Untangling the Trigger-Warning Debate: Curating a Complete Toolkit for Compassionate Praxis in the Classroom.

Author:Dickman-Burnett, Victoria L.


I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.

--Abraham Maslow, The Psychology of Science

Recently, educational stakeholders have hotly debated the question of whether educators should be required to provide trigger warnings in the classroom. Commonly associated with subjects like eating disorders or sexual violence, trigger warnings are brief warnings to alert the audience the material they are about to consume contains content which might cause them to experience a traumatic reaction. Depending on who you ask, trigger warnings are a threat to academic freedom (AAUP, 2014), a learning accommodation (Taylor, 2017), or a sign kids these days are far too coddled (Lukianoff & Haidt, 2015).

This debate was spurred on in part because trigger warnings moved from a tool used mostly online to proposed institutional policy, therefore the discussion also took a turn from addressing individual traumas to righting societal inequities (University of Santa Barbara Associated Student Senate, 2014). When trigger warnings moved from online to the classroom, the definition expanded to include not only subjects like interpersonal violence, but also racism, colonialism, and classism. In this move, students began to apply trigger warnings much like Maslow's Hammer: no longer simply a tool to help people living with trauma, trigger warnings were now the silver bullet to address all social ills in the classroom.

The negative response to trigger warnings suggests a wider problem: a lack of compassion for students who may be struggling with trauma and the assumption students are acting in bad faith to avoid challenging subjects. This case study uses the idea of compassionate praxis as an umbrella term for rooting the educational approach in compassion. Trigger warnings are a starting point for this conversation, but they are not the only tool available. This case study will demonstrate that responding to students with compassion--through offering trigger warnings as well as using other tools--does not inhibit classroom discussion and in fact creates an atmosphere of trust to increase student openness. To this end, we will first untangle the conversation surrounding trigger warnings to demonstrate (a) what trigger warnings are, and (b) how critics of trigger warnings misunderstand their purposes. We will then turn to a discussion of a high school sexual violence prevention unit to demonstrate compassionate praxis in action. While discourse about trigger warnings have centered on the college classroom, we believe our high school prevention unit offers valuable lessons to resolve this debate. The case study ends with concrete recommendations for educators to apply compassionate praxis to sensitive materials in the classroom.

Authors' Position on Trigger Warnings

In the interest of transparency, we believe trigger warnings are a helpful tool for survivors of trauma. However, we also believe their function should not be extended to addressing wider social inequities. Other tools must be used to ensure teaching social issues does not recreate oppressive power dynamics. Understanding the purpose of trigger warnings is crucial to their proper use, which must not overstate their role as a sort of "silver bullet" to ease all challenges of teaching difficult subject matters.

The Case Against Trigger Warnings

Arguments against trigger warnings can be divided into two broad camps: disagreements with the underlying philosophy of trigger warnings and disagreements with some aspect of the practice of trigger warnings. The former tends to generate conversations about how students need to grow a thicker skin, while the latter agrees with the notion of compassion for people living with trauma, but believes a different set of practices are more beneficial. We believe people in both camps show a fundamental misunderstanding of how trigger warnings operate, as Hanlon (2015) suggests.

One common critique of trigger warnings is the warnings coddle students. Lukianoff and Haidt (2015) argue the warnings insulate students from opinions challenging their viewpoints and therefore "coddle" them. Citing cognitive behavioral therapy, they argue trigger warnings promote avoidance rather than proper treatment, which is controlled exposure to triggering material. Manne (2015) challenges this analogy, stating failure to use trigger warnings is more like "occasionally throwing a spider at an arachnophobe" (n.p., para. 12) than providing controlled exposure by a trained therapist. The coddling argument demonstrates a misunderstanding of the purpose of trigger warnings, which is to allow students who have experienced trauma a warning in advance of difficult material. They also conflate students as a whole with students who live with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD), discomfort with trauma, microaggressions with graphic violence, and therefore assume all requests for trigger warnings are the same. Underlying their argument (and others, see Chait, 2015; Essig, 2014; Jarvie, 2014; Schlossher, 2015) is the idea students requesting trigger warnings are operating in bad faith and to trying avoid discomfort.

In addition to the critique of trigger warnings as coddling, other critics claim trigger warnings pose a threat to academic freedom. In 2014, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) released a statement in opposition to trigger warnings in the classroom. Citing a previous statement by the American Library Association deeming trigger warnings to be a "labeling or rating system," the AAUP argued against institutional policies requiring trigger warnings (AAUP, 2014). The AAUP statement then went further, contending even voluntary trigger warnings posed a threat to academic freedom, asserting faculty should confront difficult topics rather than avoiding them, and writing "the classroom is not the appropriate venue to treat PTSD" (AAUP, 2014, n.p.). Two years later, in a letter to incoming first-year students, University of Chicago Dean of Students, John Ellison, insisted the university would not provide students with trigger warnings (Schaper, 2016). Both statements conceptualize trigger warnings as inherently avoidant and assume providing a warning ends a conversation, rather than begins one while letting students know what to expect.

Along similar lines, the AAUP misunderstands the purpose of trigger warnings when they suggest the warnings are a means to "treat PTSD" rather than to help students with PTSD cope with the risk of reliving trauma. McNally (2016) also suggests anyone who needs a trigger warning needs to seek treatment for PTSD. We do not disagree with this assessment, but it is also unrealistic to expect students with PTSD put their lives completely on hold while they seek treatment, and providing trigger warnings can help in the interim.

One final argument against trigger warnings worth examination is the claim they unfairly pathologize women, presenting trauma as a gendered construct. Doll (2017) argues trigger warnings are frequently tied to sexual violence, which is commonly associated with women, resulting in an image of women as frail. At the same time, Doll's (2017) argument centers around the idea of trigger warnings as an accommodation for women rather than an accommodation for survivors of trauma.

The Case for Trigger Warnings

Supporters of trigger warnings are not unified in their application of the warnings. Trigger warnings have been framed as a learning accommodation (Taylor, 2017), an institutional policy (McFarland, 2017), and one part of a multifaceted strategy (Storla, 2017). Each of these arguments supports the general idea of trigger warnings but provides a different framework for how they should be approached. The logical conclusion to this disagreement is the question of where the responsibility for accommodation lies.

The accommodation argument centers around the idea of PTSD as a disability covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Taylor (2017) argues PTSD is a disability, therefore, students with PTSD are legally entitled to accommodations including trigger warnings. Without trigger warnings, students living with trauma would not have equal access to the classroom as their peers. As an individual accommodation, students with trauma would work with accommodation providers to inform their professors of their needs. This means students would have institutional support in facilitating conversations about their academic needs. However, it also means students would need to have a formal diagnosis of PTSD in order to seek these accommodations and, even with a diagnosis, students may have to disclose information about their trauma with their professors.

Other supporters of trigger warnings argue institutions should make policies requiring faculty to provide them. McFarland (2017) documents a case in which a professor responded poorly to a request for a trigger warning, and used this opportunity to argue institutional policies should require faculty to provide trigger warnings for common topics associated with PTSD. While McFarland's story demonstrates the ways in which faculty assumption of bad faith makes it difficult for students to request trigger warnings, it also...

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