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The Trigger Warning Debate

In the past year or so, college students have gained attention for advocating the use of trigger warnings in classroom settings.

This development has been met quite negatively; an article in The Atlantic last September that opposes warnings states, “the ultimate aim, it seems, is to turn campuses into “safe spaces” where young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable.” While these concerns are understandable, the arguments behind them are weak and rely on the idea that students that attempt to exercise influence over their education are needy and undeserving.

Trigger warnings originally existed to warn those who have had a traumatic life experience that some content may evoke past trauma, thus giving them a choice whether or not to engage it. The motive behind desiring such a warning is clear: it’s hard for anyone to focus on understanding something when reminds them of a life event they’d rather forget or, worse, still struggle with. It doesn’t seem like a significant demand offer such a warning- in fact, it almost seems polite.

Of course, all actions are open to misinterpretation, and trigger warnings have received significant criticism from those who view warnings as a reason for students to simply ignore material they disagree with. Such fears are understandable- a subject cannot be completely understood if parts of it are ignored- but they also miss the original point of the warning. Traumatic events are involuntary- as a New York Times op-ed explains.

“For someone who has experienced major trauma, vivid reminders can serve to induce states of body and mind that are rationally eclipsing […] The thought behind trigger warnings isn’t just that these states are highly unpleasant (although they certainly are). It’s that they temporarily render people unable to focus, regardless of their desire or determination to do so.”

Such an event is clearly counterproductive to one’s education. A student concerned about their ability to engage potentially triggering material would then be able to work with their professor to find a better accommodation.

Now, the merits of trigger warnings remain controversial, but the debate only scratches the surface of the problem and fail to understand that the call for trigger warnings is only a symptom of deeper social problems.

There would be less need to avoid provocative content if its substance didn’t continue to harm people and damage society.

Opposition to warnings is understandable since they represent a change in social customs- those who were satisfied in a world without the change likely don’t understand the need for one. Despite this, it should remain painfully obvious why trigger warnings serve a purpose, even to those who lack past trauma. For those people, there are similar situations- for example, if I told you who dies in the new Star Wars movie, you’d be rather upset at me, and that would ruin your impression of this article. Thus, clearly, if I want this interaction to benefit the both of us, I’ll keep my knowledge of plot details to myself.

1 Comment on The Trigger Warning Debate

  1. But who is the authority on when and what they should be used for? The author seems to imply that they know but I would disagree. So trigger warnings should precede *every* class or none at all.

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The Trigger Warning Debate