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In Defense of Trigger Warnings

By Harold H. Klapper, Crimson Opinion Writer
Harold H. Klapper ’25, a Crimson Editorial editor, is an Economics and Philosophy double concentrator in Eliot House.

Asking a college student their opinion on trigger warnings is a quick litmus test for their views on the shifting norms in academia and in classrooms. In my experience, many proponents of trigger warnings believe discomforting texts deserve less attention, and in classes where they must be read, special attention must be paid to the mental health of students. Those in opposition claim that content warnings exemplify the “coddling of the American mind” and the younger generations’ unwillingness to grapple with unsavory ideas. Yet this dichotomy need not exist: If we alter our understanding of trigger warnings, we will find that they are perfectly compatible with an intellectually challenging and contentious academic environment.

There aren’t extensive amounts of peer-reviewed studies on the psychological effects of trigger warnings, but there are some. Benjamin W. Bellet, a Harvard graduate student of psychology, has published two papers on content warnings in the past couple of years. His first study used participants with no history of trauma or PTSD. Roughly half of the participants in the study received a trigger warning before reading a disturbing literary passage, while the control group forged ahead with no such warning. Bellet found that trigger warnings had no significant effect on anxiety levels except for increasing anxiety among participants who had a “strong belief that words could harm them.” A second study used similar methods with participants who had experienced trauma or suffered from PTSD. Again, participants who received trigger warnings were no less anxious than their counterparts without.

Immediately after Bellet published his first findings, some commentators were quick to overstate the results. For some later commentators, Bellet’s second study contained enough evidence to condemn trigger warnings as a pseudoscientific overreach on college campuses. However, the results of the studies themselves should not be surprising. It would be an oddity if trigger warnings reduced anxiety; they are warnings, after all, not an antidote to psychologically distressing texts and images. These attacks on trigger warnings miss their true purpose: to create autonomy for students who have experienced trauma.

Trigger warnings give students the option to avoid texts they might find too difficult to critically engage with. For extreme levels of trauma, this shouldn’t be controversial. Students with personal connections to sexual assault and suicide deserve warnings and the option to disengage with texts that discuss or illustrate these topics.

As with all useful tools, the use of trigger warnings can become excessive. Just this month, the University of Aberdeen in Scotland came under fire for posting a trigger warning before a ballet performance; the university warned students about the violent death of a puppet. Beyond spoiling the plot of the show, this frivolous misuse of trigger warnings detracts from the important and necessary work they do for students suffering from trauma. Such illegitimate use of content warnings justly opens the floodgates of criticism and risks transforming a tool for traumatized students into a political baton.

Many attacks on trigger warnings do not stem from a disregard for students who have PTSD or related disorders; they stem from what are, in my opinion, very real concerns of sensitivity on college campuses. In 2016, Currier House removed a Housing Day video that contained a parody of then-presidential candidate Donald J. Trump. Although the video was initially approved by Currier’s Faculty Deans, several students complained that the inclusion of Donald Trump — even a satirical blonde-wigged version of him — was offensive. The video made no mention of Trump’s political views. A town hall was called, and a new Housing Day video was made. The saga, with its clear overreaction, speaks to the concerning culture of catastrophization at Harvard.

It is important that we do not tie up trigger warnings in arguments about what content should be allowed on campus. I am a firm believer in reading difficult texts and analyzing upsetting images, so long as they serve an educational purpose. Last month, I visited Yad Vashem in Israel, one of the world’s largest Holocaust museums. The photos I saw deeply disturbed me; I found it difficult to think of anything else for the next couple of days. Yet the unsettling experience was transformational. The expression “never again” is commonly used to describe the lessons learned from the Holocaust. As decades pass, the phrase naturally loses its emotional salience. The images at Yad Vashem, unlike statistics and idioms, are deeply affecting. To understand certain parts of history, it takes being disturbed.

Any inspiring college education must include texts that offend modern norms. Engaging with uncomfortable, perhaps even evil, ideas is the only way to affirm our moral progress. Harvard — for better or for worse — is educating future political and thought leaders of the world. Many graduates of the College will have to make heavy and wide-ranging decisions. The real world is not curated for emotional stability. As such, a drive to engage with difficult material in the classroom should be a cornerstone of pedagogy at Harvard.

Sensitivity may be rising in tandem with trigger warnings on college campuses, but it remains important not to conflate the two. Trigger warnings serve to protect the autonomy of students with histories of trauma. It would be a mistake to abandon them because of a few errant examples of overreach. We have to affirm a culture of reading and discussing difficult works, with trigger warnings serving as a tool for this end, rather than an obstacle.

Harold H. Klapper ’25, a Crimson Editorial editor, is an Economics and Philosophy double concentrator in Eliot House.

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