Trigger warnings sanitise academic debate


An article last year for The Atlantic addressed a new “trend” emerging in universities around the world, namely adding trigger warnings to course syllabi in order to “scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense.” The article goes on to talk about how in the US, the government itself has been reinforcing this idea, enforcing regulation such as Title IX, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally-funded education program or activity. And while these regulations can be quite helpful both at university and in the workplace, the impact that they have on courses seems rather counterproductive. Instead of fostering an environment where students can openly talk about their feelings regarding a certain text or experience, the necessity for things like content and trigger warnings may actually act in two detrimental parts; a student may opt not to take a course because it deals with a ‘sensitive’ issue, therefore causing them to keep bottled up an emotion which may be better discussed; or, even more frustrating, a professor may choose not to address a certain text or historical event because of what it might possibly bring to the surface.

The debate is largely something that I find akin to the study of allergies in the US right now. What scientists are currently positing is that the high rate of allergies in the US comes down to the fact that everything is sanitised. If you work in a school, you’ll know that every toy, every desk, every little pencil has to be wiped down with disinfectant at the end of the day. Parents are opting not to let their children play in dirt because the outside world is just so unclean. And the end result is that children aren’t building up a strong enough immune system to prevent them from getting sick later on in life. In much of the same way, I argue that trigger and content warnings for courses ‘sanitise’ what’s being taught, and this is doing students a huge disservice. While it’s good to know that a film being shown in a psychology class might have some disturbing images, a simple note from the professor with warning (or even just the title of the film) would help me mentally prepare.

Mental preparation might not be enough for some students, and I can understand that. Anyone who’s been through something traumatic in their life will know that PTSD isn’t just for soldiers. But if you cleanse the syllabus of everything even remotely disturbing, you’re not challenging students to engage with complex emotions that might actually assist in the healing process; it’s just all about the approach. Instead of forcing professors to carefully comb through every single piece of literature they want to assign for a class before the class even begins so that they can make a list of every possible trigger (which, by the way, is impossible to do without first knowing your students intimately), why not use that time to educate professors on how to approach students who seem to have emotional difficulty with a text? That way, professors can foster that ideal environment in which students can learn how to cope with themes they are going to be forcefully exposed to in the real world. If university is meant to prepare students for the next step in life, perhaps keeping them in a sterile environment where we paint the walls white to cover up anything even remotely disturbing isn’t the best.

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