Trigger warnings (and their subsequent mocking in popular culture) are not a new thing: they are intended to serve as a mechanism, originally coming into use on the internet, to warn people, traditionally those with post-traumatic stress disorder or some form of anxiety or panic invoking trauma to a possibly “triggering” topic or image that is about to be discussed or depicted. Most commonly, they now seem to be used in university settings to warn students in lectures, readings, or seminars on topics such as abuse, rape, violence, etc.
There has been considerable backlash against the use of trigger warnings: the common sentiment seems to be that the use of them serves to coddle infantile students who want to avoid anything that might make them at all uncomfortable, a notion which is explored in this article entitled The Coddling of the American Mind, by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathon Haidt. Lukianoff and Haidt seem to think that the entire idea of trigger warning only serves to shelter already sheltered millennials even further, while simultaneously being actively harmful to mental health. In order for a university to serve its purpose, in other words, students have to be faced with ideas that they find difficult, upsetting, or even actively repulsive, or else they fail to grow and learn.
To those who do not suffer from PTSD, or anxiety disorders, it is easy to see how trigger warnings may appear to be an exaggerated form of adult coddling. However, the reality is that the response one has when exposed to something that triggers a traumatic event from ones past into concious thought is often a physiological one, one that manifests itself in panic attacks, and often an overshadowing of the rational side of the brain as the brain recedes into “fight or flight mode”: surely such an intense, physical response to the mention of something, which might be hypothetically avoided with a quick mention of what is to come, will allow the individual to prepare mentally, and in turn be more receptive to the “academic growth” that Lukianoff and Haidt are so concerned with.
What Lukianoff and Haidt fail to consider, then, is that one might be able to learn, grow, and mature not just in spite of, but indeed because of, the presence of a trigger warning much more effectively than without one. In their article, Lukianoff and Haidt argue that the absence of trigger warnings should function in the same way that exposure therapies do in the treatment of anxiety disorders and phobias: while this makes sense on a certain level, I don’t think that the analogy holds up perfectly. Surely in order for the analogy to function, one needs to be actively and continuously exposed to the triggers, rather than sporadically once or twice.
However, I will concede that there do seem to be issues of overusing trigger warnings: the use of them when it comes to things are simply offensive, or anger-inducing, or potentially contentious in the classroom is unnecessary. Unlike trigger warnings for traumatic events or seriously anxiety-inducing events, things that might merely be deemed “offensive” to some people should nonetheless be within the conscious control of the individual: in other words, while someone who suffers from PTSD usually cannot control their reactions to a triggering event, anger is an emotion the control of which (hopefully) lies within the rational mind.
The question, then, should not be if we should use trigger warnings, but rather when to use trigger warnings. They should in no way exist to limit the academic freedom that is so intrinsically important to the integrity of a “good” academic institution: they should not be used to censor, or to excuse students from engaging from potentially disturbing and difficult material. Simultaneously, I see no reason why they should anger students who don’t find them useful or understand the need for them. If anything, understanding the reason why they are there should make you more sympathetic to those who are learning alongside you, which in turn leads to more thoughtful and inclusive discussion. In other words, it is important to move away from a reductive stigma that trigger warnings coddle or excuse students from difficult subjects that are necessary for academic growth. Trigger warnings, at their best, allow for the planned rationalization on the part of those who might otherwise by paralyzed into stagnation.