Column: Trigger warnings are about common decency, not censorship

This is a warning: this column contains references to sexual assault and physical and emotional trauma.

Last week, the American University Faculty Senate passed a resolution condemning trigger warnings. It cited freedom of speech and the need for a college education to occasionally be uncomfortable and challenging, and that shielding students from controversial materials will hurt their ability to become responsible citizens and critical thinkers.

These goals are admirable. However, the fact that these concepts are being brought up in a discussion of trigger warnings underlines that the Faculty Senate and other opponents of trigger warnings have either misunderstood or misconstrued the purpose that trigger warnings serve.

A psychological trigger is anything that returns someone mentally to an experience of trauma, eliciting an intense emotional and physical response. Trigger warnings are written warnings at the beginning of a piece of media, warning viewers about any widely triggering material that that media contains. They have become commonplace in online feminist spaces (like Everyday Feminism, Jezebel, and the feminist sphere of sites like Tumblr) in an attempt to create places where those who have been traumatized through experiences like sexual assault, rape and child abuse do not have to worry about being caught off guard by such content.

This is where the Faculty Senate illustrates a lack of understanding of the purpose trigger warnings, and of the trauma that lead people to ask for them. Students do not request trigger warnings to avoid material that they disagree with, that they dislike or which makes them uncomfortable. Students do not request trigger warnings so they can shirk their responsibilities. Students across the country are arguing in favor of trigger warnings so that they can get an education without having their mental health compromised. As it stands, the Senate’s resolution offers students no meaningful path forward until after a student is negatively impacted by class material.

A TV show advising its viewers to use discretion when viewing shows that have potentially disturbing material is not censorship. Letter ratings on films are not censorship.

A two-sentence warning at the beginning of an opinion article, warning readers about potentially traumatic material contained within is not censorship.

These things are in place for people to know what is in store for them when they consume a piece of media. All of that media continues to be accessible to anyone who wants it. These measures do not coddle people, they instead respect the variety of experiences that people come from and acknowledge that what some people are comfortable with can be deeply disturbing to others.

Warning students about material that could compromise their mental health, and giving them some way to work around this material with their professor, is not censorship. The call for trigger warnings contains no call to remove controversial, disagreeable, or challenging materials from curricula.

The call for trigger warnings is, quite simply, a call for colleges to be more welcoming and understanding towards people who have experienced serious trauma and are still deeply affected by it.

This hardly seems like an unreasonable request.

Zach Moore is a senior in the School of Communication.

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