We have all heard about the growing phenomenon of “trigger warnings” and seen them lampooned by our fellow conservatives. We have read in good faith the rationales provided for trigger warnings by ever so earnest mental health professionals. We have read opinion pieces warning against the threat to artistic and academic freedom and basic freedom of speech that trigger warnings pose and how they bolster the therapeutic state.
But we don’t often hear from students who sincerely believe that institutions of higher education and those who teach at them are obligated to protect students from any ideas or concepts that could somehow upset them.
Luckily, we have in an opinion piece in Technician, the official student newspaper of North Carolina State University, a sterling example of the mindset of an undergraduate who wants her college instructors to be deputized as nannies of her psyche who will cordon her off from vast stretches of the intellectual and societal landscape because, as she sees it, it is their duty. Knowledge of the world is not something that they have any business endowing her with, apparently.
The January 18, 2022 article in question is entitled, Opinion: We need an official trigger warning policy for class content and it is impossible to exaggerate the weirdness of the views expressed in it.
Here we have a person in college who basically wants every instructor at her institution (and, presumably, everywhere else) in every field to act as an amateur psychologist and to cater to the most easily disturbed and fragile-minded student in order to avoid inflicting some sort of trauma on this group. This cosseting will come, of course, at the expense of the entire academic enterprise and every other student.
I kid you not. Read the article for yourself.
In the meantime, I will just point out some of the more ludicrous passages so as to show how unworkable this young person’s ideas are. I am not doing this to be unkind. We were all young and silly once. But these ideas about shielding college students from vast swathes of the history of mankind or the fact that unpleasant things like rape and other forms of violence exist are not confined to this student. She just guilelessly expresses what the psychobabbling mental health blob is trying to impose on college faculty and young people across the country.
Let’s start with the writer’s sweeping aversion to virtually every aspect of life and how she assumes that everyone is on board with the impractical and intellectually suffocating policy she proposes:
…trigger warnings need to be adopted into course curriculums and descriptions to ensure students' mental health is not accidentally negatively impacted.
I’ve had countless conversations with friends and fellow classmates throughout college about how upsetting or even triggering class content can be.
So, a history teacher discussing say, WWI, should not read passages from Wilfred Owen or Siegfried Sassoon without saying, “I am now going to read aloud some material that deals with suffering and death. Those who wish to leave the room may do so and will not be tested on anything the rest of us are going to be discussing for the rest of today’s class session.” Actually, that teacher might get into trouble for uttering the word, “death.” It’s triggering.
I also love the way that the young woman seems to revel in the state of being constantly worried and seems to structure much of her social life around her emotional fragility and to seek out those who are similarly mentally constructed, “I’ve had countless conversations…”
It is amusing and astonishing that the writer wants to neuter some of the very fields that were founded to render life easier for those with mental troubles (psychology) or which are designed to expose inequities and suggest remedies (sociology):
I’ve also heard many students talk about how they’ll purposefully avoid watching or reading a lot of their class material in efforts to keep their mental health more stable. This is especially true for majors like social work, psychology, sociology or others that involve an abundance of discussion surrounding serious societal issues.
If these students are so fearful in a routine college setting (like lectures), then maybe they need to withdraw for a time and address their mental health problems and not expect the world to revolve their particular traumas. If you are unwilling to do the reading in a social science class, not much point in taking it. Great social scientists tend to be tough-minded people who, as students, probably did the assigned reading and did not “purposefully avoid watching or reading a lot of their class material in efforts to keep their mental health more stable.” Trigger warnings are a boon to the intellectually lazy and trivialize genuine suffering because so many people claim that this poem or that word or that topic is “triggering.”
And what kind of social worker would one be if suffering and distress were “triggering?” “I am so sorry dying, destitute AIDS patient, but your agony is impinging on my mental health wellness needs…”
The lack of self-awareness of the writer is comical at times. She genuinely seems to think that everything that takes place at her university needs to meet her needs:
…the need for trigger warnings applies to every major as I, a communication media and Spanish double major, have also experienced being upset or disturbed by class content in a wide range of classes
Yeah, those communication media classes can be hellish.
Again, I am not lampooning this girl out of mean-spiritedness but out a desire to document this trend among college students to label enormous parts of the human experience as something that they can’t even bear to read about and to use their supposed psychological problems as excuses for unworkable, censorious practices in higher education. She demands that she be granted the perks and privileges that come with a college education without having to do the work involved in getting one.
This is not just entitlement to the max and not just laziness. It is trying to get through life without learning how to summon the courage to face the fact that human beings can be cruel to one another and that we are not alone in suffering.
It is also strange that the writer expects college classrooms to be cleansed of all that is “triggering.” How, pray, are we to educate future war correspondents, emergency room doctors and nurses, poets and sociologists if all students (and not just those with some sort of trauma in their past) constantly read, “Trigger warning” and “content warning.” Part of the aim of the humanities and the social sciences, after all, is to train people to not turn away from topics such as murder, child abuse, abortion, rape and racism but to address them forthrightly as mature, compassionate human beings.
Again, the writer is advocating not only that college teachers design their classes to be as anodyne as possible, but that she and her lily-livered peers be excused from doing the work college students should, in all honor, do:
…it would be a rather simple task for professors to provide trigger warnings within class content. This could be done in the syllabus, in class powerpoints, really any way possible that can reach students.
Not only would this help avoid worsening students' mental health by giving them the warning to mentally prepare to watch or read the content, but also give them the option to not do so if necessary.
Not only is it not “simple” for a professor to try to teach a class on say, China in the 20th Century or the work of Toni Morrison without addressing upsetting topics, it would be irresponsible for a professor to excuse some students and not others from doing the same amount of work and pointless to try to educate young people if reading lists are gutted or spattered with trigger and content warnings based on a shaky grasp of what other people might get rattled by.
And the student has a bleak view of the human spirit and seems not to realize that exposure to art and discussion about painful topics are consoling and enriching as well empowering. Readings and ideas that “upset” us engender reform that help prevent injustices that result in suffering that is, well, traumatic.
She seems to also assume that once a person has been assaulted or experienced some sort of trauma, that person is to be forever prevented from participating in any discussion of the matter as a whole again. Does she really think that rape survivors are never going to hear the word “rape” again and that every college instructor has to issue a trigger warning when the word comes up? How does it help a person to address trauma or to engender empathy if free and open discussion is quashed in classrooms and if students are excused from reading and every instructor is expected to play amateur psychologist with every entry in the syllabus? That is just not workable and is a deeply selfish, narrow view of the world and education.
She is, in effect, arguing for the therapeutizing of college instruction, period—not just certain topics or discussions:
For students similar to me or students unfortunately experiencing mental health issues, trigger warnings should be implemented into all class material to try to hopefully improve students' overall mental health, not worsen it.
Do we really want teachers at America’s colleges to spend their time labeling every book, every article they assign as “triggering?” And what even constitutes a “mental health issue” these days? Eating disorders? Obsessive compulsive disorder? And who gets to claim that they suffer from PTSD? Isn’t labeling course material having to do with war or domestic violence with “trigger warning” itself stigmatizing, as if those who have experienced either are forever condemned as emotional wrecks rather than strong, resilient people every bit as capable of academic success as their peers?
This is just one undergraduate. But the use of term “mental health” to justify the hobbling of teachers in the basics of education provision is not confined to the pages of the North Carolina State University student newspaper. Academics should resist these pressures to go trigger warning happy.