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The Trigger Warning Myth

Coddled students aren’t the cause of a mental health crisis on campus, they’re just pawns in the culture wars.

Jemal Countess / Getty Images

In The Atlantic’s latest cover story, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt insinuate that trigger warnings and “vindictive protectiveness” are behind the college mental health crisis. “A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense,” they write, adding that a “campus culture devoted to policing speech and punishing speakers is likely to engender patterns of thought that are surprisingly similar to those long identified by cognitive behavioral therapists as causes of depression and anxiety. The new protectiveness may be teaching students to think pathologically.” Which is just an academic way of saying that politically correct students are driving themselves crazy.

How have trigger warnings, of all things, been elevated to explanatory value akin to academic and professional pressures, increased accessibility to college, familial and broader economic pressures, reduced sleep, sexual assault epidemics, social media image policing, and any number of other factors that experts have identified as serious contributors to mental health problems on college campuses? I don’t doubt that emotional coddling can play a negative role in the mental health of college students, and so is worth investigating. But I also think Lukianoff, the head Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, and Haidt, a social psychologist at the NYU-Stern School of Business, are granting certain practices of care on college campuses outsized and in some cases misleading roles in the mental health crisis.

I write this as a professor well outside of Haidt’s field, from a pedagogical standpoint; which is to say from one of several very different kinds of caregiving roles on a college campus, one concerned primarily with students’ intellectual development (as opposed to their general mental health in a clinical context). Our national conversations about trigger warnings and political correctness evince a troubling lack of awareness about what it actually looks like in real life to express sensitivities to college students about their apparently increasing anxieties and traumas. We’re still getting trigger warnings wrong.

I never imagined becoming a defender of trigger warnings. This is the first time I’ve written (or spoken) the word “microaggressions” in recent memory. I have been and continue to be a proponent of the idea that the best way to handle wrongheadedness and hate speech is to address these with corrective speech, to present ideas, rationales, and evidence that overwhelm ignorance and bigotry with a blistering light. Accordingly, when vulgar or emotionally challenging material is part of the subject matter I’m responsible for teaching, or serves an otherwise specific pedagogical purpose, I’m not shy about it.

Here’s a brief and by no means exhaustive list of things I’ve carefully selected for college syllabi and deliberately taught in college courses: a pair of poems about impotence and premature ejaculation; a satire about slaughtering human infants and feeding them to “persons of quality and fortune”; a poem that uses the c-word twice in a mere 33 lines, and describes King Charles II in coitus with his mistress with the phrase “his dull, graceless bollocks hang an arse”; a novel in which a wealthy man gets his maid to marry him by kidnapping her and continually cornering her with unwanted sexual advances; a graphic history of the torture methods and other cruelties done to African slaves leading up to the Haitian Revolution; a poem written in the voice of a male domestic servant and attempted rapist contacting his victim from prison.

The items on this list, and many others on my syllabi, could be censored by “social justice warriors” from the left, since many of them could be triggering for students suffering from post-traumatic stress. In another context, however, they could be censored from the right, by people who tell the sexual assault survivor balking at a literary rape scene to “grow up,” then turn around and oppose the teaching of sexually explicit material because it’s “trash.”

In both cases, censoring this material is a bad idea, and providing context is the best avenue for explaining why. If you read the list above and wonder how or why any serious person would teach such material at a prestigious (and expensive) college, consider the authors behind the list. It includes works by major, canonical authors from antiquity to the eighteenth century, such as Ovid, Aphra Behn, Jonathan Swift, John Wilmot, Samuel Richardson, and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. It also includes the historian C.L.R. James’s The Black Jacobins, one of the definitive histories of the Haitian Revolution. Simply put, leaving this stuff off the syllabus because it might be triggering is not an option.

