Examining the Controversy: Trigger Warnings in Higher Education


In an age marked by increased awareness of emotional well-being and mental health, the discourse surrounding trigger warnings has emerged as a complex and contentious issue within the realm of higher education. Trigger warnings, which serve as advance content advisories alerting individuals to potentially distressing material, have provoked passionate arguments both for and against their incorporation into academic settings. While these warnings intend to foster a safe environment for students, the question remains: do they truly achieve this goal? This essay undertakes a comprehensive exploration of the debate surrounding trigger warnings, drawing insights from the assigned articles, to present a nuanced argument against their use in higher education.

Defining Trigger Warnings: Purpose and Principles

Soraya Chemaly encapsulates the essence of trigger warnings as content warnings that preface media containing graphic, distressing, or triggering material that may evoke adverse reactions, such as anxiety, panic attacks, or flashbacks (Chemaly, 481). The rationale behind trigger warnings lies in the desire to cultivate safe spaces for students, particularly those with trauma histories or mental health concerns. However, a more profound understanding emerges when one scrutinizes the potential implications and unintended consequences that trigger warnings might introduce.

A Threat to Academic Freedom and Intellectual Exploration

One of the most robust contentions against trigger warnings lies in their perceived threat to academic freedom and the vibrant exchange of ideas that are fundamental to higher education. Sophie Downes argues that trigger warnings inherently oppose the values of free speech and academic freedom, which lie at the heart of university environments (Downes, 473). By allowing students to opt out of potentially discomforting content, institutions risk sanitizing the academic experience, depriving students of the opportunity to grapple with diverse viewpoints and develop critical thinking skills.

Jennifer Medina further underscores this sentiment by highlighting the intrinsic value of teaching challenging or controversial material. She emphasizes that such content serves as a catalyst for critical analysis, debate, and growth, often at the cost of some degree of discomfort (Medina, 477). Thus, while fostering safe environments is crucial, intellectual growth and the development of resilience should not be compromised. A balanced approach is essential, one that promotes both psychological well-being and the fortification of intellectual capacities.

The Erosion of Trigger Warning Effectiveness

Another facet of the trigger warning debate pertains to their potential overuse and consequent dilution of their effectiveness. The Patterns for College Writing Casebook raises the alarm that excessive exposure to trigger warnings may result in their inability to adequately signal genuinely distressing content (Patterns for College Writing Casebook, 463). The proliferation of trigger warnings could inadvertently lead to desensitization, rendering these warnings less potent when they are truly needed.

Furthermore, a paradox arises concerning the potential stigmatization of mental health issues. Chemaly astutely notes that the categorization propagated by trigger warnings—those with diagnosed PTSD and those without—could perpetuate the stigmatization of mental health concerns (Chemaly, 484). The very intention of safeguarding emotional well-being could inadvertently lead to a climate where seeking help or support for mental health concerns becomes associated with vulnerability or weakness.

Balancing Safety and Intellectual Nourishment

In summation, while the motivation behind trigger warnings is laudable, the complexities of their implementation in higher education warrant careful deliberation. As Jennifer Medina emphasizes, the ultimate objective of education is to foster critical thinking and intellectual growth, not merely to provide comfort (Medina, 479). Thus, the question of how to navigate this intricate terrain—where emotional well-being and intellectual exploration intersect—becomes paramount.

Crafting a solution requires striking a harmonious equilibrium between ensuring safety and nurturing intellectual growth. Universities must remain committed to upholding the principles of academic freedom and open dialogue, where diverse perspectives can be explored and understood. A comprehensive approach involves incorporating diverse strategies, including introducing students to tools for managing emotional responses to challenging material. This empowers students to engage meaningfully with discomforting content, rather than merely sidestepping it.

Moreover, the conversation on trigger warnings ought to extend beyond their mere presence or absence. Campuses should foster an environment that encourages discussion about the necessity, limitations, and potential drawbacks of trigger warnings. Such discourse cultivates a culture of understanding and enables students to make informed decisions about their engagement with sensitive content.


In conclusion, the debate over trigger warnings in higher education encapsulates the delicate balance between protecting emotional well-being and preserving the core values of academia. While trigger warnings may serve as a well-intentioned measure to safeguard vulnerable students, their implementation bears complexities that extend beyond surface-level considerations. The aspiration to create safe spaces should be harmoniously interwoven with the aspiration to foster critical thinking, resilience, and intellectual exploration.

The debate surrounding trigger warnings is not binary; it is a spectrum of perspectives and considerations. As institutions grapple with this issue, it is crucial to emphasize open dialogue, robust engagement with diverse viewpoints, and the development of coping mechanisms that empower students to navigate discomfort. This approach upholds the principles of academic freedom and intellectual growth while acknowledging the importance of psychological well-being. Ultimately, the goal is to create an educational environment where students can engage thoughtfully with the world’s complexities, equipped with the skills and perspectives necessary for personal, academic, and societal success.


Chemaly, Soraya. “What’s Really Important about ‘Trigger Warnings’.” Patterns for College Writing: A Rhetorical Reader and Guide, edited by Laurie G. Kirszner and Stephen R. Mandell, 2nd ed., Bedford/St. Martin, 2018, pp. 481-484.

Downes, Sophie. “Trigger Warnings, Safe Spaces, and Free Speech, Too.” Patterns for College Writing: A Rhetorical Reader and Guide, edited by Laurie G. Kirszner and Stephen R. Mandell, 2nd ed., Bedford/St. Martin, 2018, pp. 472-474.

Medina, Jennifer. “Warning: The Literary Canon Could Make Students Squirm.” Patterns for College Writing: A Rhetorical Reader and Guide, edited by Laurie G. Kirszner and Stephen R. Mandell, 2nd ed., Bedford/St. Martin, 2018, pp. 476-479.

Patterns for College Writing Casebook – “Do College Students Need Trigger Warnings?” Patterns for College Writing: A Rhetorical Reader and Guide, edited by Laurie G. Kirszner and Stephen R. Mandell, 2nd ed., Bedford/St. Martin, 2018, pp. 462-463.

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