In the last several years, a number of professors have begun to give “trigger warnings” prior to discussing sensitive materials with their students. Proponents of warnings claim that they enable students particularly sensitive to certain topics to protect themselves from the risk of post-traumatic stress or related psychological discomfort. If proponents are right about this, why would anyone refuse to give warnings and thereby knowingly choose to traumatize her students unnecessarily? In this column, I will discuss the purported benefits of warnings along with some of the hidden costs and suggest that absent reliable evidence that warnings work as advertised, one might sensibly opt out of this trend.
Why Do People Give Trigger Warnings?
College and graduate school professors teach a wide variety of courses that cover an enormous amount of material. In that material, one is likely to encounter things that will disturb some students. Material from long ago or even yesterday or today might discomfit a segment of women, members of racial or sexual minority groups, and observant members of some religious traditions. Other (or even the same) things may upset a segment of white heterosexual cis men. Some of the material may even reawaken a trauma that one or more students experienced at an earlier time. Trigger warnings tell people that the content of an upcoming lecture or assignment may “trigger” intense and traumatic feelings.
Everyone has an interest in preventing traumatic experiences in the classroom. In a state of high anxiety or despair, people suffer tremendously and also cannot do much learning or reflective thinking. In response to the aspiration that all professors share for an emotionally stable and happy student body, a number have advocated trigger warnings.
Are Trigger Warnings Effective?
Proponents of the warnings believe that they are saving traumatized students from suffering. And that does seem like a common-sense assumption. If students with a particular trauma history know that the professor will be talking about the subject of that history (e.g., war) on a given day, the student has the opportunity to skip that class or to brace himself in preparation for emotional upheaval. Absent the warning, he could walk into a traumatic situation without having anticipated it and therefore without having made self-protective choices ahead of time. In the words of one proponent,“[t]he evidence suggests that at least some of the students…are likely to have suffered some sort of trauma … so I think the benefits of trigger warnings can be significant.”
I wonder, however, whether this seemingly common-sense conclusion is in fact warranted. I do not quarrel with the assertion by proponents that many students have suffered trauma. The question is what exactly follows from that? Consider the assumptions we must make before concluding that trigger warnings will help traumatized students.
Assumption 1: People who have experienced trauma will feel retraumatized if they hear a lecture about the subject of their trauma. Is that a well-grounded assumption? People who have felt traumatized by war and experience PTSD may become retraumatized if they hear a noise that sounds like shooting (a car backfiring, for instance) but seem unlikely to lose control because they read or hear a lecture about a man returning from battle. And perhaps more importantly, most people who experience trauma do not develop long-term PTSD. Therefore, even if the professor were to play a recording of a machine gun for his students, those who previously experienced trauma would likely remain stable. It does mentally ill people a disservice to characterize them as likely to “snap” with little warning if they hear the wrong word.
Assumption 2: Hearing or reading a trigger warning will protect against post-traumatic stress. Can we assume that this is true? The warning necessarily conveys a relatively small amount of information about what exactly will happen during the lecture (or in the reading). Upon hearing about the potentially traumatic lecture coming up, traumatized students might find themselves ruminating rather than “preparing.” The student might agonize over whether it is worth risking a breakdown (one that perhaps would never have materialized) and exactly how, if he does skip class, he will make up the missed lecture or reading without also feeling traumatized. In one Harvard study, trigger warnings actually increased subjects’ anxiety and feelings of vulnerability.
Knowing that one’s teacher will be discussing a traumatic subject may not be enough to enable a student to decide what to do, even as it may be more than enough to create a sense of fear and foreboding. To give an extreme example, people on death row learn far in advance the exact day on which they are scheduled to die; most of the rest of us are ignorant of “our day.” Rather than allowing inmates to prepare for their final hours, however, this knowledge appears to heighten the anxiety and misery associated with confinement, even if lethal injection is less painful than many “natural” types of death that the rest of us experience.
For a perhaps more relevant example, consider the warning labels that we require on some of the products that people sell to the public, including pharmaceuticals. When you pick up your prescribed medicine at the pharmacy, you will also receive written material laying out the (known) side-effects and risks associated with the drug you are taking. Such warnings help insulate the seller or manufacturer from legal liability, but it is not at all clear that they help the patient.
