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Wednesday February 1st

Finding the fine line between trigger warnings and academic freedom

In previous months, these words have been tightly wound up and tied with a bow. A package deal of sorts, stemming from more than a year of intense race-relation debates, sexual assault scandals and national conversations about academic freedom.

This semester, a first-year seminar, English 72: “Literature of 9/11,” initiated both discussion and arguments at UNC about students’ dissatisfaction with what their course materials expose them to.

And a survey released last week by the Association of American Universities found that 12.9 percent of UNC survey participants have experienced at least one behavior considered sexual assault, meaning even more students on campus might want trigger warnings.

The national conversation about overprotecting students manifested itself in several well-known forms. The Atlantic article titled “The Coddling of the American Mind” was both lauded and harshly criticized for its argument that students are demanding protection from ideas they don’t like. In contrast, The New York Times article “Why I Use Trigger Warnings” said trigger warnings are as routine as an extra line in an email.

Here lies the fine line: An increasingly popular argument states trigger warnings are the beginning or continuation of university administrators slowly taking away professors’, and even students’, academic freedom, and hence, authors like Greg Lukianoff, who wrote The Atlantic’s piece, argue that college students are becoming increasingly sensitive to controversial topics.

Two opposing views

UNC professor Lois Boynton said there is a difference between a student having a PTSD-like reaction to material brought up in class and a student just being uncomfortable with what a professor talks about.

In her media ethics class, she’s considering what she calls a content statement.

“The two concepts have been joined together and may or may not need to be,” she said. “Some may equate PTSD reactions with ‘I just don’t like talking about this topic.’ That’s where the distinction needs to be made.”

Lukianoff calls it a “recurrence of past trauma” but argues students are becoming more sensitive to subject matter and microaggressions, usually defined as words or actions that seem harmless but are still taken as offensive or violent.

He claims this “new climate is slowly becoming institutionalized,” and university administrations, like the University of California system, are taking notice. In the 2014-15 school year, leaders in that system implemented training with examples of microaggressions, such as “America is the land of opportunity” and “I believe the most qualified person should get the job.”

Eugene Volokh, a UCLA law professor in that system, said that even if a university is right about a certain issue, how would we know if we never discussed that topic?

“The common thread that I see at UC is trying to suppress certain ideas, not by explicit punishment, but by condemning them as racists, sexists, anti-Semitic,” he said.

Lukianoff said trigger warnings are another way for university administrations to control and even censor what professors choose to include in their courses.

“The advocates of trigger warnings often like to claim that they are not interested in excluding difficult material from class, rather just warning people in advance,” he said. “But one of the only recorded attempts to mandate trigger warnings, which took place at Oberlin College, was very explicit about the fact that potentially triggering material should be avoided all together.”

Boynton said that in the case of using trigger warnings in her courses, she’d make sure students knew that the material was still his or her responsibility, and it wouldn’t keep her from covering certain topics.

“It’s the marketplace of ideas. All speech should have a place, and people have the rational ability to figure out is it true or not true, do I agree or not agree with it,” Boynton said. “The value is it reinforces why you disagree.”

Coddling or protection?

Garrett Ivey, a UNC senior who said he’s a survivor of sexual assault, said trigger warnings aren’t about just being uncomfortable and aren’t put in place to keep students from hearing things they don’t like. Instead, they should keep students from being in positions where they could have a panic-like reaction, he said.

“It’s about having a visceral reaction where you’re literally incapable of functioning,” Ivey said.

Like Ivey, Manne said in The New York Times article that “triggered reactions can be intense and unpleasant, and may overtake our consciousness, as with a flashback experienced by a war veteran.”

Ivey said he understands the argument that students not being exposed to difficult subjects keeps them from being prepared for real-world experiences but thinks censorship isn’t necessarily a problem.

“But in an environment where it can be controlled, it’s better to err on the side of caution,” Ivey said. “And if it’s censorship to water down your message, then so what?”

Yet Lukianoff, Boynton and Ivey agree on one thing: Trigger warnings sit on the fine line of academic freedom and understanding PTSD.



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