MIIS Speaks – Trigger Warnings

We enjoy the interactions with all of you through this section in the newsletter. Thank you to everyone who participated in our second poll on the topic of Trigger Warnings. We received 177 responses with many comments that helped us understand the various perspectives of our community about trigger warnings.

We hope to continue this interaction. Look out for our next poll on the topic of Anti-Bullying Approaches for Our Campus. Click here to read why we think this topic is important and here is the link for you to participate in the poll.             

Going back to our last poll on trigger warnings, the results for our first question on “Should Trigger Warnings be Mandatory?” shows that a majority feel (58.76%) that MIIS, as a graduate school, should not provide mandatory trigger warnings in classes. A smaller percentage (23.73%) felt that trigger warnings should be mandatory while 17.51% felt that context mattered when it came to giving trigger warnings.

When asked if trigger warnings have the ability to limit free speech, the community was more undecided. 42.77% of the respondents thought that free speech would not be limited, while an almost equal number of respondents (41.07%) thought it would affect free speech. A small number (16.18%) were “Unsure”.

Our final question was based off the arguments made by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt in their article on why we should not provide trigger warnings. Based on the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy model, they opine that you need to face your triggers/ fears in order to overcome them. According to them, allowing trigger warnings gives students the ability to ‘pick and choose’ their content – leading to more harm than good. We asked you what you thought of their argument and the results were almost evenly divided. A small majority (39.31%) agreed with Lukianoff and Haidt, while 32.37% disagreed and 28.32% of you were unsure.

The intricacies and uncertainties felt around trigger warnings were clear in the answers to this last question as no answer yielded an absolute majority of respondents.

The history of how trigger warnings came to colleges and why they are so controversial in higher education environments is well detailed in this article by Libby Nelson. It is important to understand the origins and the evolution of trigger warnings when evaluating its pros and cons today.

In analyzing your comments, we are therefore not surprised by the very divided opinion on whether trigger warnings work or not and if they do or do not help with trauma/ PTSD. Some recurring themes from our poll are highlighted below and we provide further resources for those interested in exploring this topic in-depth.

Higher education must prepare our students for the real world and not protect them from it.

This sentiment finds support from both students and educators. Many argue that this drive to provide trigger warnings is just another effort to coddle students. They argue that it is important to expose students to the realities of the world because without the pain we undergo in learning about these challenges, how could we empathetically respond to them? Sherri F. Colb, a professor of Law at the Cornell Law School, explains why she would never provide trigger warnings in her article. Her reasons are similar to this theme from our poll and, that is, potentially triggering topics may invariably get left out of the curriculum because faculty may not want to go through the hassle and risks of dealing with the consequences of bringing these issues up in class. As such, she believes we end up doing a great disservice to our students.

Trigger Warnings do not help at all with PTSD and trauma healing.

Those who support this argument find comfort in various research studies that prove that trigger warnings do not really help with PTSD and trauma. A new study published in the Clinical Psychological Science says that trigger warnings in fact hurt those grappling with serious trauma. Similarly, a study conducted by a group of Harvard researchers and published in the Journal of Behaviour Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, tested the impact of trigger warnings on a control group and found that those who were given the warnings were more anxious than those who had not received the warning. However, Steve Rathje reporting on this study, argues why its findings are inconclusive and even lead to wrong conclusions. His primary objection to the results is that trigger warnings were tested on the general public and not on populations that were suffering from trauma. He further notes that there has been no evidence that when trigger warnings are given, students actually avoid the material and, therefore, all that the warning does is give them the heads up they need to be aware of what is coming.

Everything is a trigger for someone

In today’s global environment, conflict, violence, discrimination, and marginalization affects almost everyone. Educators are asking how is it possible for them to know which topics might be considered triggers. In fact, depending on what you teach, every topic might be a trigger for someone. Richard J. McNally, professor and director of clinical training in psychology at Harvard University, wrote in New York Times op-ed that often times the trigger warning debate fails to acknowledge the fact that trauma and PTSD are very different and trigger warnings do nothing for PTSD. For us, the concern is that most educators are not qualified to assess which topics require trigger warnings and which students need them. It would actually be very wrong for the teachers to be put in the position of having to decide what a student needs. On the point McNally makes about the difference between trauma and PTSD, our thought is that maybe Jessica Blackburn and others have the answer: “trigger warnings may be neither harmful nor helpful.” So why not just take an empathetic approach to teaching and provide them for those who might find it useful? It is good way to show our concern for student well-being.

Do Trigger Warnings Curtail Freedom of Speech?

The questions many ask is whether trigger warnings curtail free speech because we have to protect people’s feelings. The other fear is that trigger warnings or safe spaces will make it difficult to pursue intellectual inquiry and critical thinking. Chris Berg argues that trigger warnings and safe spaces are being misused. And Krystle Richardson, while agreeing with him on that point, says that just because some students misuse the safe space, “we risk tainting something that’s providing tangible assistance to others.” So really it boils down to how we use the space and how we structure trigger warnings, should we chose to use them.

Here is a link to the National Coalition Against Censorship report as an additional resource.

Would prefer a term other than “trigger warning” because I don’t like the gun reference.

Yes, absolutely. This argument has gained a lot of momentum and many now prefer to use the term content warning. The term trigger makes us automatically think of guns and for some, furthers the trauma. The term ‘content warning’ is now preferred.

It does seem like we have a lot of arguments for why trigger warnings are not useful or helpful and some that even insist that they might be harmful. All that said, an overarching comment from the poll results and all the research we have done is that trigger warnings should not be mandated. If individual educators choose to do it, it is would be their prerogative and it would display their willingness to be sensitive to the needs of at least some of their students. We found this article where three professors discuss how they handle trigger warnings quite interesting. Some of us might find their approaches useful to reflect on. Stephen J. Ceci, Scott O. Lilenfeld, and Wendy M. Williams suggest some possible solutions to this very polarising issue in their article. We would conclude with our thoughts for what we can do at MIIS:

  • Similar to what Ceci et al. state, we could have a one-time briefing during orientation on the type of learning students can expect to engage in the school — both in the classroom and on campus activities such as invited speakers, dialogues and discussions, and club organized events.
  • Individual faculty members who feel the need could add a note about the kinds of content one can expect in a particular course. These may be detailed in the syllabus rather than provided verbally in the beginning of a class.
  • There could also be a note in the syllabus on ways students could address distressing materials encountered in class. These could range from: talking to the instructor after class to seeking mental health support services through the school.
  • Supporting one another through an empathetic approach to discussions and interactions  in and out of the classroom.
  • It seems essential to improve mental health services on our campus including the possibility of on-campus counselling services. Many of the articles we have provided links for stress the need to improve campus services for mental health rather than debate about trigger warnings.

If you are interested in discussing this topic more, please come to Nadine Vogel’s lecture, “R U Okay?: Mental Health Awareness in Higher Education”. We hope that this event will be an opportunity for the MIIS community to continue enriching its understanding of mental health resources so that our campus can continue to grow and include more voices. To join the conversation, come to Irvine Auditorium on Tuesday, March 26th, from 6:30 PM to 8:30 PM.