Trigger Warnings

An example of a trigger warning before content online

What's happening?


Trigger warnings are notes placed before content to warn readers of potentially unsettling material. Usually, trigger warnings are aimed at those who have survived significant trauma or have related mental health conditions. 


At one end of the spectrum, a trigger warning can function as a considerate heads up (see above, or think Jimmy Fallon telling viewers "if you google 'ring avulsion,' it'll be graphic.") At the other, it can prevent people from engaging with and learning from difficult content (Oberlin recommending making material optional if it qualifies for a trigger warning.) Topics for trigger warnings include sexual assault, suicide, addiction, and more.


As trigger warnings have become more popular, they have been held up as an example of 'political correctness' interfering with intellectual freedom.  The accusation defies traditional partisan politics; though often focused on liberal students' complaints, socially conservative students' objections also made news in the Duke 'Fun Home' controversy. 


The conversation almost entirely revolves around college campuses, though extends to lifelong learning and media as a whole.


Why is this important?


Opposing views


Proponents of trigger warnings defend the practice as considerate of mental health and necessary for productive discussion and student welfare. To advocates, trigger warnings do not censor objectionable views but rather make the classroom safe for traumatized, marginalized, or previously silenced voices. 


Critics claim that trigger warnings prioritize emotion over education. Even if material is not made optional, they argue, trigger warnings still harm intellectual pursuit by encouraging faculty to remove works from syllabi and setting infantilizing standards. Critics also believe trigger warnings feed the idea that offensiveness can be determined objectively, which biases students before discussion. Further, they assert avoiding traumatic topics only perpetuates fear. Though not explicitly addressing trigger warnings, President Obama has spoken out against students insulating themselves from different points of view. 


Larger Question


The trigger warning controversy asks the question, where is the line between creating a safe and productive learning environment and stifling the difficult and sometimes troubling process of learning itself?


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