A while ago, I wrote a post about my issues with trigger warnings. In short, I wasn’t against them, but wary of how they could be used. Recently, I’ve had some conversations that have shifted my stance. When I wrote the post, I made a common, but inaccurate assumption: a trigger warning’s purpose is to shield people from challenging content. This is how a trigger warning can function, of course, but it doesn’t have to.
Kate Manne also made a compelling case for their use in a recent-ish op-ed piece.
Increasingly, professors like me simply give students notice in their syllabuses, or before certain reading assignments. The point is not to enable — let alone encourage — students to skip these readings or our subsequent class discussion (both of which are mandatory in my courses, absent a formal exemption). Rather, it is to allow those who are sensitive to these subjects to prepare themselves for reading about them, and better manage their reactions.
This makes a lot of sense to me. When used to empower students to take care of themselves while also challenging them to sit with difficult material, I can see how trigger warnings can be a useful tool. I still maintain that it is impossible to offer an all encompassing trigger or content warnings for the reasons I outlined in my previous post.
Perhaps, “should we use trigger warnings?” is not the most useful conversation to have. Instead, it might be more interesting to look at what effective trigger warnings look like and how they can be framed, not just in a classroom setting but any learning space.
Whenever I start a talk (and granted, the subjects of my talks tend to be pretty heavy and people usually know this going in), I replace the customary trigger warning with an invitation to self-care. Basically I give my audience permission to do whatever they need to do to take care of themselves should they feel flooded, triggered, or otherwise activated. When I do this, and set other basic ground rules around establishing as safe a space as possible, it seems to serve the same function.
My thoughts on this, as with many things, are evolving. It’s something I genuinely want to be questioned and challenged on, because I realize I have more blind spots around trigger warnings as a concept than I initially assumed.