Imagine, if you will, a dramatic twist in the narrative of a popular television series – let’s go with Game of Thrones. It does have a habit of keeping you on your toes, after all. You’re an avid fan. You’ve not seen the latest episode yet. Thank god every major media outlet, every Facebook friend discussing the brutal, unexpected end of your favourite character on your timeline, precedes the discussion with a quick spoiler warning. You don’t have to confront the tragic loss of Catelyn Stark until you’re settled in your living room, take-out pizza in hand, primed and ready.
The spoiler warning: widely respected, widely expected, a way of preventing one’s enjoyment of a television series, film, or book from being soured. But now we turn to the trigger warning – mocked, lampooned, regarded as a means by which to coddle a generation who can’t face the real world.
In a welcome letter to students, the University of Chicago Dean, John ‘Jay’ Ellison, made it clear that the University as a body does not support academic trigger warnings, as well as safe spaces and no-platforming. Citing this as a “commitment to academic freedom”, Ellison maintained the perspective that such warnings led to students shutting down debate, hastily dashing away from any worldview that may be at odds with their own.
To view trigger warnings as a means by which those unable to face reality stick their fingers in their ears, nip in the bud a friendly discussion on a topical issue, is to fundamentally misunderstand their nature. They are a way to respect people’s boundaries on sensitive issues, without infringing on their privacy, and forcing survivors of trauma and abuse to out themselves as such. Trigger warnings are not for matters of opinion – you will never see [TW: right-wing politics] on the PowerPoint before a lecture. They are to signal discussions of topics like self-injury, suicide, and sexual assault. They allow those who will be distressed by such things to either excuse themselves from the conversation, or mentally prepare for what’s to come. The individual is allowed a moment of personal autonomy, and they may then choose how to proceed.
Take this hypothetical situation – you know a friend of yours is a victim of rape. As a result, you understand it would be inappropriate to casually strike up a conversation on the subject. A lecturer or seminar leader is highly unlikely to know about your friend’s experience, but as an educated individual, they should understand that tragedies happen, and thus it would still be unprofessional to discuss such a topic as part of the curriculum without a disclaimer beforehand. This disclaimer is a trigger warning.
Many maintain that trigger warnings are still unacceptable, even as courtesies. They say that life outside of academia doesn’t cater to trauma like this. People should be slowly exposing themselves to the things they’re afraid of, building up a thicker skin, instead of constantly running and hiding. But this simply isn’t the case. Firstly, it’s probably not the best shout to push a friend into a panic attack, as if you’re helping them face their fears. Exposure therapy exists, but let’s leave it to the professionals. Secondly, life off-campus does in fact contain trigger warnings – they are simply in nature rather than name. On the back of a DVD case you’ll often find a list of scenes viewers may find distressing, disclosing that there will be violence, nudity, or strong language. Before a report on a terrorist attack, the newsreader will state that some viewers may find the following content distressing. Coffee cups alert us that the drink inside is hot, just in case we forget. We are constantly made aware of things which may upset or harm us, and this should be the case in our classrooms too.
Next time you see a trigger warning, try not to view it as the parody that’s evolved in the mainstream narrative, of a far-left strawman refusing to have a civil discussion lest their feelings be hurt. It’s simply a way to keep people safe. Each trigger warning may ruffle a few feathers, but if it prevents even one PTSD flashback, then it’s all been worth it.