Trigger Warnings as Informed Consent

The University of Chicago recently issued a letter to all of its incoming freshmen warning that the University does not condone “so-called” trigger warnings or safe spaces. The college’s case is fairly straightforward. As an institution whose goal is to promote free and open discussion, exchange of ideas, and exposure to new perspectives, the University should not allow students to insulate themselves from material they disagree with and lock themselves away in echo chambers.

The University is mistaken. Its stance stems from a misunderstanding about what trigger warnings are, but also from the erroneous idea that they are incompatible with free speech, the marketplace of ideas, and academic freedom. In this piece, I’d like to clear up some of these misconceptions, and make the case for universities embracing trigger warnings as a matter of free speech and informed consent. First, some preliminaries:

Understanding Triggers and Trigger Warnings

The first thought many people have when they hear the phrase “trigger warning” is censorship. Students don’t want to talk about certain topics or hear certain perspectives, and trigger warnings are the “social justice” justification for shutting up people that they disagree with. This couldn’t be more incorrect. Trigger warnings, correctly understood, are designed for the narrow purpose of preventing actual psychological trauma. Many university students suffer from mental illness or have undergone severe and harrowing experiences in the past. Some have been sexually assaulted. Others have eating disorders or post-traumatic stress disorder. Others might be victims of child abuse. For these students, exposure to graphic images or narratives can be materially harmful to their wellbeing and classroom experience. The point of a trigger warning is to give these students a preview of what will be shown and talked about, so that they can remove themselves from the situation if their psychological wellbeing requires it.

What Trigger Warnings Aren’t

Silencing dissenting opinions. There is a difference between graphic, potentially traumatizing material, and an opinion that I think is wrong. Someone who wants to get rid of food stamps is an asshole, but trigger warnings don’t stop them from sharing their godawful opinion.

Canceling university speakers. This is a completely separate issue. Warning students about what a person is going to say implies that you are going to allow them to speak. Don’t worry folks, Milo Yiannopoulos is here to stay. Much to my chagrin.

Changing the University curriculum. No, you can’t get out of of reading Toni Morrison because racial tension makes you uncomfortable. Trigger warnings on syllabi warn of the contents of potentially traumatizing class material. They don’t let students off the hook for failing to engage with the material. In fact, they are likely to increase the quality of student engagement As psychologist and professor Erika Price explains:

I often challenge myself to face [my triggers] head-on. Trigger warnings help me to emotionally prepare for discussions of rape, stalking, and assault, and allow me to filter out or avoid disturbing content when I’m having a particularly rough day and am not up for it. […] Trigger warnings empower me by allowing me to customize my reading-about-rape experience. I get to choose when and how I present myself with upsetting or triggering content. This makes it easier for me to do so regularly.

Trigger warnings do not allow students to lazily excuse themselves from classwork they would prefer not to complete. The opposite is true—they allow students to prepare themselves to engage with it on their own terms, to customize their learning experience. That sounds like an asset.

Trigger Warnings and Informed Consent

Having clarified what trigger warnings are, I’d like to explain why university professors and other people speaking to groups ought to use them.

In medicine, we require adult patients who are able to give informed consent to any treatment they receive. This is for good reason—medical treatment, though valuable and life-saving, also comes with associated risks. Patients are not given drugs, surgery, or tests without understanding what they are getting themselves into, and the possible harm they are risking.

Analogously, listening to lectures, presentations, and speeches are a vital part of growing from a child into an educated adult. The ability for professors to share their ideas, controversial and unfiltered, is vital for education. And the University of Chicago is right to recognize this. But we must acknowledge that this intellectual nectar comes with associated risks.

Speech can cause real psychological harm. Post-traumatic stress disorder, panic attacks, and trauma triggers are real. If you disagree, kindly open any psychological journal, then come talk to me. Even people who think trigger warnings are dumb don’t deny the existence of trauma and triggers. Students come to the classroom at different levels of preparedness to handle traumatizing material. And they ought to know what they’re getting into, and make the informed choice to engage, on their own terms. To criticize a professor’s choice to warn their students about potential trauma is to criticize an active choice to be compassionate and inclusive.

But What About Free Speech?

Ah, yes. The first amendment. It protects your right to say whatever you want, and boy do I regret that most of the time. Just kidding. I love free speech. But let’s not confuse it with the right to a captive audience, which does not exist. Milo Yiannopoulos can say whatever he wants, but I don’t have to listen to it. The effect of trigger warnings is to make this decision—to listen or not to listen—more informed. If you love free speech, you should be seriously concerned about the University of Chicago’s universal renunciation of trigger warnings, which, after all, are themselves a form of speech. If you love free speech, you should not oppose a “preview” to allow listeners to make an informed choice about the discussions they enter. So next time you criticize trigger warnings, please just say what you mean—that you don’t care about the education and wellbeing of your vulnerable classmates.

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