Editorial: Some trigger warnings are called empathy Editorial: Some trigger warnings are called empathy

Last modified: 5/29/2014 9:21:35 AM
As the debate over “trigger warnings” on college campus reminds us, sometimes compassion sparks outrage.

For those unfamiliar with the term, a trigger warning refers to professors alerting students to course material that may be unsettling. Perhaps a book contains a rape scene that could be traumatic for a victim of sexual assault or a depiction of child abuse that stirs memories that are never too far from the surface.

Some college students and faculty, most notably at the University of California-Santa Barbara and Oberlin College in Ohio, argue that trigger warnings are not meant to restrict academic freedom but to protect those who have suffered some form of trauma.

“We’re not talking about someone turning away from something they don’t want to see,” Bailey Loverin, a UC-Santa Barbara student, told the New York Times. “People suddenly feel a very real threat to their safety – even if it’s perceived.” Since the Times article ran earlier this month, criticism of trigger warnings has been swift and somewhat predictable.

Conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg led a recent piece with “TRIGGER WARNING: I am going to make fun of ‘trigger warnings.’ ” It’s difficult for a columnist to make a credible argument when the introduction goes for giggles, but the worst part is the red herring that followed.

“We live in a culture in which it is considered bigotry to question whether women should join combat units,” Goldberg wrote, “but it is also apparently outrageous to subject women of the same age to realistic books and films about war without a warning.”

Trigger warnings represent an awareness that psychological states are not homogeneous, but Goldberg wants you to believe that they are. To say a female soldier experiences life in the same way as an English major who was sexually assaulted as a freshman is the laziest kind of argument – and it makes rational debate impossible.

Still, colleges must tread carefully. On its face, a trigger warning does indeed feel like too much coddling of young people. When you read in the New York Times that the warnings could apply to The Merchant of Venice because of anti-semitism and Mrs. Dalloway for addressing suicide, it’s difficult to jump on board.

But there’s something that Goldberg and other critics are ignoring, which is that a trigger warning, while groan-worthy for many, doesn’t feel like the assault on educational freedom some claim it to be.

“What now strikes me most about trigger warnings is how small a request they are, in proportion to the backlash they incite,” wrote Kat Stoeffel in New York Magazine. “What is it about this entirely free gesture of empathy that makes people so outraged?”

That, unfortunately, is how this kind of debate plays out these days. Outrage is the default position for people who see encroachment everywhere.

The fact is that trigger warnings are indeed a small request and colleges should view them as such, but not to the point of drafting a policy. Professors have a responsibility to help students understand the world – and not just the pretty pieces. That said, it is not difficult to address potentially disturbing thematic issues when introducing books and movies. From there, the hope is that common sense and a willingness to face life’s darker pages will serve as a guide for students.

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