As I’ve explained elsewhere, however, I use trigger warnings in the classroom as a way of preparing students who may be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder while also easing the entire class into a discussion of the material. The thinking behind the idea that trigger warnings are a form of censorship is fundamentally illogical: those who offer warnings, at our professional discretion, about potentially triggering material are doing so precisely because we’re about to teach it! If we used trigger warnings to say, effectively, “don’t read this, it’s scary,” then there’d be no need to warn in the first place; we’d just leave the material off the syllabus.

It’s true that giving a warning runs the risk of students avoiding or disengaging with the material out of fear of being triggered (in my three years of teaching, students have come to office hours to discuss sensitive material, but not one has left class or failed to turn in an assignment because of a trigger warning). If a student disengages, however, a professor still can (and should) follow up in a couple of ways. One is to have a private conversation with the student about the material, away from the pressures of the classroom; another is to take the student’s response as an occasion to check in with the student and make sure they have access to campus mental health resources. Few of the media voices catastrophizing trigger warnings seem to understand that professors’ interactions with students in the classroom and during office hours are some of the most important ways of catching mental health (or time management, or substance abuse) issues in our students that may need further attention. While the purpose of trigger warnings is not to screen for mental health problems, being attuned to how students are reacting to material, and prompting them to react to the hard stuff, can help us catch problems before they become real catastrophes.

For those of you who are imagining scores of students using professors’ trigger warnings disingenuously, as a way to get out of class or a reading assignment, this isn’t (for most of us) our first rodeo. Students use deception all the time, but an office hours summons is really all we need to determine whether the student might need help from a mental health professional, or was just trying to game the system. In most cases, however, when you warn students that something might be emotionally challenging or explicit, most of them do exactly what we do when someone tells us to watch out for something lurid: they become even more curious.

Lukianoff and Haidt view trigger warnings as ways of assuming negative outcomes despite the facts of the situation, a form of what they describe as “fortune-telling”: “‘predicting the future negatively’ or seeing potential danger in an everyday situation.” Further, for Lukianoff and Haidt, trigger warnings are ways of enabling those who do suffer from PTSD to disengage, counterproductively, from the harsh realities of the world. They view trigger warnings, in other words, as not only a form of censoring what professors can teach, but of censoring students’ experience of real life. But trigger warnings don’t need to be the end of a difficult conversation; more often they’re actually the beginning of one.

Lukianoff and Haidt define trigger warnings as “alerts that professors are expected to issue if something in a course might cause a strong emotional response.” Note the syntax of this sentence, which presents trigger warnings not as something professors choose to do in environments that we control, but as something externally imposed upon us (“are expected to issue”). This way of describing trigger warnings is an example of a tactic we see used widely to critique trigger warnings while portraying college students as a bunch of paradoxically terrifying wimps.

Lukianoff and Haidt provide a series of such examples, from the viral Vox essay “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me” to the complaints of Jerry Seinfeld that young people are so threateningly soft that he won’t play at college campuses. The implication here is that students are at once too thin-skinned to withstand discussions of Ovid or rape law or gay jokes, and powerful to the extent that their demands for trigger warnings must be heeded by professors, university administrations, and visiting comedians.

Between these two extremes—of teachers buckling under students’ demands and of teachers coddling oversensitive students—there’s the reality of teaching. While a miniscule number of colleges and universities have gone so far as to codify trigger warnings for professors, most trigger warnings exist as a pedagogical choice that professors make in situations over which we exercise considerable control. (And have existed as such for much longer than the present debate suggests: While “trigger warning” was not part of my vocabulary as an undergraduate, introductory comments like “we’re going to spend some time today on lynching images, so prepare yourselves for graphic and difficult material” were indeed.)

Professors give warnings of all sorts that, when not explicitly entangled in the national politics of political correctness, amount less to coddling than to minimizing chances of disengagement with material. “Block off more time this weekend than you usually do, since the reading for Monday is a particularly long one,” for instance, is a reasonable way of reducing the number of students who show up unprepared by issuing a warning. “Today we’re discussing a poem about rape, so be prepared for some graphic discussion, and come to office hours if you have things to say about the poem that you’re not comfortable expressing in class,” meanwhile, is a similarly reasonable way of relieving the immediate pressure to perform in class, which stresses out so many students.

