How trigger warnings went mainstream

Now even academics think students need to be protected from upsetting topics.

Jacob Furedi

Topics Free Speech

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Students have been getting a fair bit of criticism of late. The calls to introduce trigger warnings – messages cautioning students about provocative material – have been widely documented and often met with derision. And rightly so.

The belief that students need shielding from emotion-inducing material assumes that vulnerability is the norm. Rather than maintaining that universities are places of education, where a young adult’s mind is constantly ‘triggered’ by new ideas and material, the use of trigger warnings insists that students be confined to their comfort zone. Where students once rebelled against the university establishment, today they seek emotional protection within it.

Of course, the rise of trigger warnings can’t be viewed in isolation. It is just one offshoot of a new form of victim politics that is plaguing higher education, and has developed in conjunction with the rise of Safe Spaces.

Trigger-warning proponents are motivated by a belief that their emotional safety is more important than studying a subject properly, and by a desire to show how ‘aware’ and right-on they are about ‘sensitive’ issues more broadly. Trigger warnings have become the means through which students both shelter themselves from ideas that upset them and display their awareness of the alleged emotional pain of others.

The campus Safe Space nonsense has become the comic relief of academia – each dust-up giving more seasoned academics an opportunity to waltz down the pub and decry how students ‘aren’t what they used to be’ and ‘need to start living in the real world’.

Everybody shared a giggle when four students demanded Columbia University trigger-warn its students about the ‘offensive material that marginalises student identities’ in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. And we all had a right old laugh when a student at Rutgers University demanded a trigger warning be put on F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby because it makes reference to ‘suicide, domestic abuse and graphic violence’.

In 2013, academics at Oberlin College rallied against a group of students who were demanding Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart be given a trigger warning for ‘racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide and more’. When the law faculty at the University of Oxford was encouraged to introduce trigger warnings, Professor Laura Hoyano responded by mocking trigger warnings in class, warning students from farming families before starting a discussion about foot and mouth disease.

But where once enthusiasm for trigger warnings was confined to a small minority of NUS-supporting students – now some academics are beginning to endorse them. At the University of Stirling, students taking a module on Christianity were recently given a trigger warning before watching a video clip that explored the roles of female characters in video games such as Super Mario and The Legend of Zelda. International law students at LSE are now given trigger warnings before studying genocide. At Goldsmiths, students studying youth culture are warned that the course deals with ‘sensitive’ issues, such as underage sex, self-harm and drug abuse. And at University College London, archaeology students are now able to leave lectures if they find the topics being discussed too ‘distressing’.

None of these trigger warnings was called for by right-on, indignant students – they were all implemented by academics. This demonstrates a worrying new trend in universities. Trigger warnings are no longer the rallying cry of fringe student groups – they’ve become mainstream. Where once it was only a few students who talked up vulnerability and insisted that students needed protection from emotional harm, now university professors are starting to think the same way.

Perhaps university professors’ endorsement of trigger warnings is down to the influence of their shrieking students. But this doesn’t excuse it. Rather than upholding intellectual rigour and academic freedom, university faculties now feel it is their job to protect students from upsetting ideas or topics.

As for those who are still critical of trigger warnings, taking the piss out of students is not enough. The infantilisation of students, and the stifling of academic life more broadly, is only getting worse. That some academics are now endorsing trigger warnings shows we can no longer just laugh the campus madness off.

Jacob Furedi is a writer and student. He will be chairing the session ‘Anti-Semitism revisited’ at the Battle of Ideas Festival in London on Saturday 22 October. Buy tickets here.

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Topics Free Speech


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