The following response has been written on behalf of SNARC, an organization at King’s that advocates for representative curricula.
To The Editors,
In your most recent copy of The Watch, an unsettling opinion piece was published, entitled, “Misusing Trigger Warnings”. While the SNARC (Students Advocating Representative Curricula) exec recognizes that the nature of an opinion piece is that not everyone is going to agree with the article’s thesis, we felt it necessary to respond to some of the claims made. The ongoing debate about the place of content warnings in academia is one that is, at its core, against the best interest of students; something which we here at SNARC take very seriously.
Within the op-ed in Vol. 33 No. 2 of The Watch there is a fundamental misinterpretation of what content warnings do. It is suggested that: 1)trigger warnings are a means of “avoid[ing]…important subjects because those subjects make [students] feel uncomfortable,” 2) that these sensitive subjects “are very important to us as academics (the “educated elite”), to talk about,” and 3) that “being uncomfortable is a part of learning.”
We have heard this argument before; and we have heard it often.
Perhaps the author of this op-ed is referring to The Atlantic’s piece ‘The Coddling of the American Mind’, the banner of which depicts millennial college students as literal babies. It is possible they were gesturing towards a popular Vox essay, which has been shared over 190, 000 times on Facebook. In these articles we are told that this generation of students are overly-sensitive and that content warnings restrict meaningful learning. To put it briefly, these articles suggest that identifying the presence of sensitive material renders students fragile, unprepared, and insulated and that that we are “infantilizing and anti-intellectual” when classrooms and professors act to protect (rather than challenge) students.
The fear here, that the gesture in question is one of avoidance, protection and censorship, essentially misunderstands content warnings. Academic content warnings are neither a tool to evade nor mute topics, but rather, are quite the opposite.
Others have articulated this far better than we can.
A video from the PBS Idea Channel lucidly describes the misunderstanding of academic content warnings; that “trigger warnings do not mean handling sensitive items with kid gloves,” that rather than censor they actually “make speech possible and more collegiate” by allowing more students to participate in academic dialogues. Which is to say, “trigger warnings do not stop students from engaging with content…talking about the traumatic upfront allows us to open this content up for study within the broader subject matter it fits into.”
In her comprehensive essay ‘Against Students,’ Sarah Ahmed expertly articulates this disconnect. Ahmed notes how offendability is equated to “a form of moral weakness and…a restriction of…freedom of speech.” She asks: whose freedom of speech is being restricted, exactly?
“The idea that being over-sensitive is what stops us from addressing difficult issues can be translated as: We can’t be racist because you are too sensitive to racism.”
She describes content warnings “as a partial and necessarily inadequate measure to enable some people to stay in the room so that ‘difficult issues’ can be discussed.” In short, she argues that “the real purpose of these mechanisms is to enable conversations about difficult issues,” not to suppress them.
From Mike Rugnetta of PBS: Requests for trigger warnings aren’t about “[avoiding] talking about awful junk – but that when we do…we should try to avoid thinking of it as natural [sic.] College can institutionalize the naturalization, the unquestioning acceptance of [sensitive content]…as part and parcel with [broader fields of study] – by not acknowledging that they are worthy of an upfront confrontation, maybe it perpetuates the idea that they are just rape, just war, just suicide.” Requests for content warnings call this into question.
Ultimately, the argument articulated by the author of this op-ed is not about content warnings. Rather it is a means of discussing the power dynamic between students, teachers, and the administration – of asking the urgent question: what should colleges do?
This is moral panic about moral panic. This is pressing because of precarious employment, because of tuition fee hikes, because of universities that increasingly treat students like customers.
To suggest that somehow universities are “misusing” content warnings is to suggest that students are not deserving of a sensitive, critical and intersectional learning experience. We here at SNARC firmly believe that these values are fundamental to a good education. We sincerely hope that this letter gives pause not only to the author of this op-ed, but also to the countless others who continue to co-opt the language of content warnings for arguments against students.
We will say it once, and we will say it loudly: content warnings do not censor.
With respect, The SNARC Executive