Reflection and Response – Trigger Warnings

Should universities be required to provide trigger warnings to their students when dealing with “distressing” subject matters in the classroom? A debate has been raging in many higher education campuses on whether trigger warnings should be mandatory. After reading, please fill out this brief survey and tell us what you think.

Students and faculty are divided in their opinion, although the origins of the debate point to the fact that it was primarily students who demanded a more trauma-informed approach to learning.

Merriam Webster defines a trigger warning as “a statement cautioning that content (as in a text, video, or class) may be disturbing or upsetting.” A trigger is something that re-ignites trauma in an individual and causes them emotional distress. A trigger in itself is not harmful, but the way it is received by someone who has experienced trauma in the past is what creates the problem. There is an ongoing debate on whether trigger warnings should be required at public universities to protect students from trauma they may face as a result of certain course content.

Those in favor of mandatory trigger warnings argue:

  • Trigger warnings are simply a warning to students that a course may cover content that students may find upsetting. They opine that this would not be limiting free speech.
  • Not providing trigger warnings could result in traumatizing students, which would then derail learning.
  • If students know the content of a course beforehand, they are able to prepare themselves for it (with counselors, for example), leading to a more productive academic experience.
  • Trigger warnings help create intellectual safe spaces for students on campuses, and we should create safe spaces where we can.
  • Trigger warnings create an inclusive environment for students with mental health issues.
  • It would not take much time to provide a brief trigger warning before introducing sensitive content.
  • Do not provide psychotherapy to students without their permission. This means don’t tell them it is good for you to hear these difficult things to overcome your fears.
  • Courses that may cover topics such as genocide, war, rape, torture, racism, sexism, homophobia, mental illness, etc. could trigger PTSD or other mental health symptoms in students and therefore must require trigger warnings to avoid harming students.

Those against mandatory trigger warnings argue:

  • Trigger warnings limit free speech or are at least a slippery slope towards limiting free speech. Limiting free speech limits learning.
  • If trigger warnings are mandatory, there is no clear limit as to what content requires these warnings. We simply do not know what might trigger someone.
  • There are no trigger warnings in the real world. Mandatory trigger warnings would shelter students who should be grappling with diverse topics in academic spaces.
  • There are some idioms or phrases from other cultures that may include language that can be considered “triggering,” therefore, mandatory trigger warnings can conflict with inclusion efforts. Educators should have the academic liberty to include or exclude trigger warnings on their course content.
  • Trigger warnings can increase unnecessary anxiety about a course/content.
  • Many psychologists have argued that trigger warnings actually prevent people from dealing with their trauma. They argue that individuals must deal with their fears in order to overcome them.
  • Avoiding a topic does not make it go away. Instead the school is the safest place to discuss uncomfortable topics.
  • Requiring trigger warnings may lead educators to avoid topics that we are responsible to discuss in higher education such as the tragic realities of war, rape, torture, racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.

Here are some articles that address the question of whether trigger warnings should or should not be mandatory:

What are your thoughts? Please share with us – fill out this brief survey. We will publish our community’s responses in the next issue.