THE JOYFUL REDUCTION OF UNCERTAINTY

Before You Get Too Excited About That Trigger Warning Study…

STUDY: Trigger Warnings Are Harmful To College Students says the Daily Wire, describing a study whose participants’ average age was 37 and which did not measure harm.

You can find the study involved here. A group of Harvard scientists asked 370 people on Mechanical Turk to read some disturbing passages – for example, a graphic murder scene from Crime and Punishment. Half the participants received the following trigger warning before the passage:

TRIGGER WARNING: The passage you are about to read contains disturbing content and may trigger an anxiety response, especially in those who have a history of trauma

Participants were asked to rate their anxiety before and after reading the passages. After they had finished, they were asked to fill out a bunch of questionnaires that measured their opinions about how trauma worked.

The researchers found that people who received the trigger warning were 5% more likely to endorse the idea that they were vulnerable to trauma, and also 5% more likely to endorse the belief that people with trauma could suffer persistent negative effects from that trauma. There were some subgroup and moderation analyses which I ignore for the usual reasons.

What might be some causes for concern with this study?

First, Stuart Ritchie points out that the results are statistically weak. Most of the results have p-values around 0.05, and are not corrected for multiple testing. That means it hasn’t been formally proven whether or not the results are random chance. I don’t like haggling over whether something is just above or just below a significance threshold. But if you do like that kind of haggling, this study doesn’t survive it very well.

Second, the participants’ average age is 37. There’s nothing wrong with 37 year olds, but everyone who says that they’ve proven trigger warnings don’t work on college students either hasn’t read the study, or is adding their editorial opinion.

Third, trigger warnings are aimed at people with trauma. The authors excluded people with trauma from the study. The study was not an attempt to test whether trigger warnings could ever be beneficial, nor to quantify the net (benefit minus harm). It just tested whether there might be nonzero harm. Even if trigger warnings harm healthy people, they might still help the people with trauma who they are intended to help.

But a much more fundamental concern is that this isn’t measuring anything we care about.

Some people read a trigger warning saying disturbing passages could cause emotional harm. Then they read a disturbing passage. Then, on a test, they were slightly more likely to agree with the statement that disturbing passages could cause emotional harm. Of note, they did not claim that they themselves had been harmed or triggered by the passage. In fact they specifically denied this; there was no difference in anxiety between the two groups after reading the passage. They just agreed, in a theoretical sense, that trauma was harmful.

The most boring possible explanation is that if you gave someone a passage saying “TRIGGER WARNING: SOME SNAKES BEAR LIVE YOUNG”, then made them read a book about torture-murder, then asked them whether some snakes could bear live young, they would be more likely to answer yes. Reading the statement about snakes doesn’t cause the snakes to bear young. It just convinces the reader of it.

In the same way, the trigger warning tells respondents that the passage can cause anxiety, and links this to a history of trauma. It doesn’t say outright that passage –> anxiety –> permanent trauma, but it kind of implies it. It certainly primes any pre-existing beliefs along those lines that participants might have heard. And it potentially induces demand effects – which Mechanical Turk is infamous for – by letting you know what the experimenters are thinking.

For this to result in actual harm, two extra things would have to happen.

First, an effect that happens a split second after you read a trigger warning stating something would have to stick around to become a permanent part of the psyche. This is definitely not how these things work. For example, in 2016 I made a group of people read either an essay warning of the dangers of artificial intelligence, or a control essay that didn’t mention the topic. Then I surveyed people on how dangerous they thought AI was. Unsurprisingly, the people who read the control essay were less worried. The effect stuck around after a month on another survey that explicitly reminded them of the essay they’d read, but when I covertly surveyed them again two years later, there was no difference in their beliefs. They’d forgotten the whole thing. If you think about it, both the experimental group and the control group in this new experiment must have seen lots of trigger warnings throughout their lives. The effects of all of them paled in comparison to having seen a trigger warning a minute earlier in the same experiment. Hours or days later, the effect of this one will fade away too.

