Trigger Warnings and Free Speech in Colleges
Trigger warnings belong to campuses owing to the cultural diversitythat many colleges boast of. It is important for campuses to upholdtrigger warnings in order to train students how to be considerate ofothers who do not hold a similar perspective of life. However,colleges should handle them with care. Colleges should implementtrigger warnings partially in order to avoid interfering with freespeech and an open learning environment.
Trigger warnings prevent teachers and students from conclusivelyanalyzing important matters for the fear of offending others.According to Charnis (2), if everybody listed the debate topics thatmade them feel uncomfortable, campuses will end up not having anydebate at all. It also limits the celebration of speech (Charnis 2).He states that, “The option to change a debate topic restricts anactivity that is meant to celebrate speech and discourse” Charnis2). For instance, subjects pertaining to gender, ethnicity,immigration, and Veganism, would be out of bounds because they elicitmixed reaction. Barring student and tutors from analyzing certainmatters contravenes the ideal of a free learning environment.
Lack of a clear guideline on what should warrant a trigger warninghas left many people skeptical of what they speak hence interferingwith their freedom of speech. As Wright (1) notes, when a studentactivist at Yale was asked when speech should be limited, he simplyretorted, “When it hurts me.” This was a show of ignorance.Different people are hurt by different words and it would an exercisein futility trying to record every word and phrase that hurts someonewithin the campus. The fact that words that are considered hurtfulkeeps changing from time to time does not help the situation either.For the fear of unknowingly eliciting emotions, teachers and studentshave decided to stay away from a broad range of words that theysuspect my trigger others hence interfering with their freedom ofspeech and expression.
Myers (2) argues that avoidance does not help in the healing processof the people who have been traumatized by past events. In order tofight trauma, the individual should gradually learn to face his fearsto the point that they do not remind him of the traumatic eventanymore. In the event that a student cannot do so on his or her own,professional help should be sought at the expense of the university.Therefore, it sounds illogical when some students avoid certain wordsfor the fear of eliciting emotion. Some have gone to the extent ofusing trigger warnings as an excuse to avoid attending classes thatdiscuss offensive topics. Instead, I would prefer if universitiesoffered psychiatric help to students affected by certain words.
On the opposite point of view, objectors argue that trigger warningsare good. They argue that trigger warnings help to prevent those whouse hurtful words in a condescending manner with the sole intent ofbelittling others. In such a case, trigger warnings are perfectly inorder. As Golub (3) recalls, he had to sit through an entire lecturelistening to Nobel Laureate William Schockley, talk about how AfricanAmericans are intellectually inferior to hold administrativepositions. Golub states that, “Hispresentation turned out to be hateful,…aboutthe supposed intellectual inferiority of black people (Golub3). He did not like it, and some audience may not like the topic. Ifthere were trigger warnings at that time, such audiences would bepsychologically prepared to listen to the hurtful message of theNobel Laureate.
In conclusion, trigger warnings are objected to, but should beupheld, especially in colleges with students of differentbackgrounds. The diversity makes them have different perceptions thatwould make some speech fall under offensive words. While someutterances may come off as funny or indifferent to certain groups ofstudent, they may be hurting to others. All in all, Colleges shouldemploy trigger warnings moderately to promote an open learningenvironment, but without interfering with free speech.
Charnis, Daniel. My Rights vs. Your Trigger Warning. Chronicleof Higher Education. April 2016 62(25) 10-11.
Golub, David. Op Ed on free Speech in Campus. New York Times,September 2016.
Myers, Andrews. The Coddling of the American Mind. TheAtlantic, September 2015.
Wright, Peter. Problematic: The Battle for Free Speech.Harvard Political Review, December 2015.