Trigger Warnings, Free Inquiry, and Avoiding Harm

This entry is by Pat Stokes, who has featured in this blog before.

Once a year, every year, I stand in front of a room full of teenagers and talk about erect penises.

This is not some weird hobby of mine. Someone – the Australian taxpayer, ultimately – pays me to do this. But talking about penises isn’t the problem. The problem is that I warn the class beforehand that we’ll be discussing explicit, if thankfully brief and fairly highbrow, depictions of sex.

Warning students ahead of time like that makes me a terrible educator, you see. All these cotton wool, nanny state ‘trigger warnings’ are making these kids soft and useless. The workforce will eat them alive. Or so generous Twitter users keep telling me.

No, the only way to prepare these impressionable young minds for the horrors of something called the ‘real world’ is to spring descriptions of tumescent phalli on them totally unannounced. It’s the only way they’ll learn.

A genuine tension

Trigger warnings have become associated, rhetorically at least, with the broader issue of freedom of speech on campus and the phenomena of ‘safe spaces’ and no-platforming. Their aim is broadly similar. They’re meant to avoid harms that can be caused by discussing topics that, due to personal or social history, students might find distressing. They don’t shut the topic down, but they give students some capacity to manage their exposure. That, at least, is the theory.

The tension between the needs of open debate and the need to avoid harm is, I’d suggest, a real one, and needs to be acknowledged. On the one hand, if we’re going to model good argument and proper academic inquiry we should follow arguments where they lead, not just where we’d like to be. University should be a place where you are exposed to new and often challenging ideas. Discomfort can be a sign of emerging knowledge.

Academic debates and teaching don’t occur in a vacuum, however. For all the talk of preparing students for the ‘real world,’ there’s only one real world, and universities are inside it just like everything else. We don’t step outside the world while we’re thinking and teaching about it.

You may fancy yourself a locus of pure, ahistorical reason, a mere conduit for ‘the ideas themselves.’ But you’re not. You’re a flesh-and-blood human being partly defined by your history and social position, talking to other flesh-and-blood beings. And that makes your behavior, in the classroom and on the page as much as anywhere else, subject to ethical evaluation. You can’t step outside your ethical and political relationships to those around you. Ethics has no outside.

Trauma ahead

So, back to the penises. I teach a large introductory philosophy unit, originally devised by philosopher-bassist Stan van Hooft, called ‘Love, Sex, and Death.’ We use these dimensions of human life to introduce students to core aspects of philosophical methodology and content. We ask them to wrestle with texts ranging from Plato and neo-Thomistic Natural Law theory to radical feminism, and with questions from ‘what is love?’ and ‘should euthanasia be permitted?’ to ‘is it ok to watch porn?’ and ‘are there by definition no non-substitute masturbators?’ (long story).

The penises are all found in an influential paper by philosopher Martha Nussbaum that contains excerpts from famous literary depictions of sexual objectification. I let students know at the start of the class this material is coming, as well as flagging it beforehand in the lecture. Likewise with other potentially difficult or sensitive topics.

Why? Because there are five hundred students in this unit, and I don’t know them. I don’t know how many of them are victims of sexual assault, but the statistics tell us the number will be distressingly high. We know that sexual objectification is not a mere abstract question but part of lived experience for at least half the class. I also know, because some of them have told me, that students sitting through our discussion of the ethics of sex work have themselves worked in that industry. We look at the arguments around same-sex marriage with LGBTQI students, and pro- and anti-abortion arguments with, no doubt, women who have had abortions. We discuss the badness of death and the question of euthanasia knowing at least some of those present will be carrying recent or sudden loss, past suicide attempts, or terminally ill parents.

We still teach this material. We must teach this material. These are living issues we have no choice but to talk about, and we need to be taught the philosophical skills and background to do so properly. But you can’t talk about love, sex, and death without talking to people who have been injured by all these things. To discuss these is, unavoidably, to stick coldly abstract fingers into old and never-quite-healed wounds. Nor can you talk about race or gender or sexuality without talking about and reactivating histories of power and hurt.

An excess of caution?

So yes, there’s a real problem here. That problem – the unavoidable tension between the intellectual demands of unfettered inquiry and the ethical demand to avoid causing harm – is precisely what trigger warnings, at their best at least, are meant to help us manage, if never solve. They aren’t designed to stop intellectual inquiry, and shouldn’t be allowed to. Their aim is simply to prevent it causing more harm than it has to.

Among academics I’ve spoken to about this (read: I have no real empirical basis for the following claim whatsoever), “trigger warnings” seem to be regarded as nothing more than basic courtesy. Indeed, when I’ve described my practice – a polite, brief warning that there’s explicit content coming up – even people opposed to trigger warnings tend to concede that’s fine. What they object to are all those other trigger warnings they’re sure are out there.

And sure, you could try to argue that the problem isn’t trigger warnings per se, but that trigger warnings have become too comprehensive and thus too restrictive. It’s not hard to find examples that are, on their face, over-the-top or linked to improbable harms. The infamous Wilder edition of Kant with a warning about his dated views (and yes, Kant says some pretty frightful stuff) might well seem excessive or even insulting.

But at least it errs on the side of caution. Long lists of potentially ‘triggering’ topics may be unworkable and ultimately self-defeating, but being aware of too much seems practically far more preferable than remaining blissfully unaware of harms caused.

They’re also a good reminder of the importance of another virtue we should be modelling in both teaching and research: intellectual humility. Are law students going to be traumatised by hearing that something “violates the law”? At first blush we’d probably imagine not. But did the possibility occur to you beforehand? Do you know how that word affects people? What if you found out it does actually cause some people distress – what then? How will you manage that? And if you missed that, what else have you missed? What other consequences of your words have you failed to foresee? If reason and experience alone can let you down like that, how else are you going to know the true effect of your words and actions other than by listening to what people tell you?

Difficult topics don’t go away, and nor does the need to teach them. Trigger warnings are one tool available to us to try and negotiate the rough terrain. But they won’t replace an indispensable set of virtues: tact, sensitivity, consideration – and caution.


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