Letters to the Editors Opinions

A response to 'Misusing trigger warnings'

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

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

5 replies on “A response to 'Misusing trigger warnings'”

Great clarification here of what a trigger warning really is and why they are important.
However, I think one claim in the original op-ed remains unaddressed: are trigger warnings being misused/abused – either by students or professors – to avoid/censor discussion of important material?
In other words, even if we agree on what trigger warnings really are and what they really do when used properly (i.e. not censor), are students/profs wrongly using them as an excuse or a way of silencing discussion? (The author of the op-ed gave some unsubstantiated examples from the U. S.)
And, even if trigger warnings are used properly, should triggered students simply be excused from discussion?
I don’t think your article adequately addresses these complex questions that were raised by the author of the original op-ed, and I would love to hear your opinions on them!
Here is what Aaron Hanlon had to say in his response to the Atlantic article ( The added responsibility he gives to the professor (or whoever issues the trigger warning) is interesting:
“It’s true that giving a warning runs the risk of students avoiding or disengaging with the material out of fear of being triggered (in my three years of teaching, students have come to office hours to discuss sensitive material, but not one has left class or failed to turn in an assignment because of a trigger warning). If a student disengages, however, a professor still can (and should) follow up in a couple of ways. One is to have a private conversation with the student about the material, away from the pressures of the classroom; another is to take the student’s response as an occasion to check in with the student and make sure they have access to campus mental health resources.
[…] For those of you who are imagining scores of students using professors’ trigger warnings disingenuously, as a way to get out of class or a reading assignment, this isn’t (for most of us) our first rodeo. Students use deception all the time, but an office hours summons is really all we need to determine whether the student might need help from a mental health professional, or was just trying to game the system.”

This is an eloquent and thoroughly researched letter, and a concise reminder of how important and necessary content warnings are on our campuses.
It’s disheartening that the author of the ‘op-ed’ and other commenters are still determined to undermine this conversation with claims of concern about ‘misuse’ of content warnings. Writing like yours and the pieces that you cite above are crucial and are doing the bulk of the work of dispelling this kind of ignorance.
Thank you so much, Meg and Rach and SNARC, for this fantastic piece and for all of your work!

“Content warnings do not censor”. I’m not a fan of absolutist statements. We can look at trigger warnings as tools. Such tools can used and misused like any other tool (tool is a wonderful word). To say language can be abused (not far from Colleen’s central argument) makes perfect sense and a good (and possibly only) study might be to look at individual cases.
What I see is an abrasion point in a larger cultural battle, with two distinct sides. Sarah Ahmed certainly falls into a political category that would call themselves “progressive”. It’s not a stretch to see trigger warnings as a way to institutionalize their respective political beliefs.
Imagine a dirty right-wing school using content warnings. Feminist authors with “misandry” warnings, left-wingers with reminders of the “Black Book of Communism” (trigger warnings on Marx in FYP?), etc. I can’t imagine SNARC doubling down on their affirmation of content warnings after a story like that. There could potentially be some talk about right-wing misuse, but to those horrible right-wingers “I can use this but you can’t” doesn’t come across as a relevatory or paradigm shifting argument. The point is that people probably aren’t moving from where they stand on the “issue”.
In my fourteen years of life, I’ve met people who sit on different sides of a political issues for damn good reasons. Political discussions never pull these out. What I see with trigger warnings are warnings that sometimes crystallize a certain way seeing history, articulating identity, methodologies on sociology to the point that they turn obscure their roots and close off different ways to think and articulate problems that each lead to very different conclusions and subsequent actions (a loss of diversity in the name of diversity). Think about how intersectionality does not include political identity as an axis of oppression. I suspect this is in part (acknowledged or not) because it might place them in a political tradition that contains the possibility to turn ugly (people like to kill other people for their politics).
Saying that Colleen simply misunderstands content warnings misses out on a whole lot of intelligent criticism (trusty tools sometimes need sharpening). In the comments, calling Colleen ignorant makes the commenter look like an asshole. I don’t see either side moving after these two articles/op-eds.

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