigger warning before showing a fourteenth-century painting of the Prophet Muhammad in class. After one student complained, the university administration rescinded its offer to the adjunct to teach the following semester and publicly decried her classroom activity as Islamophobic. When The New York Times reached out to the complainant, she stated that the adjunct provided a trigger warning “precisely because she knew such images were offensive to many Muslims.” In other words, for the complainant, the fact that the adjunct believed that the image warranted a trigger warning proves that she should not have shown it in the first place. For professors, this suggests that to put a trigger warning on offensive content is to put a target on one’s back.

Professors have good reason to include trigger warnings if their class materials or activities feature graphic content likely to elicit traumatic stress. This was the original purpose of trigger warnings, and it remains a good purpose. Unfortunately, however, the scope of their use has expanded far beyond this relatively narrow context. Our aim, then, should not be to wholly eliminate trigger warnings, but to restore them to their original and best use.

Benjamin Rossi received his PhD in philosophy from the University of Notre Dame. A graduate of Duke Law School, he practices law in Albuquerque, NM.
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