Written by Alexis Mitchell UNCC ‘18
Recent debate surrounding trigger warnings has provoked public attention around issues of critical thinking, academic freedom, trauma, and generally what is best for formal education institutions.
Students and professors are requesting trigger warnings in order to flag material that might cause distress or discomfort, or possibly trigger a panic attack in students with posttraumatic stress disorder. Initially, trigger warnings were designed to forewarn people on the internet, specifically feminist communities, of explicit content as to protect viewers from exposure to disconcerting material. More recently, trigger warnings have come to implicate materials touching on a wide range of sensitive topics, including race, sexual orientation, disability, colonialism, and torture.
However, many people are opposed to the use of trigger warnings. A recent online survey of 800 people, initiated by the National Coalition Against Censorship, suggests that 45% of respondents think trigger warnings have or will have a negative effect on classroom dynamics and 62% think they have or will have a negative effect on academic freedom.
The impact on academic freedom has aroused many arguments against trigger warnings. In a recent article in The Atlantic, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathon Haidt discuss the topic of using trigger warnings in higher education and the possible negative effects. Trigger warnings purport to help people with anxiety disorders avoid the things they fear, but while this intention seems noble, it has some negative implications. In order for students with PTSD to return to normalcy, it is important for them to reduce their fear through exposure. The Atlantic suggests that teaching students to avoid unintentionally offending others seems like a worthy goal, but students should also be taught how to live in a world full of potential offenses and be able to think critically without being emotionally misguided.
There are arguments that advocate for the use of trigger warnings. In the National Coalition Against Censorship survey, results suggest that 17% of respondents viewed trigger warnings as favorable. For example, Kate Manne addresses the benefis of trigger warnings in a recent New York Times article. She argues that there are risks of someone with PTSD having a panic attack from a vivid reminder of trauma, even from seemingly innocuous classroom content and lectures. This will induce anxiety that will, in turn, make it impossible for the individual to think proficiently. The use of trigger warnings can work to prevent people with PTSD from the losing focus because of panic attacks.
There is one thing supporters and critics of trigger warnings have in common: that the decision to use trigger warnings should be up to the prerogative of individual instructors, not influenced by deans or administrators. It seems that the common ground is seeking what is best for the students, while continuing to foster academic freedom.
Miller-Leonard, T. (2014, February 27). A.S. Senate Passes Proposal to Label Trauma-Provoking Academic Content. Retrieved from http://dailynexus.com/2014-02-27/a-s-senate-passes-proposal-to-label-trauma-provoking-academic-content/