Before you read any further, I must caution you: This column is about trigger warnings. Proceed at your own discretion.
In case you haven't heard of them, trigger warnings are the latest controversy to infect the educational realm. These cautionary messages are similar to those you might see on the Internet and in other media that inform users of potentially distressing content. They first appeared on feminist websites to warn victims of sexual assault about information that might trigger post-traumatic stress disorder, and have since become more widely used.
Recently several colleges have adopted or are considering policies on trigger warnings. At UC Santa Barbara, a student-led initiative calls for such alerts regarding reading materials, lectures, discussions or films that involve depictions of graphic violence, sexual assault and other difficult subjects. If adopted, the resolution would allow students to opt out of these parts of courses without penalty.
Several other colleges have received similar requests this year. Students at the University of Michigan, Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, Oberlin College in Ohio, Rutgers in New Jersey, Scripps in California and Wellesley in Massachusetts have also asked for more sensitive treatment of potentially troubling readings, films, lectures and works of art.
Not surprisingly, this development has elicited alarm, anger and heavy doses of sarcasm from many quarters. Some commentators and editorial writers have castigated the policy suggestions, labeling them as either political correctness run amok or a troubling slide toward censorship.
Critics also see the moves as another indication of what they believe is a trend toward overprotecting our youth. College students aren't kids, they're young adults who shouldn't be coddled and shielded from ugly truths, they argue. And while most do acknowledge that post-traumatic stress disorder is a serious condition, they contend such policies would do little to help sufferers while creating a chilling effect on important academic work and possibly even exposing schools to increased liability.
Some of the trigger-warning proponents have given their critics plenty of ammunition.
Oberlin College opened itself to scathing mockery with a list of proposed guidelines that call for trigger warnings for "anything that might cause trauma. Be aware of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism and other issues of privilege and oppression. Realize that all forms of violence are traumatic."
(Cissexism is discrimination against transgender and/or transsexual people. Ableism is discrimination against people with disabilities.)
Oberlin is now reworking the guidelines after receiving objections from professors about the long list of "isms."
To be fair, such policies shouldn't be dismissed out of hand. Indeed, we'd all do well to better understand and become more attuned to the effects of violence and prejudice throughout history and which continue in our society today. Students with backgrounds of traumatic experiences should be treated with compassion, and their needs accommodated in every practical way possible.
What's more, educators should receive the message loud and clear that it's unacceptable for them to present prejudiced opinions and intolerant views to their students. Based on my own experience, I'd say that such inappropriate behavior goes unchecked far too often. Both of my sons — as well as many of my friends' children — have sat in classrooms here in Newport-Mesa where teachers have made appallingly anti-gay comments with impunity. They've also heard ethnic and sexual slurs from some coaches.
That's not right, and administrators need to be held to a high standard for setting a tone of inclusivity and respect for all. Instead it's often the case that students fail to speak up because they fear retribution in the form of lower grades or disciplinary actions.
The college students who are now advocating trigger warnings should be given a chance to explain their views and argue their cases. They're not wrong in wanting greater sensitivity to the backgrounds of a diverse student population.
Nevertheless, when it comes to adopting specific policies, we must tread cautiously and beware the potential for unintended consequences. The very policies meant to encourage sensitivity could just as easily dampen a teacher's ability to provoke the kind of rich thought and profound learning that comes from studying difficult, controversial and even painful material. After all, violence and bigotry are fed by ignorance.
The study of history can be a bloody business, but should we limit exposure to graphic images of slavery or the Holocaust? Should we shy away from important works of literature because they deal with acts of violence against women or children? Do we avoid material that contains information referencing elitism and intolerance?
Of course not. They should be presented with context and discussion, in an attempt to enhance our understanding of the human condition. Distressing as some material might be, a greater good can be achieved through confronting, analyzing and seeking to improve upon that which makes us uncomfortable.
Supporters of trigger warnings might not be asking for curriculum changes, just for advisories that caution students about the potential for disturbing information. But if the end result is a tendency to sanitize the courses college students take — to whitewash the halls in which young people are meant to broaden their knowledge and deepen their insight about the world we live in — then that would be an unfortunate step backward for education.
PATRICE APODACA is a former Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She lives in Newport Beach.