(Wenda Kaczor/For The Washington Post) (Wenda Kaczor/For The Washington Post)

 A “trigger warning” is a short statement on a written piece of work or even a television show ( think Law and Order: Special Victims Unit)  noting that the material may be sexually graphic, violent or in some other way upsetting. This month The New York Times ran a story by Jennifer Medina  about the warnings that has sparked a stream of articles in magazines, newspapers and blogs about the subject, many of them ridiculing the idea.

The article, which noted that these warnings “have their ideological roots in feminist thought,” discussed the traction that “trigger warnings” have gotten on some college campuses  this year, with students pushing administrators to institute them. For example, a piece written by Philip Wythe, a sophomore, in the student newspaper at Rutgers University last February, said:

 [L]iterature courses often examine works with grotesque, disturbing and gruesome imagery within their narratives. For instance, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s critically acclaimed novel, “The Great Gatsby,” possesses a variety of scenes that reference gory, abusive and misogynistic violence. Virginia Woolf’s famous cerebral narrative, “Mrs. Dalloway,” paints a disturbing narrative that examines the suicidal inclinations and post-traumatic experiences of an English war veteran. And Junot Diaz’s critically acclaimed work, “This is How You Lose Her,” observes domestic violence and misogynistic culture in disturbing first-person narrations….

Reaching a compromise between protecting students and defending their civil liberties is imperative to fulfilling the educational potential of our University’s undergraduates. Within social justice circles, many activists have reached this compromise by implementing “trauma trigger warnings:” a safety system that allows full artistic expression, as well as psychological protection for those who need it.

Trauma trigger warnings are a minimalistic description that tag articles, literature and other works of art for traumatic content. These triggers can cover a variety of topics — from graphic violence to drug abuse — and are intended as vague, abstract descriptions of a work’s content. For instance, one trigger warning for “The Great Gatsby” might be: (TW: “suicide,” “domestic abuse” and “graphic violence.”) 

Also in February, members of the student government at the University of California at Santa Barbara  passed a resolution called “A Resolution to Mandate Warnings For Triggering Content in Academic Settings,” (see text below) that urges “the instructor of any course that includes triggering content to list trigger warnings on the syllabus.” It urges school officials to meet with students to develop a way for professors to create “trigger warnings” for material including “Rape, Sexual Assault, Abuse, Self-Injurious Behavior, Suicide, Graphic Violence, Pornography, Kidnapping, and Graphic Depictions of Gore.”

There was trigger activity on some other campuses too.  The Times story reports, for example, that Oberlin College wrote a draft guide on “trigger warnings” that said, before it was withdrawn for further work:

Triggers are not only relevant to sexual misconduct, but also to anything that might cause trauma. Be aware of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression. Realize that all forms of violence are traumatic, and that your students have lives before and outside your classroom, experiences you may not expect or understand.

In March, the student newspaper at the University of California Santa Barbara, The Daily Nexus, published a letter by the student who initiated the resolution, Bailey Loverin, explaining her reasons for taking the action. In early April, the student newspaper published another article, by Marissa Wenzke, further explaining the resolution, saying:

… even while protecting freedoms so crucial to higher education, we must recognize the legitimacy behind the intentions that lie behind this resolution. One of the arguments against this bill claims it would act as a crutch for students who do not wish to be challenged with potentially offensive material, essentially boiling it down to “just get over it.” We’d invite everyone who stands behind this to imagine the most terrifying or painful moment of your life, and then imagine being spontaneously forced to relive that moment in the middle of a lecture in Campbell Hall.

Two days after The New York Times article was posted to the newspaper website on May 17, the newspaper published a piece on its website by Loverin defending the resolution again. What followed was a flood of  negative commentary by critics concerned that trigger warnings would amount to censorship, prior restraint and an assault on academic freedom, including an editorial by The Los Angeles Times with this title: “Warning: College students, this editorial may upset you.”  It said in part:

The student resolution is only advisory, a recommendation that campus authorities can turn into policy or reject. They should not only choose the latter course but should explain firmly to students why such a policy would be antithetical to all that college is supposed to provide: a rich and diverse body of study that often requires students to confront difficult or uncomfortable material, and encourages them to discuss such topics openly. Trigger warnings are part of a campus culture that is increasingly overprotective and hypersensitive in its efforts to ensure that no student is ever offended or made to feel uncomfortable.

