Intellectual Cowardice: the Benefits and Risks of Trigger Warnings

Published by The Ethics Centre as part of their IQ2 Debate series.

Gordon Young – Principal, Ethilogical Consulting

http://www.ethics.org.au/on-ethics/blog/march-2017/trigger-warnings-can-work-here%E2%80%99s-how

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Trigger warnings are one of the most fiercely contested concepts in the great ‘political correctness’ debate. Trigger warnings demand audiences be warned of content and ideas that may be traumatic. Their proponents aim to protect the vulnerable from harm and exclusion. Detractors describe them as ‘coddling the mind’ and as being a form of censorship.

The debate has largely been unfolding at universities, where the stakes and the ferocity are greatly amplified. Today, universities worldwide are confronted by student groups demanding lecturers provide warnings before discussing any topic that could conceivably traumatise a student.

Examples range from “racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism and other issues of privilege and oppression”. Others have included seemingly more benign issues like “calories in a food item”.

On the face of it, this seems like an absurd burden to place on educators. A full list would cover virtually every topic, making nearly any class a minefield of trauma. However, with some claiming up to 50 percent of students have some history of trauma, it’s important to consider whether warnings could help them manage. If they could, surely avoiding harm justifies the extra work for academic staff?

If only it were so simple.

Universities are where the professionals and leaders of tomorrow are shaped. Control over the language used in such places influences what ideas and ideals are conveyed. As a result, the simple question of trigger warnings is seen by many as nothing less than a battle for the future of politics itself.

This is explains why criticism of trigger warnings includes that they exist to censor ‘politically incorrect’ ideas. But while the suppression of speech is indeed a factor in political correctness, it simply doesn’t apply to trigger warnings.

Such warnings are just that: warnings. They’re provided to audiences to allow them to make informed decisions, just like content advice and ratings for movies, television and radio. Given these kinds of warnings are so common and unobtrusive – not to mention the vast volume of offensive content still available despite them – the risk of outright censorship seems low.

However, this suggests the possibility of another kind of censorship: instead of controlling ideas, perhaps trigger warnings allow people to control language itself. Some students are already using trigger warnings to police the language used by academics – interrupting lectures to express their disagreement with certain terms. This behavior is enabled by the culture set by trigger warnings and can lead to significant disruption of the learning experience.

Many critics of trigger warnings see this as a suppression of the kind of intellectual debate universities are designed for. They argue this cost is too great justify, even if it does mean giving up the mental health benefits some may gain.

This assessment ignores a pretty fundamental reality of universities: academics have vastly more power than students. Teachers can remove troublesome students from classes or exams if they find them overly disruptive. In this context, students policing the language of their significantly more powerful teachers may be viewed as a way for the powerless to keep check on the powerful.

It may indeed be disruptive and obnoxious but if anything, trigger warnings will promote debate by giving students a basis to criticise their teachers. If academics don’t like it then they can simply boot the offending student out of the room – ironically, an act of severe censorship that no one appears to be objecting to.

A more compelling argument against trigger warnings is the risk of echo chambers. Some students may use these warnings, meant for dealing with trauma, to instead avoid content they disagree with or find offensive. Such behavior would create similar confirmation biases to online echo chambers, inhibiting learning and constructive debate where more than view is explored.

However, the risk of echo chambers already exists. If students want to avoid material they don’t like, they can make an assessment of which courses to enroll in based on subject titles or course descriptions. It’s unclear whether trigger warnings would heighten the risk of being exposed to few worldviews though it is true they could be used for this purpose.

Of course, this assumes the phrasing of the trigger warnings is neutral. They should be designed only to provide information rather than using loaded terms that ‘prime’ students to take offense. For example, ‘discussions of obesity’ would be a neutral warning, whereas ‘fat-shaming’ is not. It implies the class takes a negative attitude to weight and the views are incorrect or bigoted when neither is necessarily true.

Value laden trigger warnings greatly exacerbate the threat of confirmation bias. Students risk forming prejudicial opinions on the content of specific, negatively labelled classes. This is likely to bias them against the content regardless of its validity, further enhancing the echo chamber effect.

The free speech argument isn’t the only criticism of trigger warnings. Some commentators argue trigger warnings areharmful to student mental health. In a controversial article in The Atlantic, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt note a key part of treatment for trauma is exposure therapy. People are given a safe environment to confront the ‘triggering’ material and eventually break the association between the trigger and their initial trauma. How can someone overcome trauma if they continually avoid their triggers?

While intuitively appealing, this essentially suggests victims of trauma should be exposed to triggers by staff who are not trained to assist them through the process rather than being informed in a way that allows them to manage their own mental health. And while this seems totally irresponsible, it does raise a good point: trigger warnings must not replace treatment.

Any student who legitimately requires trigger warnings also requires psychological treatment. Trigger warnings may assist them to manage trauma but this is not a license to accept or normalise their conditions. Sadly, mental healthcare continues to suffer from a cultural stigma in most communities and is difficult to access for many.

Trigger warnings can help bridge this gap but ultimately focus should be placed on addressing the trauma at the source of the problem rather than playing whack-a-mole with the various symptoms.

JOIN THE DEBATE: Hear some of Australia’s best thinkers at The Ethics Centre’s 2017 IQ2 debate series. Tickets on sale now.

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