Trigger Warnings: Murder. Rape. Racism. Homophobia. Snakes. The list goes on. Do professors have a responsibility to warn students about potentially triggering content in their readings? Or do these warnings simply coddle overly sensitive students? Dr. Ian Macdonald and Dr. Kate Polak debated these questions in a thought-provoking English colloquium on October 21st.
Macdonald’s argument fell in the anti-trigger warnings camp. He concluded that trigger warnings do not produce the intended effect of creating safe spaces for students; conversely, these warnings may have a negative effect on the students’ experience. Trigger warnings resurrect the act of exclusion in academia by labeling some works as potentially offensive. For example, by including trigger warnings for Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, stigma against the novel is created. This pretextual stigma is stifling, and it primes the reader to be traumatized. Additionally, the choice of when to use trigger warnings is arbitrary, much like MPAA ratings for film. One could easily argue that the Bible requires many trigger warnings seeing as it includes murder, rape, slavery, etc. Perhaps most importantly, the use of these warnings profoundly misdiagnoses trauma. Trauma is not discomfort. Trauma is included in the DSM. For those suffering from trauma, avoidance is actually a symptom of PTSD, not a cure. This is not to say that professors should use literature as a form of shock therapy—Macdonald humorously used the example of pelting an arachnophobe with a flurry of spiders. However, trigger warnings give students reasons to avoid novels, and this avoidance is ultimately unhelpful.
Polak, on the other side of the debate, claimed that the benefits of using trigger warnings outweighed the disadvantages. She argued that trigger warnings can increase access to a text for the students. By using trigger warnings, students do not feel surprised by the content of a text. Polak went on to share a personal experience from her times as a student. She was assigned to read Push by Sapphire, a novel that chronicles a graphic incestuous rape. Being a survivor of sexual assault herself, Polak felt blindsided by the content and was unable to complete the reading, a rarity for such a dedicated student of literature. Had her professor shared the content of the text, perhaps Polak could have approached the text differently. The lack of surprise could have helped her process and understand the material from a different perspective. These trigger warnings are not in place to dissuade students from reading, but rather to prepare them for potentially hurtful content. They are not infantilizing—they challenge students to explore different material.
While opening the floor to questions from the audience, Dr. Askeland stated, “If you’re anything like me, you completely agree with Ian, and you completely agree with Kate!”—this sentiment could not ring more true for me. Both arguments were equally compelling and deserving of merit. Here’s to many more enlightening English colloquiums!
-Sarah Van Deusen ‘16