Taken Too Far: When Trigger Warnings Attack!

I guess this is Jim Talks About Triggers and Content Warnings and Censorship and Stuff Week. Here are the previous two blog posts:

I want to talk next about the fear that trigger warnings could be abused, or that they could be used as a tactic to silence others and infringe on free speech.

As a general rule, almost anything can be taken to extremes and misused. Hypothetically, I could proclaim the color green was triggering me, and demand Michigan State University change their colors. At which point MSU would presumably, and rightfully, ignore me.

A fair number of the concerns I’ve seen raised were, like that example, hypothetical. “But what if…?”

It’s good to consider unintended consequences. We should also consider how likely those consequences are. How widespread. Have we seen incidents to suggest the potential harm outweighs the potential benefit? Are we more worried about hypothetical pain than actual pain?

Are those concerns worth thinking about? Sure. Are they justification to immediately cease and desist all Trigger Warnings and label anyone who protests an oversensitive whiner? Not so much.

Moving on from the hypothetical, what about all those real-world examples of people using “triggers” to attack others, and to shut down free speech?

Sexually Graphic Questions Appear in Cambridge Law Exam: One commenter pointed to this article, saying “Cambridge law students objected to an exam question on various forms of rape and sexual offenses.” But the article says only that students were shocked — not that they objected.

Sebastian Salek, a third-year from Clare College … told the Independent that questions on sexual offences are ‘always going to be quite graphic’, but that ‘this was on another level from previous years’.

He insisted that questions like this are ‘necessary’, however. “The criminal law isn’t pretty and law students have to be able to deal with the offences that were raised.”

The article says nothing about removing those questions. It doesn’t reference censorship, or students calling for changes to the exam. It simply notes that the questions were apparently more graphic than in prior years.

The Trouble with Teaching Rape Law: This article is by Jeannie Suk, and was referenced in that Atlantic piece about the “coddling” of American minds. The Atlantic article argued, “A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense.” But what does Suk’s piece actually say?

Student organizations representing women’s interests now routinely advise students that they should not feel pressured to attend or participate in class sessions that focus on the law of sexual violence, and which might therefore be traumatic. These organizations also ask criminal-law teachers to warn their classes that the rape-law unit might “trigger” traumatic memories. Individual students often ask teachers not to include the law of rape on exams for fear that the material would cause them to perform less well. One teacher I know was recently asked by a student not to use the word “violate” in class—as in “Does this conduct violate the law?”—because the word was triggering. Some students have even suggested that rape law should not be taught because of its potential to cause distress.

You’ve got several things going on here. One is the request that professors let students know when they’re going to be discussing rape law, particularly when — like Suk — they’re going to be assigning students to argue hypothetical cases, to prosecute or defend accused rapists in “ambiguous” situations. I tend to agree that a content warning would be a Good Thing.

Should students be able to skip classes that deal with specific, potentially traumatic topics? Well, skipping class isn’t generally good for your education. On the other hand, neither is breaking down in class or afterward. Skipping the occasional class didn’t interfere with me getting my degree or making the honors lists. (Sorry, mom and dad!) This feels like an area where each student should make whatever choice is best for them. Isn’t that what we want students to be learning? To be independent and make their own informed choices? And keep in mind, trigger warnings don’t automatically mean students will skip that class. Often, it just gives students a warning so they can mentally and emotionally prepare themselves.

As for individual students allegedly asking teachers to remove questions about rape law from an exam, or to avoid using the word “violate” in class?

The key word here is asking. If professors are being forced to remove those questions, I think that’s a problem, yes. The legal system in this country is messed up enough already when it comes to rape; the last thing we need is to graduate a crop of students who are even more ignorant about how those laws work. But Suk doesn’t say she’s actually changed her curriculum, or been forced to do so.

She does say, “About a dozen new teachers of criminal law at multiple institutions have told me that they are not including rape law in their courses, arguing that it’s not worth the risk of complaints of discomfort by students.”

Yeah, that’s a problem. But is it a realistic fear? Is the problem students and others pressuring the professors, or is the problem professors giving in to baseless fears? We all know students will complain about stuff. But are universities actually disciplining or censoring professors for teaching rape law in law school? Suk’s article talks about fear, but is noticeably lacking in examples.

