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What Americans Don’t Understand About Trigger Warnings

A letter to incoming freshman at the University of Chicago underscores how dysfunctional our public discussion of trauma and student safety has become.
Students at the University of Chicago studying for finals.

Students at the University of Chicago studying for finals.

If you’re planning on attending classes at the University of Chicago this fall, the school has a message for you: Keep your feelings to yourself.

That’s the gist of a welcome offered to university freshmen last week by University of Chicago Dean of Students John Ellison, who bit his thumb at the controversy around trigger warnings that’s roiled American institutions of higher learning over the last several years. “Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called trigger warnings,” he wrote, “we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”

There’s a distinctly Chicagoan logic to Ellison’s letter given the university’s historical emphasis on free markets; after all, what better captures the “marketplace of ideas” imagined by the likes of John Milton and John Stuart Mill than the ivory bubble of the college classroom? But it’s also part of a backlash against the perceived “P.C. culture” — embodied by trigger warnings and boycotts against ideas and speakers deemed threatening to the student body — that’s supposedly hampered academic and intellectual freedom at universities like Oberlin and Wesleyan. Trigger warnings and safe spaces are symptoms of the “coddling of the American mind,” Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt wrote in a September 2015 cover story for The Atlantic, a betrayal of the old maxim of academia: “Don’t teach students what to think; teach them how to think.”

Critics of trigger warnings aren’t totally off the mark: A growing body of research indicates that these sort of disclaimers do little to mitigate the effects of trauma among students. A May 2014 survey of scientific literature in Pacific Standard found that most trauma survivors don’t develop the type of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that trigger warnings are ostensibly designed to protect against; when survivors of trauma (like sexual assault) do develop PTSD, exposure to triggering stimuli is actually seen as the most effective means of overcoming the trauma — not avoidance. Even the mere emphasis on “survivor” identity that precipitates the call for trigger warnings at liberal institutions is somewhat damaging to students’ long-term recovery from a traumatic event. Research seems to confirm what Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis asserted in his concurring opinion in 1927’s Whitney v. California: The best antidote for troubling speech is “more speech, not enforced silence.”

The public deploys “trauma” and “trigger” in a monolithic fashion to encompass all classroom anxiety.

Here’s the thing about trigger warnings, though: Many academics aren’t too put off by them. While a 2015 survey of university professors conducted by the National Coalition Against Censorship found that some 60 percent viewed trigger warnings as having a potentially negative effect on academic freedom, more than half have provided their own “warnings about course content”; though 45 percent say warnings have a negative influence on “classroom dynamics,” a “substantial minority” (17 percent) see them as a vehicle for trust and respect between professors and students. Despite concerns over the effects of trigger warnings on a potentially intellectually challenging education, a growing body of academics see them not as an iron curtain encircling the minds of students, but as symptomatic of a generation of rising students who see the warnings as “no big deal,” per Inside Higher Education.

All of this is to say that both extremes of trigger warning debate — student-activists losing their cool over the existential threat of differing opinions and the critics who see college students as crybabies — miss the point of trigger warnings in the first place: as a pedagogical tool, not a political scalpel plunged into the flesh of the college experience. Harvard University constitutional scholar Mark Tushnet explained this on Sunday:

Instructors use trigger warnings, when they do so in a sensible manner, to maximize their pedagogic effectiveness as instructors: They want to include material whose content might distract students who weren’t prepared for it, and hope that the warning will be enough to reduce the distraction to a level where the substantive point can still be made.

A trigger warning is not a blanket ban on something. It’s a tool to prime a student for substantive, effective engagement in order to help critical minds reconcile their psychosocial anxiety with their thirst for knowledge. That’s one of the reasons why psychology educators encourage professors to thread the needle when it comes to potentially traumatic topics: As psychology professor Elana Newmantold the American Psychological Association in 2014, “it’s not possible to warn students about all possible triggers at all times, but it is responsible to know that students are grappling with difficulties and deserve to be aware of the topics in the course, just like you’d make them aware of the grading criteria.”

To call trigger warnings a tool of censorship as Ellison did (speaker boycotts are another issue) is to misunderstand their function in the classroom and to associate a changing university pedagogy with the tyranny of thoughtcrimes — a reaction that runs counter to the idea of building critical minds.

Additionally, the public deploys “trauma” and “trigger” in a monolithic fashion to encompass all classroom anxiety, a misunderstanding that makes intellectually honest discussions of trauma and tragedy rife with tension. Angela Carter articulates this argument nicely in a 2015 essay in Disability Studies Quarterly, parsing through how public debate has conflated discomfort with material (a minor nuisance, sure) with the actual psychosomatic experience of trauma, experience commensurate “not with the anticipation of danger but with the experience of the danger itself,” as Sigmund Freud put it in his description of signal anxiety.

The latter experience is very real — consider that African Americans tend to suffer from increased health stressors thanks to their ongoing experience with structural racism — and extremely serious, with actual symptoms ranging from insomnia to immune system problems, Carter argues. By conflating ideological discomfort with psychosomatic trauma, arguments over trigger warnings effectively erase the latter, either by overemphasizing subjectivity over a biological reaction (as student advocates are wont to do) or dismissing the lived experience of trauma as “hurt feelings” (much like critics do).

More importantly, there’s a troubling strain of bootstrapping in American culture that leads us to see trauma as a disability to be conquered. Here’s Carter’s argument:

The extent to which both sides of the debate operate with a limited perception of trauma is telling, though not unsurprising, given the extent to which we live in an ableist and trauma-centered culture. Following Anne Rothe, I argue that it is precisely because we live in a culture oversaturated with “mass media employments of the pain of others” that our understanding of trauma is so diluted. The narrative structures of these traumatic experiences are quite familiar, especially to disabled people, as they rearticulate the quintessential American anecdote of “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.” Just as other “supercrip” stories focus on disabled people “overcoming” their disabilities, popular trauma discourse reinforces “the superiority of the nondisabled body and mind” by focusing on overcoming traumatization. People who have experienced trauma are culturally expected to turn their pain into a narrative of inspiration for others. These trauma-and-recovery narratives position the individual as one who “eventually overcomes victimization and undergoes a metamorphosis from the pariah figure of weak and helpless victim into a heroic survivor,” with little to no contextualization of the historical and socio-political forces that underpin their experience.

The University of Chicago’s riposte against trigger warnings ignores both the pedagogical function of a syllabic “heads-up” to students and the fundamental difference between ideological discomfort and legitimate trauma. This debate, as Vox’s Libby Nelson puts it, is about “power that comes with being a consumer, and how students are using it.”

The slugfest over trigger warnings and the fragility of “academic freedom” has devolved into a conflict between academic interest groups (students, professors, donors) with little interest in reconciling the twin realities of the open classroom and personal trauma. Perhaps Brandeis was wrong: In the case of trigger warnings, the debate that should stimulate and criticize is fundamentally skewed — instead of more speech, all we’re getting is noise.