The Case Against “Trigger Warnings”

I admire resilience. Truth be told, I don’t feel particularly resilient, but I suspect, comparatively speaking, that I am mostly impervious to the incessant assaults that life levels against me. Part of this is attributable to my profession. Academia is cut-throat. We write papers only for reviewers to rip them to shreds and journal editors to reject them repeatedly as “not good enough for my journal.” When rejection becomes the normal state of being in one’s occupation, one develops fairly thick skin.

Unfortunately, I see universities failing miserably to build resilience in students. Of course, the dismantling of individual resilience starts in early childhood these days. When I was a little boy, I lost every single sports competition I ever entered. No exaggeration. Only the top three won ribbons in my day. Today, both my children (equally un-athletic, like their old man) come home with “participation ribbons.” They don’t feel as though they’ve lost to the competition.

Universities these days fortunately do not give out participation ribbons (as far as I know!), but they do increasingly have “safe spaces” on campus (which are often exclusionary of certain demographics) and “trigger warnings” to advise students of the potential harm of taking some classes or sitting in on some lectures.

Don’t get me wrong. We obviously have a duty of care toward students (and towards all of humanity) to protect everyone from harm. But I’m convinced that trigger warnings (unbeknownst to the universities that use them) can cause more harm than they prevent.

“I’m convinced that trigger warnings (unbeknownst to the universities that use them) can cause more harm than they prevent.”

Let me explain with reference to a very personal anxiety I face. Regular readers of my #DireEd articles will know that I am open about being a suicide loss survivor. I lost my mother to her own hand and to say it was traumatic would be a massive understatement. I relive that trauma when I see imagery of suicide in the media or hear the songs that she asked us to play at her remembrance. Sometimes this happens when I’m in public or at work and it is embarrassing. I can go from a perfectly well-rounded colleague to a tearful wreck in seconds.

I imagine that many students may feel the same about topics they study at university. I teach about workplace accidents, which may trigger a student who lost a family member to one. Historians teach about war, which may trigger a student who lost a father in battle. Psychologists teach about bullying, which may trigger a student who has been bullied previously.

But here’s the thing. Anxieties control you if you let them control you. A trigger warning, in and of itself, signals that you are not strong enough to cope with what (for everyone else) is a normal topic of conversation. Running from your anxiety (whether to a “safe space” or from a classroom conversation) does nothing to reduce it. On the contrary, it can even feed it. This is why the most effective clinical intervention in treating anxiety is “exposure and response prevention.” I should know. I’ve done plenty of this kind of therapy and it has helped much more than attempts to suppress my fears.

I am sympathetic to students struggling with mental illness because I’ve struggled with one for two decades. Anyone who has been traumatized should be in treatment to enable regular participation in society. University is your last chance to build your resilience skills, because once you enter the “real world,” there will be no more safe spaces, and no trigger warnings. It is a brutal and unforgiving world, and we are doing no favors by protecting university students from these realities of life.

Professor Andrew R. Timming

This article is published under a Creative Commons 4.0 License.

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One thought on “The Case Against “Trigger Warnings”

  1. I used to be against trigger warnings, but a piece by Scott Alexander (usually a contrarian) convinced me otherwise:

    He argues that trigger warnings do provide more information, which is a good thing, and that they act against censorship: instead of prohibiting “offensive” content, they permit it. But call it a “content note” and treat it like allergen warnings on food: we don’t insist that Snickers bars have a huge “WARNING: CONTAINS PEANUTS” label on the front, but the allergen information is there with all the other nutritional information if need be.

    And on exposure as a method to treat anxiety: this is properly done in a controlled setting, gradually, with the consent of the patient. You don’t help an arachnophobe by randomly throwing a box of spiders at them.


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