Trigger warnings, universities and 1984

The concept of warning a person to an imminent (or future) danger to their physical or mental wellbeing is hardly innovative. BBC news bulletins often warn of footage that some viewers may find distressing. Shakespeare’s soothsayer told Julius Caesar ‘Beware the ides of March’.

But BBC Radio 4 recently spoke to Michael Greaney, an English literature lecturer at Lancaster University, who had been approached by the student body to debate whether trigger warnings should be introduced for their set texts. The University seminar has always been the epitome of colourful debate and forwarding thinking research, all the while students have been at the forefront of social activism. Soon are set to collide.

Trigger Warning

The purpose of this ‘trigger warning’, also called content notes, is to warn readers that texts contain descriptions of sexual violence, depression, suicide, eating disorders – that may trigger symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in persons who have experienced one of these issues. Guidelines on the Geek Feminism Wiki suggest that these warnings should be given sufficiently in advance to allow for people to make self-care arrangements and delivered in sessions where alternative – less sensitive – criteria are being discussed.

More extreme proponents of the caution appear to suggest that nearly all situations have the ability to cause distress. Consensual sex, obesity, childbirth, and any type of discriminatory attitude have all been proposed as subjects that need sirens and flashing lights before a person should read about them.

Feminist Blogs

The trend was born of feminist blogs, quickly finding an audience on Twitter and Tumblr. has been posting articles containing the phrase since around 2012; ‘make-up for the morning after (trigger warning)’ – meaning how to cover domestic assault injuries with cosmetics. Yet Buzzfeed reports that the trend goes back much further, finding evidence of content warnings in a July 2003 post: ‘what type of self-mutilation are you?’.In 2008 Feministe officially introduced trigger warnings following feedback from members.  

Today, online writers are regarded as inconsiderate if they do not alert readers to problematic content. The internet is a critical support forum for individuals and communities, safe spaces online and in private residences are necessary for protection and self-development. University campuses do not serve quite the same purpose.

Understanding policy

In 2014, Oberlin College in the US state of Ohio published an extensive trigger warning policy in its Sexual Offense Resource Guide. The policy dictated that “anything could be a trigger”, advising professors to “remove triggering material when it does not contribute directly to the course learning goals”. Department members may also “strongly consider developing a policy to make triggering material optional or offering students an alternative assignment using different materials.” 

Marc Blecher, Oberlin’s professor of politics and East Asian studies, rejected the policy, arguing that syllabuses could not afford to be filled with advice and alternative texts. An editorial in The Oberlin Review later wrote: “trigger warnings exist in order to warn readers about sensitive subjects, like sexual violence or war, that could be traumatic to individuals who have had past experiences related to such topics, not to remove these subjects from academic discussion… They do not ‘glorify victimhood’; instead, they validate the life experiences of certain members of our community and allow individuals to make informed decisions.”


I try not to judge a book by its trigger warning, but this is the academic equivalent to the kid who wrote ‘George shoots Lenny’ in the contents page of my school copy of Of Mice and Men (sorry, I hate to exemplify spoilers with spoilers). Michael Greaney admits that if universities tried to omit all the books that contained content that could cause offence we would be left with a handful of texts – “gentle comedies”, he calls them.

The books that society celebrates – The God of Small Things, The Wasp Factory, The Great Gatsby, among others – are lauded because they tackle serious, contemporary and historical issues like incest, child abuse, gender and murder. These issues need to be tackled by future generations and this cannot be done if students are bubble wrapped away from society’s defects.

Reading Lists recommends that children aged 7-8 should be reading Fantastic Mr Fox and there will always be one child that goes home and has nightmares about a gnarly beast or farmer. It is suitable for teachers to warn young students that the book might be a bit scary, but avoiding that fear goes no way to combatting it. Literature is a method to introduce distressing material in a safe environment. There is a real danger that generations will be raised protected from authors like Roald Dahl and Michael Morpurgo if the highest level of education begins to discard the distressing material that is not essential.

Mental Health

This is not to deny that mental health disease is becoming one of the world’s largest killers. Figures collected by the Campaign Against Living Mentally prove that suicide is the biggest cause of death among men under 45. Mental health charity Mind reports that 3 in every 100 people are affected by PTSD.

