When Trigger Warnings Don’t Work

Related imageTrigger warnings” have been all the rage lately. They’ve sparked a national discussion, but what have they really accomplished? “What is a trigger warning?” asks Mariah Flynn, the Education Program Coordinator for the Greater Good Science Center.

The term, often used interchangeably with “content warning,” is a heads up that readers may encounter distressing content—and in recent years, trigger or content warnings have become controversial. To some, like University of Chicago administrators, such warnings keep students from being challenged or engaging with provocative course materials. Others feel that such warnings are useful tools that keep learners from having a strong emotional response to certain kinds of content, usually depicting physical or emotional violence.

For all of the excitement around trigger warnings, they’re actually quite rare. In an effort to gather more information about their use on college campuses, the National Coalition Against Censorship conducted a survey of over 800 educators from the Modern Language Association and the College Art Association—and found that only one percent reported that their institutions had adopted a policy on trigger warnings. Moreover, only fifteen percent of respondents said that students had asked for warnings.

In many respects, framing content warnings as a “censorship” or “free speech” issue is not helpful to professors or students. There is no evidence that they lead to the widespread suppression of troubling material or class discussion. At worst, warnings are merely gratuitous for a majority of students. At their best, however, content warnings can actually help students engage with course material and develop a caring relationship with their teachers.

So while some students may claim they are too “triggered” to read classical mythology, actual policies regarding trigger warnings are rare (even if campus politics are not). Yet, Flynn points out that

[a]bout three-fourths of us will experience trauma over the course of our lifetime. About ten percent of those people will develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), experiencing symptoms like flashbacks, memory gaps, depression, or hyper-vigilance.

Avoiding triggering topics—a very common strategy for people with PTSD—isn’t the best way to process traumatic events. Avoidance of triggers is a symptom of PTSD, not a cure. In fact, exposure therapy (a specific type of cognitive behavioral therapy where patients are exposed to physical or mental reminders of their trauma) is not only most common method for treating PTSD; it’s also one of the most effective.

This research might lead some to suggest that perhaps we don’t need to be so concerned about student’s exposure to triggering content, if exposure is the best way for them to process past traumatic events. However, exposure therapy works best under the care of a trained therapist. Even though exposure is an effective way to deal with PTSD, instructors aren’t therapists and the classroom is not an appropriate place for such a therapy.

Trigger warnings are also challenging to implement, because identifying potential triggers isn’t easy. Individuals with past trauma are often triggered by seemingly neutral things that have nothing to do with the content an instructor might present in class—the scent of a certain type of cologne or hearing a song associated with the traumatic event they experienced. Educators won’t always know what might trigger a student who is a victim of trauma and can’t possibly provide a warning for everything that might be a trigger.

Flynn suggests three ways of tackling the issue:

  1. Be upfront about what students can expect from your course.
  2. Consider alternative readings or activities.
  3. Offer information on other coping strategies and self-care.

There are ways to be sensitive to the experiences and mental health of students. Implementing trigger warnings doesn’t seem to be the most effective means of doing so, especially when the policy is hijacked by political agendas.