Trigger warnings are helpful, not coddling

Students on college campuses around the nation and here at USC are asking for trigger warnings and trying to reduce microaggressions from faculty members and fellow students. Recently, this has stirred up backlash among opponents of “political correctness” and self-described intellectual freedom activists. Most notably, in this month’s issue of The Atlantic, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt contort this phenomenon into an objective threat to psychological development, all the while conflating the idea of trigger warnings with the most extreme cases of censorship.

In order to discuss the topic further, it is critical to first understand what exactly trigger warnings and microaggressions are. A trigger warning, in the context of higher education, is a statement issued by a professor disclosing to students that a certain reading or assignment may be considered a trigger to someone suffering from psychological trauma. For example, a student coping with the trauma of a sexual assault, something experienced by one in four women on college campuses, may wish to be warned that reading material graphically depicts an instance of sexual assault. Coined by Columbia University professor Derald Sue, the term “microaggressions” is defined as as “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color.” This includes something such as saying a girl is “pretty for a black girl” or complimenting an Asian-American born and raised in the United States on their “good English.”

In his own response to The Atlantic’s incendiary cover story, Aaron Hanlon, an assistant professor at Colby College, pointed out that, “The thinking behind the idea that trigger warnings are a form of censorship is fundamentally illogical: those who offer warnings, at our professional discretion, about potentially triggering material are doing so precisely because we’re about to teach it!”

Hanlon iterates that such warnings are not the end of a difficult conversation, but usually the beginning of one. Students who struggle with sensitive material then feel more comfortable discussing this with a professor during office hours.

The question is, then, what is at stake for those who so desperately want to defend their right to offensive or triggering speech — those who argue that America is a free country and they have a right to be insensitive to the plight of others if they desire to. In a hyper-masculine patriarchal society, this makes sense and is also usually defended by the idea of the “real world” — the trite “that’s not how it works in the real world.” They may also argue that institutions of higher education should encourage students to challenge their own ideas and beliefs. But entrenched negative attitudes toward minorities evidenced by microaggressions are not challenging or interesting intellectual ideas; they are banal relics of an ugly past. Not to mention, a student who already suffers trauma from a sexual assault or racial violence needs no reminder that these terrible realities do, in fact, exist in the “real world.”

The resistance to removing microaggressions also illustrates that mental health is still not considered as essential to a student’s well-being as physical health and safety. When USC students graduate and enter the “real world,” they probably won’t have a whole force of security personnel hired by their university to protect them from any of the realities that face residents of south central Los Angeles. However, USC’s provision of such public safety measures is not considered “coddling.” Getting through curriculum without psychological trauma should be as integral to a quality college experience as being able to walk home safely at night.

Hanlon pointed out that “students remain more vulnerable to institutional power than the professors who assign their grades or the administrators who adjudicate their missteps.” It is worth considering whether blithe microaggressions and disregarding psychological triggers as trivial and inconvenient are aspects of the higher education experience worth preserving in order to prepare students for the “real world,” or whether we should try to do better by our future generations — starting now.

Kristen Woodruff is a senior majoring in classics. Her column, “Old School, New Tricks,” runs  every other Wednesday.

2 replies
  1. TJTruth2
    TJTruth2 says:

    Coping with discomfort – being comfortable with discomfort – is the cornerstone of mental health. Relying on intellectual bubble wrap is precisely the wrong way to foster this.

  2. Thekatman
    Thekatman says:

    Microagression and trigger warning issues will only contribute to the lack of emotional development of our younger generation by coddling them, by pretending these concepts protect them. Get over it. Life outside of the college campus is far more real than within the inner sanctum of the campus. The only person who hurts your feelings is you. You, and you alone, are responsible for how you react to others.

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