Trigger Warnings: Not So Black and White

By Jessica Gregory

On Friday, I walked by an exhibit on the lower level of Altschul about trigger warnings inIMG_0379 the classroom. Produced by the Collective Advocacy Project, the display features anonymous opinions on trigger warnings, each with their own space. I was very happy to see an open (literally and figuratively) space to discuss trigger warnings. People have been debating them for years, but voices have gotten louder recently on both sides of the issue. From what I saw on the Altschul display, students and professors are torn: Are trigger warnings valuable and necessary or excessive and unneeded?

IMG_0401Let me tell you a bit about myself. I am extremely sensitive, I have indeed gone through trauma, and I have my own triggers. However, I do not believe that every single thing that ‘triggers’ my anxiety in a classroom should be warned about (I will explain this further down). My perspective on the whole thing is, simply put, “it depends”. While I support sensitivity and want to respect those who have gone through trauma, I believe that the terms ‘trigger’, and as a result ‘trigger warning’ are occasionally misused or used too loosely.

When you’re watching TV and you turn to a documentary, it’s common to see the messages like: Viewer discretion advised; This show contains scenes that some viewers may find disturbing; This program contains strong language and violence and may not be suitable for children under x years of age. Hopefully the documentary’s title and/or synopsis makes the subject matter clear, but the content warnings are appreciated anyway.

This is how I think trigger warnings should be handled in the classroom. First, professorsIMG_0399
should make clear in their course descriptions what kinds of things they may be covering. If they think the subject matter may be disturbing (sexual assault, abuse, violence, gore, etc) they should definitely write that so that students can decide whether or not this class is for them. On days in the classroom where there will be graphic images or descriptions of disturbing material, the professor should give a heads up in the previous class or via e-mail.

However, the grey area begins when we try to draw a line: what deserves a trigger warning and what doesn’t? Some say everything, some say nothing, some say only things that would trigger a larger group of people. I mentioned above that the term ‘trigger’ is used too loosely. I don’t mean that there are things people aren’t allowed to be upset about, nor am I saying that you aren’t allowed to describe your triggers as such. What I’m saying is that extremely personal triggers may not necessarily have a place in the realm of classroom trigger warnings.

IMG_0402A trigger is defined as something, that causes an event, situation, or reaction to happen or exist. It is perfectly acceptable, then, to say “This subject, statement, or word triggers my anxiety, my PTSD, etc.” For me, the words ‘drama queen’ remain a trigger due to the bullying I endured in high school. I am not, however, going to ask a professor not to use that word or warn the entire class if they plan to use it. While that is a bit of an exaggerated example, personal triggers are something to speak to a professor about, privately.

Of course, that also means professors need to make sure they’re approachable and be IMG_0397willing to consider their individual students’ needs. It is the responsibility of the professor to create an environment where students can approach them about classroom concerns. It is also the professor’s responsibility to discuss triggering subjects in a sensitive way. One should not say “trigger warning” just so that they can avoid speaking carefully about serious issues. That’s kinda like saying “no offense” and then insulting someone.

Trigger warnings, when done right, do not get in the way of education. However, when they start to cover too much, such as phrases, words, and mild subject mentions (a trigger warning for the words ‘protest for gender equality’, etc), or things that only make people ‘kinda sad’, trigger warnings will do more harm than good.

If you want to be a part of the discussion about trigger warnings, consider attending CAP’s Trigger Warnings Installation Reception. The event will be held on Thursday, Feb 11th, at 6:30 PM in Dianna LL103. 

Jessica Gregory is Co-Editor-in-Chief for the Nine Ways of Knowing




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