Do we really need “trigger warnings”?

Danger, Will Rogers—Do we really need a warning? 

I think it was the television program “Lost in Space” where the young boy, Will Rogers, was warned of danger by the family’s robot. On many television or radio programs an announcement is made that the material may be “disturbing” to some, and guidance may be necessary. I guess these would be called “trigger warnings.”

There are certain songs that I can’t listen to on the radio; there are movies or television shows I can’t watch or at least I can’t watch certain scenes; and there are books, or parts of books I can’t read. I can’t do any of these things because they “trigger” an emotional response—usually anger—that I’d rather avoid. That anger is triggered because it reminds me of a time in my life that I’ve worked hard to forget and for which I don’t need any reminders. So when I know I’m already sensitive to being upset by this stuff, I avoid it. Yet it seems that some university students are not capable of this avoidance and need “trigger warnings” from their professors. Seriously, this is a thing—especially in U.S. universities and now apparently in Canada too.

So, what’s a “trigger warning”? I hadn’t heard the term until I listened to a documentary by Frank Faulk on the November 29 episode of the CBC radio program “Sunday Edition.” Faulk features professors and students discussing the need for such warnings, especially to avoid “triggering” an adverse reaction in a student who might be prone to anxiety, depression, or other symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD.) Fairly, he covers the other side where it seems unreasonable for a professor—or anyone else—to know exactly what might trigger such adverse reactions, and therefore it’s up to the individual student to decide whether certain course material might be problematic.

According to the outline for this documentary, “trigger warnings” first started in the late 1990s, and have steadily become more widespread to the point where, by 2014, university guidelines for professors were advising them to avoid any material that might smack of any of the “isms”, including, but probably not limited to, ageism, sexism, racism, classism, etc. Yes, we need to be aware of these things, and be culturally and racially sensitive as much as possible, but presenting the subject material without a sufficient “trigger warning” surely cannot and should not be necessary.

It may be reasonable to expect that when a professor knows the material in the class to be controversial, she or he might state that in the course outline. It is not reasonable to expect professors to avoid all material that may be deemed controversial or “trigger” reactions from their students. University courses are supposed to make students think—and learn not what to think, but how to think; how to develop critical thinking skills for themselves. That’s how they will learn to be able to form opinions on a wide variety of subjects and back up those opinions with facts they glean from numerous sources, including their professors. [This isn’t just for university professors, but for all teachers and parents who are responsible for raising a generation of well-educated young people.]

Listening to the program I was left with the feeling that today’s university students must not be the young adults we think them to be; that they cannot possibly walk away from a class or other group discussion that is or might be upsetting to them; that they cannot expect to have to form any of their own opinions about subjects that may be uncomfortable to learn about—but subjects which are part of our collective history, and from which we must learn important lessons.

What must be missing in today’s university programs is context—the professors’ ability to put controversial material into that context, and the students’ ability to understand it.

I know what will trigger an uncomfortable feeling and whenever possible I avoid it. That’s not to say I will not watch, read, or listen to something that I know will be difficult, especially when I know I will learn something from it. I would hope others can do the same and not need “trigger warnings.”

Are we becoming too sensitive? Are we being too “politically correct?” Do we need “trigger warnings?” Join the conversation and let me know what you think.

On a totally different subject, I have another blog, “Local Business Matters” where I talk about the need to “shop locally” every day, not just at this time of year, but perhaps especially at this time of year. Hop on over to that blog and join that conversation too.


10 thoughts on “Do we really need “trigger warnings”?

  1. Thanks for sharing this, Christine. This actually happened to me – a trigger that I wasn’t aware of until I figure it out. My husband had been in and out of the hospital for months before he died. Though hospitals never bothered me before that this was a long, traumatic experience, particularly since he died in a hospital.

    A few months later I had to go to a hospital (not one he had been in) for some tests. I walked in and started hyperventilating. Then I saw someone in a white coat and had the ‘flight or fight’ reaction. Suddenly realizing I was having a panic attack, I willed myself to go up the stairs quickly.

    As soon as I was in the waiting room I sat down and calmed myself and felt fine (it looked more like a doctor’s office than a hospital in there). But that made it evident to me about how much we really can’t control our reactions; that our minds and bodies do trigger us to be alert to anything that feels like danger to us. It could be a violent movie or a trigger reminding us of past trauma, or something just yelling to us ‘danger, danger’ as you said.

    That’s our primeval reaction and one that’s still needed to alert us to real danger, but it can come up, like it did for me, when there really isn’t any danger. Our bodies are amazing gifts for sure and we don’t know all they’re capable of but one thing I know is that mine will protect me when I need it.

    1. That is a brilliant way of explaining our triggers, Suzanne–as a primeval reaction. Whether there is danger to our physical, emotional, or mental well-being, we need to be aware of the possibility and care for ourselves as best we can. I don’t think it is anyone else’s responsibility to be constantly aware of our triggers, because as we’ve said, these can occur when we least expect. We can accept and appreciate that others may be able to help us when those triggers go off, and if we listen, our bodies and minds will indeed take care of us warning of those dangers.

  2. Totally agree. It’s fair to want indicators on the syllabus of what kinds of potentially troubling material will be discussed. But wanting to excise discussion of those troubling materials for fear of “offending” is a path to a stagnant echo chamber.

  3. Hi Christine. Fortunately for me, I don’t have any experiences such as you describe from your past. What I do trying avoid in any and all media is violence. there is no place in my mind or world for violence.

    1. It is hard to avoid all of the violence in the media, Doreen, but good for you for trying to do it as much as you can. I agree that a mind and world without violence is better. It’s hard when those ‘triggers’ come up, and they can unexpectedly, but I’ve learned to switch them off quickly and get my mind to a happier place.

  4. I’ve requested a delete of your newsletter to this address as I also receive it on my personal email.

    Have a very Merry Christmas and a prosperous, healthy New Year!


    Arthur Dolan DOLAN Estate Settlement Services Inc. 613-770-5911

    This E-mail message (including attachments, if any) is intended for the use of the individual or entity to which it is addressed and may contain information that is privileged, proprietary, confidential and exempt from disclosure. If you are not the intended recipient, you are notified that any distribution or copying of this communication is strictly prohibited. If you have received this communication in error, please call the sender and erase this message completely.

  5. Triggers must be the reason that I devour ‘feel good’ Christmas movies this time of year. There is so must sadness and violence reported in the media that I want to escape to a happy place. The truth will not be forgotten; just avoided for a short time.

    1. I think we are all aware of our “triggers” and do what we need to do to avoid them. You’re right that the truth will not be forgotten, but it is nice to “escape” it once in a while.

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