Voluntary and Involuntary Trigger Warnings and the Freedom of Speech

by Sherry F. Colb

In my column for this week, I discuss trigger warnings, notifications by university faculty to students that they will be reading (or attending a lecture containing) material that could be very upsetting or disturbing. Warnings might precede presentations about such topics as sexual assault, child molestation, or wartime violence. Part of my discussion centers on the likely impact of an obligation to give warnings on the faculty who have to (or feel obliged to) give them and therefore on the materials that faculty choose to present.

In this post, I want to consider the different ways in which people might feel forced to say or do something that they would rather not say or do. As a professor in a university, a person would plainly feel the press of coercion if she received a communication from one of her superiors ordering her to give trigger warnings prior to any discussion of rape. That would be one way to compel compliance with a trigger warning policy, a policy that I suggest in my column would be substantively misguided in a variety of ways.

There are, however, other, more subtle ways to exert pressure on instructors. One way is for each person who voluntarily uses trigger warnings to publicize the fact that he does so. If you gave trigger warnings, and made a point of publishing an article saying that you give trigger warnings and that it is the correct thing to do if one is minimally considerate of others' feelings, then your communication would exert pressure on other members of the faculty to similarly adopt trigger warnings. I might believe that trigger warnings are counterproductive but, wishing to avoid the appearance of unkindness, adopt warnings too, also letting people know about it, because appearing kind to others is the point of my warnings.

After I do that, maybe some other people do the same, concluding either that I must have a good reason for giving trigger warnings (even though I do not) or that I might judge them to be unkind unless they give them (even though I would not). They then publicize that they give warnings to cultivate the appearance of kindness. And so on and so forth until everyone has gotten on board the trigger warning wagon (other than, perhaps, the one or two rebellious faculty members who like to buck the trend).

If most or all of the people giving trigger warnings have no direct basis for doing so other than social pressure, then we have an "Emperor's New Clothes" situation. It is then up to the children to come forward and point out that trigger warnings are unhelpful or even counterproductive. The problem here is that the children are undergraduates who might enjoy the feeling of power that accrues when a student can pressure a faculty member to do something to accommodate the student. Traumatized students may sincerely and in good faith believe that trigger warnings would help, a common-sense assumption that could be mistaken--as I suggest in my column. Some number of non-traumatized students might simply want the professor to jump through hoops for them.

It is easy to hypothesize why professors might prefer not to give trigger warnings. Maybe they would rather not bother thinking about whether their course material contains sensitive matters, and giving a warning requires thinking ahead. Maybe they feel they have been careful in selecting what to assign and lecture about and feel second-guessed by having to warn people. Or maybe they just have a visceral reaction to anyone presuming to judge what goes on their classroom as insufficiently safe.

Another possibility, one that I have encountered in a defense of trigger warnings, is that professors have grown accustomed to their white, male, cis-gender, heterosexual privilege, and they accordingly resent facing a challenge to their moral authority from people of color, including women, and from LGBTQ people. I am skeptical of this account, because (a) no professor likes having someone tell her that she is doing something immoral in the classroom, no matter what the race, sex, gender, or sexual orientation of the critic; (b) part of why professors and people generally dislike moral criticism is that it exerts some pressure on the recipients to change the way they do things, and many people resist change; (c) racism and other biases can intensify the feelings that someone has upon hearing criticism, but the primary hierarchy that will irritate a faculty member is probably the perception that a student should not be judging a faculty member (in the same way as parents may feel defensive about their children passing moral judgment on them).

The fact that professors prefer to avoid moral critiques from students is not itself a reason to avoid trigger warnings. But the professor's perception does indicate something relevant to the discussion. Professors necessarily have more knowledge about the subject matter than their students have. But after teaching for some number of years (perhaps ten or fifteen, but there is no fixed number), the professor also knows what she can expect from students under particular conditions and what can happen if a species of censorial power devolves to the students.

A moral panic can set in, whereby non-traumatized students feel it is important to keep professors from using particular trigger words or concepts and whereby the same students can successfully deter professors from bothering to talk about topics that are difficult and that a vocal group of students stands prepared to shout down. A professor who has had little experience in the classroom may see only the (assumed) upside of trigger warnings and may misguidedly encourage students to demand them from everyone. But as I describe at greater length in my column, empowerment is not always a good thing.

The sometimes-student-led and sometimes-faculty-led phenomenon I describe is known as "virtue signaling." It happens on social media quite frequently. Someone says something in a strongly worded fashion about how terrible a particular thing is. Other people then both "like" the statement and offer even more strongly worded endorsements of what the original poster said.

This goes on and on until eventually, someone starts saying nasty things about people who disagree with the group on what it is saying. The nastiness escalates, the self-righteousness intensifies, and people start asking anyone who differs from the narrowly defined position in play to "unfriend" them. The whole process can unfold in minutes or can take hours, but it follows a predictable path.

I find virtue signaling profoundly disturbing and rather stifling. First, I want to be able to approach a question--particularly a moral question--with an open mind and consider arguments for various sides of it. Virtue signaling pressures me to take a particular side before I have had an opportunity to think about it because some other person has taken that position and others have followed in her footsteps. Second, once I reach a conclusion, I want to be able to talk about it without being afraid that others will demonize me for holding that position. Fearing demonization, in fact, can drive people to speak less respectfully than they otherwise would, because they feel defensive before they even start to speak. This is antithetical to a productive dialogue. Third and finally, even if I end up agreeing with people engaged in virtue signaling, I feel at odds with them all the same because of the way in which they reached their conclusion. If you announce that you give trigger warnings because this reinforces your sense of yourself as a kind and decent soul who yields to the moral claims of the historically oppressed, then you declare yourself a poser, and why would I want to listen to a poser?

After  dismissing the poser who say "I tithe and you should too," I would return to the substantive issue of how to resolve the question before us. For that, I refer you to "Why I Do Not Give Trigger Warnings." And just to be clear, I do not regard myself as virtuous for refusing to give warnings. I simply deny that any professor demonstrates virtue by giving them.