Issue 12, Semester 1
By Ayu Maylinda
From personal experiences, I gather that the main contention against trigger warnings is that they potentially stifle freedom of speech in academia. The notion of trigger warnings seems to signal an unwelcome encroachment of freedom of speech, a prized ideal within Western democracies and the tradition of Western liberal thought. There is an unspoken understanding that the University, as the intellectual epicentre of a “free” society, must be a place where opinions can be expressed without censorship or restraint; trigger warnings are seen to prevent freedom of speech from taking place and thus stifling intellectual growth and stimulation.
Before we unpack this contention, we must understand what trigger warnings are. In essence, trigger warnings are statements at the start of a communication alerting the audience to the fact that what is about to be introduced contains potentially distressing material. This definition allows us to explore the true purpose of trigger warnings.
The trigger warning is to be conveyed to an ‘audience’, and is therefore designed for the group of persons who may be receiving communication as a whole. However within that larger group, there is a subset of persons who may perceive the communication as potentially distressing. Ergo, trigger warnings are general statements made to a general audience but meaningful only a subset of individuals who may suffer exposure to past trauma as a result of the communication in question.
The impact of trigger warnings is twofold. The symbolic impact of a trigger warning is that it is an acknowledgement from the institution (here, the university) that one’s trauma is acknowledged as existent and valid. The psychological impact of a trigger warning is a red light encouraging an individual to pause and reflect upon whether they are psychologically capable of handling the communication, and to encourage them to develop coping strategies, should they choose to partake. The two, in tandem, underlie the important notion that everyone comes to the institution at different starting points based on personal history and life experiences, and to deny this is to fundamentally dismiss the vagaries of human experience.
Trigger warnings, which occur at the outset of participation in the speech environment, would serve not to actively mediate the environment for every participant, but to frame the ensuing participation in a way that acknowledges that certain individuals may not be comfortable participating in the environment and are welcome to take steps to resolve their discomfort. The individuals’ response to the trigger warnings have nothing at all to do with the environment as a whole, except perhaps to reduce the number of participants. On this view, the speech environment is not compromised for individuals who are not adversely affected by the content and freedom of speech is hence maintained for those individuals (i.e. the assumed majority). Furthermore, there is some sense to the idea that trigger warnings would allow individuals potentially affected by sensitive material to participate freely within the speech environment, since they are allowed time and space to prepare themselves before potentially traumatising discussions.
There is an argument that trigger warnings compel individuals who are not adversely affected by the material to adopt a language that is politically correct. I acknowledge the merits of this argument, but challenge those who feel this way to consider that the urge towards political correctness may not necessarily constitute a direct challenge to free speech, but a mere opportunity to consider that the heart of communication is an assumption of commonality between participants, and that, for human beings, this is communicative empathy: the realisation that words have power, and that words sometimes hurt. I would hope that this empathy will be seen as more than just a “millennial trend”.
Ayu Maylinda is a third-year JD student