A trigger warning is, according to the Oxford SU, an early indication that a topic that is to be discussed either in written material, or at a speaker event, or lecture is potentially distressing. This is not the same as a topic being offensive. Triggers are stimuli for people with mental health illnesses such as PTSD, depression, and anxiety. Warnings are also included in many events for sufferers of epilepsy – so why are they so controversial?
Recently, the Oxford Student Council passed a motion to recommend that the University look at its free speech policy to expand its definition of hate speech to include gender identity, disability, and socio-economic status. The University has rejected the recommendations, which also included trigger warnings on reading lists. The SU’s announcement incited an angry response from academics who argued that this would lead to a loss of control over academic texts, especially ones that were compulsory to study. But are trigger warnings really so subversive?
Opponents of trigger warnings argue that they restrict freedom of speech and seek to police debate. Supposedly, if you label a speaker event with a trigger warning before the speech people will be discouraged from attending and this narrows the scope of the discussion. Is it fair to label speakers in this way? A warning about race-related content, for example, might carry the implication that the speaker themselves is racist, and this could be a misleading characterisation. It might hinder important debates on sensitive topics.
But it is a leap to suggest that by putting a warning on something is equivalent to stopping people from consuming it. Supporters of trigger warnings point out that if a person with a mental health illness is triggered by a debate, then the ensuing mental health crisis would stop them from participating at all. If people want the discussion, if they think it is a meaningful debate to have, rather than just a chance for controversial people to be controversial for no worthwhile reason, then they will attend. The trigger warnings do not necessarily stop participation, they make participants more informed.
Where trigger warnings lead into content being banned, they become problematic, but at this point, they are no longer fulfilling their purpose. It is important that controversial topics and difficult historical texts are studied, so that we can understand them in the context of their time and crucially, understand why they are wrong. The fact that they should be studied, however, does not mean that they should be forced down people’s throats without warning – it should be recognised that these are offensive and upsetting subjects, and they should therefore be handled sensitively.
Some argue that trigger warnings are detrimental to mental health, and the recovery of those with mental health illnesses. The ‘real world,’ they argue, is not sensitive, and resilience should be built up while people are at university and have a support network behind them. This is a misguided view, and it is founded in the deep-rooted belief that mental health illnesses are somehow less serious, even less real, than physical disabilities. In many cinemas, there are now warnings for those with epilepsy – why is it that these trigger warnings, that concern physical health, never receive the same criticism as those for people with mental health illnesses?
The argument that the real world is not sensitive is a pessimistic one. It isn’t sensitive– but does that mean it could never be so? Are trigger warnings an easy way to make life a little bit easier for the people who find it harder than others? Advocating for a gentler handling of materials could be a first step towards making Oxford more accessible to those with mental illnesses; a way of slowly rebuilding confidence and resilience, rather than throwing people in at the deep end.
There is a dark side to trigger warnings, where they are used, not to mark materials so that those that might be triggered can avoid them, but so that they can actively seek them out. This is prevalent on Instagram, which has been criticised for the role it has played in the suicides of teenage girls; hashtags allowed them to access streams of self-harm and suicidal content. However, in the more formal context of the university, labelling speaker events and content like books and articles, it seems unlikely that this abuse of trigger warnings could take place to the same extent.
At the end of the day, if you really dislike trigger warnings, it is easy to ignore them. Do you notice the warnings for strobe lighting whenever you walk into a cinema? If it matters to you – if knowing what the general themes of the event or text are before you engage with the material will make your life easier, and make it less likely that you will suffer a mental health crisis, then you will look for trigger warnings. If you are lucky enough not to need them, you can simply ignore them.