What If Trigger Warnings Actually Encourage Difficult Discourse?

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

A college educator, Kristin Poling, joins the chorus of critics:

(via Robert Gehl)

Although the culture of “vindictive protectiveness” that Lukianoff and Haidt describe is troubling, their article shows little awareness of what happens in the college classroom. I teach an introductory course on modern world history in which my students must confront violence and injustice based on race, sex, class, and religion. These discussions are at the heart of what it means to receive a liberal arts education. They are not discussions for which we have the space, time, or trust in the course of most ordinary life. Therefore, it is both appropriate and pedagogically useful for the classroom to be treated as a privileged space, where special protections enable intense and challenging dialogues to occur.

Warning students about disturbing topics, setting ground rules for discussion, and spotlighting how microaggressions work are ways to protect the classroom as a privileged space for encountering challenging and often disturbing ideas. While I have never used the term “trigger warning,” I make a practice of alerting students to disturbing material and remind them to be respectful of the reactions and views of others.

Acknowledging that students will react emotionally to material helps them to move beyond emotional reasoning to think more critically. Being reminded of their peers’ reactions also encourages students to express themselves more clearly and confidently by making them aware of potential pitfalls that could have made them unwilling to speak. Just as clear street markings and warning signs allow us to drive more safely at higher speeds, we are able to take greater intellectual risks when potential hazards are highlighted and ground rules for discussion are established.

This approach, in my teaching experience, often makes students more willing to reconsider their own assumptions, to struggle with viewpoints other than their own, and to learn something new. This is not to coddle students’ minds, but to enable the opening of minds.

That’s the strongest argument I’ve seen from a reader so far, even though I’m generally in favor of Haidt and Lukianoff’s view. Haidt responds to his reader:

I have been teaching seminar classes in psychology for 24 years. Greg teaches law students. We understand the crucial role the professor plays in setting norms and expectations. I like Prof. Poling’s metaphor of road signs.

This is the professor’s job. But quite often, trigger warnings are not used in an ideologically neutral way that would invite or allow all parties to the discussion to “drive more safely at higher speeds.” They are often used to tag material that the left finds offensive. This sets clear expectations about what kinds of ideas and speakers get to drive in the fast lane, and which speakers and ideas will be constantly stopped by the police.

Conservative and libertarian students often write to me to tell me how dispiriting it is to take part in a class where the professor is openly hostile to their ideas. They learn to keep quiet. Or to demand trigger warnings, or syllabus changes, as is now happening with the Fun Home controversy at Duke.

In our essay we wrote about the “offendedness sweepstakes” -- the race to the bottom as each side demands accommodation from the other. Once you start allowing anyone to demand a trigger warning for anything they find offensive, there is no end, and professors are likely to choose safer, blander readings. So trigger warnings are not simple road signs; they are an invitation to unending political turmoil and partisan anger.