Trigger warnings shouldn't be a thing in the classroom or elsewhere

Trigger warnings shouldn't be a thing in the classroom or elsewhere
© Greg Nash

The media coverage since the controversy over his Supreme Court nomination has focused on the numerous sexual misconduct allegations against Brett Kavanaugh. Yet, few of these stories, including those detailing graphic depictions of attempted sexual assault or other sexual misconduct, had a trigger warning — a caution that the content might be upsetting or disturbing.

Defenders of Kavanaugh have argued that such warnings exemplify the liberal snowflake mentality — but they are wrong, about me, at least. I am a liberal, feminist academic working on sexual violence, the embodiment of a social justice warrior; but I don’t support trigger warnings in the classroom or elsewhere. The reason is simple: Life doesn’t come with a trigger warning.

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The entrance of trigger warnings into popular awareness is attributed to expanded knowledge of post-traumatic stress disorder; in 2014, students across American colleges and universities began to demand the use of trigger warnings in classroom environments, sparking intense academic debate that continues today.

This May, my class on public health and human rights had a difficult conversation about trigger warnings. Despite an entire page in the class syllabus outlining course agreements and a detailed list of session topics, some students asked for future trigger warnings after hearing presentations made by their peers. The topics — also swirling around Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination — included sexual violence and abortion, things we had previously discussed in class.

Students in favor of trigger warnings desire safe spaces and advance notice of difficult topics so that they may choose whether to engage in conversation and manage their own emotional reactions  — often because of personal trauma.

To be clear, survivors are not responsible in any way for their own trauma; they are responsible for their own self-care and emotional regulation. For some this means removing themselves from situations or circumstances that remind them of their traumatic past. Avoidance of re-traumatization is the reason many people have taken a social media break from the current news cycle.

Others, survivors included, don’t need or want trigger warnings because to them such warning may represent a patronizing protectionism where survivors voices are silenced through self-censorship. It reinforces victimhood, deprives listeners the opportunity to learn and survivors’ opportunity to share their experiences. Respect for survivors who feel this way is distinctly different from attacks on veterans, sexual assault survivors and others who have experienced trauma.

My course co-instructor, a clinical psychologist, shared that she had never heard of trigger warnings; her entire professional world is steeped in stories of trauma. Yet it is through the explorations of such stories and experiences that survivors receiving mental health support are able to recover, learn and grow.

Like therapy, the classroom is a place for exploration and growth; inquiry and debate are at the heart of academia. For many universities trigger warnings represent a direct threat to freedom of expression. In 2015, the University of Chicago issued its statement on free expression, “Debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong - headed…to engage in such debate and deliberation in an effective and responsible manner is an essential part of the University’s educational mission.” To date 35 universities have adopted these principles.

The classroom isn’t the only place where we are meant to learn. So is life. And that is where the hard work of crucial and even triggering conversation lives. Stigmatizing and silencing discussions about sexual violence doesn’t change the fact that 1 in 3 women and 1 in 6 men have experienced it; talking about it and others sensitive issues like suicide are important steps toward addressing these problems.

That doesn’t mean the conversation should devolve into the victim-blaming, proof-demanding, partisan screeds that have characterized the case of Brett Kavanaugh and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. That is why the traumatized requested trigger warnings in the first place.

At the same time we must avoid assumptions about the experiences of others, especially people with whom we disagree.

Instead, we can infuse our interactions with the principles of trauma informed care including trust and a collaborative spirit. Rather than pouring salt in old wounds, approaching our academic and public conversations in this way will trigger greater understanding, not trauma.

Dabney P. Evans, PhD, MPH is an associate professor of public health at Emory University and a Public Voices fellow of The OpEd Project