Thursday, August 25, 2016

Warning Against Warning Against Trigger Warnings

A recent letter sent by the University of Chicago to its incoming students has generated quite a bit of attention for its verbiage on that ever-present collegiate bugaboo, "trigger warnings":
Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so called "trigger warnings," we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual "safe spaces" where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.
One point of contention has been whether this statement, fairly read, means that the U of C now bans its professors from issuing trigger warnings. I'm inclined to doubt this is the case, but if it is so it most certainly is an intrusion on the academic freedom of Chicago professors to manage their own classrooms. Hopefully, we can all agree that the issue of trigger warnings is one best left to the sound academic discretion of individual professors -- it should not be mandated or forbidden by academic administrators.

But leave that aside, and turn to the advisability of "trigger warnings" as a pedagogical tool. Ilya Somin offers his "Warning against Trigger Warnings" that he delivers at the start of his Constitutional Law course.
I don’t believe in trigger warnings. But if I did, I would have to include one for virtually every day of this course. We are going to cover subjects like slavery, segregation, sexism, suicide, the death penalty, and abortion. There is no way to teach this course without discussing these issues. And there is no good way to cover them without also considering a wide range of views about these subjects and their relationship to the Constitution.
This is, to reiterate, framed as a statement against trigger warnings. But it seems to me that it functions ... basically as a trigger warning. It tells students, accurately, about some of the content they'll be reading, and notes that much of it deals with issues of deep injustice and controversy. It explains why that material is there, and why it needs to be addressed forthrightly. We see things like this a lot. Jerry Coyne argued in The New Republic that while perhaps it is appropriate of professors to prospectively inform students of triggering content, there most certainly should not be a trigger warning -- heaven forbid! What they do in disclaiming trigger warnings is for the most part not far different from what many, though not all, trigger warning advocates are asking for.

What, exactly, is going on here? In part, many people seem to ascribe to "trigger warnings" a function they are manifestly not designed for -- to avoid teaching sensitive topics. But that's silly -- if you don't want to teach a sensitive topic, you don't put it on your syllabus. The very fact of including a trigger warning indicates that this material is present on the syllabus and being taught.

What else? Well, clearly what many people have in mind when they think of "trigger warnings" are not the mild cases outlined above, but more extreme versions where every ticky-tack element of the syllabus is meticulously sorted through and warned over to appease the most sensitive theoretical student. Perhaps cases like that do exist -- I'm sure one can find some obscure sociology professor at Southwest Oregon State Technical College who's hard at work making a 12 page list of potential triggers on his syllabus -- but certainly they don't represent the main. And in any event, that's a difference of degree, not kind.

So we can certainly say that certain extreme manifestations of trigger warnings are ridiculous, pedagogically and otherwise. But this argument cuts both ways -- it seems to me that there are cases where something like a "trigger warning" would be universally agreed to be not just prudent but the only pedagogically responsible course of action.

I was talking with a colleague at another law school who teaches First Amendment law. As part of the course they discuss various anti-pornography ordinances, and as part of that unit she shows a clip in class of graphic rape pornography of the sort targeted by the ordinance. And the class before that class, she tells her students that this clip will be shown and asks them to prepare to discuss and react to it. In short -- though she doesn't use the term -- she provides a trigger warning.

We can of course debate whether it is wise to show such a clip in class at all. But given that she does so, I imagine all of us think it is wise that her pedagogical tack is not "surprise! Rape porn!" Of course you give students advance notice that it's coming. Anything else would be recklessly irresponsible. Does anyone disagree on that score?

The other argument against "trigger warnings" that might apply even in a case like this is the appeal to the "real world". In the real world, this argument goes, people are exposed to disturbing or hostile events without warning. It will happen, and it is important that young adults learn to cope with it. The proponents of this view sometimes recognize that people really do have deep-seated aversion and anxiety to certain topics, but, they suggest, the way to resolve it is through some version of "exposure therapy." We expose people to their fears under safe and controlled conditions so they learn to cope.

This argument really just does not grasp the professional and pedagogical role of a university professor. To begin, I am not my students' therapist. I am not professionally trained in getting students to overcome their anxieties. If I were forced into that role, however, my instinct would be that exposure therapy would exist alongside "trigger warnings" and even some of the more controversial forms of university "mollycoddling" that conservatives like to condemn. As my friend Kate Manne observed, we do not cure arachnophobes by randomly tossing spiders at them. If we do exposure therapy, it is in controlled environments, with advance warning and significant support to help the subject recover when they're (understandably) rattled.

But there's a deeper misunderstanding here. Just as my job as an academic is not to be a therapist, likewise it is not to be a generic life coach offering exposure to the various hard knocks my students will inevitably encounter as they walk through life. Yes, it's true that my students will "in the real world" encounter disturbing or distressing material without warning. It's also true that my students will "in the real world" most likely have a supervisor who is a jerk. Does that mean I should be a jerk to my students? They'll have to get used to it to survive in the real world! No, of course not. My job is not to offer a buffet table of life's prospective misfortunes for my students. My job is to teach the material I offer in the most effective manner possible. The advisability of a trigger warning, as far as I'm concerned, depends wholly on how it meets that criteria: will it aid or impede my students in the learning process? That will be a matter of individual judgment on individual cases, and it strikes me as fairly ridiculous to try to sweep more broadly than that.