According to RapeCrisis 20 per cent of women aged 16-59 have experienced sexual violence since the age of 16. Parliamentary debates on mental health are notoriously ill attended and funds are being increasingly stretched. Professor Richard McNally, Harvard’s trauma expert, told Radio 4 that lab tests do prove that the level of stress a victim experiences normally increases when they are forced to read their own encounters in first person prose.

But he also wrote in Pacific Standard that “avoidance reinforced PTSD. Conversely, systematic exposure to triggers and the memories they provoke is the most effective means of overcoming the disorder”. This is corroborated by Professor Metin Basoglu’s interview with The Daily Telegraph; “The media should actually – quite the contrary… Instead of encouraging a culture of avoidance, they should be encouraging exposure… Avoidance means helplessness and helplessness depression.”

Author Roxane Gay wrote in The Rumpus in 2012, “it all seems so futile, so impotent and, at times, belittling. When I see trigger warnings, I think, ‘How dare you presume what I need to be protected from”. Explaining that the triggers for her own rape – “when I see men who look like him or his friends… When I’m having sex and my wrists are unexpectedly pinned over my head” – are far removed from the literature that she reads. Anxiety can be provoked by a smell in a friend’s house, the direction of the wind, the sound of shoes on a marble floor. It will never be truly possible to account for every trigger and traumatic experience.

A Form of Narcissism?

Frank Furedi, emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Kent, has argued that trigger warnings are a form of narcissism, a means to assert self-importance. It seems that the purpose of these warnings has gone beyond a genuine consideration for personal wellbeing and has turned into the war cries of social justice warriors.

It is like wearing a Green Peace badge or going on an anti-war demonstration, another way to demonstrate that you are a considerate human being. Those, like me, who speak out against the trigger warning system are not summarising that rape victims should have The Lovely Bones shoved down their throat and be told to get on with it. But that University is a place where students should be expected to be offended, distressed and challenged by difficult concepts.

Classrooms are not safe spaces. Even where something is written to deliberately insult, that should be upheld as a bastion of freedom of expression.

Student Protest

The protests against the Vietnam war in countless American and European cities demonstrates the potential power of student activism. On 3rd July 1999, 4,000 people protested outside the US Embassy in London, including 2,000 students involved with the Youth For Peace in Vietnam movement. President Nixon cited the protests as one of the reasons for the withdrawal of American troops in 1973. So students have traditionally sought to protect the marginalised, disenfranchised and oppressed. But implementing this trigger warning system is too far a protection, and this conflicts with the freedoms that University propagates.

In January vigils were held across the world to revere the murdered satirists at Charlie Hebdo who caricatured the prophet, Muhammed. “Je suis Charlie” meant, for many, that people could not be silenced. Then Cardiff University Women’s Society tried to have Germaine Greer pulled as a speaker for saying that transgender women aren’t real women and students of Brunel University staged a walkout during a speech by controversial columnist Katie Hopkins.

No-platform policies and trigger warnings are often tied up in the same agenda of creating safe spaces that are free from discrimination and harmful rhetoric. These University ‘safe spaces’ leave many words and topics unmentionable. It is surprising that the word trigger, with connotations of gun violence, has not also been pulled from the dictionary.

Inflicting Damage

These warnings are also damaging to the one, singular, principle objective of feminism – gender equality. Domestic violence – usually male/female – is highlighted as a cause for concern, yet intra-male violence is often not. This hierarchy of violence undermines some of the suffering outside of trigger warning categories that proponents of equality are trying to correct.  

What’s more, the intended subjects of the caution – often women, LGBT, minority identities, and the mentally ill – have historically been portrayed as “the other”. Triggers warnings serve to marginalise those groups by singling out their ordeals as especially traumatising and making “the other” a self-sustaining label.

This is reiterated by Jill Filipovic in The Guardian: “There’s a reinforcement of the toxic messages young women have gotten our entire lives: that we’re inherently vulnerable.”

Students should never feel like they are unable to approach their University for guidance and support in matters of mental health. But they should not expect the University to be their guardian.

“It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words.” – George Orwell, 1984.

Do you agree that Trigger Warnings at University are damaging or do you believe they are a necessity? Share your thoughts on in the comments below or tweet us @KettleMag