Trigger Warnings on College Campuses Are Nothing but Censorship

The spread of trigger warnings outside of online communities where they might actually be of use to the classrooms of our nation’s most prominent universities has diminished the value of a liberal arts education.
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(Photo: Justine Zwiebel/BuzzFeed)

(Photo: Justine Zwiebel/BuzzFeed)

Two Yale University professors recently said they would no longer be teaching classes after students expressed outrage that the instructors called for open debate and dialogue in an email. Increasingly, students are making demands of university faculty to limit exposure to material that the students deem to be discomforting. One way this is being expressed is in the call for trigger warnings in course syllabi. The student government at the University of California–Santa Barbara, for example, passed a resolution requiring trigger warnings on every syllabus with no penalties for students who skip a trigger class or assignment.

Trigger warnings began in online communities for survivors of sexual assault. The idea was that, if a survivor read someone else’s account of assault, the reader might re-experience her own trauma. The warning allowed such re-traumatizing to be avoided. Warnings then spread, appearing in online communities for soldiers and others with post-traumatic stress disorder, in an attempt to help readers to avoid psychological harms.

While there is not a definitive definition of these statements, an Atlantic cover story titled “The Coddling of the American Mind” defined trigger warnings as “alerts that professors are expected to issue if something in a course might cause a strong emotional response.” As opposed to the original intent of protecting a person who may be psychologically vulnerable, this more popularized concept is about making sure students are protected from ideas that challenge them from a political, ideological, or emotional perspective.

Rather than engaging in dialogue about how these writers viewed their world, students want to see only that which supports their own point of view.

Students are asking for warnings of any material that refers to race, sexual orientation, disability, colonialism, and torture. At Amherst, Duke, Oberlin, Oklahoma Wesleyan, the University of Kansas, the University of Michigan, Wellesley, and Yale, students are demanding censoring speech and curricula that might cause them offense or discomfort. At Wellesley College, a statue of a man in his underwear offended students. They claimed that the sculpture might trigger thoughts of “sexual assault.” At Rutgers University, students demanded a trigger warning for such classic novels as The Great Gatsby, because of its treatment of women, and Mrs. Dalloway, because it deals with suicidal thoughts. Four Columbia University students demanded a warning for Ovid’s Metamorphoses because it depicts a graphic sexual assault scene. Rather than engaging in dialogue about how these writers viewed their world, students want to see only that which supports their own point of view.

In my 15 years of teaching bioethics, a course that is filled with controversial issues, I have never provided trigger warnings. After one lecture on physician-assisted suicide a student approached me saying that I should have provided a warning because she was morally opposed to suicide. I asked if she had seen the syllabus that listed the topic of the day. She had not but did not want to be exposed to ideas that countered her own. I asked her to explain her ideas to me; she could not. She knew suicide was wrong but could not say why.

During the next class, I asked students, “What is the point of a liberal arts education, especially an ethics course?” The consensus was that higher education exists to teach critical thinking, and that includes questioning your beliefs. In a study I published in 2006 on the effects of an ethics class on students, I learned that students rarely change their values or positions on issues. Instead, they find new arguments to support their position and gain a greater understanding of opposing points of view.

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A trigger warning, according to the American Association of University Professors, “creates a repressive, chilly climate for critical thinking in the classroom.” Eight hundred members of the Modern Language Association and College Art Association were polled about trigger warnings. Sixty-two percent of respondents said such alerts will have a negative affect on academic freedom.

Some claim that such warnings are not censorship since they only give notice for a person to choose to avoid exposure. However, anytime a person is telling others what cannot be said, read, or watched, it is censorship. In this case, students are censoring themselves from opportunities to learn. Saying I should not discuss assisted suicide in a bioethics course is censoring everyone in that classroom. The popular use of trigger warnings to avoid new ideas diminishes its power for those who have a psychological need for help. Students with a real need should document it with the dean of students, who can let professors know quietly so as to preserve confidentiality.

The AAUP says that such warnings are “infantilizing and anti-intellectual.” Universities, faculty, and scholarly organizations need to follow the lead of the faculty at American University, which passed a resolution against trigger warnings. If a student has a documented need, universities already have systems in place to help. Students must be exposed to ideas that challenge their own beliefs and learn to engage in civil debate. After all, they are the leaders of tomorrow.

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