In Defense Of Trigger Warnings
In a recent article on Huffington Post, contributor Gary A. Olson takes a look at the newest educational term of the day — trigger warnings — and decides that we’re about to go down a very dark and dangerous path to education if we go about instituting them.
Before we move any further, it’s probably a good idea to give you an idea of what trigger warnings are. They are, essentially, warnings that the material you are about to read may be objectionable, thus giving you the opportunity to recuse yourself from reading a graphic rape scene or avoiding that ultra-detailed description of war.
Supporters of these callouts note that it is insensitive to have a student who has experienced rape or war go through those descriptions when they’ve already lived the experience. Opponents, such as Olson, argue that it impedes the power of educators to educate.
While educators should always be sensitive to students’ sensibilities, especially when an assignment addresses traumatic subject matter, I believe that the debate as it has been unfolding has missed an important point: substantive learning most often occurs when the learner experiences cognitive dissonance — that is, when new material directly conflicts with what the learner thought to be true or with the learner’s life experience, forcing that learner into a deeper level of cogitation and reflection than would have been the case otherwise.
Put another way, college — all education — is about challenging your personal belief system. If you are a Christian, you should learn something about Judaism, Islam, and other faiths — even atheism. If you are a liberal, you should be exposed to the philosophical foundations of conservatism — and vice versa. If you love science and plan to pursue it for a career, you should also study poetry and philosophy and learn why people value these pursuits. If you think one thing is true about the world, you should be exposed to reasons why others believe it is not.
This is not to suggest that you are expected to undergo some conversion experience and exit college with the opposite belief system from the one you had when you were first admitted — although that can happen, too. But it is to say that your core beliefs should be challenged so that you graduate with a well-developed and — most importantly — well-informed understanding of what it is you believe to be true about the world and why.
If you simply attended college in order to reinforce the beliefs and understandings about the world that you began with, then one could argue that you are not really being “educated” in any genuine sense.
Now, credit where credit is due. Olson makes some good points. Education should be about more than simply hearing what you want to hear and not letting in any outside points of view. But he misses one key detail that completely torpedoes his argument. A trigger warning is just that: a warning. It does not have the power to dictate the material that is being taught, nor the way it is being taught. It is simply there to brace a student about material that may potentially cause a negative reaction.
With the amount of school shootings that we’ve had in this country, wouldn’t it be wise to manage the personalities that are in our classrooms by making sure they are prepared for material that can potentially have harmful effects, either on themselves or other people?
Also, keep in mind that movies and video games have trigger warnings (of sort), that allow viewers to prepare for what they are about to see. When it comes to a movie or a book or an Internet video, we have the power to dictate what we will endure. We don’t have that same leniency in the world of education. It is the teacher’s way, the school’s way, or the department of ed’s way. Never the student’s.
If we’re saying, “You can’t teach this material at all because someone might be offended,” then yes, that’s ridiculous. But if we are simply saying, “Hey, we know that all students have a different human experience, and the material in this book might challenge or upset that to some degree,” then we’re giving the student necessary warning with which they can prepare for the material at hand. If they choose to avoid it altogether, it’s difficult to see where that is a problem.
Do you really need to read a graphic depiction of rape to know that it’s a horrible thing? I would argue no. So what’s the point in forcing that material down someone’s throat when they can get the gist of it just fine by avoiding the explicit details should they choose to?
Educators can’t have it both ways. They can’t say to parents and children, “You need to get more involved in your son or daughter’s education,” or “You need to take more responsibility for your own education,” and then expect them to check everything they believe at the door. Not in this country anyway.
Getting an education is important, but what business is it of the system to say, “Your education is worthless if you’re not shocked and appalled by the graphic depictions in this literary work or film?” You cannot mandate an education at the expense of someone’s personal belief system, not in a country that prides itself on freedom of religion.
Might there be less-than-desirable consequences to trigger warnings? Possibly. But education and freedom must find a balance in a country that is supposedly committed to both, and it’s difficult to see how warning someone about potentially objectionable content before they experience it, or giving them the opportunity to avoid objectionable details of the work itself, is a bad thing, especially when they very well may have their own good reasons for needing to.
If we can slap an R-rating on a movie or a “Rated M for Mature” on a video game and still make the material available, then why can’t we employ trigger warnings to respect the sensitivities of our students?
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