Sisterhood Blog

Where Do Trigger Warnings Belong?

By Sarah Seltzer

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Trigger warnings in academia, the idea that professors should flag, in advance, potentially traumatizing content for students, are a subject of hot debate this week after a series of articles on the topic showed up big venues. Content that might provoke a trigger warning include rape, violence, and historical atrocities like lynchings, slavery, even the Holocaust. Of course, it would be hard to conduct many history, film, literature and other classes without lingering on such topics now and then.

Trigger warnings originated on the web, where social justice-y folks as well as rape and abuse survivors used them to tip each other off to content that might set each other off.

Yet not all feminists feel the same way about them. I used to feel like a bad feminist when I got occasionally exhausted or irritated by the overuse of the phrase Trigger Warning (also by the exclamation “This is Not. Okay” and other hyperbolic lingo) Trigger warnings, like much progressive jargon (see “check your privilege”) originate by standing for something brilliant–of course we should be as upfront about potentially upsetting content as possible–but through overuse can end up as a substitute for real thinking, even a movement away from the dialogue and back-and-forths that signal progress.

Yet their defenders say they foster dialogue rather than shutting it down. Explaining trigger warnings as originally intended, Laurie Penny writes that there is no reason to cry “censorship!”

A trigger warning is a simple, empathic shorthand designed to facilitate discussions of taboo topics in safe spaces. What it absolutely is not is a demand that all literature be censored to ensure that moaning feminists and leftists are not “offended.”

On the other side, Brittney Cooper, a feminist and anti-racist professor and thinker extraordinaire, says engagement rather than avoidance is the way to go. She warns that religiously conservative students might claim to be “triggered” by LGBT or sexual content, for instance. And she notes that students in cultural, racial or gender minorities are already in “unsafe” spaces, cloistered in classrooms with ignorant or bigoted peers.

To me, such an orientation to the world – the desire for endless comfort – is an untenable educational proposition. Encountering material that you have never encountered before, being challenged and learning strategies for both understanding and engaging the material is what it means to get an education.

I come down somewhere in the middle, as I usually do with these heated debates. Certainly, reasonable warnings about graphic violence are useful and considerate. And I’d even argue that trigger warnings make some sense on Twitter and Tumblr communities, when articles don’t have headlines and ledes, and when readers, scrolling through an endless stream of content, may not know what’s floating up on their screens. But at schools, syllabi are available, as are course descriptions. They allow students to understand what they’re about to encounter.

What’s required isn’t a blanket policy one way or another but a willingness for students and professors to be in dialogue, rather than confrontation. As Cooper writes, “trigger warnings won’t solve or ameliorate the problems that open, frank, guided discussion by well-trained, competent instructors can.”


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