Earlier last week, the LA Times published an article, “Warning: College students this editorial may upset you,” about how the student Senate at UC Santa Barbara recently passed a resolution that calls for mandatory “trigger warnings” to be issued by professors to their students if an upcoming lecture, class discussion, activity and/or assignment might cause psychological or emotional distress. A “trigger warning” gets its name from the term “trauma trigger,” the latter being what psychologists and mental health professionals refer to as an experience that may evoke a traumatic event. “Trigger warnings” are not new on the Internet and in the social media sphere, but news of this resolution has been the onset of a nationwide debate over whether or not such resolutions are threatening academic freedom by censoring class material in an attempt to protect students’ sensitivities.
The goal of the UCSB resolution states in part that, “including trigger warnings is not a form of criticism or censorship of content.” Furthermore, “it does not restrict academic freedom but simply requests the respect and acknowledgement of the effect of triggering content on students with P.T.S.D., both diagnosed and undiagnosed.” The resolution also suggests a list of “triggers,” including “rape, sexual assault, abuse, self-injurious behavior, suicide, graphic violence, pornography and graphic depictions of gore.”
What makes the UCSB resolution more controversial is the fact that if students do find course material to be distressing, professors will have to excuse the students from those lectures and assignments without a deduction in points from their grade. This aspect of the resolution is what is drawing criticism from anti-censorship advocates, who believe that “trigger warnings” will give students a concrete reason to skip class without reprimand. This also proves unfair for students who regularly attend class and are still held accountable for their attendance and completion of assignments, as well as further muddling the lines between what material is and is not appropriate to be introduced in the academic course to begin with.
Marc Blecher, a political science professor at Oberlin College, was featured in an article by the New Republic, in which he states that he believes Oberlin’s new “trigger warning” policy — meant to guide university faculty in avoiding subjects that could induce “triggers” relating to “heterosexism, cissexism, [and] ableism” — constitutes as academic censorship. He explained that the purpose of a liberal arts education is “to challenge students, to conduct open inquiry in classrooms, [and] to make students feel uncomfortable.” Blecher’s statement inspires a point: most students enroll in a course knowing a bit about the nature of material to be covered. This leaves sole discretion to the students in deciding whether or not they would like to take the course.
In addition, recent psychological and mental health research conducted at the University of Pennsylvania on P.T.S.D. (post-traumatic stress disorder) suggests that, for those who have experienced trauma, “triggers” can be unpredictable and difficult to understand. “Triggers” can arise from various different factors, including a particular taste or smell, a certain time or place, or specific colors or objects. In this sense, almost anything can be classified as a “trigger.”
The problem with a “trigger warning” resolution, like the one at UCSB, is not found in its intent or the attempt to validate individual experiences, but the sole fact that a “trigger” warning will not solve the core problems most commonly exhibited by individuals who have P.T.S.D. or other mental health issues, nor will it be fair to students who have not experienced traumatic events that allow them to cite a “trigger warning” as reason to miss class lectures or assignments. Instead, focus needs to be placed on strengthening the awareness and availability of campus psychology and mental health resources to help aid students in their recovery and healing process, and also for professors to provide supplemental assignments to accommodate students who cannot participate fully in their academic courses due to distressing material. Otherwise, “trigger warnings” are a threat to academic freedom.