Trigger Warning

A trigger warning is some sort of statement made at the beginning of an event, presentation, showing, video, or text that alerts those in an audience or present at an event that what follows contains (or could contain) potentially upsetting or trauma-inducing material. Often the warnings come with the provision to audience members or event participants the chance to avoid the risky content, for example by changing the channel or leave the event.

One factor in the recent increase in the use of trigger warnings is a concern on the part of managers to protect their organizations (a college, for example) from lawsuits accusing one of their employees of having traumatized someone. Thus some universities are encouraging professors to put warnings in any course syllabi that describe a class that exposes students to difficult content. Mandatory trigger warning policies are, however, apparently, rather rare.

Disagreement exists on when trigger warnings ought to be provided and indeed whether they should ever be provided, some believing that more trigger warnings are needed in society and other believing that trigger warnings are usually unneeded and are often harmful.

One impetus for the increasing call for trigger warnings is an idea, developed in psychology, that people who have been traumatized sometimes can have their trauma rekindled (“triggered”) by  various statements or images, and that this can cause panic attacks, intense anguish, and/or symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Some who oppose trigger warnings argue that their increasing use puts certain rights at risk. No one, the argument goes, has any obligation to filter the information, ideas, opinions, and/or facts they share with others, and any serious pressure to make people provide such filters (trigger warnings) is a violation of their basic liberty of free speech. 

Some also, or instead, argue that it is not in anyone’s interest to be protected from distressing content, that getting upset by something can, in fact, make us “tougher.”

And a point of view -- sometimes combined with some of the two just mentioned -- declares that the current call for more trigger warnings is preventing valuable knowledge and ideas from being shared. To say it another way, the concern here is that trigger warning encourage people to stay in their respective bubbles, not understanding each other, or at least not understanding those who are different from them or disagree with them.

Dialog Tips: 

Living Room Conversation Guide: Free Speech, Hate Speech & Campus Life

Contributors: 

Phil Neisser

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