Trigger Warnings Part 3: You don’t have to call it a trigger warning

Remember how, almost a year ago, I critiqued “The Coddling of the American Mind,” but said it had some good points I’d come back to in a later post?  Well, it’s later.

The article touches on the idea that warning someone about a trigger might actually make it more likely for them to be triggered by it, and describes the idea that someone would be triggered by specific content as “fortune telling:”

Burns defines fortune-telling as “anticipat[ing] that things will turn out badly” and feeling “convinced that your prediction is an already-established fact.” Leahy, Holland, and McGinn define it as “predict[ing] the future negatively” or seeing potential danger in an everyday situation. The recent spread of demands for trigger warnings on reading assignments with provocative content is an example of fortune-telling.

There’s a certain amount of reasonableness to this.  Having negative expectations isn’t always the most helpful of thought patterns, and part of treatment for anxiety and depression is trying to challenge those negative expectations.  Also, the nocebo effect is a real thing. Believing that something will harm you can actually cause harm. You can get sick by being exposed to something completely harmless, because you believe it will hurt you.  The mind is a weird and complex thing.

So, yes, there’s a certain amount of risk in providing trigger warnings.  You might stress someone out about content that they would’ve handled fine if you hadn’t told them.  And it might encourage overall negativity.

But the nocebo effect exists in lots of other situations, and the response to that is not to hide important information from people. Trumpeting the dangers of gluten can actually spark a nocebo reaction where people feel ill when they consume it (or think they do). But that doesn’t mean you get rid of ingredient labels all together so people will “toughen up.”  For one thing, there are people with celiac and wheat allergies who will get horribly sick and might actually die. But for another, even someone with a gluten issue that’s completely in their mind, totally a nocebo effect, still has the right to decide what they want to put in their body, and no one should try to trick them into eating something that they don’t want to.  Likewise, you shouldn’t deliberately avoid mentioning that a reading contains a graphic rape scene, because you think students should have to grapple with it.  Yes, maybe someone avoids the reading who could have read it without harm, but that should be their decision to make.  (As a side note, providing a trigger warning doesn’t automatically mean excusing a student from doing that reading.  There are some situations where legal disability accommodations or being a decent person would require it, but in and of itself, it’s just information.)

So, what happens if you provide the same information, but don’t call it a trigger warning.  Put a little blurb about each reading in the syllabus that includes the basic premise and theme and makes note of any sensitive subject matter. It’s not a trigger warning, so it should reduce the nocebo effect, but it still gives students the same information.  And students with mental health issues can then use that information as they see fit.

Going back to what I said earlier about informed consent, to me, giving students a heads up about potentially harmful material isn’t coddling them–it’s treating them like adults by giving them the information they need to make decisions.