Early 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. The professor would be obligated to excuse students from those lectures or assignments, with no points deducted, if the students thought the material would distress them. 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 in social media and on the Internet, but news of this resolution has been the onset of a nationwide debate over whether or not such resolutions are threatening academic freedom while trying 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 affect of triggering content on students with PTSD , both diagnosed and undiagnosed.” The resolution also suggests a list of “triggers,” including “rape, sexual assault, abuse, self-injurious behavior, suicide, graphic violence, pornography, kidnapping and graphic depictions of gore.”
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.”
Also, 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 range from various factors, including anything from a particular scent or taste, a time or place, or even certain colors or objects. In this sense, almost anything can be classified as a “trigger” — the smell of musky cologne, the changing of the seasons or even red balloons at a birthday celebration.
The problem with such a resolution is not 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. Applying “trigger warnings” to academic curricula forces us to accept a fatalistic approach to language and ideas that are explored in the academic sphere. Certainly, a word or an idea can call to memory a bad experience or provoke an intense reaction, but neither possess inherent harm. There also exists no rational reason as to why such warnings need to be applied because it is impossible to measure the potential effect of a word or an idea. This begs the question: if we do begin to place “trigger warnings” on academic content, where do we stop?