Every August, I know one of my students will say something that makes everyone cringe. Someone else will get their feelings hurt. A couple of teachers will stick their foot in their mouths. My best anecdote is about the Korean student who announced in class, “My penis might be small, but my brain is large.”

Some close contenders:

“Why do fat people always complain so much about lingerie ads?”

“I’m so tired of Chinese students using broken English in the dining hall.”

“I mean, maybe it wasn’t about your race. Maybe you just didn’t try hard enough.”

And I know I’m going to walk past a few protests. I teach at a school with a fairly political student body. Religious groups also show up several times a year. One of them even used me as an example of “what passes for a college professor these days. Look at how she’s dressed.”

“Pants,” I said. “I’m wearing pants.”

A heated debate over Barbie once erupted in my class a few years ago. What started as a simple discussion about gender marketing turned into an exchange of borderline insults. About two thirds of my class couldn’t believe the other third thought Mattel was using “solid advertising strategies” and wasn’t guilty of promoting unhealthy beauty standards to adolescent girls. Some of them expressed anger with me when I pointed out that Barbie was based on a German sex doll—a legit but little known historical fact.

Things turned worse when the smartest girl in the class called the most superficial one an idiot. Everyone fell silent. I called for a short bathroom break. Thankfully, things didn’t escalate further. We all agreed to forgive and forget, and I had a margarita for lunch.

The Barbie incident taught me that professors can’t always anticipate what’s going to inflame students. However, there are some safe bets: sexuality, gender, rape, pornography, race, immigration. Also, toys apparently.

Trigger warnings aren’t exactly news to professors, despite the debates over them in recent years. Yet the University of Chicago made a gutsy move last week by issuing such a public statement declining to support them in its greeting letter to freshmen. The letter states, in fact, that “we do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings’. . .and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.” I especially like their use of scare quotes. Why didn’t they include a photograph of someone’s middle finger for good measure?

Supporters praise this decision, saying it will reinforce academic freedom and prepare students for the real world. They cite instances when universities like DePaul have had to cancel public speaker visits—including Ben Shapiro and later Milo Yiannopoulos. Apparently trigger warnings are a leftist tool to silence the conservative minority.

To be honest, I disagree with both Shapiro and Yiannopoulos on politics and gender, and find their views highly flawed. And yet, they’re well-known. So all the more reason to let them come and speak. Even if I can’t get a word in during such events, I can attend and then write about it later. That’s what I did as an undergraduate. I only ask that universities invite a diverse range of views. And, you know, don’t invite Klan members.

Critics of the Chicago letter raise good points, however. As Lindsay Holmes writes, trigger warnings help students with mental and emotional issues, as well as those who’ve suffered trauma. The benefits aren’t hard to see. Given statistics on sexual assault on college campuses, there’s a good chance I’m teaching at least one rape victim this year. It’s also not uncommon to have students considering abortion. I don’t see it as stifling my free speech to let them know up front if we plan to talk about those topics, and to give them an opt-out.

As Kate Mann writes, “exposing students to triggering material without warning seems more akin to occasionally throwing a spider at an arachnophobe.”

I’ve learned the hard way that trigger warnings are a good idea. The Barbie class wasn’t my last lesson. A girl once called home to her parents, describing me as “depraved,” for showing clips from a movie that featured a man’s naked ass.

I know firsthand how a sudden turn into a personal topic can make someone anxious. When subjects like mental illness or family relationships came up in college, I’d grow quiet as my mind drifted toward raw and recent memories of my mom’s incarcerations, the time she chased me out of the house because she thought I was a clone, the time she tried to push my dad down a flight of stairs. Even today, at parties, I don’t like it when people put me on the spot with questions about my family.

Here’s the bottom line with trigger warnings: They don’t coddle people. They’re not meant for sheltered little white girls and boys. They’re meant for people who’ve had a rough time, the ones who fought in the wars we’re debating, the ones who’ve actually been raped, the ones who live through the statistics their professors cite every day.

So if my university wants to create some safe places where students can play with clay and lie on pillows, that’s fine with me. That’s not the same as avoiding important subjects. It doesn’t mean we back down from challenging issues. In fact, safe spaces wouldn’t be the stupidest thing my college has done with budget money. That would be the truckload of stuffed mascots, our football coach, and hundreds of dollars on pens that don’t work.

I’ve been using trigger warnings more and more over the years. I just haven’t always called them that. I think I’ve usually employed the term heads up. Generally, it’s good practice to warn your students before discussing controversial or sensitive subject matter.

In fact, trigger warnings may help students who’ve had more sheltered lives, as well as the roughened ones. They’re 18-22, after all. I’ve had students from rural areas who:

  1. Never met an African-American or Asian-American person before college.
  2. Thought Americans and Europeans were the only people who had smartphones.
  3. Didn’t know what Catholicism was.
  4. Had never heard of The Holocaust before, none of it.
  5. Regarded evolution as the idea that “we came from chimpanzees.”

The average student arrives on campus thinking that debate and argument are either things to be won, or to be avoided at all costs. Professors like me, who work with first-year students a lot, have the responsibility of easing them into a healthy culture of debate. So confronting Holocaust Denial or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may not serve as the best starting point.

Let’s perhaps begin with Facebook. Good, bad, or in-between?

True: Some students may use a trigger warning as an excuse to avoid hearing others’ opinions. These days, many adults simply want to live inside an echo chamber.

Admittedly, I’m snarky on Twitter. I make fun of Trump, and I also joke about the NRA and conservative politicians. Likewise, I let conservative tweeters have their fun bashing Clinton and lampooning liberal views. It’s only fair.

One time, someone posted a meme that read: If a zombie apocalypse happened in real life, liberals would demand everyone defer to their dietary preferences for human flesh. I almost retorted. I wanted to say something like, “You idiot, being mindful of Celiac Disease has nothing to do with preferences!” But I didn’t, because doing that would make me a hypocrite.

Triggering is often a two-way street. Recently, a troll called me a “disgusting cunt” for tweeting that Ryan Lochte deserved to face charges for filing a false police report. He then accused me of being “anti-white” and asked me something like, “What music do you listen to at night when you cut your evil white flesh out of guilt and remorse?”

This is what trolls do best. They try and trigger people. Instead of getting into it, I tweeted back, “Adele, usually.”

He wrote back, “Typical.” End of exchange.

I probably could’ve reported this jerk for hate speech, but to little effect. Doing that wouldn’t change his mind about anything. In fact, it would probably just reinforce his views.

I’d like for most of my students to develop a thick skin. We’ll need it for the tough national conversations our generation will have about gun violence, abortions, student debt, immigration, and climate change. Simply put, I think our culture has reached a stage where we may not have the luxury of ignoring or censoring people who use triggering language.

These days, the people we need to argue with are learning that they can use violent and offensive language to frighten their opponents and “win” debates. Their reasoning: The ferocity, or irreverence, of your argument now counts as evidence. We shouldn’t sink to that level, but we can’t be scared of it anymore, either. We live in a trigger happy culture where expressing hate and offending your opponents has become almost stylish. I still think that hate speech cannot be tolerated, and that those who use it are subject to bans from public forums—especially anyone who makes direct threats against another person. But I think the more resilient we are against such verbal attacks, the better.

So the question of trigger warnings isn’t simple. We want our students to reach a point in their intellectual development that they don’t need them anymore. However, we can’t simply deny them havens from toxic rhetoric, or expect them to arrive on campus with thick skins and open minds. Universities do owe their students emotional as well as physical safety. If nothing else, we owe them the effort. We owe them a promise not to trivialize their discomfort.


Featured image: Miscellany News via Flickr