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Trigger warnings have gone too far

By Katie McKay

Using trigger warnings is necessary and helpful when presenting potentially disturbing content. But does their increased use in higher education settings make a mockery of the idea as a whole?

Trigger warnings are exactly as the name suggests. They warn of potentially triggering content: things that some audiences might find uncomfortable or disturbing. For the past few years, the use of trigger warnings has become more frequent in the discussion of sensitive topics, particularly within academia. Warnings of triggering content are important when discussing upsetting matters. But trigger warnings have gone too far, and their misuse is beginning to make a mockery of the issue entirely.

Earlier this year, the University of Greenwich was accused of ‘infantilising’ students with trigger warnings for Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. According to notes seen by The Telegraph, English literature students studying the book were warned about sexism, gender stereotyping and toxic relationships and friendships. Professor Dennis Hayes of the University of Derby told The Telegraph, “Universities should put up one simple statement: ‘Trigger warning – this is a university, you must expect to be offended.’” 

Trigger warnings often go too far, especially in Higher Education settings. Recently, in one of my lectures there was a trigger warning for a painting of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. When something becomes too frequent, it loses its meaning – this is the case for trigger warnings. If trigger warnings lose their meaning, it could potentially follow that things which most need warnings end up without. 

In my final year of school, during a Personal and Social Education lesson, we were shown a video intended to teach about consent under intoxication. The video proceeded to portray sexual assault in graphic detail, with no warning. Many of my classmates were upset for the rest of the day.  Examples such as this are fairly common – we have taken proper meaning away from trigger warnings, and triggering material is consumed unknowingly and with no warning.

In my opinion, trigger warnings should be used much less frequently than they currently are. Trigger warnings are needed for certain content including sexual assault, eating disorders and graphic violence, or they can risk seriously impacting someone’s mental health. But using them like the University of Greenwich did enables people to criticise the concept as a whole, because it makes trigger warnings appear ridiculous and unnecessary, when in fact, they can be useful and important. 

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslet writes that she doesn’t like trigger warnings at all, as they remind her of “victimhood.” She suffers with post traumatic stress disorder, but does not like the feeling that people are trying to “wrap her in cotton wool.” This is a more extreme view – something I personally don’t agree with. Trigger warnings very much have their place. But it has gone too far, particularly in academic settings.

The University of Chester gave trigger warnings for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, The Hunger Games and Northern Lights, stating that they “can lead to some difficult conversations about gender, race, sexuality, class and identity.” In response to these trigger warnings, MP Andrew Bridgen told the Daily Mail: “…young people are amazingly resilient. It really is very sad that universities are seeking to rob them of that resilience with ridiculous trigger warnings.”

When it comes to trigger warnings, universities need to rein it in. Students are not children, and do not require the excessive levels of protection which some lecturers are offering. Unnecessary trigger warnings take away from their real value, at times when they are most crucial.

Trigger warnings are important, when used sparingly. The typical response “life doesn’t come with trigger warnings” often annoys and angers me, but it is nonetheless a true statement. We need to stop trying to protect everyone from everything. Upset and anger and natural parts of life, and any attempt to change this fact is futile. The line must be drawn somewhere. 


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