Trigger Warnings Are Not "Censorship"

In unrelated news, I have a post up at the Daily Dot today about trigger warnings. Excerpt:

Students at various universities have been trying to take trigger warnings offline by requesting them in certain educational materials. Predictably, even professional and reasonable writers and journalists have responded to this by unleashing a hysteria about “censorship,” “dumbing down,” “suppression of discourse,” “hand-holding,” and other terrible things that will happen if we choose to warn students about potentially triggering material before they read it.

First, a clarification: nobody, to my knowledge, has asked that students be exempted from reading material that they find emotionally difficult. If a professor assigns reading and a student chooses not to do it, that student’s grades will probably suffer. Even if they don’t, though, universities function on the presumption that students are adults who must be allowed to make their own decisions about things like time management, amount of effort put into schoolwork, and so on. Trigger warnings on syllabi do not change any of this.

Much of the panic about trigger warnings in classrooms also focuses on the fear that privileged students will avoid material that makes them uncomfortable. So if you put “TW: misogyny, sexual violence” on a syllabus next to an assignment, male students might think, “Ugh, I don’t want to read about that” and avoid it.

But privileged students already avoid material that makes them uncomfortable; that may be one reason you see way too few white students in courses on African-American literature. Trigger warnings might make this slightly easier, but it doesn’t fix the larger, systemic problem of people choosing not to engage with material that challenges their worldview.

Further, avoiding trigger warnings for the sake of tricking privileged students into reading material on racism, sexism, and other unpleasant topics means potentially triggering underprivileged students by refusing to warn them that the upcoming reading assignment concerns traumatic things they may have experienced. People who lack privilege relative to others are constantly being asked to sacrifice their mental health and safety for the sake of educating those others, and this is just a continuation of that unjust pattern.

Read the rest here.


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Trigger Warnings Are Not "Censorship"

10 thoughts on “Trigger Warnings Are Not "Censorship"

  1. 1

    Honestly, this is one thing I cannot get. I look at trigger warnings as the type of courtesy that any person should extent to others. The more I see them online, the more I’m inclined to use them myself or to discuss potentially alarming content if I’m recommending books, movies, articles etc.

    I think of this because there have been a few times when people I knew were deeply disturbed or upset by something I’d told them to see or view; luckily not horribly so, but I realized that it’s worth telling people ahead of time.

  2. blf

    It aids and abets self-censorship.

    Who decides what labels are to be applied? For instance, some people claim the Harry Potter books promote witchcraft. Some people are bothered by that, and have attempted traditional censorship; i.e., removing them from libraries or similar. Should Harry Potter books have a label? If so, What does the label say? And who reached these decisions, and How?

    Warning about your own writing, or a link or quote you providing, is one thing; namely, clearly your own opinion. Which is fine. Slapping a label / sticker on book is not equivalent, possibly excepting the authour her- or him-self doing it.

  3. 3

    […] “First, a clarification: nobody, to my knowledge, has asked that students be exempted from reading ma….” My students do it all the time. And so do the students of most of my colleagues. And we always oblige because we can’t afford to get the bad reviews we will if something like divorce, adultery, or lack of a happy ending offends their sensibilities. I’m sanitizing my syllabi all the time because of how damn sensitive everybody is. […]

  4. 4

    I rather suspect the word “censorship” is just one of those moral bogeymen like “Communism!™” or any of a host of other such words that these people like to throw around. None of them have ever successfully explained or defended their use of such words. It’s just an appeal-to-emotion tool. Which feeds on an endless cycle of other emotions and tools used to prop up their entitlement apologetics.

  5. 5

    I think there are valid arguments on both sides of this issue. Having some familiarity with psychiatry, it’s pretty clear to me that triggering is a real, reproducible, phenomenon that can cause distress, however, it is also true that the whole point of educational materials is to challenge people emotionally and intellectually.

    I think it would be fine to have an evidence-based discussion about specific words or situations that are common triggers so that authors/professors themselves can label their work, but anything beyond that, seems very problematic. It becomes a situation where other entities are deciding what a work actually means which, I would argue, is indeed censorship.

  6. 6

    It seems strange to me that conservative elements of society always scream “Censorship! Thought Police!” when they are asked to use some simple decency and consideration for other people.

    Funny, that.

  7. 7

    This isn’t really a liberal versus conservative issue though. It’s a debate between liberals about how to present material that we all agree is important. One could also make the argument that undue emphasis on “trigger warnings” that relate to women are themselves paternalistic because of the stereotype that women can’t handle emotional stress. As of now, Miri’s assertion that it’s not a big deal because the practice doesn’t exempt students from reading the assignments seems valid, but I think reasonable people can disagree. What would you think, for example, if Christians insisted that science textbooks were labeled as “containing evolution” and could thus cause them emotional distress?

  8. 8

    Many trigger warnings are common sense.

    I worry about trigger warnings by committee. If someone tries to warn everybody about everything, it could get to the point where they’re used so much they’re meaningless.

  9. 9

    News organizations have no problem putting warnings before showing dog fights, because “normal” people will be disturbed by it. So trigger warnings are not controversial and have been around for awhile, despite some people’s objections The objections only come up when it’s not the “normal” or majority or privileged who will be affected by it. But a warning before a story on violence against women? That’s just news, no warning necessary. Because warning about it would mean they are part of the culture that promotes it.

    I think another reason people balk at making trigger warnings be more regular would be privileged writers do not want to be forced to acknowledge they have privilege in the first place, or that they have hurt others or are continuing to hurt others.

    I thought of this when people harassed Melanie further after learning of her PTSD diagnosis. The thing is, these same people who claim to speak for vets, also look down on vets with PTSD. In fact other vets probably look down on vets with diagnosed PTSD a lot more, perhaps because it similarly is more personal for them. Just ask my father or any of his Marine buddies what they think of vets with diagnosed PTSD.

    (I say “diagnosed” because a lot of people may have it but be undiagnosed. We are learning more and more about the effects of stress, and how it doesn’t have to be one traumatic incident but can be stress over time and still trigger the syndrome).

    Perhaps if we just tagged all content, and told people “it is a tagging system”, they would balk less? Triggers would be a subset of tags for content. And someday all content could be tagged, including tv. But that day is in the future, and doesn’t get to the issue of why people are so upset and against trigger warnings for some issues, but not for others (as my news example above).

  10. 10

    As touched on above, I think the concept of trigger warnings, itself, isn’t that controversial. Everyone can agree on warnings for disturbing material up to a point (look at rating systems for movies, TV, and video games, for instance). The disagreement seems to come in about at what point does one draw the line. After all, there are a lot of triggers out there that cover pretty much anything you can think of. I’m sure this very post could probably trigger someone, somewhere for a variety of reasons. I would say drawing the line before you get to things like misogyny, rape, racism, etc. is ridiculous, of course, since those things still affect a pretty sizeable chunk of the population, but it’s obvious that other people feel that only things that will affect a significant majority of people should get warnings (or only things that will affect them, because people are often rather egocentric).

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