Trigger warnings: a risky tool

By Eve Taft, Staff Writer

As an English major, contention over trigger warnings comes up pretty frequently in my classes. As a trauma survivor, I’ve given the issue a lot of thought.

To many young liberals, trigger warnings are a safety measure for those who’ve been through trauma. To many others, they’re a dire sign of the erosion of freedom of speech. The little phrases stand for issues that people care about deeply — and for good reason.

Here’s the thing: trigger warnings as a concept are entirely too broad to label as good or evil. That’s like saying speech is good or evil. It can be both. It has been both. Trigger warnings can be used for good or for ill.

What can, at least in my mind, be placed squarely in the Bad Idea Camp, is mandating trigger warnings on any level, university, department or class.

Any time free speech is constrained — in absolutely any way, even a way that surely seems like good idea — it affects all of us. It makes speaking out harder. And that’s dangerous. Let’s say we mandate trigger warnings in a classroom setting. Someone says that they believe being queer is an abomination and they find it triggering. I, a bisexual woman, now have to place a content warning when I bring up LGBTQIA+ issues or talk about my past girlfriends. This sounds exactly like living in my hometown where my nickname was “carpet muncher,” and when I complained, I got told it was my fault for coming out.

If we say no to this hypothetical homophobe, then we set a precedent for deciding that some triggers are valid while others aren’t.

Moving beyond the classroom (and the campus), things get even murkier. If the government could mandate trigger warnings, say, in congress, Conservatives would call reproductive health information triggering and throw a fit comparable to the one they threw when Lisa Brown dared to say “vagina.”

The U.S. government already tries to regulate speech on the grounds of morality and safety — as Edward Snowden, who revealed information about the NSA that many Americans found deeply troubling, knows all too well. Authority often isn’t kind to those underneath it, and any way — any at all — for it to silence people who disagree with it isn’t just wrong, it’s dangerous. Trigger warnings certainly aren’t evil, but people often are. Giving them a weapon to regulate speech, to silence dissenters, to decide what’s fit to hear and print isn’t safe for anyone. Especially if the rationale for what’s worthy of being labelled is something as subjective as morality. To constrain the freedom of speech of a hate-spewing preacher is to constrain the freedom of speech of a young activist.

Trigger warnings should be used responsibly, at the discretion of the content creator. They can be a helpful tool for those of us with trauma, but to mandate them is at best clumsy and at worst dangerous.

This article first appeared in the Friday, December 8, 2017, Edition of The Echo.