The myth of the coddled college student

Using trigger warnings doesn’t shut down conversations—it opens them up

By Lily Grossbard

The increasing employment of trigger warnings, particularly in the context of discussions on college campuses, has recently been the subject of national debate, editorialized in The Washington Post, The Guardian, The New York Times, and The Atlantic, among other publications. Trigger warnings are prefaces to written, spoken, or visual content that warn survivors of trauma (often sexual trauma or mental illness-related trauma) that the subsequent material could potentially bring about the recollection of traumatic experiences. This has most recently been of issue in the College when, during a September 17 discussion with O-Aides and Resident Assistants, Dean Ellison stated that University of Chicago does not employ trigger warnings, according to a Facebook post by the UChicago Phoenix Survivors Alliance.

Trigger warnings are frequently lampooned as “coddling” students, or as shielding them from exposure to the difficulties of “the real world.” I would argue, however, that not only are trigger warnings of crucial importance for protecting the emotional and physical health of the student body at large, but they also actually allow for, and even promote the discussion of triggering topics. In fact, professors in the College should consider adding trigger warnings to their syllabi, class lectures, and discussions, as well as providing resources for students who might require them.

Reactions to triggering material can be incredibly severe for those who experience them, and often lead to a range of psychological and physical responses including suicidal thoughts, traumatic flashbacks, and urges to self-harm. It’s not simply a matter of trauma survivors refusing to “believe” in or wishing to “avoid” a certain reality—they have likely already experienced the reality of the situation described in the triggering material, and reliving such trauma through the material can be emotionally devastating. Trigger warnings are therefore absolutely necessary, and denial of this fact only serves to invalidate the experiences of these survivors.

Furthermore, those who oppose trigger warnings tend to conflate anxiety with trauma but while irrational anxiety and phobias can be mitigated through exposure to their triggers, trauma generally only worsens.

Triggering material is also frequently mislabeled as “diversity of thought,” and therefore the resulting argument is that limiting students’ exposure to such material simply prevents them from considering opinions with which they might disagree. Again, assuming triggering material simply comes down to difference in opinion conflates two very different categories of thought. A controversial opinion might be that the U.S. needs more aggressive foreign policy in the Middle East. A trigger, however, would be the aggressively Islamophobic views that often accompany such an opinion, and which could very well be psychologically damaging to Muslim and foreign-born students who have been victims of oppression.

To use the rest of this article to debate why certain topics may or may not be triggering would be a waste of time. But it’s important to note many of the topics labeled as “not triggering” in the articles mentioned above—talks on rape culture, misogyny in The Great Gatsby, use of the n-word, and so on—can, in fact, be very triggering. These articles are primarily written by those who are not victims of the systems of oppression they discount, and they fail to employ any empathy in considering how such material might be triggering.

The use of trigger warnings does not imply that sensitive or controversial material should not exist or should never be discussed. On the contrary, they allow trauma survivors and non-survivors alike to thoughtfully prepare themselves for such materials and conversations thereof, rather than altogether avoiding such topics. For example, a student who fears being triggered by material in class might speak with their professor about the content beforehand rather than avoid the class discussion altogether. Similarly, there is no reason why we should not create “safe spaces” for students to seek refuge from triggering opinions and material.

This is by no means to say that trauma survivors should be required to prepare themselves for triggering material and associated conversations. Hopefully, encouraging warnings would also encourage professors and students alike to reframe their ideas in ways that are less triggering, or to focus discussion on an analysis of why such material might be triggering in the first place. Such conversations would also promote a wider awareness and understanding of issues involving mental and sexual health, and may encourage individuals who need it to seek out help.

And even if you don’t personally support or require trigger warnings, you should have no reason to oppose them—they by no means stop individuals from considering the material, and in many cases, they potentially prevent such triggering material from being ruled as too inappropriate. If anything, contrary to popular belief, trigger warnings are actually one of the most useful devices in promoting freedom of speech.

Lily Grossbard is a first-year in the College majoring in gender and sexuality studies.