We should have all learned by now that psychological research shows that trigger warnings do not do what they were intended to do:—protect the mental health of people with PTSD. In fact, as the article in Persuasion below reiterates, they simply keep people traumatized. Or they could even increase trauma.
To the contrary, psychologists and therapists recommend that controlled exposure to a traumatic subject is the way to help cure people of extreme PTSD.
Amna Khalid, who wrote the article at hand, is an Associate Professor of history at Carleton College and has a Substack site, Banished. Her piece below includes links to the data about the ineffectiveness of trigger warnings, so remember to cite these data when people are arguing for trigger warnings.
(You may remember that Khalid, a Muslim, wrote a strong piece in the Chronicles of Higher Education criticizing the dismissal of an instructor at Hamline University for showing an ancient painting of Muhammad that depicted his face. And that instructor even issued several trigger warnings.)
Click below to read Khalid’s piece; its thesis is summarized in the title:
Let me say that, presumably like Khalid, I’m not opposed to every single “content warning”, as they’re now called. If I’m going to post a video that has gruesome stuff in it that might revolt a lot of people, like beheadings, dead bodies, and the like, I will warn people, for a lot of people prefer to avoid such images. They don’t have PTSD or phobias, but find some stuff pretty revolting. The kind of trigger warning that both Khalid and I oppose are those that single out stuff that most people wouldn’t find offensive at all, or that might turn them away from something they need to see or hear, especially in art or literature. One example is putting trigger warnings on books because they contain the n-word, or have violence in them, or depict any aspect of life that at least one reader would find offensive.
I’ve divided her piece into three parts (this is my own take, and I’ve put headings in bold. For each I’ll give an indented quote from her article.
a.) The inanity of many trigger warnings.
Just days into the new year, Scottish papers reported that the University of Aberdeen had slapped a trigger warning on J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, a classic children’s novel about a place where nobody ever grows up. The reason: the book’s “odd perspectives on gender” may prove “emotionally challenging” to some adult undergraduates, even though it contains “no objectionable material.”
Yes, you read that right—a children’s book now comes with a trigger warning for adults. What’s more, Peter Pan is not the only children’s book to come with an advisory at Aberdeen. Among others are Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, Edith Nesbit’s The Railway Children and C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Last year the university put a trigger warning on Beowulf, the epic poem considered one of the most significant works in the English literary canon, for its depictions of “animal cruelty” and “ableism.” The year before that, the university pushed lecturers to issue content warnings for a long list of topics including abortion, miscarriage, childbirth, depictions of poverty, classism, blasphemy, adultery, blood, alcohol and drug abuse.
Aberdeen is not the only British university following in the steps of American counterparts. The University of Derby issued trigger warnings for Greek tragedies. The University of Warwick put a content advisory on Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd for “rather upsetting scenes concerning the cruelty of nature and the rural life.” At the University of Greenwich, the death of an albatross in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 18th century poem, was deemed “potentially upsetting” and stuck with a content notice.
You can see that a trigger warning for the albatross in Coleridge’s poetry is simply too extreme, treating students as if the description of a dead bird would shatter their world.
b.) The futility of trigger warnings. I once met a guy who was a specialist in therapy for people with phobias or extreme anxieties. As I have a couple of friends who are really afraid of flying (something I don’t understand, as it’s safer than driving)—one of whom was my late Ph.D. advisor Dick Lewontin—I asked the therapist how he helped people overcome this. He said “We go as a group on a couple of flights to Milwaukee, turn around, and immediately fly back again.” He said it was okay to admit your fears to yourself, but you have to act against them. Same for those afraid of elevators. Controlled exposure to these things was the key to getting over them. But I digress; here’s Khalid’s summary of the data:
This trend is alarming for several reasons. First, it runs counter to research on the effects of such advisories. As early as 2020 the consensus, based on 17 studies using a range of media, was that trigger warnings do not alleviate emotional distress, and they do not significantly reduce negative affect or minimize intrusive thoughts. Notably, these advisories, which were at least initially introduced out of consideration for people suffering from PTSD, “were not helpful even when they warned about content that closely matched survivors’ traumas.”
On the contrary, researchers found that trigger warnings actually increased the anxiety of individuals with the most severe PTSD, prompting them to “view trauma as more central to their life narrative.” A recent meta-analysis of such warnings found the same thing: the only reliable effect was that people felt more anxious after receiving the warning. The researchers concluded that these warnings “are fruitless,” and “trigger warnings should not be used as a mental health tool.”
c.) The counterproductive nature of trigger warnings. Khalid’s view, with which I agree, is that “there is something particularly perverse about appending [trigger warnings] to works of literature and art.” It treats the students like fragile infants, and in fact could make them more traumatized (or fragile) by somehow validating their emotional responses. I would give a content warning to students were I to show a movie of lions taking down a zebra, but would not if I were teaching The Great Gatsby (“trigger warning: death, spousal abuse, adultery, religious stereotypes”).
In other words, literature is transformative precisely because it has the ability to shock and surprise. It can jolt us out of complacency, force us to contend with the uncertain, the strange and even the ugly. For Franz Kafka, the only books worth reading are the ones that “wound or stab us.” He observed:
If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for?… we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like suicide. A book must be an ax for the frozen sea inside us…
Contending with “the frozen sea” opens the door for the kind of contemplation that is necessary for growth. When a classic such as Beowulf comes with “animal cruelty” and “ableism” on the cover, a piece of literature that offers us a unique window into the traditions and values of medieval Anglo-Saxons is devalued, and simply becomes a text riddled with “problematic” themes.
I read Beowulf in the original (I took a year of Old English in college), and I don’t remember “animal cruelty” beyond the death of Grendel, a fictitious monster, nor any “ableism” at all. But back to Khalid:
I can’t help but think that something is broken when universities, the very institutions entrusted with helping young minds mature, infantilize students by treating them as fragile creatures. What accounts for this shift?
Students across Britain seem to be in favor of trigger warnings. According to a survey published by the Higher Education Policy Institute last year, 86% of students support trigger warnings (up from 68% in 2016). More than a third think instructors should be fired if they “teach material that heavily offends some students” (up from just 15% in 2016).
Sadly, it appears that universities in Britain have fallen prey to the kind of corporate logic that is already firmly entrenched in the United States. This growing managerial approach with its customer-is-always-right imperative is increasingly evident in university policies.
. . .But university is not a television or radio show. Far from it. It’s a place where students come for an education. A model where faculty and administrators pander to student sensitivities—to the extent that it starts undermining the mission of the university—would be comical were it not so serious. If we fail to equip our students with the skills and sensibilities necessary to cope with life, we are doing them a great disservice.
When adult university students ask for trigger warnings for children’s literature, we as a society should realize that somewhere along the line, we lost the plot. Instead of coddling our students we should be asking why they feel so emotionally brittle. Might it be that their fragility is the result of limited exposure to what constitutes the human condition and the range of human experience? Is shielding them and managing their experience of art and literature not just exacerbating their sense of vulnerability?
Perhaps, in the end, what they need is unmediated, warning-free immersion in more literature, not less.
I know that some schools actually require trigger warnings on syllabi. Mine doesn’t, thank Ceiling Cat, so you’ll never get into trouble here if a student runs crying to the administration that you didn’t warn him about the albatross.