Letter to the Editor: Response to "No Trigger Warnings"
When I opened the newest piece by Editorial Board in this week’s (admittedly quite new and flashy) Skidmore News regarding the use of trigger warnings on our campus, I expected to find something I might disagree with. But I was surprised to see my name and past use of trigger warnings implicated in a larger and more troubling trend toward “intellectual laziness.” More surprising was the ease with which the Board equated such mere warnings of traumatizing content and speculative claims about the “softening” of academic inquiry. Needless to say, I feel obliged to respond, if for no other reason than to argue that this equivalence between simple warnings and censorship is made a bit too hastily.
Last year, as SGA President, I chose to put trigger warnings on my emails about sexual and gender-based misconduct not to hide our campus from difficult topics, but rather to enter the conversation with an understanding that too many students carry painful memories with them everywhere they go. Doing so enabled me to speak openly in my actual message, to carefully use potentially triggering language, and to force this community to confront its problem while alerting readers that difficult material might lie ahead.
I do not censor my thoughts. I preface them with the intention of alerting students with personal trauma in their past to the nature of the message I hope to convey. I am not willing to risk harming any victims of sexual crimes in my attempt to get people talking, and as I continue to work with community stakeholders (including students) to improve our campus culture and policies surrounding sexual and gender-based misconduct, I will continue to approach the issue in this way.
These are difficult topics. It’s hard for us to discuss the reality of violence and abuse without thinking of personal stories, the experience of a friend, or emotional moments like the one we collectively experienced last spring. Protests, conduct hearings, petitions, and media attention make for difficult conversation. Of course, it’s to all of our benefit as a community of learners to struggle with challenging and sometimes unanswerable problems. But we can embrace difficulty while still taking care of those with painful past experiences that most of us cannot comprehend.
Along with this acknowledgment of the importance of difficulty, I think of trigger warnings in this way: Of the over 2,400 students on this campus who receive an email like the open letter from March, few will be personally traumatized by memories of sexual victimization. To those students, a trigger warning places only a very temporary delay in their engagement with my message.
For those few (and sadly, the relative “few” is actually a sobering number) who may be triggered by such a message, why would I not err on the side of caution and alert them to the fact that something traumatizing may follow? The multiple victims of misconduct on this campus who have reached out to me with thanks for doing so confirmed, in my view, that this decision was a correct one. It also indicated that most do continue reading after registering the warning, but they do so with a heightened understanding of what engaging with the material might mean to them.
The editorial equates simple warnings and academic censorship without justification. Our professors – and I would hope, our peers – should be forcing us to engage with difficult material. The realities of academic, athletic, and social life are impossible to absorb without it. I simply do not believe that a trigger warning at the outset of a conversation or in the subject line of an email constitutes the existential problem for higher education that the Editorial Board claims. If you get too distracted by a trigger warning to comprehend the message that follows, your education has failed you in much more concerning ways.