You may never have heard of a trigger warning before so just in case, I’ll start out by presenting the (only neutral) definition available on urbandictionary.com:
"Used to alert people when an internet post, book, article, picture, video, audio clip, or some other media could potentially cause extremely negative reactions (such as post-traumatic flashbacks or self-harm) due to its content. Sometimes abbreviated as “TW."
Trigger warnings are very similar to other content warnings common on the internet and offline (spolier alerts, Not Safe For Work or NSFW, maturity ratings on movies and video games, etc.). They provide information to potential viewers so that they can decide if they would like to view the content. This benefits the provider of the content by giving them an opportunity to show their consideration for viewers that may be upset by the content. It benefits the viewer because it allows them to make an informed decision before viewing the material. Sometimes that means waiting to view the material (ex. until you see that episode, until you are in a private place, until you are a certain age, until you are in a different mood, etc.) or choosing not to view that content at all.
I’m sure if you reflect on your own experiences (or empathize with the experiences of others) you can think of situations in which a trigger warning may benefit students in an academic setting. Personally, what comes to mind is that in grade 12 I was in English 30-1 and the assigned reading was “The Wars” by Timothy Findley. To this day I remember the piece and its use of symbolism and its careful thematic structure and I have a lot of appreciation for it as a piece of literature. However, the book includes very graphic scenes of sex and violence from masturbation to gang rape. We were instructed to silently read for a period of every English class and reading this material in the company of my classmates made me extremely uncomfortable. I was affected by these scenes, I cried, I was distraught, and I was embarrassed. I resented that the material was chosen for us to read and though I was a driven student and wanted nothing more than to be successful in the class, I skipped a lot so I could read on my own. The class discussion and instruction regarding the material I missed likely explains the 20% drop in my grade when I wrote my diploma on a book I read alone. Had there been a trigger warning, I would have felt validated in struggling with the material. Maybe I would have felt more comfortable discussing the material with my classmates despite being emotionally affected by it. Maybe I would have been willing to explain to my teacher that I was struggling and ask if other arrangements could be made. Maybe I would have chosen to take a different class where I could succeed and get the best grade possible and improve my chances of being accepted into the post-secondary institution I wanted to attend. I also remember when a classmate sobbed and left our Social class when we watched the Boy in the Striped Pajamas. I wasn’t as affected by the material, but I definitely would not have opposed a warning that could have given my friend a choice about how to deal with that situation. Maybe if there had been a trigger warning the boys at the back of the class would have thought twice before they laughed at the sobbing student fleeing the classroom. At the very least, I doubt it would have hurt.
In my university studies I have experienced “trigger warnings” of sorts. In my philosophy classes more often than not our course and many specific topics were preceded by an acknowledgement that students come from all sorts of academic, personal, and cultural backgrounds. We were welcomed to discuss any concerns we had with our professor. We were encouraged to express our opinions, but reminded to be considerate and respectful of our classmates. This created an environment that facilitated mutual respect, open-mindedness and thoughtfulness. I loved it. In law school, I remember very clearly when Professor Sankoff discussed that the criminal law naturally requires us to cover some dark material. He too encouraged us to be thoughtful and respectful of our fellow students and to come to him with any concerns we may have. These sentiments were repeated before difficult topics like sexual assault. Neither in arts school nor in law school did this sensitivity eat up class time and class discussions in these courses continued to be enthusiastic and illuminating. Had they been included in the class syllabi or descriptions, they would not have caused me to hesitate in any way to take the courses.
Given my experience, the harsh criticism of students’ request to see trigger warnings used in an academic setting surprises me. It seems the criticism tends to fall into three general categories. The first line of criticism is that the use of trigger warnings in an academic setting borders on censorship. I don’t find this line of argument to be particularly compelling. Conflating restricting and suppressing content and asking for a description of that content is just a weak argument, plain and simple. The second line of argument is that trigger warnings only offer an “illusion of safety”. It is true that everyone’s experiences are unique and what is triggering for some is not triggering to others. Therefore, to anticipate and warn of all triggers for all students would be impossible. However, just because a trigger warning for sexual violence or suicide or anything else doesn’t protect everyone doesn’t detract from the benefit it provides those who are triggered by these types of content. It is unnecessary to adopt a “if it doesn’t help everyone it doesn’t help at all” attitude. I include in this line of argument the assertion that those who would benefit from trigger warnings should be seeking treatment for their issues and working to overcome them. Again, that’s absolutely true, but I’m sure those individuals could benefit from both trigger warnings and other appropriate treatments.
The final line of argument that seems most common and the most genuine and bothers me the most. It argues that the use of trigger warnings contributes to a cultural hypersensitivity. That it displays a paranoia about giving offence. That it offers students an easy out and encourages struggling students to remain fragile. That the use of trigger warnings label students as victims. This line of reasoning is indicative of the way critics of Trigger Warnings perceive students in general. If students find some content offensive, they aren’t sensitive. They’re hyper sensitive. Far too sensitive to be acceptable - and its ruining our culture. Well, I don’t believe in this culture of hypersensitivity critics will warn you about, I believe in a culture that exists today that is insensitive to the suffering of others. I’m not paranoid about giving offence. I have concern for myself and my fellow classmates and hope our learning environment can promote our well-being and respect our diversity. I don’t think it’s easy for a student to choose between pursuing their education and managing their own well-being and personal circumstances. I don’t think there is an amount of encouragement anyone could give that could convince someone who experiences trauma, mental illness or any other personal struggle that suffering is something to be coveted. I also don’t think that students make a choice to remain needlessly fragile. Healing, from any harm, takes time. There is no expiration date on how long it is acceptable to be affected by your experiences. Most importantly, facing emotional struggle does not label someone a victim. Students are not choosing to wear that label, but those who oppose trigger warnings seem desperate to ascribe it to them!
Students are driven, hard-working, complex, diverse, passionate individuals and when we attend our classes together we become a community of peers. We pay our tuition, we choose our courses, programs, and degrees, we form opinions and we live our lives. It is not for critics or academia at large to decide what our academic environment should look like. It is not for critics to tell struggling students how they should manage that struggle. It is not for academia to assume that if I don’t take a certain class it’s because I am too lazy or too sensitive or that I don’t appreciate the intellectual and emotional challenges inherent to higher education. Because maybe I have been sexually assaulted, maybe I have mental illnesses like depression or general anxiety disorder, maybe I’ve suffered domestic abuse, maybe someone close to me has committed suicide, maybe I’m just more sensitive than the average student. Maybe all of this is true, maybe none of this is true, and maybe the truth is somewhere in between. Maybe this happened to me decades ago, maybe it happened yesterday. I’m the only one who knows and I’m the only one who should be making decisions about how these personal circumstances should affect my academic pursuits. As a member of a community of students, I hope the freedom to make these choices is afforded to all of us. Do I believe trigger warnings are necessary to protect that freedom? To be honest I’m not sure. What I am sure of is that these pejorative assumptions about students do not justify withholding a benefit students have requested to promote their own well-being and education.