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Misusing trigger warnings

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I often start by saying what I’m saying and then explaining what I’m not. Today I’m going to do the opposite so you don’t get your knickers in a knot for nothing. What I’m not saying is I believe people my age have not suffered traumas. Something else I’m not saying is I think these people don’t deserve some sort of warning when topics that are hard for them to deal with or think about comes up in the readings or lecture.
What I am saying is I don’t think trigger warnings are always the most effective way to do this and they have, in recent times, been abused by people who have not suffered trauma to avoid talking about important subjects because those subjects make them feel uncomfortable.
First, what is a trigger warning? I’ve never had one in any of my classes, nor have I, as a particular person, felt a particular need for one. My understanding from the many articles I’ve read concerning the subject from reputable sources is a trigger warning is a blanket statement saying a particular subject like sexual violence, excessive violence etc. is going to come up in the readings or lectures. This seems useful, does it not?
In truth, it really can be. I’ve had many conversations about this over the past six months with friends who have and have not experienced trauma, some of whom who have PTSD. Everyone seems to agree they have a place within academia. A very small place that is easily corrupted and that has been corrupted.
I have talked with several academics and read even more of their views. None of them object to the idea, only to their current use. Many have found that trigger warnings, instead of serving as a tool to help those who need extra preparations for particular subjects, are being used as a way to avoid all manner of uncomfortable topics that are very important for us, as academics, to talk about.
To make this problem more apparent, please ask yourselves the following question: Should we not discuss racism because some people of colour might find it disturbing? Should we no longer talk about the Holocaust because Jewish students feel victimized by it? Should we ignore the prevalence of sexual violence in our culture because some of your fellow classmates have suffered violence of this sort in the past?
Many of you will answer no. These topics are important socially and very important to the educated elite. If we stop talking about it we won’t solve any of the problems that we have with these issues.
[pullquote]Our world won’t get better because we ignore things that make us uncomfortable.[/pullquote]
I’m not saying trigger warnings don’t have a place or a use, just that they’re being misused. There is new evidence every day from the U.S. that trigger warnings are increasingly being used to censor people and issues. Trigger warnings are being used to stop Republicans or former Republicans from coming and talking on university campuses. They are being used to stop particular conversations about religion outside of Christianity because their tenants disagree. They are being used to stop conversations about race issues in the south because it either makes white students feel too guilty or because it makes the few minority students in the class feel uncomfortable. It is stopping conversations about Planned Parenthood, abortion, and safe sex—because it makes people feel uncomfortable.
One of my favourite comments I’ve read on the subject came from a professor who was also in the infantry in the United States Army, no small feat. He presents the same views as many others, that life doesn’t come with trigger warnings and that you need to develop skills to deal with things that make you uncomfortable, though if you do have PTSD in a way which is safe for you with help from a trained professional. However, he does say “I’m not proud of myself for it, but the sight of a student who’s inexplicably melting down because they’re facing an unpleasant fact or point of view that I exposed them to makes me feel terrible. I’m an ex-Army infantryman, and the fragility of some students kind of shocks me, but I have to admit that I do not have the strength to upset them to that extent even if it’s for their own good in the long run.” Which sums up nicely my concerns.
It is hard for me to imagine that so many of my fellow classmates have been abused so grievously that they feel that there are so many topics that they just cannot deal with. It’s hard for me to think of a world where so many people my age who live in a safe country, as in Canada is not war-torn, have PTSD, a disorder originally associated with the military because of the atrocities they had to witness and commit, and a disorder that was only rather recently recognized.
Some people do need trigger warnings and do need help. I would suggest that many of them should be in contact, and most likely are in contact, with a trained professional and have identified their issues and are diligently working through them.
As for the rest of students, being uncomfortable is a part of learning. Some suggest any study in morality should make the student extremely uncomfortable because you need to be uncomfortable to learn about moral theory properly; find your boundaries and defend them. Life, generally, is uncomfortable and rarely comes with a warning; think back to the recent commercials about Bayer 81mg where it says heart attacks don’t give warnings so you should always have your Aspirin with you because you never know.
Your tool kit for dealing with uncomfortable situations is the same and it is largely something that you develop through these formative years of education.
[pullquote]I feel like I haven’t answered one question that many students may ask: should trigger warnings be required for courses? My answer: no.[/pullquote]
It’s nice when they happen but given their recent use I feel they are dangerous and should be used with caution. They prevent some students from even attempting to understand the material presented. We all have other strategies we can use to get information about things that bother us, rather than requesting vague blanket statements before lectures that tell us little more than ‘x’ will be discussed. We all have the ability to approach our professors about sensitive subjects that we struggle with and I can’t think of one professor that I’ve ever met who would meet your requests with blatant disrespect and not at least try to understand the situation that you’re coming from. I feel in more cases than not they might also be able to offer some more coping strategies you may not already be using that they have developed through years of dealing with difficult subjects. We have the ability to turn our discomfort into a learning opportunity.
We all have a responsibility for our own learning and our own safety. As such, we all need to take a responsibility for ourselves instead of continuing to delegate it to another.

By David J. Shuman

David is the current editor-in-chief of The Watch and writes on student issues and events. Find him on Twitter: @DavidJShuman

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