Student Affairs

Trigger Warnings: Paramount or Pandering

Artwork By Jesse Thomas


In a time where the tension between the politically correct progressives and conservatives is at a high, one issue that may not immediately come to mind is trigger warnings. So, what even are trigger warnings? Are they just a meme, an overused joke of how sensitive and wrapped up in cotton wool our society has become? Or are these warnings legitimate tools that are essential for allowing those who have experienced trauma to avoid further distress by being prepared for or choosing to not engage with something potentially emotionally or mentally detrimental.

Monash has become the first University in Australia to implement a “trigger warnings” policy. This involves a “pilot program” of 15 of Monash’s course outlines to contain warnings of potentially emotionally distressing content. The topics of this content ranging from the discussion of sexual assault, violence, domestic abuse, child abuse, eating disorders, self-harm, suicide and the list goes on. Although this program is seen by many as progressive, to others this initiative is seen as unnecessary and even harmful. Trigger warnings are nothing new or innovative, originating on Internet forums and communities to warn mostly people with post-traumatic-stress disorder about potentially harmful content.  These warnings give people the choice whether to engage or not with material that could be distressing.

A mere warning to help those who struggle or have experienced trauma feel safe doesn’t sound completely irrational and outrageous, right? Well apparently is does, according to many giving backlash against this motion. Those against this implementation, have the sentiment that “life is potentially inevitably, [and] regularly emotionally distressing, “as stated by Newscastle University associate professor, Marguerite Johnson. To her and many others in opposition to the movement, having warnings before traumatic materials means that universities and educators are simply not preparing students for the real world. There are no trigger warnings in “real everyday life” and if students can’t cope with these issues cropping up in course material, it will just make it worse for them when they come into contact with these issues spontaneously through unfiltered experiences in life outside the classroom. Additionally, there are fears of censorship and the loss of freedom of speech due to “triggering” controversial materials being hidden away from students, or having the option of opting out of these topics, discouraging freedom of inquiry and expression, and discussion about controversial topics.

These reasons seem well meaning, however if “trigger warnings” did have the potential to destroy, censor and hide all intellectual and educational nuance as we know it, why has a similar warning system been widely accepted and non-controversial for decades? We have “warnings” before TV shows and movies in the form of advisory ratings, from G to PG all the way to R 18+. Advisory warnings are important in making sure media that contains potentially inappropriate topics (sexual themes, nudity, violence etc.) does not get consumed by those too young or who would otherwise prefer not to. These warnings are an accepted part of our culture, so why is it so hard and even offensive to accept similar warnings before classes or readings, a brief “advisory” rating that means no more than an MA 15+ rating stating “coarse language, parental guidance recommended.”

At the end of the day, whether you agree with trigger warnings or not, you have to stop and think; do they really affect you? Just a sentence or two at the start of a reading for your unit or a few words of warning from a lecturer before they dive into a class. Trigger warnings do not equate to censorship or selective teaching, to stem the flow of information and education to youths, and stop the promotion of discussion and debate. Rather, their sole purpose is merely to serve as a polite “hey you might not want to read/hear this if…” or “look away/prepare yourself for this topic”, a simple quick heads-up. Trigger warnings are not censorship, to pander or coddle easily offended millennials, but to allow individuals to have a choice in the material they engage with, to decide the best course of action for their own personal mental or emotional health, not yours.

Joanne Fong

The author Joanne Fong

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