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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Warnings for safety, not sensitivity

<ir="ltr">I hadn’t thought at all about trigger warnings before I got to Carleton. In high school, we would read whatever was put in front of us, and there usually weren’t a lot of problems. Yes, there was discomfort in some of the books we read in English.

My senior year, we were informed that there was a parent who had protested the use of The House on Mango Street in a freshman English classroom. This struck me as odd and wrong; the teacher in charge of the class certainly had the right to decide what curriculum they would follow, and the parents were protesting something that they didn’t understand. I believed, and still believe, that it’s good and even necessary to feel discomfort in learning environments.

At my high school, the majority of us came from privileged backgrounds, and reading texts about lives that were different from ours allowed us to try and understand what other paths lives could take, what other experiences people had. The parents protested the book because it was “offensive,” and because one parent had a problem with it, the book was no longer allowed to be taught in that classroom. The voices of the characters, and their very real life circumstances were banned from our school because they made someone feel uncomfortable.

The scenario at my high school is what many people think of when they hear the phrase “trigger warnings:” some censorship of material that could be offensive to some people. The word “offensive” is so broad and unclear. People think that trigger warnings are there because people don’t want to have certain conversations and that they restrict the rights of professors to have facilitated discussions about topics within classes.

This is not the case. Trigger warnings, or, as I prefer to refer to them, content warnings, are there to actually facilitate conversations. The reason they are called trigger warnings in the first place is because a “trigger” is a term used to refer to something that could cause a flashback episode for someone suffering from PTSD. Therefore, content warnings are about mental health. But this main aspect of the conversation on content warnings often gets swept under the rug because mental health is too “taboo” to talk about. We’d rather make this an argument about the First Amendment than address the real human concern of mental health.

In Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s article “The Coddling of the American Mind,” they argue that trigger warnings prevent people from healing from their “anxiety disorders” suggesting that people are just avoiding “the things they fear.” They suggest Pavlov’s exposure therapy as a way to “return to normalcy.” They give the example of an elevator as a phobia someone might have, stemming from a time they were stuck in an elevator and had a panic attack. Gradually re-exposing oneself to elevators may help conquer this phobia, starting with viewing an elevator from a distance one day, then moving a few steps closer the next, until the person can ride in an elevator once again. This is a valid approach to treating phobias. But the key problem with their suggestion lies is just that: the approach is only valid to treating phobias. The re-exposure tactic is not valid for survivors of war or sexual harassment or abuse of any kind. I would never advocate that survivors of rape view their rapist from a distance, then get close and closer until they can stand next to them again. That’s not healing, that’s numbing oneself to the very real event that happened.

We need to realize that content warnings are there to have discussions, but also to help healing and mental health. We need to make it the student’s choice to decide whether or not they can handle analyzing a rape scene in English class if they have experience with sexual assault in the past. It is never up to the professor to decide what is best for the student’s mental health. I believe we should experience discomfort, study new ideas and perspectives, and learn from each other, but that should never come at the cost of your mental health. Take care of yourself. Advocate for yourself. You can and should learn, and content warnings help us learn in a way that makes discussion about important topics and taking care of one’s mental health possible.

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