Mandatory academic trigger warnings would be ineffectual

Recently, many people have been pushing the idea that college professors should be required to put trigger warnings on potentially distressing course material, and the notion has gotten a good deal of flak from many academics. The American Association of University Professors has given an official statement opposing the idea of a mandate on the grounds that it would stifle academic freedom. While I am also of the opinion that mandatory trigger warnings go against what academia is supposed to do, there are other concerns to consider in this debate.

No one seems to be talking about how mandatory trigger warnings wouldn’t work on a strictly logistical level — at least not well, after taking into account what would have to be done to enforce it as a rule. They’d be more trouble than they would be worth, and that is apparent as soon as you sit down and actually think about what instituting mandatory trigger warnings would entail.

Emotional triggers are vastly personal things. Yes, there are some people with “stereotypical” triggers — an explicit description of sexual assault is certainly likely to trigger a sexual assault survivor — but triggers can also be seemingly benign and non-offensive things. Those people who are disturbed by anything other than the wholly generic aren’t going to be helped that much. And it also comes with the implication that professors could get in trouble if they didn’t have the right trigger warnings and someone still got triggered, which doesn’t seem like it’d solve any problems.

If mandatory trigger warnings are supposed to help individual students who may be disturbed by something in the classroom, one would have to know what each individual student is triggered by beforehand, because there’s no way of knowing what to put a warning on otherwise; triggers are just too diverse. How would a professor go about this process? Should they send out an e-mail asking all their students for a list of things that personally traumatize them? Should this list just be kept in a student file so professors don’t have to ask for this information every new semester?

Something tells me that this violation of privacy would not be appreciated. The only students who would truly take advantage of such a policy would be the ones who already approach their professors about accommodations they may need in the future. Even pretending that the method wouldn’t be highly contested, it would also entail trusting the students to be thorough, which they probably wouldn’t be. Students would only make the professor aware of triggers that they think would pertain to the class, which opens up the door for them to be triggered by something that they didn’t think would be relevant, but ended up popping up in the class anyway.

If professors violating the privacy of the students to protect them from harmful content isn’t okay, the only thing they could do would be to put trigger warnings on material so obviously objectionable that the trigger warning would be superfluous. All they’d have to go on would be what is stereotypically deemed unpleasant, and they’d just have to hope that everything was covered. Really, the article about sexual assault in Saudi Arabia has disturbing content? I never would have guessed.

What if almost everything in the class winds up having a trigger warning? What would that accomplish? Wouldn’t it just be easier to acknowledge that the class you’re in covers disturbing content on a fairly consistent basis? If it’s the professors’ obligation to put a warning on anything that could conceivably be distressing, the trigger warning would lose all weight and significance very quickly. That could be avoided by professors leaving most things alone and only putting trigger warnings on extremely disturbing content, but “extremely disturbing” is wholly subjective. And it’s not even a trigger warning at that point: it’s just a normal warning to all involved.

Some people say that trigger warnings are like movie ratings, but there are problems with that comparison. There’s a spectrum of movie ratings, firstly, and even then people think it’s inefficient because the rating does not provide a nuanced description. “PG-13” means nothing because almost everything is PG-13 — it could be a movie where an actor said “damn” more than twice or a movie where someone gets shot on-screen: they both get the same rating. Trigger warnings would quickly turn into the PG-13 movie rating of academia if their use were required. It’d actually be worse — there’s only one trigger warning. It doesn’t even have the spectrum to fall back on. Occasionally, it would be more specific, but even then it’s not all that indicative of the content. “Extreme Violence” can be someone getting slapped once, or it can be someone getting hit by a car—it all just depends on what the person writing the trigger warning finds disturbing. Some trigger warnings are hyperbolic to the extreme, and some are too vague. They’re not helpful.

In order to avoid unclear warnings, someone would have to be hired to standardize mandatory trigger warnings. There would have to be some kind of regulation to make sure that “Trigger Warning: Violent Content” means the same thing at Swarthmore that it means at Penn or Temple or Villanova. That’s what making something a required rule does — it entails regulation and standardization. We wouldn’t want someone from Minnesota transferring to NYU and being offended because the article that said “fuck” wasn’t tagged for extreme language.

Trigger warnings should be used at the discretion of the professor where they see them fit. They shouldn’t be mandatory, and they shouldn’t be the default way of going about things. I understand the sentiment: schools are trying to be more empathetic toward students who need mental/emotional accommodations. But this ultimately seems like all bark and no bite. It makes people feel nice because they can be arbitrarily considerate, and that’s all it really accomplishes.

I don’t think mandatory trigger warnings would destroy the academic spirit as many people insist. I think that rhetoric is needlessly apocalyptic. I’m not even against trigger warnings as a concept, even though they’re often overused to the point of being useless. It’s the tone of trigger warnings that I’m against: the paternalistic idea that those with delicate sensibilities absolutely need to be shielded from all things that may fluster their fragile dispositions lest they faint from the horror. There are better, more constructive ways to care about the well-being of others — ways that don’t involve unfortunate implications about potentially stifling academic expression.

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