A piece in The New Yorker  by Jay Caspian Kang noted other reaction:

Social media, which mostly acts as an agreement machine whenever the liberal consensus squares off with a more radical cousin, seemed to confirm my annoyance [at the idea of trigger warnings]. The novelist Darin Strauss tweeted, “Trigger Warning: All human experience.” Matt Bai, a national columnist for Yahoo News, added, “Maybe the entire Web should have ‘trigger warning’ so I never have to feel uncomfortable or challenged.” Colson Whitehead joined in: “Your face should have a trigger warning for reminding me you exist.” There were dozens of other examples, from jokey to dire, and, by the time the news cycle kicked up on Tuesday, op-eds questioning the use of trigger warnings had been published in the Guardian, the Atlantic, and Mother Jones.

Then there was this reaction on the blog of the UCLA Faculty Association, which raises an issue that may put the idea of trigger warnings in some perspective: What kind of trigger warning would be put on the Bible. It would, the post says, start “with nudity and fratricide in the Garden of Eden and moving on to mass drowning (Noah), polygamy, adultery, etc.”

Sarah Dictum wrote in New Statesman that Shakespeare would surely need a trigger warning too, if trigger warnings ever became policy anywhere:

There are the obvious horrors, like Titus Andronicus with its hideous maternally-directed rape (“Away with her and use her as you will./The worse to her, the better loved of me”) and subsequent mutilation of the victim. But then there are the comedies, which even at their merriest contain intimations of rape. Measure for Measure hinges entirely on a woman being coerced into intercourse to save her brother’s life. Problem play? More like problematic play. Get behind the tape.


Here’s a draft version of the resolution that the UC Santa Barbara students passed in late February:

A Resolution to Mandate Warnings For Triggering Content in Academic Settings (02262014:61) – February 25, 2014

Resolution #805

by Nikki Calderon & Second: Derek Wakefield

Student Sponsor: Bailey Loverin

Resolution Liaison:

Whereas: UCSB CARE (Campus Advocacy Resources & Education) reports that: 1 in 4 college women will be sexually assaulted during her academic career,; 1 in 4 women will experience domestic violence; and 1 in 33 men will experience attempted or completed rape. Therefore this is a pertinent and widespread issue that should be acknowledged on campus. (maybe, but this may be better as a separate whereas at the end)

Whereas: Triggers are not limited to sexual assault and violence.

Whereas: Trigger Warnings should be used for content not covered by the rating system used by the MPAA or TV warnings (such as contains violence, nudity or, language).

Whereas: The current suggested list of Trigger Warnings includes Rape, Sexual Assault, Abuse, Self-Injurious Behavior, Suicide, Graphic Violence, Pornography, Kidnapping, and Graphic Depictions of Gore.

Whereas: Triggers are a symptom of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).

Whereas: UCSB Disabled Students Program recognizes PTSD as a disability.

Whereas: Having memories or flashbacks triggered can cause the person severe emotional, mental, and even physical distress. These reactions can affect a student’s ability to perform academically.

Whereas: College level courses may contain materials with mature content. These particularly affect students if material is being read in the classroom or a film is being screened, as the student cannot choose to stop being exposed to the material.

Whereas: Including trigger warnings is not a form of criticism or censorship of content. In addition, it does not restrict academic freedom but simply requests the respect and acknowledgement of the affect of triggering content on students with PTSD, both diagnosed and undiagnosed.

Whereas: Being informed well in advance of triggering content allows students to avoid a potentially triggering situation without public attention. Having a trigger warning on a syllabus allows a student the choice to be presentgives a student advance notice of possible triggers and the choice to be present or not instead of having to leave in the middle of a class or lecture.

Therefore let it be resolved by the Associated Students in the Senate Assembled:

That the Associated Students of UC Santa Barbara urge the instructor of any course that includes triggering content to list trigger warnings on the syllabus.

Let it further be resolved that: AS Senate urges the instructor of any course that includes triggering content to not dock points from a student’s overall grade for being absent or leaving class early if the reason for the absence is the triggering content.

Let it further be resolved that: AS Senate directs the Student Advocate General Kristian Whittaker to appoint a staff member to review and update the list of Trigger Warnings as needed in collaboration with RCSGD (Resource Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity) and The Women’s Center.

Let it further be resolved that: AS Senate direct External Vice President of Statewide Affairs Alex Choate to bring this to the attention of the UCSA Board at the next board meeting and to advocate for a policy change to reflect the directions of this resolution on a UC wide level.

Let it further be resolved that: AS Senate directs AS President Jonathon Abboud to bring this to the attention of the Academic Senate and advocate for a policy change to reflect the directions of this resolution.

Let it finally be resolved that: AS Senate recognizes the support and passing of this resolution as a stronger stance taken by UCSB against issues of sexual harassment and violence.

Fiscal Impact: $0 from the account.