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Time to Draw the Line in the Sand on Trigger Warnings

The first thing to note in this context is that PTSD is extremely rare, even among trauma victims.

· 5 min read
Time to Draw the Line in the Sand on Trigger Warnings

The arguments around trigger warnings tend to relate either to psychology or cultural politics.

Starting with the science, advocates argue that trigger warnings are important for protecting trauma victims from episodes of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and anxiety provoking material. The case that kicked the movement off was a rape victim triggered by a class discussion of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

The first thing to note in this context is that PTSD is extremely rare, even among trauma victims. As Harvard psychology professor Richard McNally recently explained in the New York Times:

Epidemiological studies show that many people are exposed to trauma in their lives, and most have transient stress symptoms. But only a minority fails to recover, thereby developing PTSD. Students with PTSD are those mostly likely to have adverse emotional reactions to curricular material, not those with trauma histories whose acute stress responses have dissipated.

Given this knowledge, it seems relevant to consider how many people exposed to material with trigger warnings are likely to have PTSD, how frequently reading said material would trigger PTSD, and how severe these episodes would be. Is the harm averted by trigger warnings greater than the benefits of not having them?

For conciseness, I will mention only one argument in favour of a more raucous university environment: anti-fragility (for more arguments, see Psychology Professor Jonathan Haidt’s YouTube lecture on Coddling-U versus Strengthening-U). Bone is anti-fragile — if you treat it gently, it will get brittle and break; you need to pressure it. Human psychology is the same. People who are not exposed to triggers and challenges develop into anxiety- and depression-prone individuals.

Perhaps more importantly from a harm minimisation perspective, it turns out that avoidance of triggers is counter-therapeutic. Consider the following from Fleurkens et al’s study of sexual trauma victims:

Avoidance is a maladaptive control strategy… trauma-focused treatments stress the role of avoidance in the maintenance of PTSD…Prolonged exposure to safe but anxiety-provoking trauma-related stimuli is considered a treatment of choice for PTSD.

I can’t think of a much better example of ‘safe but anxiety-provoking trauma-related stimuli’ than reading Ovid in a class of literature majors.

There is an important counterargument to be made here, namely, you do not give someone psychotherapy without their consent. Yet this surely applies to trigger warnings, not their absence. For hundreds of years universities, like most of society, were sans trigger warning until someone thought they were necessary for the psychological health of some students. It is trigger warnings that are the non-consensual psychotherapy.

A compromise solution with regards trigger warnings might be for universities to send you a letter explaining that everything at university might be triggering, as Chicago recently did. If you attend anyway, then you have given consent. The language of Chicago’s letter was chest-thumping, but it seems an otherwise sensible policy, even if it does take the onus off students to be adults and research what they’re about to spend thousands of dollars on.

Another recent initiative in this space is to rebrand trigger warnings as content warnings. This is ostensibly to avoid stereotyping those who need such warnings as any different to the mainstream public. The argument goes that content warnings appear on a range of media, notably the nightly news when it broadcasts scenes of horror, like warzones and car accidents.

This is a rather facile line of argument. The controversy around trigger warnings has never been about the potential for material in general to provoke an unpleasant reaction. It was always about the breadth of content to which advocates wanted to apply the label.

For starters, there is an important difference between a description and an image. Ovid’s Metamorphoses is a text. There would be greater grounds for it to carry a content warning if the rape of Europa was re-enacted on screen. Broadsheet newspapers haven’t carried content warnings even when reporting on genocide.

The Ever-Expanding Definition of Trauma
In diluting the word’s meaning mental health professionals are creating a generation of victims.

Second, advocates would see trigger warnings applied to a huge range of categories that have never carried content warnings and are far from common causes of significant distress. These include texts about colonialism, eugenics, Nazi history, sex (even consensual!), verbal abuse, ‘corpses, skulls and bones’, needles, -isms, ‘dismissal of lived experience’ (does that include anything using statistics to controvert anecdotal evidence?), vomit, pregnancy and slimy things, among others. It is fallacious to suggest warnings should be applied to these things because we apply them to scenes of the maimed being carried from earthquake rubble.

That the costs of such trigger warnings outweigh the benefits is a liberal argument grounded in classical utilitarianism. This moral paradigm argues that social justice is whatever arrangement maximises total welfare, which is derived by adding up the utility of each individual.

Trigger warning advocates are usually not utilitarian. This is where the cultural politics comes in.

Advocates are instead typically operating what public choice theorists call a Rawlsian social welfare function, which is in some ways a formal expression of Marxist doctrine. They define ‘justice’ as the maximisation of the utility of the worst-off person in society, even if it means disproportionately reducing the utility of everyone else.

To a Rawlsian, no matter how much utility is lost by the ‘privileged’ students at university who don’t have PTSD and can stomach reading about pregnancy, it doesn’t outweigh the utility gained by the few ‘oppressed’ students who benefit from trigger warnings, however marginally.

Classical utilitarianism and Rawlsian/Marxist paradigms are irreconcilable. So whether trigger warnings preponderate will ultimately depend on the values of students, and whether universities can specialise to cater to diverse consumer groups.

Such catering is already happening in America, notably at Bowdoin College of Sombrero-party fame, but can’t happen in many other countries because their university markets are small and mostly public. Moderates who value the free flow of ideas thus need to make their preferences known if they want to avoid condom wrappers carrying a content warning.

A version of this article was originally published in Woroni, the student newspaper of The Australian National University.

Mark Fabian

Mark Fabian is a doctoral candidate in economics at the Crawford School for Public Policy, The Australian National University. He blogs at

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