Kiss, kiss, bang, bang
interesting! wouldn't a "middle way" be to just call it "note on content"? I think the word "trigger warning" presupposes ppl will be triggered and I personally find it a bit childish for that reason. Content Note would be a bit more neutral. I must say I believe in the idea that exagerating the potential of harm in everyday discourse is making us less psychologically resilient, so I am coming from that kind of direction
Interesting take. I don’t see the need for any such warnings, primarily because if we’re working under the assumption that the students are adult(ish), they can look things up themselves. The students know what’s going on. Not sure how the courteousness adds anything. This strikes me mostly as handholding designed to make professor’s lives easier by placating immature students (not an unreasonable goal in and of itself).
Appreciate your reasoned and nuanced piece. Thanks for writing.
Reasonable. The main issue in universities, as you discuss, is when the trigger warning's give students permission to be hyperbolic or oversensitive, or just skip class. I remember overhearing a conversation between two girls when I was in college, ecstatic that their sociology prof had announced the lecture on female slaves was optional due it to being potentially triggering (they went to the mall instead). I think an aspect worth discussing as well is just how sensitive and sheltered many students are today. It might not be worth a prof's trouble to have to shepherd them through material they can't stomach.
Thank you for writing this! I was also against trigger warnings because of the evidence but struggled to justify it when talking to people who said they preferred trigger warnings. Next time such a conversation comes up I'll share this article.
Hi Paul, big fan of your work.
It’s an interesting argument, but you seem to be defending a weak version of trigger warnings. In my mind, the debate was never about whether we should warn people about content that’s universally distressing (e.g., “hey look at this photo of a severed head”). I think it’s often useful to give people information about content, as you do in your syllabus, and I don’t think many anti-trigger warning folks would disagree. For example, no one’s seriously arguing that PG-13 labels on movies are coddling kids.
I think the more interesting debate is whether it’s helpful to 1. Warn individuals with PTSD about potential reminders of their trauma and 2. Warn individuals with no trauma history about potentially distressing (ambiguous but plausibly upsetting) content. In both cases, a trigger warning doesn’t just tell someone what they’re going to encounter but that it could trigger an intense negative emotional response.
Ultimately, whether or not trigger warnings are common courtesy should be premised on whether or not they’re effective. (If you try to help someone but end up doing nothing, or making things worse, you’re not doing them a service). I think there’s good evidence that trigger warnings are unhelpful for individuals with PTSD, as you allude to. I also think there’s good reason to suspect that they’re unhelpful in the second usage. For example, my colleagues have a cool new paper showing that content warnings decrease the aesthetic appreciation of art (DOI:10.31234/osf.io/6h5k8). The same argument has been made against warning people about distressing themes in literature: Telling people how they’re likely to react to difficult content draws their attention away from other themes they could have appreciated/learned from and might just make them distressed when they otherwise wouldn’t have been.
Of course, there’s another way that trigger warnings could be ‘effective:’ they could signal respect and support to students. Or they might just signal the professor’s ideological alignment and compromise their epistemic credibility. Who knows - some of my colleagues and I are prepping a study that will look at the interpersonal signals that trigger warnings send.
I use trigger warnings (though I call them "content warnings") for exactly the same reason. I once showed my class a film about the Mai Lai massacre. One of my students, who was a combat veteran, came up to me after class and said that he had a hard time sitting through it, and that I should warn veterans before hand. That did it for me.