The Validity of Trigger Warnings

By Emily Moran

Elm Staff Writer

Recently “trigger warnings” have seen a more popular usage in our society.  Trigger warnings are typically used in order to warn or otherwise notify someone of scenes or language in some form of media that could “trigger” a negative response.  Such scenes could deeply disturb and/or trigger someone because it may serve as a reminder of a traumatic event that they have lived through.  Common triggers include scenes depicting graphic sexual violence, or other scenes in which copious amounts of blood and gore are shown.  Given that various forms of media containing such content can upset or cause unintended health risks to a significant number of people, it makes sense to acknowledge the validity of trigger warnings.  However, this is not the case, and the idea has received a significant backlash in recent months.

With the emergence of trigger warnings, criticism against them has become quite popular as well.  In its September 2015 issue, “The Atlantic” published an article declaring that trigger warnings serve to “coddle” college students, claiming that they are used solely to “protect” students from ideas and words that they don’t like.  The author also declares that this coddling of college students leaves them ill-prepared for the “real world.”  However, there is a big difference between merely finding something offensive and being legitimately triggered by a graphic depiction of an incident that the author of this article fails to recognize.  He seems to confuse the two, claiming that the words “I’m offended” are often used as a “trump card,” thus shutting down any opposition or argument.  The list of things that are deemed “unacceptable” to say grows larger and larger.

The problem with this type of thinking is that it reduces valid trigger warnings to students overreacting, deeming almost everything as “offensive.”  Although trigger warnings are most commonly implemented for the sake of the mental health of the students, the article (and others like it) fails to mention this.  What these articles also fail to address is the basic premise behind such warnings.  They exist because college classes (and educational atmospheres in general) should be safe spaces for everyone.  There should not be anyone who feels unsafe or that their mental health is at stake while attempting to get an education.  If required course content includes potentially triggering material (such as depictions of graphic sexual violence), one should have the right to receive a warning that such content exists and opt out of consuming such material if they feel it could have adverse effects on their mental health.

Critics of trigger warnings also oppose them on the grounds that they are censoring academic texts as well as free speech.  This claim is, quite frankly, ridiculous.  Those requesting them are not demanding that the offending material be banned from college classes or in general.  They are simply requesting that there be a warning of a possibly disturbing scene or depiction of a traumatic event so that they may act accordingly.  Ironically, the declaration that trigger warnings are bound to result in over-sensitive adults that are ill-prepared to handle the real world is, itself, a bit of an over-reaction.

While trigger warnings may appear to cater to “oversensitive” and “sheltered” students on college campuses, they are necessary.  Since it seems that a large portion of these trigger warnings serve to warn people of possibly upsetting scenes or depictions, the need for these warnings is absolutely essential.  Due to the disturbingly high amounts of sexual violence and assault that occurs on college campuses (and therefore, the high amount of sexual assault victims and survivors), the necessity for trigger warnings is further increased and intensified.  When all of these points are considered, the validity of trigger warnings is therefore solidified.  They also show that many critics of trigger warnings have no idea what they actually are and openly demonstrate their willful ignorance toward the subject, making their criticisms unfounded and irrelevant.

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