Do college students need to be forewarned before being exposed to potentially troubling or traumatic themes in their classes?
A New York Times story this week reports on the emerging movement on college campuses to alert students to potentially emotionally wrenching material or content.
According to the Times:
Should students about to read “The Great Gatsby” be forewarned about “a variety of scenes that reference gory, abusive and misogynistic violence,” as oneRutgers student proposed? Would any book that addresses racism — like “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” or “Things Fall Apart” — have to be preceded by a note of caution? Do sexual images from Greek mythology need to come with a viewer-beware label?
Colleges across the country this spring have been wrestling with student requests for what are known as “trigger warnings,” explicit alerts that the material they are about to read or see in a classroom might upset them or, as some students assert, cause symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in victims of rape or in war veterans.The warnings, which have their ideological roots in feminist thought, have gained the most traction at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where the student government formally called for them. But there have been similar requests from students at Oberlin College, Rutgers University, the University of Michigan, George Washington University and other schools.The Times relates the tension felt by a California college student unaware that her professor was going to show a film depicting rape in her class. The young woman told the Times that she had been a victim of sexual abuse. “We’re not talking about someone turning away from something they don’t want to see,” the student said. “People suddenly feel a very real threat to their safety — even if it is perceived. They are stuck in a classroom where they can’t get out, or if they do try to leave, it is suddenly going to be very public.”
The notion of trigger warnings prompted guffaws.
“Poor dears. These are the same kids who would riot in the streets if their colleges asserted any form of in loco parentis when it comes to such old-fashioned concerns as inebriation and fornication. God forbid they should be treated as responsible, independent adults! After all, they’re old enough to vote, to drive, even (though it’s unlikely) to join the army,” wrote Thomas B. Fordham Institute President Chester Finn in Politico. “Yet they want their professors to shield their precious eyes from anything potentially offensive.”
In an LA Times column, Jonah Goldberg wrote that while trigger warnings began with admirable intentions – “a conscientious accommodation of people who'd been raped or otherwise horribly abused” – they are now running amok.
He writes, “Trigger warnings were provided for an ever-increasing, and ridiculous, list of ‘triggers.’ For example, one website offers a trigger warning that it contains images of small holes, lest it terrify people suffering from trypophobia, which is — you guessed it — a fear of clusters of small holes. Another website warns visitors that it will not tolerate any debate over the validity of its trigger warnings for, among many other things, trypophobia, pictures from high places, audio of snapping fingers or images or discussion of spiders, food, escalators or animals in wigs.”
Writing in Mother Jones, Kevin Drum said, “What I don't get is what anyone thinks the point of this is. You're never going to have trigger warnings in ordinary life, right? So even if universities started adopting broad trigger policies, it would accomplish nothing except to semi-protect sensitive students for a few more years of their lives, instead of teaching them how to deal with upsetting material.”
Soraya Chemaly details the history of trigger warnings in a Huffington Post column, explaining they were used to protect victims of trauma and sexual violence from having to relive their experiences.
She concludes, “In the end, the most important fact about trigger warnings isn't whether they are formalized or not, narrow or not, but that they are being discussed on campuses and in mainstream media, and no longer limited to the feminist blogs that understood why they were necessary in the first place. The words themselves, like others before them such as ‘domestic violence,’ ‘sexual assault,’ ‘rape culture,’ signal a shift in the culture towards better understanding of broader perspectives. That empathy and diversity, which is what so much of trigger warnings comes down to, is a topic of debate on campuses, even by proxy, is a good thing.”