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The Problem with Trigger Warnings

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Throughout this academic year, a number of colleges have struggled with a debate over whether faculty should include formal statements on their syllabi warning students that certain readings, films, or lectures contain potentially offensive scenes or language. Called "trigger warnings," these statements would alert students when a work contains material addressing a wide array of offensive subjects, including racism, sexism, colonialism, classism, rape, and graphic depictions of war. The debate has become so prevalent, that just this Sunday, the New York Times published a first-page story detailing how the debate is unfolding on several college campuses.

Proponents of instituting trigger warnings argue that women (or men) who have experienced rape should not be forced to read a scene depicting such a violation, and military veterans should similarly not be asked to relive a graphic combat scene.

Opponents of trigger warnings argue that academic freedom dictates that faculty should be free to select whatever works they deem pedagogically effective without the restrictions of mandated warnings, although they are free to issue them if they should so choose.

While educators should always be sensitive to students' sensibilities, especially when an assignment addresses traumatic subject matter, I believe that the debate as it has been unfolding has missed an important point: substantive learning most often occurs when the learner experiences cognitive dissonance -- that is, when new material directly conflicts with what the learner thought to be true or with the learner's life experience, forcing that learner into a deeper level of cogitation and reflection than would have been the case otherwise.

Put another way, college -- all education -- is about challenging your personal belief system. If you are a Christian, you should learn something about Judaism, Islam, and other faiths -- even atheism. If you are a liberal, you should be exposed to the philosophical foundations of conservatism -- and vice versa. If you love science and plan to pursue it for a career, you should also study poetry and philosophy and learn why people value these pursuits. If you think one thing is true about the world, you should be exposed to reasons why others believe it is not.

This is not to suggest that you are expected to undergo some conversion experience and exit college with the opposite belief system from the one you had when you were first admitted -- although that can happen, too. But it is to say that your core beliefs should be challenged so that you graduate with a well-developed and -- most importantly -- well-informed understanding of what it is you believe to be true about the world and why.

If you simply attended college in order to reinforce the beliefs and understandings about the world that you began with, then one could argue that you are not really being "educated" in any genuine sense.

Some people contend that a convert to a particular religious faith is likely to have a stronger commitment to that faith than someone who simply inherited that faith by virtue of the fact that his or her parents practiced it. This may or may not be true, but the general message is instructive: if you closely examine your beliefs and understandings rather than simply assuming them mindlessly, then you have a more solid reason to be committed to them.

Another point missed or underplayed in the current debate is about the warning list itself: Who gets to choose what is worthy of being on the list of potential trigger warnings and according to what criteria? A university administrator? A dean? A committee? A college president? And where would the list end? Wouldn't it likely simply grow exponentially?

I know one professor who reported that one of her students dropped out of her course on the novels of Nobel-prize winning author Toni Morrison after reading a scene in The Bluest Eye that used the word "snot" in the context of a female character who was ill. The word made the student "extremely uncomfortable," so she withdrew. Now, it may well be that the student had other, less trivial concerns about the novel -- it does, after all, deal with racism, sexism, and incest -- but the point is that the student simply decided where to draw the line on how much unpleasantness she was willing to tolerate, thereby potentially robbing herself of a dissonant moment that might have produced an "ah-ha moment" that constitutes genuine learning.

After all, the whole point of using graphic material in a pedagogical assignment is precisely to shock the reader into a recognition about the nature of something -- the cruelty of war, why and how rape is a dehumanizing violation of one's person, why slavery was (and still is) wrong.

The most persuasive argument against war that I have ever read is the World War I classic, All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, and what makes it so compelling is that it takes the reader through a long, tortuous experience alongside young soldiers as they simply try to survive despite the odds against them. Without the shock that derives from the vicarious experiences that the readers undergo -- eating sawdust just to stay alive, for example -- the novel would lose its effectiveness.

One might even argue that issuing a warning to readers about such works or films could blunt the shock and therefore the intended impact on the reader or viewer -- and, thus, the potential lesson learned.

Is it a good idea to warn students that a given work might be upsetting? Absolutely. That's just good pedagogical practice -- and always has been. Certainly, it is the rapist, not the rape victim, who most needs to undergo cognitive dissonance. And, certainly, educators should always exercise some flexibility when it comes to students' exposure to very disturbing content. The real question is whether institutions should be mandating formal trigger warnings on syllabi and before showing potentially objectionable films. I fear that we may be about to go down a path that -- however well intended -- may do more harm than good. I don't believe anyone wants the drive to institute trigger warnings to become an effort for students to sanitize their own educational experience, or for institutions to do it for them.

Perhaps the real way to address this subject is to encourage faculty to try whenever feasible to inform students about the content of their courses rather than issuing mandates about trigger warnings. Simultaneously, students need to be informed in general, beginning with first-year orientation and oftentimes thereafter, that college is all about shocking them -- shocking them into new realizations, new understandings, new ways of seeing the world, new beliefs about the physical and the metaphysical worlds, and new vicarious experiences that sometimes will make them feel very uncomfortable.

For the last decade or so, college faculty and administrators have had to deal with so-called helicopter parents. I would hate to arrive at a point where now there are also helicopter institutions that through their mandates hover and swoop in to protect students from potentially disturbing classroom content.