Warning: This Article Seeks a Middle Ground in the Trigger Warning Debate

Earlier this month on the Humanist Hour podcast, Bo Bennett and Kim Ellington interviewed philosophy professor Peter Boghossian about trigger warnings and safe spaces on college campuses. According to Boghossian, many universities are “held hostage by the regressive left” by censoring certain ideas that might trigger students to recall traumatic experiences. Boghossian believes that these new provisions hinder students from getting a complete education. Many critics echo Boghossian’s concerns that the current discourse surrounding trigger warnings and microaggressions are nothing more than the “PC police’s” latest ploy to suppress free speech.

So what exactly is a trigger warning? A trigger warning is a message that informs people that the content following contains images and/or descriptions of events that may upset the audience. I first encountered trigger warnings in a web forum for recovering self-harmers. Members of the forum were required to post trigger warnings when describing self-harm, expressing the urge to self-harm, or posting pictures of blood. In fact, trigger warnings have helped me prepare myself to enter uncomfortable discussions so I wouldn’t feel the urge to cut myself.

Trigger warnings have since extended beyond online support groups. In their oft-cited Atlantic article, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt describe the identification of microaggressions and use of trigger warnings on college campuses as the “coddling of the American mind.” According to the authors, some law students are now asking their professors to skip over lessons in rape law to avoid triggers or to provide “trigger warnings” for material that might cause traumatic flashbacks.

Yet as society learns more about trauma, many students find it difficult to succeed academically without experiencing debilitating mental illness. For example, this past April four Columbia University students wrote an op-ed for the college newspaper describing a traumatic flashback a student experienced during a discussion about Ovid’s Metamorphoses in a literature class:

During the week spent on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the class was instructed to read the myths of Persephone and Daphne, both of which include vivid depictions of rape and sexual assault. As a survivor of sexual assault, the student described being triggered while reading such detailed accounts of rape throughout the work. However, the student said her professor focused on the beauty of the language and the splendor of the imagery when lecturing on the text. As a result, the student completely disengaged from the class discussion as a means of self-preservation. She did not feel safe in the class. When she approached her professor after class, the student said she was essentially dismissed, and her concerns were ignored.

In their op-ed the students claim that providing a trigger warning is not a means to censor the material, but rather provide students with post-traumatic stress disorder-(PTSD) a chance to avoid sudden traumatic flashbacks. “Given these tools,” they write, “professors will be able to aid in the inclusion of student voices which presently feel silenced.”

Unfortunately, trigger warnings can also have the opposite effect: instead of giving students a way to ease into uncomfortable territory, they hinder students’ ability to learn the information they need for their future professions. Back in December, Harvard Law professor Jeannie Suk wrote an article for The New Yorker about how many law students are either opting out of discussions about laws and litigation related to rape or asking their professors to skip over rape laws in class. The results, as Suk writes, can harm rape victims more than emotional triggers can:

Now more than ever, it is critical that law students develop the ability to engage productively and analytically in conversations about sexual assault. Instead, though, many students and teachers appear to be absorbing a cultural signal that real and challenging discussion of sexual misconduct is too risky to undertake—and that the risk is of a traumatic injury analogous to sexual assault itself. This is, to say the least, a perverse and unintended side effect of the intense public attention given to sexual violence in recent years. If the topic of sexual assault were to leave the law-school classroom, it would be a tremendous loss—above all to victims of sexual assault.

With last week’s Mizzou and Yale protests, the debate surrounding trigger warnings has only intensified. Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic, for example, believes the Yale protesters are “behaving more like Reddit parodies of social-justice warriors than coherent activists, and I suspect they will look back on their behavior with chagrin.” Julia Sereno, on the other hand, satirizes what she calls “Political Correctness Run Amok” articles:

Make it clear from the very beginning that you are an open-minded, social justice supporter, preferably on the left side of the political spectrum. This will contrast your take on “political correctness run amok” from those of right-wing commentators — you know, those hypocrites who are pro-free speech when it comes to white, straight, Christian people making fun of minorities, but against free speech when it comes to #BlackLivesMatter, or discussions about sex education and women’s reproductive rights, or secular holiday celebrations, or homosexuals and their so-called “agenda.” You are nothing like those hypocrites! Plus, you are pitching your soon-to-be-trending article to someplace like The Nation or The Atlantic, so you will most certainly need to win over liberal readers.

What makes the trigger warning debate even more difficult is that psychologists themselves are divided on the issue. In an article for Psychology Today, Dr. Leon Pomeroy writes that the best thing individuals can do is practice Dr. Albert Ellis’s ABC model, which reminds the individual that beliefs influence our reactions to events. University of California psychology professor Eileen Zurbriggen, on the other hand, suggests professors can be honest and open about course materials to “help students decide whether they are prepared to take a course.” However, as Jane Close Conoley, the dean of UC Santa Barbara’s Gevirtz School of Education, points out, providing trigger warnings in class is just a short-term solution for trauma survivors: “We must learn to regulate our emotional responses to triggers if we are to be successful in life…This requires the hard cognitive and emotional work of mindfulness, anxiety reduction techniques, and seeking social and professional support.”

So is there a middle ground? City University of New York biologist and philosopher Massimo Pigliucci writes that a middle ground “means that we should reject the imposition of official policies about [trigger warnings], but also that faculty have a (moral, pedagogical) responsibility to conduct themselves in the classroom in a way that serves their students to the best of their abilities.” Pigliucci suggests that trigger warnings may help some, but not to the point where professors cannot say anything deemed controversial.

As humanists, we look towards facts, reason, and compassion to solve ethical dilemmas, and the trigger warning debate is no different. First, we need to gather the facts to see if current trigger warning policies actually work. Then we should analyze the data. Third, and most importantly, we need compassion for all those involved, especially students with PTSD. Only then will we find a middle ground that gives professors academic freedom and allows those students to receive a proper education while they recover.