(This is the kind of measurement I’ve condemned as streetlight psychology, after the story of the drunk who searched for his keys under a streetlight – not because he’d lost them there but because that was where it was easy to look. It’s been used before to study eg video game violence. If you make someone play a violent video game and then test them for violentness a few minutes later while the adrenaline is still in their system, they’ll be more violent. But this is little different from showing that people are sad minutes after they watch a sad movie. If you’re asking whether years of playing a video game will cause violent criminality (or years of watching sad movies will cause clinical depression), that’s a very different question. The trigger warning study has the same problem.)

But even if reading a trigger warning has lasting effects on your beliefs about trauma, we still have to prove that those beliefs cause you to be more easily traumatized. One of the effects in the study was people saying they believed they were more easily traumatized – but how much do we trust that belief? If I made people read a passage saying that cancer was very common and even healthy people often got it, I could certainly make them express a belief that they were more worried about and susceptible to cancer. But would that belief cause cancer? I realize some psychological constructs do work like this, where believing that you’re vulnerable makes you more vulnerable. But a lot of psychological constructs also don’t work like this; it can’t be voodoo all the way down.

So, in conclusion: this study tests an accommodation meant to prevent trauma in college students on a population of non-traumatized 30 and 40-somethings. It finds it does not increase anxiety, but may change beliefs about trauma in the very short term, although those changes do not meet strict standards of statistical significance. It is currently unclear whether those changed beliefs last longer than a few minutes, or whether they have any effect on anything.

I think about this Steven Kaas tweet a lot:

A lot of people care a lot about whether trigger warnings are helpful or harmful in college courses. This study answers (or “answers”) the superficially similar-sounding question of whether they affect certain beliefs about trauma in the very short term. I won’t say it has literally zero bearing on the original question, but if you treat it as having any specific positive amount of bearing, you’re probably wrong.

I don’t want to blame the researchers, who are experts in the psychology of trauma and doing important work. This isn’t an awful study from the perspective of psychologists trying to start a research program that might be suggestive of something after a decade or two. It is an awful study in the context of anything that anybody might report upon or use to form an opinion. Blaming the reporting would be better, but the right-wing sources that exaggerated this are still light-years behind the left in their ability to falsify and weaponize study results and I would feel bad saying anything that seemed to single them out as particularly culpable. Let’s just agree everything is terrible all the time.

As for trigger warnings themselves, I’ll repeat my own proposal: have them, but put them in the Boring Legalese Page of the book, the one where they list the ISBN number and the city where the publishing company has its headquarters and something something Library Of Congress. Make them matter-of-fact, like “Content: rape, murder, ethnic slurs”. You don’t need to embellish with “AND THEREFORE YOU SHOULD BE ANXIOUS” or “SO PEOPLE WITH A TRAUMA HISTORY SHOULD BEWARE” the way this experiment’s warning did. Just put a list of things people might want to know about on the Boring Legalese Page page, and let the couple percent of people with a trauma history check it before reading if they want. If it’s a worksheet or syllabus, put it in small print somewhere consistent. If your opposition to (or support for) trigger warnings is any more impassioned than that, I am suspicious of your motives and think maybe you should sit this one out.

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242 Responses to Before You Get Too Excited About That Trigger Warning Study…

  1. eqdw says:

    We’ve had boring, mundane legalese-style trigger warnings for a long time now. They’re called hashtags. Or just tags, if you trace them back far enough.

    THIS ENTRY WAS POSTED IN UNCATEGORIZED AND TAGGED PSYCHOLOGY, RACE/GENDER/ETC, STUDIES.

    I don’t understand why trigger warnings have to be this whole separate thing when we’ve had them all along

    • C_B says:

      Many of the things people want trigger warnings on (books, college courses, TV shows, syllabuses) currently do not support a robust tagging system.

      Reforming society to allow for tagging everything might or might not be a desirable project, but it is a different project from putting trigger warnings on things, and if putting trigger warnings on things is a good idea, the tagging project shouldn’t be a prerequisite.

