Academic trigger warnings are an act of empathy

Credit: Rhiannon Doherty

Madelin Otterbein

We can’t assume everyone has the same privilege

Recently, in a Cambridge undergraduate English literature class, students were issued a “trigger warning” prior to reading William Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, a play involving copious amounts of violence, including rape and murder. Other warnings were issued for Blasted, a play by Sarah Kane that describes a soldier’s experience in war, including rape and torture, and Euripides’ Hippolytus (its plot focusing on an accusation of rape), and The Bacchae (which contains various scenes of intense violence).

The trend towards including trigger warnings in academic settings has been around for a few years now and was a prominent controversy in the United States, where I completed my undergraduate degree. Last year, the University of Chicago sent a letter to incoming first year students that stated “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.” This letter sparked a debate, just as the Cambridge warnings have, on the presence of trigger warnings in an academic setting.

I think the major issue with this debate is the misinterpretation of the purpose of trigger warnings. The University of Chicago letter deems trigger warnings the death of controversial topics and suggests that safe spaces are meant to shelter students from dealing with conflict or uncomfortable ideas. When used as intended, trigger warnings should not keep students from difficult discussions, but rather give them equal opportunity to participate.

Dennis Hayes, a professor of education at Derby University, told The Times: “Once you get a few trigger warnings, lecturers will stop presenting anything that is controversial.” This is a common fear among those who do not condone trigger warnings, and, quite frankly, it is absurd. Warnings do not change the content of the course; they are not meant to censor conversation, and should not be seen as such.

When entering an academic discussion, we cannot assume that everyone has the same privilege. We do not know what traumas people may have faced in their lives or how being exposed to certain subjects may affect them. Giving someone a warning should not limit the discussion of these difficult subjects, it should be an opportunity to give that individual a chance to prepare themselves for that particular discussion. It’s not about keeping people from being uncomfortable, it’s about making sure students with legitimate conditions of mental distress caused by past trauma are not unwillingly exposed to material that could set off any symptoms they may have.

The use of trigger warnings is, on the whole, up to the discretion of the lecturer. While I strongly believe they should be used, I do think lecturers need to be careful when giving these warnings that they do not give students an easy way out. For example, at Oxford, undergraduates studying law were given the opportunity to leave class if they found the content distressing when dealing with violent cases or cases of sexual assault. If you study a field such as law or medicine, for example, you have a future in which you will be dealing with these potentially uncomfortable situations, and while a warning is helpful and important, it should not be an excuse not to engage.

Students should feel safe in academic spaces. They should be given the opportunity to put their best foot forward in discussion. The use of trigger warnings is not an issue of political correctness or eliminating difficult conversations, it’s about creating a community of healthy, interactive students. Choosing to warn students is an act of empathy. It’s not a matter of being concerned about “offending” someone, but rather a matter of allowing people to make an informed decision on what they can or cannot face.