In “Ideas denied” (May 21), Debra Saunders argues that trigger warnings in college classes “mean keeping students safe from having to think freely.” Fortunately for academia, she misunderstands what trigger warnings are and what their purpose is. For those not in the know, the phrase “trigger warning” refers to an alert about content that might cause extremely negative reactions (such as post-traumatic flashbacks or self-harm) in the viewer. They address serious issues and take people’s traumatic experiences into consideration. They are anything but frivolous.
Before we had a specific term for it, trigger warnings were known as “preparing students for the reading” and “providing context.” For example, before my English class read “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison, our teacher explained at length why the book might be difficult — that we were to carefully think about the narrator’s commentary and what it might say about racism, and that we were always welcome to come to the teacher with concerns. A “trigger warning” essentially serves the same purpose — it alerts students to potentially difficult (and triggering) content and prepares them to approach that content in a frame of mind that allows them to best process and interpret it. It is not a way to get out of doing homework.
For Saunders to argue that a “safe space” is one without critical thinking is laughable, because the idea behind making people aware of things like racism, classism, sexism, ableism, cissexism, and other issues of privilege and oppression is that they can more critically access how these things impact their lives. For example, when was the last time you recognized cissexism in your community?
By including trigger warnings as part of the academic system, we’re creating a more critical (and considerate) thinking environment.
There is legitimate and interesting discussion to be had surrounding the topic of trigger warnings and contextualizing academic discourse. How do we approach the discussion of problematic material that can be very difficult for many people? How do we handle intolerance and ignorance in academia? I would hope that we could have an in-depth conversation about the ways in which academic “censorship” can be dangerous and what forms it can take.
Sadly, Saunders displays the knee-jerk reaction of yelling “free speech!” without considering how that speech is being applied, and how it can best serve students. Her lazy and reductive analysis is unacceptable by any standard, much less academic ones. I give her an F, and urge her to think about the material more thoroughly.
Megan Dolezal is a graphic novelist in Minneapolis.