Those of us who occasionally use trigger warnings are not as naïve as we’re made out to be; we understand that there is no magical warning that will assuage all anxieties and protect students from all traumas, nor is there a boilerplate trigger warning or trigger warning policy that professors can be reasonably expected to follow formulaically. Rather, trigger warnings are, in practice, just one of a set of tools that professors use with varying degrees of formality to negotiate the give-and-take of classroom interactions. If you take away the media hysteria surrounding trigger warnings, you’re left with a mode of conversational priming that we all use: “You might want to sit down for this”; “I’m not sure how to say this, but…” It’s hardly anti-intellectual or emotionally damaging to anticipate that other people may react to traumatic material with negative emotions, particularly if they suffer from PTSD; it’s human to engage others with empathy. It’s also human to have emotional responses to life and literature, responses that may come before, but in no way preclude, a dispassionate analysis of a text or situation.

I’m not blind to the problems with trigger warnings and hyperbolic political correctness. The examples Lukianoff and Haidt cite are alarming: Harvard law students asking professors not to use the word “violate”; Brandeis students calling even critical acknowledgment of racial stereotypes of Asian-Americans “microaggressions”; Northwestern professor Laura Kipnis being accused of Title IX violations for an article she wrote for The Chronicle of Higher Education. But I’m not convinced that we can lay these problems—and by extension, adverse developments in the mental health of college students—at the feet of trigger warnings.

The backlash against trigger warnings is part of a larger iteration of backlash against political correctness, which tells us something important about where the public thinks the power lies. People on the margins may get press for tweeting things like “kill all white men,” and the occasional professor may be undeservedly shamed or ousted for running afoul of students with certain P.C. language expectations. In both scenarios, however, the heart of the matter is who holds the authority to choose the best (or worst) course of action. The P.C. backlash and the trigger-warning backlash hold a common fallacy: They see pushback from the margins and mistake it for threats to the most institutionally powerful.

“Kill all white people” is a despicable sentiment, but in practice it’s not white people who face the gravest threats of being gunned down by those who wield the authority to do so. Similarly, students can demand trigger warnings or sensitivity trainings, but students remain more vulnerable to institutional power than the professors who assign their grades or the administrators who adjudicate their missteps. And if there exist situations in which professors really are “terrified” by our students, and students are actually lapsing into mental distress because we’re too afraid to cross them, then the problem is much bigger than trigger warnings. The problem is mistrusting the experience and authority of professors in our roles as teachers and intellectual caregivers. If we can lose our jobs either for teaching traumatic material or for failing to warn students adequately about it, what’s really happening here isn’t that we’re ruining students by coddling them; we’re losing the authority we rely on to be sensitive to students’ anxieties without giving into them, to use techniques like trigger warnings judiciously without being forced to use them in some generalized and codified way.

The trigger warning problem isn’t actually a trigger warning problem; it’s what happens when the messy business of teaching and learning, and the complex challenges to students’ mental wellbeing, become flashpoints in the culture wars. The effect of this entanglement is an exaggerated impression of trigger warnings that draws on the most extreme examples, a tactic that mirrors and plays into the very currents of partisan politics that Lukianoff and Haidt lament as a threat to American democracy. Of course, the authors consider trigger warnings to be “bad for American democracy,” too, and call on universities to “officially and strongly discourage” them. Instead of seeking new sources of outrage around trigger warnings, though, we should understand more thoroughly why this particular pedagogical choice, one of so many, has become a national wedge issue. That trigger warnings are rare, and may be of occasional benefit to professors like me who employ them, is too inconvenient a reality for those who are busy waging war on political correctness.

Correction: A previous version of this article characterized Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” as “a satire about slaughtering human infants and feeding them to the poor.” Swift’s essay proposes feeding the infants to “persons of quality and fortune.”