What are “trigger warnings” and why are they controversial?

JK Rowling, Suzanne Collins and Philip Pullman are the latest authors whose novels have been drawn into the culture war of psychological sensitivity against enlightenment.

The University of Chester has “sounded the horn to freshmen” who are enrolled in the English department’s ‘Approaches to Literature’ module, the Daily Mail said.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, The hunger Games and Northern Lights are among fixed texts of the term that come with a trigger warning that they “can lead to difficult conversations about gender, race, sexuality, class and identity.”

For several years, some academics have chosen to report that their course content could “trigger” psychological distress in students. But there is a difference of opinion as to whether these warnings help or harm students.

In response to the University of Chester’s trigger warning, Tory MP Andrew Bridgen told the Mail: ‘Children understand that stories without difficult themes don’t tend to be very good stories or reflect the real life.

“Children and young people are incredibly resilient. It is really very sad that universities seek to rob them of this resilience with ridiculous trigger warnings.

A university spokesperson said: “Those who study literature should expect to encounter all the problems, challenges and complexities of humanity. As a university, we encourage rather than avoid discussing it.

“We of course include a generic paragraph on our reading lists to draw attention to the opportunity for individual students to speak with tutors if something is particularly difficult due to personal relevance.

“Tutors know how to direct students to specialist support that is sometimes needed, but often the tutorial or seminar discussion is enough for a student to put an issue into context.”

What is a trigger warning?

In psychology, a trigger refers to something that can stimulate memories of a traumatic event. A trigger warning is therefore intended to alert the public that the content may contain such a stimulus and could therefore have adverse effects for people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Trigger warnings began appearing on feminist websites in the early 2000s, warning readers about “sensitive topics like sexual assault, child abuse and suicide,” law professor Jeannie Suk Gersen said in The New Yorker. And their use has “steadily increased online, especially on social media.”

They were used “to serve a subtly different purpose within universities,” Kate Manne, an assistant professor of philosophy at Cornell University, told The New York Times.

According to her, they “allow those who are sensitive to these subjects to be prepared to read about them, and to better manage their reactions”. In his view, the benefits of trigger warnings “can be significant.”

Generally, it is at the discretion of an individual guardian whether or not to issue a trigger warning. Universities tend not to have policies for or against them.

Why are they controversial?

Trigger warnings “have played an outsized role in the debate over what has been called ‘the new political correctness’ – if greater sensitivity to student concerns about mental health and racial and gender equality has turned into a threat to academic freedom and open debate,” says Vox.

Some argue that labeling a work as a trigger can harm its societal value. The disclaimers “are such a slippery form of censorship,” Brendan O’Neill told Spiked. “They don’t prohibit reading, but discourage it.”

O’Neill argues it’s wrong to label books like George Orwell’s One thousand nine hundred and eighty four with a trigger warning, as the University of Northampton did this week.

“The waking hysteria has now reached such a crescendo that even the 20th century’s most famous warning about tyranny is falling victim to its tyrannical habits.”

He continued, “Even Charlotte Bloody Bronte comes with a trigger warning now,” before concluding, “It’s philistinism on stilts, and when applied to One thousand nine hundred and eighty four it is also positively harmful.

But Vox said films have “ratings that come with specific details about why they’re rated that way” and “modern art exhibits sometimes carry labels about provocative content.”

They are not ‘uncommon’ for groups of ‘paying customers and children’, but the controversy in universities is that ‘students are not supposed to be seen that way’.

Do trigger warnings work?

Professor Gersen told The New Yorker that studies of trigger warnings found they did not tend “to cause recipients to choose to avoid the material”, adding: “Instead, individuals knowledgeable tend to move forward”.

And at this point, she argued, it may be that “trigger warnings have developed a derivative cultural meaning that deviates from the goal of providing psychological help to those who suffer from trauma,” thus making their initial objective largely obsolete.

In an academic setting, however, they can “really work as a signal to a subset of students who seek it out that the teacher is sensitive to their concerns.”

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