Trigger warnings are used with the intention of warning readers about content that might provoke anxiety or trauma — I have used them on occasion, for example, to warn readers about graphic descriptions of sexual violence or incest. But these warnings can veer into overuse in an attempt to protect individuals from any and every imagined offence.
In February of this year, a student senate motion was passed at the University of California, asking professors to include warnings on course content that could “trigger the onset of symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.” The resolution from the senate reads: “The current suggested list of Trigger Warnings includes Rape, Sexual Assault, Abuse, Self-Injurious Behavior, Suicide, Graphic Violence, Pornography, Kidnapping, and Graphic Depictions of Gore.”
It’s reasonable to provide advanced warning of potentially disturbing content. But it is also reasonable to be concerned that codifying this kind of thing into university policy might muffle discussions of anything that is claimed to be offensive.
Oberlin College in Ohio, for example, published an official document that advises faculty to “be aware of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, able-ism, and other issues of privilege and oppression” and suggests professors remove “triggering material” from the syllabus if “it doesn’t directly contribute to learning goals.” An example used was Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, a novel that (according to the document) might “trigger readers who have experienced racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide and more.”
Though the college did respond to faculty concerns that this kind of policy would threaten academic freedom, students at other universities are pushing for similar “warnings” on course material, arguing that they will help ensure a “safe space.”
While certain kinds of material are more obviously controversial — extreme violence, pornography, rape scenes — others are less obvious. There is absolutely no way of knowing what might trigger an individual because it is dependent on their own personal experiences.
As writer Jill Filipovic noted in The Guardian,in online forums, trigger warnings are used for a bevy of potentially anxiety-inducing subject matter, from swearing to calories in a food item to childbirth to spiders. When a person has experienced trauma, any number of things can trigger powerful reactions or anxiety.
Universities are meant to be places to interrogate challenging subjects and issues — particularly within Women’s Studies.
The world is a triggering place. As a woman in a world rife with sexism, I am consistently exposed to imagery and behaviour that I find insulting, offensive, or upsetting. But I want to be able to discuss that reality and that imagery within academic and public spaces, not be protected from it. In fact, these are some of the few spaces where such issues can be discussed in a challenging and nuanced way.
During the many months I spent in feminist film theory courses, I watched a number of upsetting rape scenes on film, as well as engaging with pornographic imagery and generally violent or upsetting material. Much of that imagery will stick with me and trouble me forever. Yet I still consider it to have been a valuable part of my learning experience. Taking that material out of the curriculum isn’t going to protect marginalized people from it, nor will it better enable us to critique that material.
Actress and activist Martha Plimpton came under fire a few months ago for promoting a fundraising event to raise money for abortion funds called “A Night of a Thousand Vaginas.” The offended parties claimed that the use of the word “vagina” constituted “cissexism.” The fact that women have fought for decades in order to be able to discuss their bodies openly and have only recently begun to be able to name their body parts without shame was ignored by folks who felt excluded by the campaign.
Will discussions of vaginas, for example, be removed from the curriculum on account of “cissexism”? What about discussions of eating disorders or war or suicide or racism? If discussions of women’s bodies are deemed offensive, should they be avoided? There are so many conversations that would never have happened in my gender studies seminars had professors avoided discussions of “racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, able-ism, and other issues of privilege and oppression.” Beyond that, students would likely have felt even more afraid to speak up about controversial topics than they already do, lest they inadvertently “trigger” a classmate.
Universities are meant to be places to interrogate challenging subjects and issues — particularly within Women’s Studies, where discussions include topics like pornography, violence against women, gender, colonialism, and yes, vaginas. It’s too easy to move from “this offends me” to “this offends me and therefore it must not be discussed or must only be discussed in a way that doesn’t offend me.” I see the way this has negatively impacted feminist discourse and I don’t want to see the trend extend into academic institutions.