Trigger Warnings Creep Off the Web and Into the Classroom

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Even casual consumers of online media have probably noticed the now-ubiquitous trend  of the ‘trigger warning.’ Usually right at the beginning of a piece, the short blurb warns readers of potentially disturbing or sensitive information — rape, eating disorders, shootings, etc. — before they stumble upon it unprepared. As a recent Buzzfeed article points out, some sites, such as Shakesville, add warnings to nearly everything, including a photograph where the writer’s dogs are baring their teeth in a way that could be perceived as aggressive. Other sites, such as Jezebel, purposely do not include trigger warnings.

Trigger warnings are pretty much everywhere on the internet, but now they’ve started to creep into the real world. A number of colleges have received requests from students that trigger warnings be added to syllabi to indicate troubling material, and the issue has sparked debate across college campuses.

I know that I have heard the conversation myself a few times at my own university, but I have very mixed feelings about trigger warnings when it comes to college material. Should people be able to prepare themselves for difficult content? Sure. Are there certain topics that can be emotionally damaging? Yes. But should trigger warnings be required on college syllabi? I don’t think so.

Trigger warnings on syllabi could force optional content and make courses unbalanced: There are two reasons that trigger warnings exist: 1) to allow someone time to mentally and emotionally prepare for a difficult read; and 2) to allow someone to back away from the content because they make the choice not to read it. While the first could be an appropriate use of a warning on college syllabi, the latter is problematic.

How might a professor fairly teach a subject that is perhaps controversial if she is mandated to include trigger warnings? She includes the warnings and as a result student A claims he can’t participate in a certain triggering reading; student B won’t participate in another; and students C-Z all say the same thing. The professor is left with a hodgepodge of students who all covered different material. How does one design a final around that? Non-tenured professors especially would worry about the ramifications of their jobs.

Professors have been dealing with tough subjects since the dawn of academia, and if they’re not dealing with them properly, that’s something to fix.  I was an International Affairs major with a concentration in security studies, which meant that I took a lot of very disturbing classes. Security studies focuses on war and conflict: civilian victimization, terrorism, gender violence, etc. I ostensibly had people in some of those many classes who could have found some of the material triggering, and in my opinion, every time, my professors handled it properly. Whether it was a video, or a reading, they provided fair warning but explained how it was essential to our discussion and lesson. They exhibited sensitivity, and compassion. And pretty much every time I was involved in a class discussion regarding a difficult topic, students were fairly respectful of each other because of the serious and appropriate environment our professors created.

Academia is a space that requires the discussion of difficult topics. Rich Lowry’s National Review op-ed, though highly inflammatory, makes the fair point that anything can be triggering to anyone. Focus on providing the resources to have productive, sensitive, and safe discussions about such topics, because at the end of the day, that is one of the purposes of academia.

Life doesn’t have trigger warnings: I wish it did, but it doesn’t. There’s no trigger warning to stop you from turning on the news at an inopportune moment and seeing something that invokes traumatizing memories. There’s no trigger warning to stop something terrible from happening in front of you, or to avoid an acquaintance’s disparaging remark, or to stop some asshole from yelling something disgustingly racist, sexist, homophobic, or harmful at you on the street. I know because all of those things have happened to my friends.

Academia has a rare opportunity to help discuss these issues in a safe place. It provides the opportunity for students to test the boundaries of what triggers them and then if they want to, get help to work on those issues.

Anneliese Mahoney (@AMahoney8672) is Lead Editor at Law Street and a Connecticut transplant to Washington D.C. She has a Bachelor’s degree in International Affairs from the George Washington University, and a passion for law, politics, and social issues. Contact Anneliese at

Featured image courtesy of [Openclips via Pixabay]

Anneliese Mahoney
Anneliese Mahoney is Managing Editor at Law Street and a Connecticut transplant to Washington D.C. She has a Bachelor’s degree in International Affairs from the George Washington University, and a passion for law, politics, and social issues. Contact Anneliese at



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