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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Tuesday, May 28, 2024

You're both wrong about trigger warnings

Like all political debates, someone is right and someone else is wrong when it comes to trigger warnings on college campuses. Or at least that's what the tsunami of think pieces chiming in on the debate would have us believe. Doubt me and just Google it to get a sense of the righteous indignation on either side of the issue. And there are two sides. We have the activism camp full of people who value trigger warnings and want to see their usage proliferate. And we have the free speech camp full of people who go to bat for the greater good of us all defending the First Amendment tooth and nail. How will this unsolvable conflict be solved? Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Well, make some popcorn and pull up a seat because, like most political debates, everyone’s missing the point.

But first, some context. Trigger warnings center around instances of trauma in order to help survivors of it navigate day-to-day life. A survivor of sexual violence, for instance, might hope for a trigger warning on a video shown in class that depicts rape. This warning would help prepare that person for the material and knowingly engaging with it. It gives the student the opportunity to do whatever they felt necessary to stay healthy and attentive during that segment of class. Fortunately for their professor, adding a trigger warning to potentially graphic material is easy. Just type the words “trigger warning” on their syllabus or lecture slides. Bullet dodged.

Unfortunately, this simple-enough request from survivors of trauma has been muddied by free speech vigilantes. "Where is the line?" they ask. "When is enough, enough?" They challenge unique curricula for certain students and sometimes take time to decide for survivors whether survivors' feelings are legitimate or not. These (mostly older) warriors are saving us from our coddled selves, swooping in on politically incorrect steeds to staunchly defend their right to offend.

And so we have the debate. Angry twenty-something activists on one side, with every Baby Boomer, including Obama, on the other. Well I’m here to make a suggestion. Relax, lay off your indignant Facebook posts and ask yourself some tough questions. Are trigger warnings difficult to implement? No. Do trigger warnings result in students disengaging with or avoiding material? Not even close. So then what’s the problem, again?

It’s fear. Professors are afraid of litigation, of being censored, students are afraid of, well, being triggered, or of being called out by their peers. See, no one wants to be caught up on the wrong side of morality or feel like they’re a bad person. By accepting trigger warnings, professors make themselves vulnerable to not triggering warning enough and facing the consequences. For activists, losing the fight for warnings means potentially being traumatized while in class. Needless to say, for these folks, the stakes are high.

However, what neither side is considering is that “the possibility that trigger warnings might be ineffective, impractical and necessary for creating safe spaces all at once,” as Roxanne Gay argues. In this debate, we have fear. We have students in pain. We have professors wringing their hands. Neither side has an air-tight argument, and neither side is ready to concede. And that’s why they’re missing the point. What Gay is clearly pointing out is trigger warnings aren’t the panacea activists want them to be or the demise of free speech Baby Boomers decry them as. Trigger warnings are simultaneously impractical, flawed and important. Can a professor reasonably anticipate every potential trigger in every possible moment? No. Can TV stations anticipate every scene that ought to have “viewer discretion advised” screens put before them? Of course not -- but they sure try, anyway. Can simply putting the word “trigger warning” on a syllabus address in any considerable way the trauma those students experience? Doubtful. But is it a start. Does it help? Definitely.

The lesson here is put down your weapons, people. Find some common ground. The two little words, "trigger warning," pale in significance to other issues faced in American higher education. College students are struggling economically,hurting mentally and literally dying. One in four college women will be assaulted while at school, and it is more than likely, if the crime is reported, that the college will mishandle it. Anxiety is on the rise within this age group, as are depression and bipolar disorder. More college students are dropping out than in previous years, and mental health resources for coping with all this strife are often woefully inadequate. Simply put, we have bigger problems. Yes, perhaps young activists go too far sometimes, even if they do acknowledge it later, and perhaps, "Liberal ArtsProfessor" has some good points, even if he is barking up the wrong tree. But at the end of the day, we need to dial this back a bit, relax and layoff the internet lambasting. Professors, put trigger warnings if it seems smart. Students, use your (inside) voice, cut your elder a break and recognize that change will come, albeit maybe more slowly than you’d want.

What this debate needs to move forward is not more public figures coming out on one side or the other or another parallax-scrolling think piece more impressive than the last but a new framework. Instead of re-inscribing the narrative of black and white justice onto these conversations of social justice and equity, the debate needs to learn to listen and grow. Activists need to cede that no space can be completely safe, and professors and administrators need to realize the psychological and mental realities of their students. Trauma doubters are not a new phenomenon, and it’s a misnomer to consider students today as simply “more sensitive.” Let’s spend less time debating the merit of each other’s realities and more time taking action toward growth and change. And if you’re still thinking trigger warnings are for the coddled baby in every college twenty-something, heed Kevin Drum’s advice: “...sometimes worthwhile progress gets its start from even the dumbest movements.”