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The Downside of Trigger Warnings

For many faculty members, another academic year has ended. Grades have been posted. Some of your favorite students have graduated and moved on. Some professors will continue to teach a summer course or two. Others will sponsor or attend workshops or conferences as they engage in new, exciting research or further immerse themselves in topics that they have already developed a passion for.

Some professors will take it easy by visiting or writing letters to family or friends or catching up on some long-awaited activities such as fishing, leisure reading, taking vacations, etc. Indeed, it will be a time of either hedonistic relaxation, intense overdrive or a combination of both for many of us. It is safe to say that most academics will have a temporary reprieve from an issue that has periodically resurfaced on many campuses — trigger warnings.

Unless you have been comatose or have been living in a cave in the outermost reaches of the hinterlands, you have certainly been introduced to this issue, particularly if you are an academic. It has become one of the latest buzzwords in academia and in many institutions outside of the ivory tower. Academic blogs, both print and electronic media, a few politicians and others have wandered into the debate. As is the case with most controversial issues, discussions on the issue have been emotional, intense and in many cases, polarizing.

There are those who are steadfast in support of such provisions being a part of the academy and others who are deeply opposed to such an implementation. Supporters of the policy argue that it provides certain students who are not as emotionally impervious as their peers the opportunity to be forewarned of material that they may find psychologically unsettling. Detractors see such an issue as a real potential danger to free speech and a severe encroachment upon academic freedom.

Read the following:

  • During slavery and well into the mid-20th century, it was not unusual for mobs of violent Whites to capture and lynch Black men, and, in some cases, cut off their genitals and then burn the body.
  • There were German soldiers who would force Jewish prisoners in concentration camps to lie face down in ditches as they shot them in the back of the head one by one.
  • It was not uncommon practice for enemy soldiers in war to brutally torture rival civilians, burn entire towns or villages, rape women, randomly use people for target practice and commit other atrocities.
  • Prior to the 1960s, it was not uncommon for many White men in the South (and other regions of the nation) to violently rape Black women and sexually violate women of all races if they wanted to or if these women refused their sexual advances.
  • Many gay men and lesbian women have historically been (and in some cases, still are) the victims of vicious brutality from anti-gay activists, heterosexual men and law enforcement. In some cases, such violence has led to humiliating and brutal rape, murder and death.

I have made the following statements in the various courses that I teach. They are historically accurate. There is no doubt that some students have been made to feel uncomfortable or disoriented by such unpleasant truths. Trigger warnings would require me to succumb to the injured feelings of upset students.

What we are witnessing is a generation of college kids, millennials (not all by any means), who have grown up in an environment where many things are “handled” for them. All the answers have been provided for them. Many are under the assumption that they are entitled to choose from a smorgasbord of options. Many of them have been indoctrinated with an “everyone wins” attitude. In their largely scripted, insular worlds, professors are supposed to solely relegate their pedagogy to giving lectures. On the contrary, debating, discussing, engaging in critical thinking, reading complex or controversial material and writing essays is “too hard” or unacceptable. The level of emotional fragility among some young people is troubling.

I make it clear to my students during the first class of every semester that they are no longer in high school. They have arrived on a college campus, they are now adults (a few are still legally minors), life is not multiple choice though it can be somewhat true and false (the latter comment always get a few laughs). Moreover, I inform them that none of us will be totally comfortable with everything we encounter or hear and that as human beings we must be expected to acclimate to various situations and environments. The fact that people are occasionally taken out of their comfort zones can be a positive thing.

That being said, I am reasonable and sensitive enough to realize that there are some arenas where such topics are better off not being discussed. Would it be practical to discuss complex issues of brutal, violent warfare or graphic sexual violence to a group of elementary school kids? In my opinion, no it would not be. Discussing such topics with college-age kids? Absolutely! Those professors who decide to include a statement discussing trigger warnings on their course syllabi certainly have the right to do so. At that point, the ball is in the student’s court, so to speak.

The fact is that life is full of messy and unpredictable circumstances and situations. No one, not even the most lucky or wealthy among us, is going to be immune from being jilted by certain situations. Human nature will make sure of this. More importantly, trigger warnings are a double-edged sword due to the fact that they can potentially be employed as a sinister weapon by people with various political and social agendas — racists, sexists, homophobes, anti-Semites, xenophobes, atheists, anti-atheists and others who wish to stifle debate or viewpoints that they disagree with. In short, trigger warnings are a slippery slope better off being shot down or, at the very least, marginalized.

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