Today, I was discussing this article with a friend and she made a good point. She studies Classics, and said she has always been struck by how matter-of-factly she has been exposed to repeated themes of rape, abduction and violence against women over the course of her education. It was not the fact that these works have been included in the canon which she is required to study that she found objectionable, but the implied attitude of this matter-of-factness. What frustrated her was the idea that this violence belongs to the distant past, and shouldn’t move us today.
Yet, why shouldn’t we be moved by rape just because it happened thousands of years ago? Why do academics constantly ignore our traumas? Flagging up issues of contention in articles, at the very least, seem like a proportionate response to something as abhorrent as rape and I do not believe that refusing to acknowledge the traumatic nature of sexual assault will help us to rid society of it. In terms of this example, I think that a failure to content-note academic articles belies the fact that issues like rape are things that are a hugely pervasive problem to this day. rape often happens at random, when a high proportion of women are assaulted by people they already know, and dealing with this sort of assault is intensely problematic. Academics need to take social responsibility for their work and realise that the trauma of experiences like rape can lead to the development of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Taking this further, it is worth pointing out that some sufferers of PTSD have found the term ‘Trigger Warning’ itself objectionable on the basis that it sets the precedent that the content will ‘trigger’ a panic attack. Put simply, some people have found the term ‘trigger’ triggering. I have also seen blog posts by people living with PTSD who find the notion that they will be triggered somewhat infantilising. I would dispute that anyone has a right to belittle any behaviours or mechanism that may help someone cope with a mental health issue, as long as it does no harm to anyone else, and to suggest those who require prior warning about certain content are infantile seems patronising.
The prior objection, however is perhaps more tenable and I offer a tentative solution in use of the term ‘Content Note,’ abbreviated CN, or something similar – a term that would do the same job without the direct associations with the notion of having a panic attack. Many users who participate in discussions on intersectional forums have made this transition, and from this point I will too: terminology should reflect use and the people who use it.
The main arguments that I have seen against Content Notes in academia are as follows: that universities shouldn’t mollycoddle people, they should prepare them for real life; that education is the place to confront difficult ideas, not shy away from them; that lectures should be exciting and surprising; and that Content Notes are inconvenient, considering they only cater to a comparatively small percentage of the population.
The latter objection is easiest to counter, as it is the most obviously morally void; much money is spent on catering to people with disabilities. To view accessible ramps and lifts designed for wheelchairs in the same way would seem obviously abominable to most of us. I believe the margin of callousness that people allow themselves on this issue comes from an unconscious refusal to recognise mental health conditions as genuine medical conditions.
Whilst social stigma is being fought ever more vocally by mental health advocates, the fight is yet to be won and I believe a little research on the reality of living with PTSD may change some minds. Not enough people go out of their way to engage in the realities of people they don’t understand. If people had a real scope of the symptoms of PTSD they would perhaps think again before putting something as relatively unimportant as being ‘excited’ in lectures before people’s wellbeing and ability to learn well.
Ultimately, using Content Notes in academia seems intuitive when we consider the growing awareness of mental health issues that have developed over the last 50 years. We are beginning to understand that the vast majority of people living with PTSD are aware of the fact that they may encounter triggers at any moment, and for many people this happens often. Many of these people continue to function on a high level and will expose themselves to material they know they may find upsetting in a lecture theatre, for the sake of their learning, or for whatever other reason. Universities must recognise the needs of these people, and appreciate what they achieve everyday living with a condition that for many people is incredibly disruptive to their pursuits.
Universities have a responsibility of care and Content Notes serve less to wrap people in cotton wool, but more to give people who overcome their condition every day a fair warning. Academics’ use of content notes where they can will be of very little inconvenience in comparison to the inconvenience of the person having a panic attack in the middle of their lecture. Content Notes don’t get in the way of learning – they allow it to happen.
Today, rejecting trigger warnings in academia seems callous at best. The most vocal opponents of trigger warnings insist that they coddle over-privileged students at the expense of free speech, while their cheerleaders squarely occupy the moral high ground. It’s easy to forget that, though they are now increasingly common in US universities, there are also very good reasons that we haven’t– yet–introduced trigger warnings here in the UK.
