Section: Opinion

Free speech, trigger warnings can coexist

Professors should continue to use trigger warnings effectively.

Several weeks ago, a friend of mine, an incoming first year at the University of Chicago, asked me to read the now-infamous letter that was sent to every member of her class officially condemning trigger warnings and safe spaces on campus. I’ve since followed the controversy surrounding the letter with quite a bit of fascination, in part because of how Kenyon seems to have largely stayed out of this discourse.

Even though the controversies gripping peer institutions seem far away, trigger warnings’ place on campus is a conversation everyone can benefit from. No matter your opinion on them, they are a controversial topic in modern academia, and this is in no small part due to the apparent lack of consensus on what exactly a “trigger warning” is.

As a first year, my Quest for Justice class was assigned excerpts of Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind. The book was published in 1987 and foretells a bleak future in which college students become less and less willing to be educated, steadily narrowing their points of view until they are confronted only with ideas they already agree with. Naturally, we spent most of the discussion on trigger warnings.  My professor used the Bloom piece to argue that trigger warnings in the classroom stifle discussion and ultimately stunt academic growth. I was especially struck by this understanding of trigger warnings in relation to how proponents view them: as a necessary aid for people with mental illnesses to prepare themselves for potentially traumatic material, without sacrificing the depth of discussion that others may have. This lack of a clear definition makes agreement difficult, especially when people on both sides of the debate have such strong feelings. This couldn’t be clearer with the reaction to the UChicago letter. Supporters hailed it as a win for free speech everywhere, and critics decried it as a condemnation of the mentally ill and traumatized. So extreme were the two reactions and even various accounts of the letter’s practical applications from within UChicago itself (a current student wrote in The New York Times that the school actually already has multiple safe spaces on campus and teachers are welcome to use trigger warnings), that it sometimes seems as if there’s no way the two sides are talking about the same thing.

It shouldn’t be inconceivable that we can protect people from potential trauma or being “triggered” — however they might define that — without sacrificing an education based on deep and diverse discussion that may at times involve disturbing content. After all, students requesting trigger warnings aren’t requesting that material not be taught at all — simply that they be told about the subject matter in advance so they can properly prepare themselves. I’ve seen this done very effectively here, at no cost to the class material or the other students; an English professor my freshman year told us at the beginning of the class that discussions were sometimes going to stray into violent territory, as that was the nature of some of our books. He told us this so we could adequately prepare ourselves for an uncomfortable discussion, and if we thought we couldn’t handle these topics, he advised us to choose another class.

Trigger warnings don’t have to compromise the material they accompany. I’ve heard critics cite tales of law students refusing to attend lectures on rape law because they were triggered as a reason that all content warnings should be banned, but extreme examples such as those are not the fault of the warnings themselves. We see warnings accompany questionable content all the time  in the real world, such as with movie ratings. An R-rating with violence warnings doesn’t change the experience of the movie for those who see the warning and still choose to watch the movie. And if a person decides that this R-rated movie might be too much for them to handle, that’s their prerogative.

Lizzie Boyle ’19 is undeclared from Los Altos, Calif. Contact her at boylee@kenyon.edu.

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