My Trigger-warning Disaster: This is another article linked to by a commenter as an example of trigger warnings being taken to ridiculous extremes. Rani Neutill writes about teaching a class about the evolution of sex in movies, and also filling in at the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention Services.

Before I screened [Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song], I gave a warning, indicating that it was one of the disturbing scenes to which Williams refers. The scene shows a young Sweetback … having sex with a 30-year old woman. She finds him irresistible and thus starts the hyper-sexual evolution of Sweetback — every woman on earth wants to fuck him, including a whole bunch of white women. This, of course, is statutory rape.  When the lights went on and the scene was over, two students left the room in tears. I was perplexed.

Wait, she was perplexed? She’s working in the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention Services, and she doesn’t understand how a scene of statutory rape might upset two of her students? The problem, in my reading, is that Neutill made the mistaken assumption that a trigger warning was a silver bullet, a cure-all that would ensure nobody got angry or upset or overwhelmed.

Neutill continues:

For the rest of the semester, I gave trigger warnings before every scene I screened. Every. Single. One. This wasn’t enough. A student came to me and asked that I start sending emails before class outlining exactly which disturbing scenes I would be showing so that I wouldn’t “out” survivors if they had to walk out of class when hearing what I was about to show. This took all the free form and off the cuff ability to teach. It stifled the teaching process … Nevertheless, I did it. (Emphasis added)

Why did she do it? Reading the article, it wasn’t because she feared complaints or disciplinary action. It was because students were upset, and she kept trying to “fix” that. Which isn’t how it works.

That's Not How This Works

Also, most teachers I’ve known have to plan their lessons, and showing film clips seems like something you’d have to set up in advance, so I’m not sure how letting students know in advance what they’d be looking at would stifle her freedom and process.

One final excerpt from her piece:

I don’t know about trigger warnings outside classes that deal with race, gender and sexuality, but I do know that if you promote trigger warnings in subjects that are supposed to make people feel uncomfortable, you’re basically promoting a culture of extreme privilege, cause I’m pretty sure that the trans women who are being murdered weekly, the black men who are victims of police brutality daily, and the neighborhoods in America that are plagued by everyday violence, aren’t given any trigger warnings.

Shall we play a game of “Find the Messed-up Logical Fallacies in This Paragraph”?

My takeaway on this article isn’t that we’re promoting a culture of extreme privilege and runaway coddling of American minds. It’s that this professor did not know how to handle her class, and made mistakes as a teacher.

Northwestern’s Kipnis Cleared in Title IX Investigation: This is another article referenced (indirectly) by the Atlantic piece. Two Title IX complaints were filed against Laura Kipnis following an article she wrote about “sexual paranoia,” and a Tweet she posted. Of the examples I’ve discussed here, this is the first one with larger external consequences. Kipnis voiced opinions some people didn’t like, and two official complaints were made against her.

Kipnis’ article is available to subscribers only, but the opening sentence is…troubling:

You have to feel a little sorry these days for professors married to their former students. They used to be respectable citizens — leaders in their fields, department chairs, maybe even a dean or two — and now they’re abusers of power…

It sounds like Kipnis was attacking rules that prohibited romantic relationships between faculty and students, complaining that students are, “so committed to their own vulnerability, conditioned to imagine they have no agency, and protected from unequal power arrangements in romantic life…”

The Tweet in question said, “It’s a problem that ‘trauma’ is now deployed re any bad experience. And dating is not the same as rape!”

The problem? Kipnis was allegedly responding to a specific case on campus, an accusation of rape by a student against a professor. She denies this, but whether intentional or not, that was the context in which she was speaking out in support of those poor professors who only wanted to rape have sex with a student or two.

Does this justify a Title IX complaint? I honestly don’t know enough about Title IX law to say. I will note that Kipnis was cleared. I don’t want to minimize the anxiety and hassle of having to deal with those complaints, but she was not punished, nor was she censored by the university.


I’m sure there are examples of trigger warnings being abused and misused. But most of the examples being brought up, if you look into them, don’t suggest a widespread attack on free speech. The fear and the backlash against trigger/content warnings, etc., comes off as completely disproportionate to any real-world problems.

I’m not saying we ignore those real-world problems, or claiming no such problems exist. I’m just suggesting that many of the things being pointed to as “proof” we’re over-coddling minds and destroying academic freedom in the process don’t actually prove that at all.