Cornell University assistant professor: I use trigger warnings to help manage students' reactions

A Cornell University assistant philosophy professor is trying to explain why she uses “trigger warnings” with students. Kate Mainne writes in The New York Times she’s not trying to coddle anyone, but just be sensitive towards students who may have experienced trauma.

But trigger warnings have been adapted to serve a subtly different purpose within universities. Increasingly, professors like me simply give students notice in their syllabuses, or before certain reading assignments. The point is not to enable — let alone encourage — students to skip these readings or our subsequent class discussion (both of which are mandatory in my courses, absent a formal exemption). Rather, it is to allow those who are sensitive to these subjects to prepare themselves for reading about them, and better manage their reactions. The evidence suggests that at least some of the students in any given class of mine are likely to have suffered some sort of trauma, whether from sexual assault or another type of abuse or violence. So I think the benefits of trigger warnings can be significant.

On the surface, Mainne’s argument almost seems logical because it appears she has the best interests of her students at heart. But then her logic goes completely off the rails when Mainne writes how important it is to protect students from being in an unpleasant situation.

For someone who has experienced major trauma, vivid reminders can serve to induce states of body and mind that are rationally eclipsing in much the same manner. A common symptom of PTSD is panic attacks. Those undergoing these attacks may be flooded with anxiety to the point of struggling to draw breath, and feeling disoriented, dizzy and nauseated. Under conditions such as these, it’s impossible to think straight.

The thought behind trigger warnings isn’t just that these states are highly unpleasant (although they certainly are). It’s that they temporarily render people unable to focus, regardless of their desire or determination to do so. Trigger warnings can work to prevent or counteract this.

It’s been ten years since I graduated from university, and I have to admit to not understanding this method of thinking at all. Maybe it has to do with the fact I was a history major, not a philosophy major, but this explanation doesn’t really hold water for me. If someone ends up in an unpleasant situation where they feel really nervous or panicky there are counselors available at schools. I was able to go to one if I needed to, and Cornell University offers the same thing- for free and without an appointment!

There’s a really interesting piece from Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt in The Atlantic which serves as a pushback against this “trigger warning” ideology. Both suggest college should help teens and people in their early 20’s prepare for life, which will include being put in uncomfortable situations and being challenged. They also note the only way to help people get over fear is to confront it.

However, there is a deeper problem with trigger warnings. According to the most-basic tenets of psychology, the very idea of helping people with anxiety disorders avoid the things they fear is misguided. A person who is trapped in an elevator during a power outage may panic and think she is going to die. That frightening experience can change neural connections in her amygdala, leading to an elevator phobia. If you want this woman to retain her fear for life, you should help her avoid elevators.

But if you want to help her return to normalcy, you should take your cues from Ivan Pavlov and guide her through a process known as exposure therapy. You might start by asking the woman to merely look at an elevator from a distance—standing in a building lobby, perhaps—until her apprehension begins to subside. If nothing bad happens while she’s standing in the lobby—if the fear is not “reinforced”—then she will begin to learn a new association: elevators are not dangerous. (This reduction in fear during exposure is called habituation.) Then, on subsequent days, you might ask her to get closer, and on later days to push the call button, and eventually to step in and go up one floor. This is how the amygdala can get rewired again to associate a previously feared situation with safety or normalcy.

One of the things I really enjoy is being challenged to think. There were plenty of times in college when I was challenged by History and Government professors on why I believed what I believed. The private (and sometimes public) debates I had with one professor were highlights of my schooling. Being challenged allowed me to make sure I knew why I believed what I believed, why I was a libertarian. It’s why I enjoy being challenged by my leftist friends on why I believe in freedom and liberty instead of government programs. It’s why I don’t mind being challenged by conservatives when I write on why the government needs to be out of marriage, or why expanding legal immigration might solve illegal immigration. The challenges force me to change strategies or redo arguments so I know how to deliver the message better. But Lukianoff and Haidt note that’s not what’s happening anymore.

It’s hard to imagine how novels illustrating classism and privilege could provoke or reactivate the kind of terror that is typically implicated in PTSD. Rather, trigger warnings are sometimes demanded for a long list of ideas and attitudes that some students find politically offensive, in the name of preventing other students from being harmed. This is an example of what psychologists call “motivated reasoning”—we spontaneously generate arguments for conclusions we want to support. Once you find something hateful, it is easy to argue that exposure to the hateful thing could traumatize some other people. You believe that you know how others will react, and that their reaction could be devastating. Preventing that devastation becomes a moral obligation for the whole community. Books for which students have called publicly for trigger warnings within the past couple of years include Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (at Rutgers, for “suicidal inclinations”) and Ovid’s Metamorphoses (at Columbia, for sexual assault).

This is really troubling because of what could happen to university grads when they get out in the “real world.” What’s going to happen the first time someone is put in a situation they feel is a “trigger warning” for them? Are they going to demand not to do the work? There are going to be managers who say, “No, that’s your job. Do it,” which is of course their right as boss. What happens next? A formal complaint? A lawsuit? That’s not going to solve anything and will more than likely cause more companies to go out of business and raise the unemployment rate. People who have legitimately experienced trauma need help conquering their fears, not being coddled. “Trigger warnings” aren’t helpful at all, even though professors and universities may think they’re protecting students. The real protection is pointing them to counselors or other avenues where they can get real help, not coddling. That’s the only way to conquer fear. “Trigger warning” don’t do this and need to be avoided at all costs.