To review, trigger warnings have been used — on college campuses in particular — to inform people ahead of time that what they're about to read or view may cause distress. On campus, they've gone hand in hand with the belief of many students — particularly left-wing activists — that they have a right to not be offended. As a result, controversial viewpoints very often have been squelched.
But a new Harvard study — yes, Harvard — for the "Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry" has concluded that trigger warnings actually "increase peoples' perceived emotional vulnerability to trauma" and "increase anxiety to written material perceived as harmful."
The trio of psychology faculty members behind the study randomly assigned online participants to receive or not receive trigger warnings prior to reading literary passages that varied in potentially disturbing content.
What were the results?
The study found that participants in the trigger warning group believed they — and people in general — were more emotionally vulnerable if they were to experience trauma and reported greater anxiety over reading potentially distressing passages. But the latter was the case "only if they believed that words can cause harm."
In addition, the sample included only non-traumatized participants, the study said, adding that "observed effects may differ for a traumatized population."
The study concluded that trigger warnings may "inadvertently undermine some aspects of emotional resilience," but that more research is needed — particularly within college communities and among those with trauma histories.
What have other folks of note said about trigger warnings and safe spaces?
Fortunately, not everybody is on board with coddling students and leaving them ill-prepared for life outside of paradise:
- Everett Piper, president of Oklahoma Wesleyan University, penned a viral, unapologetic essay in which he told his often offended students that their school is "not a day care."
- Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg denounced campus “safe spaces” and urged students at the University of Michigan to welcome exposure to “challenging and uncomfortable ideas” during a 2016 commencement address.
- Liberal activist and frequent presidential candidate Ralph Nader called trigger warnings “absurd," adding that today's male students are “far too sensitive because they’ve never been in a draft. They’ve never had a sergeant say, ‘Hit the ground and do 50 push-ups, and I don’t care if there’s mud there.'”
- Jay Ellison, dean of students at the University of Chicago, wrote a letter to incoming freshmen last year saying they wouldn't be insulated from ideas or permitted to restrict the speech of other students. He did the same thing the year before, saying “we do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”
Here's what Harvard law professor emeritus Alan Dershowitz has to say about the issue: