Content Warning: Sexual assault, rape, violence, PTSD
Trigger warnings have no doubt become a hotly debated topic on college campuses in recent years. The conversation around trigger warnings was highlighted by a statement made by the University of Chicago to its 2020 freshman class, expressing that the school would not support trigger warnings because of its commitment to freedom of expression and to providing challenging intellectual discussion. However, the challenge of dealing with and avoiding trauma is something that universities should never place on their students. By not providing trigger warnings or safe spaces for their students, universities make themselves culpable in and students vulnerable to possible traumatization.
It has become popular to ridicule trigger warnings and safe spaces as things that further entrench “PC culture” and create liberal echo chambers where intellectualism is stifled. The truth is that much of the criticism surrounding trigger warnings stem from a fundamental misunderstanding about what trigger warnings actually are. A trigger warning is a statement at the beginning of a piece of writing, video, etc. which notifies the reader that it contains material that is potentially distressing. Trigger warnings are typically applied to material that is graphic in nature, such as depictions of violence or sexual violence. An example of academic content that would warrant a trigger warning are literature classes, where certain books can include graphic depictions of violence and rape. Examples include Janne Teller’s Nothing, which at one point depicts the rape of a young girl; Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, which details multiple rapes of a young girl by her abusive father, and Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, which portrays the cynicism of American soldiers in the face of the extreme brutality they experience fighting in Vietnam.
The idea that a trigger warning is something that helps people avoid hearing things they don’t agree with is incorrect. Trigger warnings serve only to protect survivors of traumatic events and to help them deal with their trauma at their own pace. Having a “tough discussion” in the name of intellectualism does not support good education when individuals are having to relive damaging experiences. If anything, trigger warnings serve to preserve education because when somebody is being retraumatized they are not in any position to learn anything at all.
Forcing an individual to face their trauma head on is typically a terrible idea. Exposure therapy within the school of psychodynamic theory, for example, often employs a technique called “flooding,” in which the victim’s stimuli is flooded with the trauma of the event, and the traumatizing event is reenacted. This is an extremely controversial technique because of the near-certain probability that the victim would experience their trauma over again, and undo any progress made towards overcoming their pain up to that point.
Though I have not experienced traumatic events, people that are close to me have experienced trauma, including my father. My father is a veteran who was deployed to combat zones in Afghanistan in 2007 and 2014. During his deployments he bore witness to suicide bombings on and nearby his base and also daily Taliban rocket attacks directed towards his base. He also worked in hospitals where he became acquainted with the gruesome realities of warfare, including a Taliban man who accidentally detonated an explosive device and subsequently lost both of his legs and an arm, and another man who was struck with a .50 caliber round that took his arm clean off. During and after deployment he had experiences that are commonly referred to as “shell-shock,” where he described feeling claustrophobic and not being able to breathe. It was extremely distressing for him to suffer through and for me to hear about. Because of this and other stories like it, I truly believe nobody should ever have to relive their harrowing life experiences again unless it is on their own terms.
When we scoff at the thought of trigger warnings, we scoff at the experiences of trauma survivors. It is extremely problematic when we minimize their adversities down to intellectual exercises to be conquered. Yes, the university setting is a place for intellectual growth, but intellectualism has no value when it comes at the cost of the mental health of individuals.