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Emory Professor: Triggers Warnings Don’t Help Students Who Have Experienced Trauma

Mike Ma
Mike Ma
TOM CICCOTTA

Writing for The Hill this week, Emory University Professor Dabney P. Evans argued that students don’t benefit from trigger warnings.

Dabney P. Evans, an associate professor of public health at Emory University, commented on the growing trend of trigger warnings in a column for The Hill this week. The column, which was titled “Trigger warnings shouldn’t be a thing in the classroom or elsewhere,” expanded upon recent condemnations of the trigger warning trend.

Like therapy, the classroom is a place for exploration and growth; inquiry and debate are at the heart of academia. For many universities trigger warnings represent a direct threat to freedom of expression. In 2015, the University of Chicago issued its statement on free expression, “Debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong – headed…to engage in such debate and deliberation in an effective and responsible manner is an essential part of the University’s educational mission.” To date 35 universities have adopted these principles.

The classroom isn’t the only place where we are meant to learn. So is life. And that is where the hard work of crucial and even triggering conversation lives. Stigmatizing and silencing discussions about sexual violence doesn’t change the fact that 1 in 3 women and 1 in 6 men have experienced it; talking about it and others sensitive issues like suicide are important steps toward addressing these problems.

In July, Breitbart News reported on a study by a group of Harvard psychologists who revealed that trigger warnings actually increase stress in those that are meant to be protected by the practice.

Participants in the trigger warning group believed themselves and people in general to be more emotionally vulnerable if they were to experience trauma. Participants receiving warnings reported greater anxiety in response to reading potentially distressing passages, but only if they believed that words can cause harm. Warnings did not affect participants’ implicit self-identification as vulnerable, or subsequent anxiety response to less distressing content.

“Trigger warnings may inadvertently undermine some aspects of emotional resilience,” the researchers wrote, a conclusion similar to that of Professor Dabney P. Evans.

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