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.