The patient could be thinking “well, my doctor said I need to take this, so I’d better take it; it risks killing me or making me sick in other ways; but how do I weigh the upside and the downside? My doctor says take it, so I will.” What looks like empowerment in fact confers no benefit upon the patient but many benefits upon the manufacturer. In the analogous case of a professor teaching painful material, the trigger warning may help the teacher feel like a virtuous person who looks out for her students’ needs, even as it does nothing (except possibly aggravate anxiety and distress) for the traumatized student. And it may be that speaking publicly about one’s own decision to give trigger warnings is, likewise, a form of virtue-signaling rather than of actual virtue.
Custodial interrogation presents another useful analogy. Under Miranda v. Arizona, police who take a suspect into custody and plan to interrogate her must read the now-famous warnings about the right to remain silent, etc. When Miranda was decided in 1966, people imagined that these warnings would empower suspects, which is why the justices who required them did so and why the justices who dissented opposed them. It turns out, however, that warnings have not significantly reduced the likelihood that a suspect in custody will give a statement to the police.
When the case returned to the Court for possible overruling in 2000, in Dickerson v. United States, Chief Justice William Rehnquist, a strong law-and-order conservative, held for the Court that Miranda is a constitutional decision and would not be overruled. “Miranda has become embedded in routine police practice to the point where the warnings have become part of our national culture,” he said. And while the warnings have done relatively little to help suspects, they have tended to distract judges from the possibility that a police–citizen interaction was abusive, notwithstanding the warnings. This distraction has, in turn, served the interests of police and prosecutors.
Even if the warnings helped to protect traumatized students, a proposition that appears dubious, we need to ask at what cost. A proponent of warnings says that “[t]he cost to students who don’t need trigger warnings is, I think, … minimal.” This assumes without foundation that anyone “needs” or even benefits from trigger warnings, but let’s put that objection aside. There is a problem with the claim itself.
The claim [Assumption 3] that trigger warnings cost us little to nothing treats the world with trigger warnings and the world without trigger warnings as essentially the same, with the exception of the warnings and the fact that some traumatized students might feel better [or worse]. But the reality of trigger warnings as a phenomenon that some people press, that others resist, and that still others might someday feel forced by social convention to adopt, has a likely impact on what teachers do in the classroom. That impact, in turn, might be precisely the opposite of what proponents of the warnings would want.
Consider an area in which I have taught in the classroom, the law of rape. For about 25 years, I have covered this material, whether in a criminal law class or in my evidence course, because our legal system has set rape apart as a matter of substance and definition and as a matter of procedure. Some of my colleagues at the various places I have taught, however, have chosen to omit the law of rape from the criminal law curriculum.
When rape appears nowhere on the syllabus, a student of criminal law could be forgiven for concluding that sexual assault is not a very important, common, or serious crime and for assuming that the prosecution of rape is, like prosecutions for robbery or murder, straightforward and consistent over time.
Why did faculty make the choice to leave rape out of their curricula? Some preferred not to deal with all of the political controversy that surrounds the definition of the crime. Others said that they knew that some of their female students might be have been victimized and would probably prefer not to have to think about the crime in the law school context. In other words, these professors were leaving rape out of the course to protect trauma victims.
I remember thinking, when I learned that colleagues were omitting rape law, that the people (men, actually) who preferred not to deal with the politics were doing their students and their students’ clients a disservice. I thought that the men who left out rape to protect their students, by contrast, were very sensitive and kind, although they too were disserving their students. And female students in particular were quite eager to have their professors cover rape during the semester rather than treating it as unworthy of (or too controversial for) discussion. It had only been since the late 1980’s that the subject had become part of some law professors’ curriculum.
If the mere possibility of trauma could motivate a professor to leave the subject of rape out of the curriculum altogether, then a fortiori, the expectation of having to give trigger warnings (and having to be aware of when one might be covering trigger-worthy subjects) could easily motivate professors to alter the content of their courses. I know that if I felt I had to give such warnings, I would consider dropping various topics from my own courses. I suspect that I am not alone in this and that the people who could benefit most from schools covering difficult subjects would be some of the same people who would allegedly benefit from trigger warnings. A “moral mandate” for trigger warnings might accordingly result not in warnings but in professors’ editing their offerings to avoid having to give warnings in the first place.
My Own Experience “Triggering” Students
So far as I know, Cornell Law School is a trigger-warning-free zone. Our students expect that we will cover lots of subjects that raise painful and difficult questions and issues. I have never once had a student complain that I should have warned them about something or that I should not have covered something. Indeed, the one sensitivity-related complaint I received recently was that I should have devoted more attention to police shootings, a subject with the potential to cause stress among students.
