HUGHES: In defense of trigger warnings


Photo by Maryam Tunio

Outrage over trigger warnings has existed since the idea’s conception. In September 2015, The Atlantic published an article claiming these warnings hurt both education and mental health. At the beginning of the 2016-’17 academic year, the University of Chicago sent a letter to their incoming freshman class, citing academic freedom as their reason for abolishing trigger warnings on campus. A plethora of other articles supporting the university’s decision followed.

The consensus seems to be that trigger warnings are a danger to free speech, a harm to student growth and an overall useless product of the politically correct-obsessed left. I am here to defend the apparent atrocity of trigger warnings.

I do not think we should tip-toe around relevant social issues as a way to avoid triggering those who have had traumatic experiences related to those issues. We should still have the difficult conversations and force ourselves to be uncomfortable, but we should not remove choice from the equation.

I believe in choice. And while I believe people should choose to have conversations outside their comfort zones, I do not believe people should be obligated to relive personal trauma for the sake of the impatient.

For whatever reason, people have decided trigger warnings and safe spaces are an affront to free speech. The misconception is that everything will be given a trigger warning, and if anybody is uncomfortable, the conversation won’t be had. But no one is putting an end to these conversations. They’re just allowing a warning to be given beforehand.

Trigger warnings do not limit free speech. They only caution potential listeners that the speech may be difficult to hear. These warnings should not be used haphazardly; they should not be applied to any and all controversial topics, but particularly sensitive speech for which there are obvious victims, such as conversations around sexual assault, battery or the like. They should be treated with sensitivity.

Controversy surrounding trigger warnings stretches from issues of limiting speech to catering to the few at the cost of the many. There are even arguments that, because these warnings are innocuous, they are pointless. Feminist theorist Roxane Gay is in the camp against trigger warnings. She writes, “This is the truth of my trouble with trigger warnings: there is nothing words on the screen can do that has not already been done … I don’t know how to see beyond this belief to truly get why trigger warnings are necessary.”

If the generalization is that these warnings are unnecessary because they lack efficacy, then why are we having the debate at all? Even if most people are wholly unaffected by so-called triggers, there is absolutely zero harm in allowing the select few who are affected to feel safe and supported in their daily lives.