Trigger Warnings: the debate between censorship and free speech arrives to the lecture hall

Trigger Warnings: the debate between censorship and free speech arrives to the lecture hall

Lucia Gonzalez discusses the nature of trigger warnings and the implications of their appearance in the academic context

Our post-modern world is characterized by the move away from grand narratives – however, with the proliferation of trigger warnings, society might have to altogether renounce any sort of narrative.

Trigger warnings, understood as statements at the start of a piece of writing, video, etc. alerting the reader or viewer to the fact that it contains potentially distressing material, have recently been a topic of debate. The notion that certain stimuli can prompt memories of past trauma and cause suffering to individuals has been part of mainstream discourse since World War I, when post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) became a prevalent psychiatric concern in soldiers. However, this medical concept made its way to the internet internet frequently used in self-help forums. Its function was to prevent readers who had experienced traumatic events from being exposed to related graphic content, and their presence has since then increased – reaching its peak in 2015, according to search-engine trends. Aimed at preserving the emotional wellbeing of audiences, trigger warnings invaded Internet forums, videogames, films, and most recently the world of academia – that, within its liberal tradition, refuses to undermine intellectual pursuit at the expense of allegedly sensitive content. In this move into everyday language, a medical term, used to describe words or images which might cause a physiological reaction in sufferers of PTSD has been diluted to the point of some people using it to avoid things they simply do not intellectually agree with.

This growing trigger warning trend in academia originated in the United States, within the demand for political correctness as response to decades of racial discrimination. This has led to cases such as that of law students at Harvard asking professors not to teach rape law or altogether avoid using the word violate without prior use of trigger warnings. Moreover, trigger warnings have not only been used to censor what professors could potentially say, but also already existing works in the field of literature. Among the targets there is Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, which has been blamed for conveying suicidal inclinations, or Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which purportedly makes allusions to sexual assault.

Similarly, several cases have recently taken place in the UK. Last year, students at UCL taking Archaeologies of Modern Conflict  were told that they could step outside of the class without penalty, since they were going to encounter “historical events that may be disturbing, even traumatising”. Hence, the pursuit of a deeper understanding of the disturbing nature of those events would be replaced by avoiding encountering and critically engaging with them.


Moreover, not even the greatest figures in British and World literature are immune to scrutiny and censorship. Recently, English literature undergraduates at the University of Cambridge have been given trigger warnings for a lecture focused on Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus and The Comedy of Errors– since these include “discussions of sexual violence” and “sexual assault”.

However, this decision was met with outrage by academics at the University on the grounds of academic freedom, intellectual development and personal growth. Professor Emeritus of medieval theology and intellectual history, Gill Evans, said that the decision is “likely to be motivated by a genuine wish not to risk upsetting students” as part of a trend to appease today’s “hyper-sensitive” youngsters. Moreover, as said by Mary Beard, Professor of Classics at Cambridge University, allowing students to avoid learning about traumatic episodes of history and literature is “fundamentally dishonest”, since students have to be encouraged in the academic context to be able to face such episodes.

Furthermore, former Government adviser Chris McGovern, chairman of the Campaign for Real Education, referred to the issue as “health and safety going mad again”, arguing, “we are back to an overprotective nanny state”. Trigger warnings concerning emotional wellbeing are indeed overprotective, since they assume the fragility of the students, infantilizing the world of higher learning to the point that students are consumers, whose whims and affectations must be supported at the cost of scholarly pursuit. This is what has been termed “vindictive protectiveness”, the aim to turn universities into so-called “safe spaces” where individuals are protected from any words or ideas that could make some uncomfortable, creating a culture where everyone must think twice before speaking up to avoid being punished for insensitivity or aggression.


The absence of trigger warnings, however, does not mean the disregard of the sensitivity of certain topics and individuals with PTSD. Firstly, while some individuals do have traumatic memories that could be sparked by certain readings, it would be wrong to plainly avoid such potential triggers. Instead, those individuals should receive treatment that enables them to deal with the encounter of such memories in their daily life. Moreover, the rejection of trigger warnings is driven by the Socratic idea of “don’t teach students what to think, teach them how to think”. Sensitive content should not be censored, but used as a tool for discussion about critical issues, a tool used towards productivity and depth of understanding, and the possible avoidance of such traumatic events in the future.

Universities have historically been the sites of revolutions, the birthplaces of movements advocating for critical thinking and free speech.

However, the rise of trigger warnings seems to not only take free speech for granted, but fight for censorship as opposed to open discussion. Trigger warnings are a highly controversial topic, and their proliferation could set an end to not only studying Shakespeare, but also any controversy, the mere possibility of discussion, and ultimately intellectual progress.

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