You have been warned: the debate on trigger warnings
Opinions are divided on the subject of ‘trigger warnings’—statements cautioning you that what you’re about to read, watch, or listen to might cause emotional or psychological distress. For their defenders these alerts show sensitivity to the needs of vulnerable people; for their critics they’re a new form of ‘political correctness’, another sign that, as one recent writer put it, ‘fear of being offensive is killing free speech’.
Warnings that alert people to potentially offensive or disturbing material aren’t new, and they’re not always controversial. There is no outcry, for instance, about TV announcements warning that a programme contains ‘strong language’, or ‘scenes some viewers may find upsetting’. If trigger warnings do a similar job, why has their reception been so different?
Part of what’s controversial about them is that they extend the practice of giving warnings to new settings like the classroom, where it is neither traditional nor, in many people’s view, desirable. But this is also a conflict about the meaning of offensiveness, and who has the right to define it for whom.
From the clinic to the classroom
The meaning of trigger in ‘trigger warning’ (and related expressions like ‘I find X triggering’ or ‘I’m triggered by X’) derives from the way the term is used by experts in the field of mental health. A ‘trigger’ is a stimulus that brings on symptoms like flashbacks or panic in people with conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s thought that the earliest use of trigger warnings occurred in online support groups for survivors of sexual violence, where the point was not to avoid offending others, but to enable them to avoid graphic descriptions that might trigger PTSD symptoms.
But as trigger warnings spread beyond their original context, trigger began to be used more loosely. This is a common pattern in the history of words: the same thing has happened to other mental health-related terms that have crossed over from expert into everyday language. When we call someone ‘neurotic’ or ‘paranoid’, for instance, we don’t usually mean what a psychiatrist would mean; paranoid in everyday usage just means something like ‘unduly suspicious of others’ motives’. Nowadays, similarly, a person who says they are ‘triggered’ by something may mean only that they are angered and upset by it.
This usage is particularly common among young people who are active in contemporary social justice movements. One feature of this political culture is its concern about ‘symbolic violence’, the harm done to oppressed minorities (like people of colour and LGBT people) by words, ideas, and representations. In many online forums (and some offline ones, like student unions), this has led to the adoption of ‘safe space’ policies designed to protect the groups in question. As well as prohibiting hate-speech and verbal abuse, these policies may place restrictions on what topics or ideas can be discussed, by whom and in what ways. Trigger warnings are part of this regulatory apparatus: they enable people to opt out of a discussion if they are worried that its content may make them feel unsafe.
Safe space policies have become contentious where attempts have been made to extend them to the classroom. At some institutions, student activists have called for trigger warnings alerting them to ‘any upcoming class materials that could potentially be offensive, explicit, or controversial’. This formulation shows how the definition of ‘trigger’ has broadened: it’s no longer just about graphic content that might traumatize vulnerable people, but can apply to anything deemed ‘offensive’ or ‘controversial’. This has prompted the criticism that trigger warnings are a form of censorship; a way of banishing ‘difficult’ topics and silencing unpopular opinions.
To many critics it seems especially puzzling that the demand for protection from ‘controversial’ ideas is coming from the young and well-educated. Some see this as a worrying sign that young people today lack resilience. It’s been suggested that a combination of ‘helicopter parenting’ and growing up with the insecurities of a post-9/11 world has left the millennial generation unable to cope with the normal challenges of adult life. But it may have more to do with two other recent developments: changing ideas about what’s ‘offensive’ or ‘controversial’, and the greater diversity of the student population.
Traditional ways of marking content as ‘sensitive’ (like the TV announcements mentioned earlier) are based on certain assumptions about the audience’s sensitivities. Core concerns include sex, nudity, violence, blasphemy, and obscene or profane language; they do not include racism, sexism, or homophobia. For many younger people, however, those priorities are reversed: they are far more offended by racism or homophobia than they are by profanity or nudity. It’s these newer sensitivities that have come to the fore in calls for trigger warnings on class materials.
Those demands are seen as a challenge to the idea that universities should encourage robust debate on contentious issues. But that idea dates from a time when universities were more socially homogeneous: it’s bound to cause more conflict when participants in a debate include many who are personally affected by the issue. To some Black or gay or Muslim students it may not seem obvious that every argument deserves a hearing, and that abstract principles of free speech should come before the condemnation of prejudice and injustice.
That’s not to say the student activists’ view is the only one we should consider. We may not think that classrooms either can or should be ‘safe spaces’. But there might still be an argument for acknowledging that certain topics are sensitive—and that’s one of the purposes trigger warnings can serve. Whether or not we think they’re the answer, the question isn’t going to go away.