the one with the trigger warning

I was recently asked about trigger warnings. Honestly, it is not something I worry about. In fact, it is something that I think so little about that I had to actually look up the definition to make sure I understood the term properly. The wiki definition is that you warn the audience about unsettling content. Doesn’t seem that bad to me. I later learned that there is a healthy debate about whether it is appropriate to have trigger warnings. Shouldn’t college classrooms sponsor debate? Is it really the responsibility of an instructor to make sure that every single student feels perfectly comfortable with every single topic?

College classrooms are interesting speech situations. People buy a college education, but they don’t directly control the content. The service providers even expect people to be uncomfortable. The question then is when is discomfort allowed. If it is allowed, how do we handle it?

A simple standard is: “what would be allowed between strangers interested broadly interested in ideas?” By that standard, we’d almost certainly exclude speech that is bullying, but allow scholarly discussions of all sorts of topics (e.g., we don’t call the other person an X, but we can discuss X as a term). Long as it has a clearly defined intellectual goal, it should be fine. Also, for strangers, we’d probably almost always tell them when we’re about to discuss something that average person might find genuinely shocking, or proceed very slowly when doing so. But being in a world of “ideas and debate,” there is actually a presumption of discomfort. Colleges are also pedagogical, so there is value in letting people learn how to discuss uncomfortable things. Bottom line: Warning people of graphic content is fair enough, but it shouldn’t prevent discussion of things, even those that are offensive.

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Written by fabiorojas

October 27, 2015 at 12:01 am

Posted in edcucation, fabio

8 Responses

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  1. I mostly agree. However, we need to make reasonable accommodations for people who have specific triggering issues (e.g. associated with ptsd). They tell you in advance what their issue is and you make arrangements for them to have alternate material. Like basic ADA rules. This doesn’t mean censoring topics that may be difficult for some unknown number of people.


    Philip N. Cohen

    October 27, 2015 at 1:19 am

  2. I agree, but some of the debates about trigger warnings suggest not merely a warning (which I happily provide–sometimes, as with the first chapter of “Discipline and Punish,” the trigger warning is even a good advertisement that encourages students to do the reading), but also an automatic excuse for any student who finds the content troubling or uncomfortable enough that they do not wish to engage with it. Obviously, if a student feels the need to walk out of a classroom or close their book, that is their choice, but when “trigger-prone” content is essential to the goals and ideas of a course (see, for instance, debates around the teaching of rape law in criminal law courses: the idea that students can expect to achieve in the course without engaging with these important ideas is troubling.



    October 27, 2015 at 1:36 am

  3. As with any accommodation, it has to be reasonable. If it’s anything other than a very small portion of the course I would require documentation of the condition from a doctor. And of course you can’t take a course on rape while opting out of content about rape.


    Philip N. Cohen

    October 27, 2015 at 1:55 am

  4. I can’t imagine anyone objects to, “hey folks, this video has some pretty graphic violence, but we really need it to understand issue X”. What people object to is the idea that students – adults – are so sensitive that they need to be warned about, for instance, covering sexual assault in a law class, and to be permitted to opt out of the class. For the (extraordinarily small) number of students that legitimately have serious PTSD issues, oughtn’t it be easier for these students to simply mention in an aside to the professor that they may have trouble with certain types of content, rather than subjecting everyone to this “concern game”.

    The broader issue is with the term “safe spaces”, which is related to the whole trigger warning debate. The very existence of the term, which both conflates mentally comfortable with physically safe, and prioritizes the idea of safety above ideas like intellectual challenge, is, I think, rightly worrying to many academics. The university as an institution challenging student’s preconceptions, whatever they are, and providing tools to help improve thought, implies a radically different type of institution than one whose goal would be to fight injustice, or accommodate the oppressed, or whatever other goal one might want which is at least partially in conflict with the first intellectual ideal. It is this broader worry, rather than the altogether overblown of trigger warnings per se, that people are really concerned with.



    October 27, 2015 at 3:54 am

  5. This short documentary from the NYT draws a parallel between (parental) advisory labels (on comic books, music albums, and video games) and trigger warnings in syllabi:

    The part about syllabi is toward the very end.



    October 27, 2015 at 4:45 am

  6. Hmmm. Thanks, Phil, for the link to your blog discussion; well done. It seems that some discussions are not distinguishing between a trigger warning and a desire to avoid content. In response to a student comment one term, I added the text “violent image of lynching next slide” to the slide before showing gruesome photos of lynchings. Then we discuss lynchings but I move on to the next slide (a graph of incidence) rather than leaving the photo up while I talk. I also noted that the first book on the syllabus, about American Indian history, is very violent because the history is violent. But they still have to read the book. This is consistent with the idea of warning people about content so they can be emotionally ready. A trigger warning is very different from “don’t make me hear about something I disagree with.”

    A harder problem is positionality. If you are a member of a stigmatized minority, a “discussion” of whether you are inherently inferior or immoral itself adds to the burden you bear. I’ve never heard the phrase “trigger warning” used for such issues except by the ignorant, but directing classroom discussions so that opinions can be heard without allowing dominant groups to exert their dominance is difficult. And it is true that it is members of dominant groups who are most likely to whine and complain about being exposed to ideas they disagree with.



    October 27, 2015 at 1:51 pm

  7. I suppose it is also worth noting that the effort to make spaces “safe” can easily be turned into a weapon of oppression, silencing the very voices we may most need to hear:



    October 27, 2015 at 2:06 pm

  8. This ( is a great post on how a class can be shut down by students unwilling to engage with difficult material. I don’t know the author; maybe a different instructor could have finessed the situation in a way that changed students’ reactions. But it is a lot to ask of teachers to have to go beyond being sensitive to the fact that some material is difficult and painful to engage with, to actually managing students’ emotional reactions on a minute-by-minute basis.



    October 27, 2015 at 4:14 pm

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