Trigger warnings at university: to use or not to use?

Wednesday 21 September, 2016

“Before I start, I’d just like to warn you all,” said Matthew Beard, “if you have strong feelings about political correctness, free speech, or you think that trigger warnings are universally good or bad, this talk may be upsetting to you. I would encourage you to stay all the same.”

Using his own trigger warning of sorts, this is how this moral philosopher for The Ethics Centre kicked off his talk to the Warrane boys on Wednesday 21 September 2016. From there he went on to discuss the use of trigger warnings on university campuses and posed the question – are they a positive or a negative?

But first - what is a trigger warning?

Trigger warnings are nothing new – they could be a note of caution at the top of an article that contained themes of suicide, or a warning of upcoming footage that was made up of graphic images.

“It’s designed to introduce what could be disturbing or upsetting or confrontational subject material,” said Beard, “so that people who might be particularly affected by that material are able to choose for themselves whether they want to be exposed to it - they’re able to prepare themselves if they do want to be exposed to it; and they’re able to understand their response to that material in a different way.”

Trigger warnings began in trauma communities, particularly in online forums. As their name suggests, they warn of the material’s potential to be a psychological trauma - that is, something that forces a person to psychologically and physiologically revisit the site of their trauma. They basically allow people to be prepared – either to decide that they’re not going to thrive with that material and avoid it, or to prepare themselves to deal with it. They’re commonly used to aid veterans, victims of sexual assault, people with complex family histories, and more.

They seem harmless, right? Helpful, even? Maybe and maybe not said Beard – because in recent times, trigger warnings have become the stuff of heated academic debate, especially in the United States. For example, The University of Chicago recently decided to inform its upcoming students that their campus would become a proudly ‘trigger warning free zone’; a place that was about  rigorous intellectual life rather than safe spaces, and that students who wanted trigger warnings should go somewhere else.

“It is, in a sense, a debate about what university is for,” said Beard. “And the argument has been: trigger warnings are a problem on university campuses because universities are not meant to be safe spaces. In university you are not meant to be safe from dangerous ideas – you are meant to be exposed to dangerous ideas, you’re meant to test them out...  And that if we start to protect people from dangerous ideas or things that might be confrontational, then we’re undermining academic freedom, we’re undermining the purpose of the university.”

 ‘Concept creep’

Beard made it clear that another issue plays into the whole trigger warning debate: something that Nick Haslam, psychologist from the University of Melbourne, calls ‘concept creep’. Basically, with the concept of trauma expanding to include more and more subjectivity, the lines become blurred on how upsetting material needs to be for it to warrant a trigger warning.

“Concept creep happens when we keep expanding categories about what counts as a particular thing so that our definition broadens to the extent that it might lose meaning a little bit,” said Beard. “And one of the things that Haslam thinks has been the victim of concept creep is the idea of trauma. So instead of having objective  criteria around what counts as a traumatic event and what it means to be traumatised, Haslam thinks we’ve headed to a space where broader, more subjective ideas around trauma are the ones that dominate.”

According to the 5th edition of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) requires (among other things)a traumatic instance (where someone felt that their life, or that of a loved one, was at under threat); intrusion symptoms (revisiting the psychological moment of trauma) within a six-month period; and hyper-arousal or jumpiness (as a consequence of consistently evaluating their surroundings for threats). However Beard pointed out that concept creep means that none of these characteristics are required for the broader definition of trauma – in other words, things that aren’t trauma in the PTSD sense are starting to be seen as trauma.

“So if you feel like something has generated trauma, if something has been particularly upsetting to you and affects you long-term, well then that counts as trauma... So what it’s about is whether you perceive a level of threat, as opposed to there being some kind of physiological experience of threat like a fight or flight response... And as we know, the things that people find threatening vary on a case by case basis... So when we subjectify things in that way, we broaden the categories.”

And as this understanding of trauma broadens, the question arises about how trigger warnings should be expanded - is one required in Huckleberry Finn because it uses the ‘n’ word? Is it required in pretty much every sacred book because of their content?

The positives and the negatives of having a broader category of trigger warnings

Beard wanted the boys to decide for themselves about the implications of a broader category of trigger warnings. He did, however, outline some benefits and concerns.

He talked about three main benefits of supporting a broader category of trigger warnings:

  • It’s egalitarian: it aims to provide the same level of learning for everyone regardless of their past experience. It also prompts a conversation around privilege and class: things one may not have noticed in their approach to a topic may be brought to light because others may respond differently
  • It creates a safe space in which learning can take place and signals that not every pupil will engage with that material in the same way – this creates an environment where alternate views are welcome
  • It allows this material to stay on the curriculum. Controversial material may not be used if academics are worried that it’ll cause problems; which could encourage them to make the subjective decision that the material is potentially harmful and swap it for ‘safer’ material

Beard then proceeded to voice two main concerns when it came to a broader category of trigger warnings:

  • It doesn’t allow for distinctions from people who actually suffer from PTSD
  • The “pathologising of feelings”: Beard described this as a change in the way that people think about their emotions – they start to view their emotions through the lens of mental health instead of for what it is - a moment of reflection. So instead of experiencing a genuine and legitimate emotional response, one which helps people to morally evaluate the material they’re exposed to, it’s dismissed as a trigger warning and something that just needs to be worked through psychologically (as if their emotional response was the wrong one to have). This is something that could change people’s capacity to make moral judgements

“Where that leaves us, in terms of particular trigger warnings in particular cases? I’ll leave that up to you,” said Beard.

“None of the people who are concerned with this issue are trying to disunify society... we all agree that the goal - the place we want to get to - is a place where everyone can participate in a conversation and reach an intelligent conclusion. We disagree about the methods by which we can achieve that – whether we need to take special measures to provide a certain space for people to talk or whether we don’t; whether we need to provide a softer touch or whether we need to be little bit more firm-handed – but we all kind of want to get to the same place,” he said.

“And for me, that’s encouraging.”

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