      • Nate the Albatross says:

        My television shows are on Netflix and Crunchyroll and include a significant amount of information including age ratings, summaries, etc. College course descriptions and syllabi are online. Books have significant reviews on Amazon.

        I think all of the things that you mention are already able to be tagged and sorted we just aren’t tailoring it to trigger warnings consistently.

      • Deiseach says:

        Do television stations no longer use advisory warnings (the short announcements that “the following programme/broadcast/film contains material of such-and-such a nature and sensitive viewers may wish to advise it/viewer discretion is advised”)? It’s been so long since I’ve watched the gogglebox I have no idea if these have fallen out of fashion, but they were around since the 70s in one form or another.

        • eqdw says:

          South park still does it, so I imagine regular tv does too

        • HeelBearCub says:

          Still do.

          • mdet says:

            Which is why I want to find everyone who is trumpeting this study as “proof that trigger warnings actually harm people!” and ask them “Do you think movie ratings (PG, PG-13, R) are helpful, or should we get rid of them? Do you think it’s a good or a bad idea that we label movies that contain gore and disturbing images?”. The purported study result was ridiculous on its face.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            The head line is ridiculous. Really, any lay use of the study is likely ridiculous.

            From the study, here is what the study authors concluded:

            Results
            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.

            Limitations
            The sample included only non-traumatized participants; the observed effects may differ for a traumatized population.

            Conclusions
            Trigger warnings may inadvertently undermine some aspects of emotional resilience. Further research is needed on the generalizability of our findings, especially to collegiate populations and to those with trauma histories.

            So the authors basically say “Hey, in non traumatized populations, we find them more aware of the potential for trauma after this.”

            To me this looks like the first step in a series of experiments that might inform how trigger warnings may interact deleteriously with the health of vulnerable individuals.

            I do think that, to the extent they aren’t controlling for the idea that trigger warnings simply make people more aware of the idea that content can induce deleterious mental experience it may be poorly designed (or it least the applicability of the results may be limited).

            But I don’t think it’s helpful to have hyper-ventilating reaction of the forms:
            – Check mate libtards!
            – Nah, ridiculous purported “study” you shit gibbon!

            That kind of stuff is just misuse of what are extremely preliminary and tentative results of a single study.

          • cuke says:

            I found I landed more on the side of ridiculous purported “study” you shit gibbon, so I appreciate your moderation.

            Their conclusion as far as I can tell is in no way supported by their research: “Trigger warnings may inadvertently undermine some aspects of emotional resilience.”

            They describe three ways they operationalized “resilience” — essentially by assessing whether respondents perceived themselves or others in that moment as more “vulnerable” or not. Resilience to me isn’t about perceptions of oneself or others in the moment. Its about actual ability to adapt to adversity, which has more to do with traits and life circumstances; it’s about capacity to rally internal and external resources across the long haul.

            I made this comment below but I think it got caught by the filter, sorry if it shows up later. The authors also say that their research shows that content warnings could lead to “soft stigma” against trauma survivors because survivors could be seen as less able to function in some respects. To me, this is true on its face — some trauma survivors are indeed less able to function in some respects, which is why content warnings may be helpful to their functioning (albeit in a modest way).

            To me what this study investigated is more like how non-trauma survivors’ perceptions of traumatized people may be affected by seeing accommodations made for them. Which seems rather like asking non-mobility impaired people how their perceptions are affected by walking past parking spaces designated for disabled people. It doesn’t seem it would tell us anything at all about the usefulness of disabled parking spaces for the people it’s intended for.

            All accommodations are likely to both increase awareness and judgment/stigma around the people being accommodated. Not providing ramps or designated parking spaces nearby for people with mobility restrictions presents other kinds of stigma problems for that group.

            The framing of the study seemed tendentious to me from the start.

          • Nornagest says:

            I want to find everyone who is trumpeting this study […] and ask them “Do you think movie ratings (PG, PG-13, R) are helpful, or should we get rid of them?

