Trigger Happy: In Favor of Trigger Warnings
Seeing an econometrics score distribution. Watching someone repeatedly failing to get a drink straw in their mouth. Recounting last week’s ill-advised decision to drink six shots in a row.
You’d best believe that my first reaction to all of the above would be “triggered!”
As us memeing millennials easily toss around words such as “relatable,” “dead” and “triggered” interchangeably, one wonders about the relevance of trigger warnings today.
The value of a genuine trigger warning has been obfuscated by both the people who believe anything remotely upsetting must be tagged and their critics, who believe trigger warnings are for easily offended “social justice warriors.”
As a self-proclaimed champion of irrational triggers, I understand the initial desire to cover all the bases so no one has to unexpectedly relive a traumatic memory. But who (outside of my therapist) could anticipate that red kick-scooters, radish cakes or baklava would set me off? These triggers are linked to traumatic events that have happened in my life, but out of context, they sound absolutely ridiculous.
I understand that there will be times when I will be unintentionally provoked, possibly by a Mediterranean-Chinese fusion delivery man on a ruby Razor. While I do expect people to respect me when I inform them of my weird triggers afterward, I have no expectation or desire for people to slap a warning on everything. This is not the point of a trigger warning.
But there are arguably many subjects that are universally upsetting. Topics such as graphic violence, drug usage and sexual assault evoke visceral reactions from both the general public and survivors of said traumas.
Having content like this suddenly sprung upon anyone, contrary to popular belief, does not “build character.” Those with PTSD frequently cannot control their physical or emotional reactions when triggered, and they should not have to be exposed to upsetting content without prior understanding. A trigger warning’s intention is not to censor content for audiences, but to simply notify them that the media they’re about to consume could be potentially distressing.
Anyone would be startled by Park Chan-wook’s Sympathy for Lady Vengeance if the Motion Picture Association of America, or MPAA, failed to add “Rated R for strong violent content — some involving children, and some sexuality.” This quick example also dismantles people’s protests about spoilers; I would say that this warning adequately sums up the graphic content in the film without revealing much of the plot.
Much like the MPAA film-rating system, trigger warning culture has its own flaws, but this does not mean trigger warnings are irrelevant. They are useful tools which help us recognize how a piece of work may make us feel and whether or not we are in the right headspace to consume it. If a Mediterranean-Chinese fusion restaurant opens in Berkeley, I’ll definitely go, but I might not stop in on a bad day. Let’s not get triggered by triggers.
Came to College to Learn: Why Trigger Warnings Limit Education
Universities have a responsibility to promote maximum intellectual growth and the open exchange of ideas. Trigger warnings stifle academic freedom and if regularly implemented in everyday classes, would undermine the central duty of higher education.
In 2014, Oberlin College in Ohio was one of the few colleges in the country with a policy that advises professors to remove any material that may be triggering that is not directly linked to the course’s learning goals. Examples of books that require trigger warnings, according to Oberlin’s guidelines, include Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart for themes of racism, colonialism, and violence; The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain for themes of racism, including multiple references to the n-word and lynching; and Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice for including anti-semitic themes.
All the aforementioned works are powerful texts that have been included in countless curriculums and studied by scores of scholars because of their artful portrayal of societal problems. These texts analyze the reasons why wrongs like racism and colonial exploitation occurred and help readers understand the context for these issues better. If students can opt out of discussions of such material, or worse, if material discussing these themes are not included as part of the discourse, those students miss out on an enriching learning experience. The school has since changed the policy after professors protested the constraints on academic freedom the policy created.
Regardless of whether or not a text issues a trigger warning, it is a lamentable truth that tragedies like murder and war will still occur, as they have throughout history. Trigger warnings simply protect students from the realities of the “real” world which they will soon enter, blind and unprepared to be uncomfortable. A more just, compassionate world starts with more dialogue of difficult subjects, not less.
This is not to say that students at risk for PTSD should not be supported. Mental health services and safe places for marginalized communities should be abundantly available. If a student has a legitimate concern about subjects sparking a traumatic flashback, they can communicate with a professor who will likely accommodate them.
In 2016, a letter was sent to incoming students at the University of Chicago saying it did not support intellectual safe spaces, I support that UChicago has taken a hard stance against trigger warnings and cancellations of controversial figures as a part of their “commitment to academic freedom.”
By contrast, UC Santa Barbara’s student senate passed an advisory resolution requesting warnings if a course discusses rape, suicide or violence, among other topics, which the LA Times editorial board correctly called the “latest attack on academic freedom.” Additionally, trigger warnings have been advised by the ASUC for our campus.
I came to college to learn. Period.
In my history class, I want to know all of the details of wars, of the government policies that took land from Native Americans or barred immigration based on racist beliefs. I want to know both the mistakes and the successes humans have made in different nations and circumstances. I believe fully understanding these topics will make me a more informed and better citizen— better able to address current inequalities and moral concerns. Ideally, I would like every person to be educated on such topics. The only institutions that can come close to ensuring something like that occurs are colleges and universities.
So I ask UC Berkeley to not provide trigger warnings and instead promote as much diverse intellectual discourse as possible. College is not a place students should feel complacent or comfortable at all times. By tackling uncomfortable topics, students become more resilient, socially conscious and prepared for life outside of college. Do not sugarcoat or shy away from the university discourse, or the demons of the past, through warnings, removal of controversial activity or any other restrictions. If we do, we will not be equipped to address the monsters of the present.
Contact Michelle Zheng and Jack Austin at [email protected].