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Overton: Beware the trigger warning

BY JON OVERTON | MAY 07, 2014 5:00 AM

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Yesterday, Brianne Richson, one of my fellow columnists at The Daily Iowan suggested that colleges and universities around the United States should adopt trigger warnings on the grounds that people who suffered traumatic experiences may be exposed to course material that would trigger memories of those events.

I agree that we should be considerate toward people who suffer from psychological illnesses. At the beginning of the semester, instructors could tell students that if they suffer from PTSD and see something on the syllabus that may trigger a painful memory to notify the professor or TA, so a solution can be worked out. There’s nothing wrong with this.

My main gripe with trigger warnings more broadly, however, is that while they aim to be sensitive to people suffering from illnesses like post-traumatic stress disorder, they threaten to stifle some of the most important conversations and lessons in college.

Trigger warnings run into the same problem as proposed hate-speech laws: Where do they stop?

Anything can be a trigger from hot dogs to Nazis to Mike Tyson to the color yellow. The right smell, sound, word, or image can initiate a painful flashback, and you can’t always see those coming. The triggers don’t have to make sense, so you can’t easily predict what will set someone off.

Even though the call for trigger warnings to be injected into higher education is just beginning, some schools have already taken it way too far.

In Ohio, Oberlin College recently issued a policy that advised instructors to “remove triggering material when it does not contribute directly to the course learning goals.” This implies that professors ought to go through their syllabi, line-by-line to justify every single thing they teach in case it triggers a traumatic memory for some student.

Students at the University of California - Santa Barbara also passed a resolution encouraging faculty to include a list of potential triggers on course syllabi and not punish students for leaving early if triggering content arises.

This isn’t just about showing students a fun, controversial movie clip. Some of the most extreme trigger warning advocates have even attacked classical literature like Things Fall Apart and The Great Gatsby.

Thanks to some highly vocal faculty at Oberlin, that particular attack on academic freedom was shot down, but these examples illustrate perfectly what is so dangerous about trigger warnings. They threaten to transform higher education into a horrific nightmare of political correctness on steroids, allowing students to avoid any information that they disagree with.

One of the great things about colleges and universities is that they challenge your worldview. They force you to confront information that makes you rethink cherished beliefs, which can be distressing, but that’s the point, to expose yourself to what’s going on beyond your comfortable shrinky-dink hometown or sheltered suburb.

The motivations behind those calling for trigger warnings are undoubtedly admirable. They reflect the pinnacle of empathy and compassion. However, it’s up to the students who suffer from PTSD to tell their instructors in advance if they are concerned about a potential trigger from specific course material. As much as we’d like to help trauma victims, we can’t know what’s going to initiate a panic attack.

Perhaps it’s best just to leave triggers to students suffering from PTSD and their instructors.


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