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Trigger Warnings and the Perils of Mission Creep

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.

Contra Khalid: A Defense of Trigger Warnings

Amna Khalid, writing at Persuasion, argues that trigger warnings are futile. The research, she says, shows that trigger warnings do not minimize emotional distress or intrusive thoughts; she references, for example, a meta-analysis which found “that people felt more anxious after receiving the warning.” But beyond these empirical critiques, Khalid also asserts that trigger warnings “pander to student sensitivities—to the extent that it starts undermining the mission of the university.” When trigger warnings are used, she says, “we fail to equip our students with the skills and sensibilities necessary to cope with life” and “[do] them a great disservice.” “Instead of coddling our students,” she writes, “we should be asking why they feel so emotionally brittle. Might it be that their fragility is the result of limited exposure to what constitutes the human condition and the range of human experience?” She concludes: “perhaps, in the end, what [students] need is unmediated, warning-free immersion in more literature, not less.

Khalid’s argument is heavy on generalization — and lacking in rigor. It’s worth noting at the outset that the article she cites as evidence that trigger warnings don’t minimize intrusive thoughts doesn’t mention trigger warnings, and the meta-analysis she cites is a pre-print. But the problems in Khalid’s argument extend well beyond the data she cites; and no matter the pedigree of those who support it, we have good reason to reject it. Khalid doesn’t just advance a misinformed argument; she fundamentally misunderstands the point.

I will not bury the lede: I argue here that trigger warnings represent a basic act of kindness which demonstrates our respect for the trauma others have endured.

In what follows, I discuss adverse childhood experiences; violent crime and physical violence; severe illness; PTSD; and, finally, sexual assault and rape. No matter your choice to engage with this work or not, you have my thanks.

. . .

The banality of trauma is difficult to overstate. Adverse childhood experiences, as defined in the Journal of the American Medical Association, include

experiencing physical, emotional, or sexual abuse; witnessing violence in the home; having a family member attempt or die by suicide; and growing up in a household with substance use, mental health problems, or instability due to parental separation, divorce, or incarceration.

60.9% of adults have had at least one adverse childhood experience; 15.6% have had four or more. 82.7% of Americans have been exposed to a traumatic event. 2.6 million Americans over the age of 12 have been the victim of a violent crime.

In the context of higher education, the pattern persists. 35% of matriculating undergraduates have seen a loved one experience a life-threatening illness or had such an illness themselves; 24% have personally seen or been the victim of physical violence, and 7% have been sexually assaulted. The same study found that 9% of matriculating students met criteria for PTSD. 20.4% of women at American universities reported experiencing non-consensual penetration, attempted penetration, sexual touching by force, or assault via inability to consent — since they have been enrolled at their institution.

Khalid’s suggestion that students are fragile because of “limited exposure to what constitutes the human condition,” then, is either ignorant or dishonest: students come to the classroom bearing the full weight of the trauma which has been inflicted upon them.

But the problems for Khalid’s argument run deeper. The banality of trauma paints a picture which is difficult to ignore: every day, you interact with people who have been deeply and unforgettably traumatized. And contained in this truth is a question: how will this change how you interact with others?

On one hand, you may choose compassion. To broach a difficult conversation with a friend, for example, you may say to them: “There’s something difficult that we need to talk about soon, but I understand it if you’re not ready right now. Let me know when we can meet, and in what setting you’d be most comfortable having this conversation.”

Similar conversations occur in the professional context. Medicine and social work, for example, have recently begun a shift towards trauma-informed practice. Prior to discussing sexual health or other sensitive topics, a physician may say: “I have some questions which can be uncomfortable. I ask them because I want to provide the best care that I can, but I also understand if you’re not in a place to talk about them right now.” A social worker, when onboarding a new client, may say “I understand that things have been challenging for you lately, but I want to meet you where you are. Tell me when you’re ready to talk about what’s been bothering you, and I’ll do my best to support you in whatever ways you need.”

Or, analogously, a professor may say to their students: “As part of our next class, you may be exposed to topics and material that may bring about complex emotions. I want you to know that, for all of my concern for you as a student, I care for you as a human being more. I will do my best to ensure that our conversation is respectful and affirming; but if you need to not participate in this conversation, or not attend this particular discussion, I completely understand. And if you need support before or after, I am here to listen and help however I can.”

Each of these statements, spanning personal and professional interactions, represents a “trigger warning” of a kind: critics frequently ignore that portending a difficult conversation is a normal part of both personal and professional life.

But these critics also misunderstand the purpose of such statements. Trigger warnings are not about minimizing emotional distress or intrusive thoughts.

Furthermore, it should be taken as an obvious truth that trigger warnings increase anxiety: anyone who is told that a difficult conversation lies ahead will be understandably anxious. When Khalid and the researchers she cites argue through reference to data on these outcomes, they fundamentally miss the point.

Trigger warnings, as represented in all of the examples above, are a communicative act: they communicate a speaker’s understanding that traumatic experiences are ubiquitous, their desire to support others, and their respect for how challenging a conversation can be. They portend what is to come, but vitally, communicate that you are not alone in your struggle. Trigger warnings, then, show a respect for the trauma which others have endured, and solidarity with them as they navigate life after; they represent a basic act of kindness through which we, as individuals and as professionals, can express our respect for others. When understood in this light, Khalid’s argument against trigger warnings is made all the more cruel. To “equip our students with the skills and sensibilities necessary to cope with life,” should we withhold our respect and kindness from them? Should we ensure that they experience “unmediated, warning-free immersion” in the content of their trauma, and extol our virtue for doing so?

I answer no — but the choice remains yours. Compassion is not the only option, and you may choose its alternative; and as I have written in these pages before, the choices you make represent who you really are. If trigger warnings represent coddling or pandering, count me among the coddlers and panders; if respecting the trauma of others conflicts with the mission of the university, I reject the university and all it stands for.

I, for one, will choose compassion.

A Collegiate Fear of Discomfort

College, particularly at a liberal arts institution, is a time for young adults to gain exposure to a wealth of new ideas and perspectives – typically, in order to become more open-minded and responsible members of society. A certain amount of discomfort is guaranteed to come with this notion. Having one’s beliefs and previous notions challenged can be difficult to process at times. However, today’s generation of college students are increasingly becoming less willing to participate in this discourse in the name of offensiveness and mental health. Additionally, on some campuses, “trigger warnings” have become a normal preface to any topic that could potentially be considered sensitive to someone, and the quantity of topics included in this range only continues to grow.
Continue reading “A Collegiate Fear of Discomfort”

A Student Perspective on Trigger Warnings

I first encountered the classroom trigger warning in the fall semester of my junior year. The course in question covered humanitarian intervention, a particularly dark topic amongst any number of dismal subjects in political science. As a result, soon after talking through the syllabus, our professor made special mention of the topics at hand. The classes to come, we were told, would cover a number of heavy topics: genocide, ethnic cleansing, wartime rape and other forms of systematic violence. Reading about such material on a daily basis, the professor warned, could be emotionally upsetting. Drawing attention to this fact wasn’t an effort to silence the topics or distract from their discomfort. In communicating their emotional gravity, our professor was simply trying to prepare us, encouraging us to keep tabs on our mental well-being as we proceeded through each difficult discussion.

Continue reading “A Student Perspective on Trigger Warnings”