I did, however, have my own trigger-warning experience. It was when I gave a lecture about animal rights to a group of undergraduates taking a course with a non-law professor. After the professor gave students a review exercise and then introduced me to them, I walked up to the podium. At that moment, a handful of students stood up, turned around, and walked out of the room.
A number of strange things happened during the course of my lecture, but I will mention only a couple of others. First, a student—a male, as it happens—raised his hand and expressed outrage at my having used the word “rape.” I had said, during my lecture, that when a woman gives birth to a child conceived in rape, we still value the child as much as we would any other child. (Never mind the relevance of this observation to animal rights; it is indirect enough not to be worth explaining.) After a few exchanges with the student, I realized that he was not objecting to anything I said about rape, just to my having used the word at all.
After giving my part of the animal rights lecture, a number of students raised their hands. One said that my lecture style was very “triggering” and that I might want to think about that for next time. I am not sure exactly what was meant by this assertion, but I suspect that it was not about trauma. And going back to the man who objected to the use of the word “rape,” I doubt that he was feeling traumatized by my use of that word. Something else was going on.
Some of the people in the audience undoubtedly felt uncomfortable about either the position I was taking (that animals have a right to live free of human violence) or the information I was providing (for instance, that dairying entails the forcible separation of bonded mother cows and their infant calves). Most of them, like me, grew up consuming the products of animal slaughter and other violence without giving it a second thought. My lecture, though gentle, suggested that eating animals and their milk and their eggs cannot be justified in the circumstances in which most people (and everyone at the lecture) live.
I am sure that some students preferred not to hear either my point of view or the facts on which that point of view might have been based. One student insisted that all of the animals at the slaughterhouse are treated to the equivalent of anesthesia so that none suffer at all, a claim worthy of a bedtime story. Because some students may not have liked what they were hearing or feeling, they thought of the word “trigger.” They had heard the word before, and it meant that a professor was saying things that provoked unwanted emotions in the audience. I must therefore have been triggering them.
Maybe I was triggering them by saying that animals have moral entitlements, and if so, they were entitled not to listen. Indeed, even though I believe the professor who invited me to give the guest lecture did not give trigger warnings, the handful of students who left at the beginning had clearly internalized the “trigger warning” premise that students are entitled to avoid uncomfortable subjects, even in a rather ostentatious manner.
I have given different versions of that day’s lecture to quite a few audiences, including ones that did not share my viewpoint. Previously, however, I had never encountered the sort of reception that I did in that classroom. I actually have a hard time even imagining one of our law students standing up and walking out of a classroom when the professor has gone to the trouble of inviting another professor to talk about something pertinent to our studies. And I also cannot imagine a law student, let alone a male law student, raising a hand and publicly scolding a female guest lecturer for using the word “rape” to refer to a rape or for being “triggering.”
I do not mean to suggest that college students are “snowflakes” who ought to become more like law students. Law students are adults in a way that college students are not, and I understand that genuine adults behave differently from 18-22-year-olds. It is also true that most of the students in that classroom were perfectly appropriate, asked intelligent and probing questions, and conducted themselves in a respectful and self-respecting manner. One person in the room even made a point of reaching out to me after the lecture to thank me for showing grace in the face of some students’ behavior, an indication that the small number of “triggered” students were outliers.
Yet it is still worth noting that even the students who acted out in that classroom were not in any sense fragile. They did not fall apart because the topic of animal rights easily traumatized them. They instead exhibited what sociologist Michael Kimmel has called “aggrieved entitlement;” they had come to feel entitled to a higher status than they actually occupied (or perhaps deserved), and they were angry and prepared to punish others for that status disparity.
Trigger warnings necessarily teach students something well beyond what anyone intended for them. For students who have either experienced no trauma or suffer no lingering post-traumatic stress, moreover, trigger warnings might seem to mean that they are entitled to be shielded from some of the things that their professors wish to teach them. Such students identify with the traumatized and decide that some of the material that their professors cover is an offense to them in some way, and that they have a right not to hear it if they do not want to hear it.
Sometimes they are right: if a professor presents blatantly racist positions and does so as if that were “the truth,” then someone ought to tell the professor to cut it out. But much more of the typical interesting curriculum involves contested theories and ideas about the world, and students do not have the right to skip days or receive warnings when professors will be talking about unwelcome facts or theories. Trigger warnings are in that sense empowering, but not all empowerment is a good thing.
An education necessarily means encountering ideas and theories that do not sit well with what one already believes. That is indeed a feature and not a bug of the learning process. Sadly, “trigger warning” culture threatens that feature for, at most, an uncertain and dubious payoff. For that reason, I will not be giving trigger warnings to my students.