Trigger warnings in universities are, their proponents claim, a crucial way of protecting the most vulnerable students. The problems are real. Even the most conservative estimates of sexual assault rates on campus are deeply alarming, and studies suggest that perhaps 40 per cent of sexual assault survivors experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Meanwhile, concerns over general student mental health continue to rise.
It’s this that has spurred some US colleges to introduce trigger warnings to protect students from trauma in the classroom. That aim is admirable, if flawed – after all, people with PTSD can be triggered by seemingly innocuous things just as well as by descriptions of assault.
It might be pointed out that simply issuing trigger warnings is no substitute for distributing a clear course outline in advance and offering comprehensive mental health support, but at least trigger warnings don’t seem to do any harm when they’re just shielding students from possible trauma.
But the problem with trigger warnings is that they’re not primarily about protecting students with mental illness. As any humanities student knows, it’s practically impossible to pass a week at university without coming across material that could be deemed ‘triggering’; human societies are often just not very nice places. You might think that would mean trigger warnings could proliferate almost infinitely. But, mostly, they don’t. Instead, sexism and racism are deemed worthy of trigger warnings, while other traumatic experiences often simply aren’t.
This is because trigger warnings weren’t designed primarily to protect people with trauma issues, but people who are part of marginalised or oppressed groups. Of course, there’s considerable overlap: students of colour may experience everyday racism, female students are at greater risk of sexual assault.
Every time you attach trigger warnings to the experiences of oppressed groups and not to the experiences of others, you style their experiences as uniquely traumatic. In effect, as writer Jill Filipovic puts it, you create a “hierarchy of trauma”. Traumatic experiences that don’t fit into the narrative are ignored. When the university transfers this ‘hierarchy of trauma’ out of online activist communities and into the lecture hall, it imposes a very political decision on students.
You might argue that universities have a responsibility to protect marginalised groups as much as students affected by mental illness- and they do: we would do well to remember that our universities were not created with women and minorities in mind and that we still fail to secure equal access to higher education. This is an ongoing struggle not just at Oxford, but at higher education institutions across the western world.
But trigger warnings are not the way to fix that. In giving the negative experiences of women and minorities the privileged status of trauma, trigger warnings make it more difficult to discuss those issues. When a class is presented with Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart with the trigger warning that it contains ‘racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide and more’, as Oberlin College in the US put it, it is encouraged to see the text only in those terms. A book exploring what racism and colonialism are and do is reduced to those fixed categories.
Nobody knows what the effect a trigger warning has on most students – the research just isn’t there. But there’s a real risk that trigger warnings simply make them switch off, convinced immediately that other people’s idealised trauma has nothing to do with their own experience.
Meanwhile, the proponents of trigger warnings lose out too. By conflating the marginalisation that they experience with their trauma, they make it much more difficult to analyse critically that marginalisation. Instead, they focus on their individual experiences.
By insisting on trigger warnings for issues that affect comparatively privileged university students supporters of trigger warnings often unwittingly demand that universities treat everyday sexism or racism on the same level as global injustice.
This individualism goes hand in hand with the marketisation of education – both, incidentally, areas where the US tends to be ahead of the UK. Some academics have warned that, with student satisfaction ratings becoming more important and under pressure from trigger warning-happy student groups, universities may increasingly be inclined to excise material deemed particularly triggering from courses. Without anyone particularly wanting it to happen, the university’s unique ability to confront students with material that disturbs and discomfits in a safe environment is eroded.
Tackling both trauma and the marginalisation of women and minorities at university is essential. But by conflating these two issues, the proponents of trigger warnings co-opt trauma into their own political agenda. When universities buy into that agenda, they do little to protect most students with mental health problems. Worse, they stop all students from facing challenging material on its own terms.
At present, universities are not doing enough to protect the more vulnerable members of the student body. They must become better places for marginalised students, but they shouldn’t delude themselves that trigger warnings are the answer.