The Volokh Conspiracy

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Trigger Warning for 1984 at the University of Northampton


Daily Mail (UK) (Chris Hastings) reports:

[S]taff at the University of Northampton have issued a trigger warning for George Orwell's novel on the grounds that it contains 'explicit material' which some students may find 'offensive and upsetting'.

The advice [was] revealed following a Freedom of Information request by The Mail on Sunday….

[I]t is one of several literary works which have been flagged up to students at Northampton who are studying a module called Identity Under Construction. They are warned that the module 'addresses challenging issues related to violence, gender, sexuality, class, race, abuses, sexual abuse, political ideas and offensive language'….

I think if individual faculty members want to warn students about particular books this way, they should be free to do so. And I actually support warning students generally about this—preferably in orientation, but perhaps even at the start of a class syllabus—precisely to remind them that studying the human experience at a university necessarily involves confronting the dark sides of humanity.

But I personally think it's a mistake to offer such book-by-book advice, precisely because it reinforces the presupposition that students in university literature, history, anthropology, law, etc. classes should by default expect nothing offensive, upsetting, or explicit, and are thus entitled to be warned as to departures from this norm. The history of humanity has been in large part the history of tyranny, mass murder, slavery, rape, racism, sexist oppression, and much more. (Thankfully, it hasn't been only that, but many serious accounts, real or fictional, will include the evil as well as the good.)

Adults who study humanity should recognize that this is so. They should be prepared to deal with it at all times in their studies. Indeed, the more they want to fight such evils, the more they should be ready to deal with it without the need for trigger warnings or other supposed protections. And the institutions tasked with educating such adults ought to seek to inculcate such a perspective, as part of their educational function.

Empirical evidence apparently also suggests that trigger warnings are largely ineffective for preventing student upset, see Mevagh Sanson et al., Trigger Warnings Are Trivially Helpful at Reducing Negative Affect, Intrusive Thoughts, and Avoidance, 7 Clinical Psychol. Sci. 778 (2019), and may indeed be counterproductive: They may "cause small adverse side effects," Payton J. Jones et al., Helping or Harming? The Effect of Trigger Warnings on Individuals With Trauma Histories, 8 Clinical Psychol. Sci. 905 (2020), such as by increasing "risk for developing PTSD in the event of trauma, and disability-related stigma around trauma survivors," and "increas[ing] immediate anxiety response for a subset of individuals whose beliefs predispose them to such a response." Benjamin W. Bellet et al., Trigger Warning: Empirical Evidence Ahead, 61 J. Behav. Therapy & Experimental Psychiatry 134, 140 (2018). But to the extent the empirical debate on that subject is unsettled, I think they are generally unsound in universities, at least when it comes to work-by-work or class-session-by-class-session warnings.