Policing Language? Trigger Warnings and Whitman

October 1, 2015

“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…This new climate is slowly being institutionalized, and is affecting what can be said in the classroom, even as a basis for discussion.”  – The Coddling of the American Mind,” The Atlantic Monthly

In the September issue of The Atlantic, an article co-written by constitutional lawyer Greg Lukianoff and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt challenged what they described as a culture of protectionism on college campuses. Largely absent of student voices, the article received significant media attention for being highly controversial.

Regardless of their opinions, Lukianoff’s and Haidt’s writing calls into focus a heightened awareness of trigger warnings, microaggressions, and sensitivity in college environments. These issues have provoked similarly mixed, and often strong, opinions on Whitman’s campus.

The use of trigger warnings and the debate surrounding it has undoubtedly increased in recent memory. Trigger warnings are messages meant to communicate that a material’s content may be traumatizing. Examples of content for which trigger warnings are often used are sexual assault and racial violence.

Do these warnings respond to a need for greater sensitivity and self-reflection on difficult subjects? Or do they merely allow students to avoid sensitive topics? Students, faculty, and administrators at Whitman and on campuses nationwide are asking these questions as they consider whether trigger warnings should be included in course syllabi and precede class discussions.

Many students contend that trigger warnings are essential in maintaining safety in the classroom. The idea of a “safe space” intends to prevent those who have undergone traumatic experiences from being triggered in a way that causes emotional harm.

“Trigger warnings are really about being safe and having a safe place, and if you’re fully aware that a certain topic being discussed is traumatizing or makes you feel really negative or anxious or really emotional, then removing yourself to a better place, a safe space, is really important,” says junior and Executive Director of the Power & Privilege Symposium Anna Zheng.

Lukianoff and Haidt argue that trigger warnings allow students to “opt-out” of difficult material. Opponents to these warnings often assert that colleges should intellectually challenge students, and giving them the option not to expose themselves shelters students from the harsher realities of the post-college world.

Assistant Professor of Psychology Tom Armstrong, whose research areas include anxiety disorders and PTSD, questions the notion that warnings are harmful to student development. Instead, he says that these warnings, when executed properly, can encourage a climate of learning.

“The authors claim that trigger warnings prevent contact with triggers, but alternatively, [warnings] could prepare students and increase the odds of experiencing control and efficacy during the exposure,” said Armstrong in an email.

Similarly, many students agree that providing a chance to prepare and anticipate material through trigger warnings could help these individuals deal with similar situations in the future. With this in mind, some say that the decision to participate should be based on personal comfort levels: the presence of a trigger warning before discussion could have the effect of assigning a particular tone to a conversation.

“The real world isn’t going to be sensitive to your individual traumas,” said junior English major Molly Walls. “But, in a classroom setting, there’s a way to remove yourself from a conversation without completely derailing it, whether that be physically removing yourself or choosing not to participate.”


Mental and Emotional Health

Some supporters of trigger warnings at Whitman want to see the college go beyond warning students about threats to mental health by taking concrete steps to increase counseling services on campus. Junior co-president of Females Advocating for Change and Empowerment (FACE), Ione Fullerton, acknowledges that while trigger warnings are necessary, the availability of mental health resources for students is more important.

“If you’re seeing an uprising of students saying that [certain material] is triggering [them], there need to be more resources at schools, more mental health counseling where people can unpack this trauma [so they do] not need to carry it alone,” she said.

The college’s administration would be responsible for funding new counseling resources. However, it is up to faculty whether to include trigger warnings in courses they teach.

One option Armstrong suggests is providing students with two syllabi, one with trigger warnings and one without. This would provide students who have experienced trauma the ability to come to class prepared to deal with difficult topics.

“I worry that ‘you are triggering me’ will become a reinforced idiom of distress that will draw many students into a trauma narrative that doesn’t accurately reflect the nature of their emotional difficulties…But I don’t think that gives me the right to opt out of creating a more inclusive classroom for students with a history of trauma or other adversity (including racism, homophobia, transphobia, mental illness, etc.),” he said.



Another term that has seen increased use in recent years is ‘microaggression.’ A microaggression is loosely defined as an unintentionally offensive remark which targets a person as a member of a marginalized group. These statements are hostile markers of difference that reinforce the separation of the target from the broader community.

Recent racial incidents on campus and street harassment show that microaggressions consistently occur at Whitman, despite its reputation as an informed and unprejudiced campus.

“At Whitman, people think they’re [free from prejudices]. Racism and sexism are not only overt, [they are] things we internalize,” said Fullerton.

According to Fullerton, people can only stop expressing subtle forms of prejudice when they acknowledge the possibility that their actions are oppressive. However, simply calling out comments as problematic does not necessarily allow someone to understand why what was said was inappropriate. At times, identifying what someone said as being racist or sexist can shut down a conversation.

“At the end of the day, they won’t say [a problematic comment] but it doesn’t change anything. It just becomes more invisible and more obscure while also not really offending someone, so what do you do?” said Fullerton.

On the receiving end of offensive comments, students have been accused of being too sensitive. Current debates surrounding trigger warnings are reminiscent of debates about political correctness and its place in campus rhetoric.

“It’s a tough issue. Are we a [community] where every voice that’s not hateful does deserve to be heard, or are we a place where certain positions are privileged and others aren’t and that privilege is extended to those people who are [politically correct]?” said Peterson Endowed Chair of Social Science Keith Farrington.

Allowing for only certain informed voices is a continuous debate amongst students, faculty and administrations nationwide. Does the fear of breaking political correctness by broaching sensitive topics create an even more harmful silence?


Humor: Helpful or Harmful?

Humor is another area where questioning political correctness has consistently been brought into focus. At times comedy runs the risk of subjecting an audience to offensive material that may reinforce the content it tries to parody.

College campuses in particular have appeared to be very aware of and sensitive to this issue. At the convention for the National Association for Campus Activities (NACA), comedians performed for student representatives from 350 different colleges in the hopes of receiving a bid from students to perform at their campuses. The overwhelming majority of the comedians who received bids avoided controversial topics such as gender and race, whereas comedians that used controversial material were far less likely to receive a bid.

Whitman’s improvisational comedy group, Varsity Nordic, does not have formal guidelines in regard to the use of offensive humor. Senior Sam Gelband, currently in his fourth year with Varsity Nordic, says that the group has an unspoken understanding that members do not make jokes about potentially sensitive subjects.

“[We do] ourselves a disservice for comedy’s sake, but we like to make people feel comfortable. First and foremost, we’re entertainment. We want people to feel like they can rely on us and have a safe environment where they can laugh their asses off,” said Gelband.

In classes, professors might feel the need to refrain from using certain kinds of humor in order to create a safe classroom setting.

“I think there’s something to be said about creating a light atmosphere … [but] I’m really, really sensitive to the fact that there [are now] fewer things that I want to, or feel I should, joke about … That’s been good for me to have learned over time,” said Farrington.

According to Zheng, offensive humor is simplifying an individual’s traumatic experience for mere entertainment value. “It’s not funny to see [people’s] experiences trivialized [in humor] … it really negates the experience of the victim,” she said.


Continuing the Conversation

In classes and in informal conversations, trigger warnings continue to receive significant attention on campus. Last April, ASWC senators passed a resolution that called for written warnings of triggering content in Encounters syllabi. Ultimately, the decision to include trigger warnings was left up to Encounters faculty: for many, this semester has been their first using these messages.

This article only touched on some of the opinions surrounding trigger warnings and political correctness. Share your thoughts by joining the conversation online at whitmanpioneer.com, or by submitting a Letter to the Editor.

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