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Trigger warnings: Are distressing content alerts for Scottish students an act of compassion or another erosion of free speech?

Students voted for this proposal.
Students voted for this proposal.

Students at Aberdeen University have voted to have trigger warnings included in lectures to alert them to topics that might cause them distress or upset.

The student council supported a motion to call for the introduction of “content warnings on all subjects that may cause harm to students” in lectures, reading lists, and seminars.

Ivana Drdáková, the association’s vice-president elect with responsibility for student welfare, said fellow students should be shielded from unwanted references to issues such as animal abuse, racism and transphobia.

But the move has sparked accusations of snowflake students and concerns that free speech is being stifled.

So who is right? We hear from those on either side of the debate…


The Aberdeen student union vote for trigger warnings is another sign of the dangers of emotional correctness, writes Dr Stuart Waiton.

Dr Waiton is a sociology and criminology lecturer at Abertay University in Dundee, with an interest in issues associated with the criminalisation and over-regulation of everyday life.

Few universities have developed official policies that force lecturers to use trigger warnings in class, indeed the idea of protecting students from certain issues and ideas is antithetical to the idea of a university where the expectation is that students will be exposed to all sorts of ideas.

Rather, it appears that the creeping use of these types of warning have come in part from emotionally correct lecturers themselves and perhaps most of all from today’s “radical” students.

Dr Stuart Waiton.
Dr Stuart Waiton.

The idea of trigger warnings originated as a therapeutic tool to help individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Originally, PTSD related to individuals, like soldiers, who had experienced severe trauma. Today it is a label that has expanded exponentially.

Indeed, the idea of being “traumatised” continues to expand to the extent that we now use this idea as a throw away term to describe almost any negative experience.

Unfortunately, this expanding idea of trauma has been politicised by groups and individuals who find a new type of moral goodness in their “awareness” of vulnerability.

Vulnerability as a virtue

Consequently, acting as a protector of the vulnerable or indeed representing yourself as “vulnerable”, comes with a certain status and sense of virtue.

As a result, however, what we end up with is a society that is increasingly policed by the advocates of emotional vulnerability.

We have already seen places like Glasgow University adopt these types of warnings for a variety of lessons, including language courses where the Brothers Grimm fairy tales were so labelled.

In the Aberdeen case we have everything from “animal abuse” to “ableism” described as issues that can cause “harm” to students.

The trend towards emotional correctness does nothing for students’ mental wellbeing,  it creates students who do not learn how to deal with difficult issues

Once ideas and issues, in and of themselves, are understood as a form of harm, the freedom to discuss and debate is hugely compromised, and the role of the lecturer is transformed into that of a therapist.

At the same time, universities, as places where adults go to study, are transformed backwards, and students are infantilised and educated to be fragile rather than robust individuals.

The trend towards emotional correctness and the elevation of vulnerability, in the end, does nothing, even for students’ mental wellbeing, because it creates students who do not learn how to deal with difficult issues and ultimately come to think about ideas as pathological.

 

Louise Henrard, vice-president for welfare at Aberdeen University Students’ Association, is a supporter of the move.

Louise says informing students beforehand that topics such as sexual assault, homophobia or graphic violence will be part of course materials seems like simple courtesy for those who have been and continue to be affected by the realities of these experiences.  

Indeed, content or trigger warnings simply indicate that distressing topics will be covered within course content.  Still, trigger warnings continue to be misrepresented.

Discussions of trigger warnings are often conflated with accusations of students as snowflakes: people who are overly sensitive, offended and upset.

Snowflake tag shows disregard for trauma

This might come from a misunderstanding of triggers or perhaps more of an unwillingness to consider the effect that traumatic experiences have on people’s lives.

We are not talking here of controversial topics but rather topics which have a serious impact on students’ mental health and the potential to re-induce traumatic events and experiences.

Louise Henrard.
Louise Henrard.

Why then do we think it is unreasonable to inform survivors of sexual abuse or racial hate when these topics will be mentioned?

Instead we could acknowledge that some of the topics I mentioned above are not mere topics of discussion and debate but also part of some students’ lived experience

When trigger warnings are added to course material, students still engage with it, but they are alerted that it will be discussed extensively which might be admittedly challenging.

When I experienced bereavement after my boyfriend’s death and attended an anthropology lecture on grief, I struggled but had time to reflect on how to participate in the discussions

Trigger warnings might not be useful for all, but they do provide time and space for students to prepare at engaging effectively with distressing content rather than being taken by surprise.

When I experienced bereavement after my boyfriend’s death and attended an anthropology lecture on grief shortly after, I still struggled throughout despite it being explicit but had time to reflect on how to participate in the discussions.

As some courses already reference their materials, I would support students’ request to implement it across the university.

By spending a few minutes on highlighting potential distressing content, we create a more accessible and compassionate space for learning.

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