The Conundrum of Trigger Warnings
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Trigger warnings are statements at the start of a piece of writing, video, or at the start of a class, which are commonly used to alert a reader, viewer, or student to the fact that there could be potentially distressing material ahead. Students may hear, “During this semester we will be discussing events that may be sensitive and traumatizing to some students.” This phrase- or one like it- is often delivered to students by their teachers, either through a syllabus or in a class discussion. The words, trigger warning, while short and simple, have caused a lot of debate.
An individual might have heard the phrase “trigger warnings” on social media, such as in messages that warn viewers about sensitive material, but how do they apply to school? While trigger warnings mainly evolved on the internet, they have been placed on syllabuses for the same purpose. In theory, trigger warnings are a heads-up to help people who may have suffered from trauma so that they may prepare themselves for discussions and potential questions.
This sounds simple enough, but trigger warnings have received a lot of backlash. Some have accused those who support trigger warnings of limiting freedom of speech, avoiding certain important subjects, or purposely trying to get out of class discussions. Whether this is true or not, a stigma around trigger warnings has been created, to the point where they are used pejoratively and mockingly. Trigger warnings have become a hot-button issue in the larger discussion about political correctness and have been widely written about. From a pro-trigger warning editorial in the New York Times to an Atlantic cover story, strongly against trigger warnings, the Atlantic asserted that they add to the “coddling of the American mind”.
In the Atlantic, an article raging against trigger warnings was recently published. They accused warnings on sensitive material of being the ultimate show of softening the millennial generation. To a certain extent, their concern is valid; people who are saying that sensitive material in class violates them and demand to be able to skip class, are extreme.
Unfortunately, when the Atlantic focuses on the rare cases to try and prove that trigger warnings should never be used, they miss the point of trigger warnings. What they don’t understand is that it isn’t just a feeling of discomfort as much as it is a physical attack. Yes, discussing sensitive topics in a safe area (such as school) is a good place to start, but even if they are in a safe place, students with trauma can’t simply change their emotions the moment they walk into the class. Giving a side note on the syllabus gives the person time so that they can adjust to the feelings these topics procure.
A pro-trigger warning article written by an assistant professor in the New York Times summed up the purpose of the trigger warning the best, saying, “The point is not to enable — let alone encourage — students to skip these readings or our subsequent class discussion… rather, it is to allow those who are sensitive to these subjects to prepare themselves for reading about them, and better manage their reactions.” Trigger warnings are to help students prepare themselves so they can prevent the nausea, dizziness, or disorientation that can occur when having a panic attack and maybe remind students who are not affected by PTSD that the topics discussed do apply to real people and perhaps that empathy could lead to a greater understanding of the subject being taught.
So, should trigger warnings be used? Perhaps with a little bit of regulation and student and teacher communication, trigger warnings can be normalized, not over-sensitized or over-done. Trigger warnings enable those at risk for panic attacks to make steps toward preventing them. Hopefully, with students and teachers keeping open minds in regards to trigger warnings, it will enable a better, kinder, more aware world.