Weary of Warnings: Trigger Warnings Cause Debate on Campuses

A new generation of college students are courting controversy on campuses across this country.

One of the narratives that have followed Millennials as they’ve gone off to college is the battle over trigger warnings and safe spaces. While some have claimed that these psychological terms have presented an opportunity for a more aware society, some have claimed that the movement amounts to shielding young adults from the world.

Even President Barack Obama weighed in on the burgeoning culture war during a town hall meeting in Iowa on Sept. 14, 2015. President Obama commented that the issue does not just lie with people who think colleges are too liberal.

“Sometimes there are folks on college campuses who are liberal and maybe even agree with me on a bunch of issues, who sometimes aren’t listening to the other side. And that’s a problem, too,” Obama said. “I don’t agree that you, when you become students at colleges, have to be coddled and protected from different points of view.”

Karla Vermeulen, Ph.D., an assistant psychology professor at SUNY New Paltz, has been researching trigger warnings along with their emerging role in academics and their social impact.

Trigger warnings are preemptive warnings intended to protect victims from images or subjects that might force them to experience flashbacks from a traumatic experience. According to Vermeulen, trigger warnings are part of the movement to provide increased awareness for those who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, (PTSD).

“I think students today, certainly students that go to [SUNY New Paltz] are remarkably resilient,” Vermeulen said. “I think a lot of the criticisms of students are part of the “kids today” argument that have been around for every passing generation.”

Vermeulen said that in recent years, there has been a bit of a disconnect between the pop culture interpretation of trigger warnings and their intended meaning. She suggested that there might be a misunderstanding between trigger warnings and selective exposure, which is when people choose the information and sources that are congruent to their beliefs.

The combination of both has become a major point of contention in the ongoing disputes over political correction in American culture. While there has been a public perception that college students are overly sensitive, Vermeulen said that she has not seen that to be the case.

However, there is not a consensus concerning the role of trigger warnings on college campuses. Michael Bastian, a fourth-year political science major, argues that trigger warnings take away from open discussion and the pursuit of a common goal.

“Trigger warnings devalue opposing views and are destroying intellectualism,” Bastian said. “It’s not the needs of everyone else to coddle an individual. Abusing trigger warnings and safe spaces belittle other people who are suffering from PTSD. Trigger warnings are more appropriate online where it is up to the individual to decide what content they want to consume.”

Bastian stated that trigger warnings are another form of “othering,” the idea that “if one doesn’t fall in line with the agenda then you don’t get to speak.” He also argued that these are examples of political correctness that pose a significant risk to students as a “detriment to the personal growth and healing of an individual.”

Vermeulen did not dispute that there is a need for people to expose them to opposing points of view for risk of the further heightening of an already polarized society. She provided her syllabus for her course entitled “Disaster Psychology,” which included a statement reading:

“Please be aware that some content that will be included in the course may be disturbing to you. If you feel troubled by the material, please contact the instructor and/or the Psychological Counseling Center, 845-257-2920.”

Vermeulen stated that she does not provide a similar introductory statement for her course entitled “Grief Counseling, Loss and Bereavement,” believing that the name itself is a sufficient warning. She also said that in her years of teaching, she has not had a “freakout” from any of her students in class due to the content she has presented.