Mordy said...

Practically speaking I think the greater problem with trigger warnings is that your agreement to issue them suggests that opting-out is a legitimate response. This isn't such a big deal when you're discussing one particularly explicit work, but for Somin it is impractical to design, like those Christian outfits do for cinema, clean versions of the course. I've seen online advocates say that if the alternative is to drop the class that doesn't constitute a sufficient trigger warning. That suggests that the trigger warning advocation is not just for a warning before certain material (something we all agree hopefully is appropriate) but rather for a willingness on the part of the professor to give allowances to students who find the material (and maybe an entire class worth of material) dangerous. iirc this also constitutes the biggest controversies around trigger warnings - students getting failed on assignments that they refused to do bc they were concerned about being triggered.

Paul said...

Worth noting that Ilya Somin has responded to this blog post very defensively, with an update declaiming that there is no way he is guilty of delivering a trigger warning.

David Schraub said...

I saw that. He says I'm defining "trigger warning" too broadly, I say he's defining into "trigger warning" a type of patronizing hypersensitivity. He says po-"real issues"-to, I say po-"fringe strawman"-to.

Jon said...

As they say in AM radio: "Long time reader, first time caller" (or commentor, in this case). I actually talked about your work on my own site ( and wanted to chime in on this topic since it's one in which I think we disagree in potentially interesting ways.

As you note, it is easy to dismiss elements of college culture implicitly criticized in the Chicago letter. "Trigger warnings," after all, can simply be seen as an element of thoughtful pedagogy (even just good manners) on the part of professors. Similarly, "safe spaces" might just be the equivalent to the spaces gay men and women congregated in to support one another during the era of closeting.

The dis-inviting of speakers is probably more problematic to dismiss, although one could point out (correctly) that this has happened on very few campuses, a "claim for dismissal" that could rightly be applied to all the controversies we're talking about (which might simply be fallout hype from our Internet-enabled political age.).

In response to such reasonable points, I would make the case that taken together, and in conjunction with other more troubling happenings on campus involving shouting speakers off the stage, harassing students, or various forms of Internet "mobbing," we might be looking not at a set of disparate and mostly harmless phenomenon but a systematic attempt to control campus dialog by establishing limitations over what can be said and what causes are to be automatically given the moral high or low ground, with authority often being called in to punish transgressors based on who shouts the loudest (or can bring in the best lawyers).

Such an effort does not need to be centrally organized. In fact, as I spell out in this series on the campus culture wars (, the transformation of a culture is something that takes place at the level of ideas, with no centralized coordinating power needed (for good or ill).

Interested in hearing what you think (as always).


David Schraub said...

I think there certainly are some efforts to close off certain avenues of campus discourse and dialogue that seem to be in the wheelhouse of an academic institutions, and those are disturbing. And it is true that sometimes these efforts adopt the banner of "safe spaces" (I've yet to hear "trigger warning" deployed in these contexts -- probably because, as noted, "trigger warnings" do not actually lend themselves to censoring speech). One way I've heard this talked about is "safe spaces as a sword versus as a shield," the difference being whether there it is valid for groups to be able to set some borders and parameters for their internal workings without being forced to admit a free for all (shield) versus demanding that one's private borders/parameters be adopted in the university's public square, with persons on the outside delegitimated (sword).

All that said, it doesn't seem like generic dismissals of "trigger warnings" (or even "safe spaces") is particularly well-tailored to that specific problem, and ends up encompassing some very legitimate pedagogical movements/contentions/demands. Which suggests either a certain analytical sloppiness or a type of political dogwhistling -- either one open to critique.

Jon said...

It's not clear that these issues rise to the level of a change in ethical culture, which is why that series mentioned in my previous posts makes room for much less dramatic explanations for the current suite of activities taking place on campuses (such as a moral panic or Internet-driven overreaction to a narrow phenomenon).

That said, I think we're missing something if we simply look at each of these activities in isolation (whether we're talking about the shield of "safe spaces" or the sword of "trigger warnings" or accusations of "micro-aggression"). For while it's easy to see the positives and negatives, the importance or triviality of any one of these phenomena, taken together and combined with other more aggressive forms of protest we've seen over the last year, I believe we are at least witnessing an attempt to stigmatize certain kinds of opinions.

While I am not aware of a full and impartial inventory of what's happening on campuses, if it turns out that certain types of opinion or belief are being rebranded as forms of aggression, requiring protection (in the form of warnings or protected spaces) or denial of a platform (by cancelling their appearances or shouting them off the stage), that could indicate that it is stigmatization (and thus control over dialog) - not safety of students - driving what we are seeing.