Trigger Warnings: The Miner’s Canary of Free Expression

Trigger Warnings: The Miner’s Canary of Free Expression {
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In colleges and universities across the country, trigger warnings have become an increasingly common part of the classroom. Meant to inform students that the content their professor is about to cover may be upsetting to victims of trauma, these warnings allow students an opportunity to either opt-out of or emotionally prepare for the material. But this seemingly compassionate practice has serious consequences. In fact, trigger warnings are really the canary in the coal mine, indicating the decline of one of the most essential elements of intellectual pursuit: free expression.

Put simply, trigger warnings don’t work. As a recent Harvard study reported, there’s no evidence that trigger warnings help victims of trauma or reduce their trauma-associated anxiety. Instead, the study found considerable evidence that trigger warnings merely reinforce the individual’s self-image as a victim. They tell students that they’re vulnerable, weak and that their trauma is an inalienable element of their being. Certainly, this is the wrong message to send to students who are trying to move on in their lives and achieve an education. 

But these trigger warnings aren’t only counter-therapeutic, they also undermine free expression and open debate — crucial principles of any institute of higher education. Classes interrupted by sensitivity-checks create a student culture of cautious reluctance. Instead of robustly engaging with challenging ideas, students are conditioned along the lines of grandma’s rule of civility: If you don’t have anything nice to say, then don’t say anything at all. So, class discussions—important battlegrounds of intellectual warriors-in-training—become cotillion lessons for effete debutantes.

Students cannot be properly educated when they’re trained to avoid what’s difficult and unsettling. Serious intellectual growth is no walk in the park—it requires the kind of challenge and contradiction that can border on an existential crisis. Consider The Rape of Nanking or Elie Wiesel’s Night.  This subject matter inherently raises profoundly upsetting questions about human nature and our capacity to commit acts of evil. But students conditioned to be trigger-avoidant will only hesitantly engage with such material, if not completely forgo it. But topics like the greatest atrocities in modern history must be learned, and they must be approached forthrightly.

Yet regardless of content, any sort of intellectual growth is deeply vulnerable. It’s an implicit recognition that one’s understanding of the world is flawed. The mature, sophisticated thinkers we want our universities to produce will embrace these growing pains in the quest for understanding and knowledge. And in the face of such challenges, we can either become academic mollycoddlers, shielding students from contentious ideas, or we can encourage brave intellectual pursuit through free expression and open debate.

Vigorous classroom debate is a sacred exercise and should be treated as such — not suppressed for the sake of hyper-civility. This kind of discourse can’t happen with iron boundaries and safety cushions. It requires a wide enough berth in which to follow whatever trains of thought that’ll eventually lead closer to the truth. This can’t be done with cautious sensitivity’s hemming and hawing, but, rather, with imprecise and sometimes-offensive mental experimentation. It does no good for any student— including those victims of trauma— to be kept from the kind of content, ideas, and practices that will help them better understand the world they live in.

Few things are as seemingly innocuous yet deeply insidious as trigger warnings in the university. Like many practices crafted by utopian administrators, it attempts to cure a problem that’s neither the responsibility nor within the capacity of the university to fix—a cure that is far worse than the disease. Our universities are battlegrounds, not daycares, and warrior-students should be given the respect and responsibility they deserve. Trigger warnings must be tossed in the trashcan of history if we wish to foster future generations of intellectually formidable thinkers. 

Yes, free expression and open debate is dangerous, but the alternative is absolutely deadly. 

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