Trigger Warning: Another Post On Trigger Warnings

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

The debate over Haidt and Lukianoff’s cover story rages on. From Atlantic reader Elizabeth O'Leary:

Trigger warnings protect people who are CURRENTLY experiencing things like abuse or suicidality. They are similar to the movie rating system, which gives you an idea of what to expect (rather like knowing that there is an elevator in the lobby, to use the desensitizing example from the article). The use of trigger warnings indicate that you will not be punished for not participating in discussion/class. Their use may be more appropriate in classes that are required by all students. Their use may be more appropriate as part of the syllabus or course description.

I have a lot of thoughts about the points the article brings up, but the tone of the article annoys me.  It was not written as a thoughtful piece but as a provocative one intended to be aggressive towards the sensibilities of many current college students.  There are a lot of great ideas in the piece, such as how does protecting one person from harm change the experience of the entire group, but the point was not developed the way it needed to be.

Haidt responds:

(The Atlantic)

I think the comparison to film ratings is revealing. Why do we rate films at all? Because children watch movies, and we want parents to have good information in deciding what is appropriate for their children. This protective attitude must end at some point in life; Greg and I believe that it should end by age 18.

We believe that in the long run, trigger warnings are harmful for people who have suffered trauma, and we explain why in the article. But what I’d like to expand upon here is the harm they do to everyone else.

I teach in New York City. Suppose that part of my teaching was to take students on field trips all around the city. Suppose further that every time we went to The Bronx, we took along a police escort and an ambulance. Just in case. And suppose that I told students that they didn’t have to go to the Bronx, if it would make them feel unsafe. What would students learn? They’d come to fear The Bronx, and the people who live there.

When we tag ideas and authors as dangerous to read, we are teaching students to fear ideas and authors. This is antithetical to the purpose of a university, and to the kind of fearless thinking that most universities say they want to instill.

Reader V. Reish raises a hand:

Would someone like to hear from an actual mentally-ill recent college grad who has been in cognitive behavioral therapy for years? Ok, then let me just state this as unambiguously as possible:

This article is a poorly conceived piece of pop-psychology trash. The situation described here is unrepresentative of anything I experienced at two liberal colleges. Further, the clear implication that my fellow mentally-ill students are creating their own problems so that they can be coddled is an ugly one, to put it nicely.

Triggers are very real, most are incredibly easy to warn for, and they deal with brain disorders and phobias, not “challenging ideas.” I’ve been triggered since age twelve. College changed nothing about that, and “tough love” or pretending them away didn’t either. The term anxiety doesn't do justice to the brain-simulated heart attacks a bad triggering can induce. If you can spare someone that with a throwaway sentence, why wouldn’t you?

People in the previous generation, including my father, had to internalize their disorders for fear of censure. If my generation displays more psychological weakness, look first to the reality that we're no longer ostracized for seeking help. If some people are abusing the concept, the right reaction is *not* to lump them together with the bulk of the students working through real and difficult mental health issues.

You’d never know it from anything in this email, but I really don't like joining the internet outrage-machine and haven’t posted an angry comment in about four years. But this article deserves to be called out bluntly. By recommending colleges actively discourage even the most common trigger warnings the authors are in effect encouraging professors to play exposure therapist, and advocating for a campus culture in which the deck is intentionally stacked against otherwise excellent students struggling with anxiety disorders. So at the risk of playing into accusations of self-parody: Yes, I am @#$%ing offended.

Haidt again:

I applaud the fact that so many students with mental illness now attend college when in past years they would not have been able to. I agree that university communities must work through ways to accommodate the needs of these students. If there was clear evidence that trigger warnings actually helped these students to grow stronger and more independent, or even just to learn, then we’d be set up for a good conversation about how to balance those benefits against the costs to other students from putting warnings on books.

But since the preponderance of researchers who have weighed in on the issue say that trigger warnings are likely to do more harm than good, I don’t think there is any reason to use them. I am not saying that professors should change what they do to become exposure therapists. I am saying that professors should not change what they do to take on the role of anti-exposure therapists.

Becky Liddle in Toronto emails her expertise:

As a psychologist, I am concerned that the article often seems to lump together the clearly over-the-top extreme examples with reasonable trigger warnings about content related to genuine PTSD, such as rape, incest, violence against women, etc.

The authors say that CBT encourages PTSD sufferers to expose themselves to triggering stimuli to get over the PTSD, which is true, but CBT does that in an extremely gradual and predictable way, within a safe environment, often with the support and guidance of a therapist. That is completely different from being required to read a short story for English class that contains a graphic description of rape that may cause flashbacks or other retraumatization.

Have trigger warnings sometimes gone too far? Absolutely. But let’s not throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater. Let’s throw out the ridiculous stuff, but continue to be sensitive, at a minimum, to students who suffer from genuine, clinical trauma.

Haidt once again:

I can see that trigger warnings would help some people, in the short run, to avoid painful memories. If there were evidence that trigger warnings were helpful in the long run then I would be much more sympathetic to their use in the limited way that Ms. Liddle suggests. But Greg and I think that the case is much stronger that in the long run, the use of trigger warnings is bad for people who have suffered trauma. Until we see some evidence that trigger warnings are beneficial, we are opposed to a practice that teaches all students to fear any books or ideas.

Something you want to add to the debate that you haven’t seen thus far? Email Update from reader Samantha C.:

A reader brought up the movie rating system, and Haidt commented: “This protective attitude must end at some point in life; Greg and I believe that it should end by age 18.” I think this hits at a core disconnect between some of the people conversing here.

I’m 26, and I pay close attention to movie ratings, especially in one genre or another. I have no kids and am in no supervisory capacity over kids. But I like to choose, for myself, what I'm up for handling. If I know that a horror movie is rated R, I get to choose whether I want to take the risk of seeing R-rated violence, gore, sex or cursing. This might mean that I’m all for it and go in prepared. This might mean that I wait for another day, because right now I’m not up for it. It may mean that I skip the movie or wait for a TV release.

But having those choices and preparations available doesn’t mean that
I’m treating myself as a child, which seems to be the logical conclusion of Haidt’s opinion. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only adult who uses
movie ratings and other warnings to make decisions for myself. Which,
frankly, is more empowering than being told that I ought to just be
able to take anything that comes at me at any given moment because I’m an adult.