The trouble with trigger warnings

By Sayomi Ariyawansa | 11 Apr 17

The ABC has reported that Monash University will implement a policy of “trigger warnings” in a pilot program requiring certain courses to include warnings about “potentially emotionally distressing content.” Students can then decide whether to attend class or read the course materials related to that content. All course content will be examinable, irrespective of whether it is taught subject to a trigger warning.

Predictably, the shouting match has begun. Free speech warriors say the “special snowflake generation” will be ill-prepared for a life that does not come with trigger warnings. Conversely, others argue the higher education system – traditionally white and male-dominated – can no longer blithely ignore the risk of re-traumatisation and should acknowledge the lived experiences of its students.

Both sides in this debate raise salient points. But the Monash University policy is ill-drafted and misguided.

It is true that life does not come with trigger warnings. Universities should be places where students’ views are confronted, tested and challenged. The world is clearly far from perfect and to learn more about it one must face its ugly realities. Between 2007 and 2012, when I was an Arts/Law student at Monash University, I learned about rape and other serious crimes. I had to defend basic ideas I took for granted – including the idea that all humans are created equal, which was particularly discomforting as a Sri Lankan-born Australian who grew up learning about the horrors of colonialism in East Asia and Australia.

But trigger warnings do not necessarily represent censorship or a threat to free speech. If the material was censored, it would not appear on the course at all. The fact that a trigger warning is issued is an acknowledgment that the ideas presented – though uncomfortable and potentially distressing – are valuable, and worth teaching.

Indeed, as noted by Aaron Hanlon in the New Republic, “trigger warnings” have existed for many years on campuses in one form or another, albeit under a pedagogical rather than political guise. From my own experience at Monash University, lecturers would warn us if the content dealt with particularly graphic subject matter – for example, rape or war – and would often tell us their office door was open for discussion outside of class if we were uncomfortable about raising matters publicly. While at that time lecturers were not required to emblazon the course materials with the phrase “trigger warning”, this type of interaction seemed to be part and parcel of the project of teaching.

The trouble with making trigger warnings mandatory

Trigger warnings can become a problem though when they are codified into a institution-wide policy, and the Monash University policy is an example of this.

Matilda Grey, current president of the Monash University Student Association, says the purpose of the trigger warning policy is to enable all students to prepare themselves for any material that may provoke a response, such as panic attack or anxiety attack, due to previous trauma they have experienced. But the Monash University policy sets a threshold that is much lower than this, requiring trigger warnings to be provided for any content that is “potentially emotionally distressing”.

Codifying a low threshold for mandated trigger warnings is what turns sensible pedagogical decision-making (warning students about distressing content as a matter of best teaching practices) into a political issue. What is perceived as “potentially emotional distressing” is a completely subjective consideration, and is therefore also captive to an individual’s own social mores. A student who is an animal lover might find an animal dissection in an anatomy class emotionally distressing. A student who is gay might find a debate in a philosophy class about the morality of commercial surrogacy emotionally distressing. A student who is conservative and religious may find a debate in a politics class about gay marriage emotionally distressing. And so, it goes.

Free speech on campus could also be stifled when trigger warnings are mandated.

Lecturers may leave controversial material out of the syllabus to avoid debates over whether trigger warnings should have been issued, and therefore whether or not the content as presented complied with university policy. The practice of trigger warnings could even morph into the much more divisive phenomenon of “safe spaces” – i.e. the idea, now prevalent in many teaching institutions in the United States, that universities should be places free from alienating or offending any student by any measure.

Institutionalising trigger warnings may also entrench perceptions of student vulnerability. As João Florêncio in The Conversation and Jill Filipovic in The Guardian have argued, the imposition of trigger warnings requires assumptions to be made about the relative thin-or-thick-skinned-ness of the student body. The Monash University policy could require educators to assume all minorities will be emotionally distressed by content about race and racism, for example.

Serious issues like rape, war and racial segregation need to be taught with sensitivity and empathy for students who have lived experience of them. But an institution-wide policy that mandates trigger warnings is not the answer.