            I haven’t been doing any trumpeting, but that’s a bullet I’d be willing to bite. The current movie rating system is probably a net negative: they’re mostly a political concession to parents and historical morality groups, they carry little information, and the self-regulatory regime that comes up with them distorts the film industry in ways that aren’t justified by the information they do carry.

            There’s arguably a role for content notes of some kind, but if we’re going to use them they should be less abstract. As it stands, an “R” could be a light comedy that uses the word “fuck” twice, or it could be Baywatch vs. Predator: Beach Party Bloodbath. And for that I’m paying with a de-facto censorship board. It makes zero sense unless all I care about is whether the movie’s vaguely family-friendly, by the opaque standards of a star-spangled panel of head-patting paternalists all high as a kite on fake authority.

            (I’d prefer they also be non-binding, but that may not be politically feasible, even if binding content restrictions are kinda archaic in an environment where every twelve-year-old can find arbitrarily raunchy, violent, or disgusting stuff on their iPad with five minutes of work.)

          • HeelBearCub says:

            @Nornagest:
            But do you think, say, the content warnings on TV shows (which are much less rigid, and much more about the actual content, containing numerous short descriptors) harm people who merely hear the content warning?

            The harm from the movie rating system is almost entirely around the very few age limits that are also imposed (and the distortion these hard limits then have). It’s not from knowing what the content is.

          • Nornagest says:

            Only minimally in themselves. Some harm’s probably done by having the kind of culture that demands them, and some more’s probably done by the regulatory regimes for those parts of TV that still have any to speak of (broadcast, mostly), but actually reading the letters on the top of the screen would at most be doing some very loose and indirect harm by reinforcing both. And the spoiler problem’s sometimes an issue, though that’s secondary. Anyway, TV’s version definitely beats the MPAA’s.

            I agree with Scott; the study in the OP is garbage. I have my issues with trigger warnings but the mechanism it proposes doesn’t carry water.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            @Nornagest:

            What Scott wrote was:

            This isn’t an awful study from the perspective of psychologists trying to start a research program that might be suggestive of something after a decade or two. It is an awful study in the context of anything that anybody might report upon or use to form an opinion.

            I think this is probably Scott’s actual opinion. I suppose he could be lying about this part, or intend it to actual be insulting to the scientist as “damning with faint praise”, but I don’t think that is the correct reading.

            This is one of the ways, in my opinion, in which Scott’s writing (or thinking) tends to fail. He writes in such a way that the conclusion you just reached and felt perfectly comfortable voicing, the one opposite to the one he stated, the one that broadly denigrates scientists, is the one to which he leads people.

          • Nornagest says:

            If you think OP’s study was designed to kick off a research program over a couple of decades and wasn’t designed to grab headlines (or the equivalent), then I’ve got a bridge to sell you. For one thing, there are headlines, and there isn’t a research program. I probably share the authors’ opinion of outrage culture, but this is clearly chasing buzz, and that’s not a good way to do science no matter what your political persuasions are. The fact that its actual findings are weak and only loosely connected to its nominal conclusions is just icing on the cake.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            @Nornagest:
            It appears that the research is being done by Harvard Professor of Psychology Richard McNally and his doctoral students. He appears to have been doing work specifically on remembered trauma since at least 2003, as he was awarded for his work on such in 2003. Wikipedia says that he is “one of the most cited authors in Psychology and Psychiatry [according to Reuters]”.

            So yes, it looks like a small piece of work in an overall research program aimed generally at anxiety with remembered trauma as a one significant aspect.

            Why did you assume that a) the headlines were generated at the request of the scientists? and b) there was no broader research?

          • quanta413 says:

            I’m not Nornagest but…

            Why did you assume that a) the headlines were generated at the request of the scientists?

            I’ve seen the sausage being made. It’s not that the scientists get to write the headline, but some definitely will take advantage of this sort of thing. Play up conclusions, write ridiculous extrapolations in the discussion section, etc.

            More senior PIs can have an easier time getting away with murder in speculation because they’ll have an easier time getting papers past the editor and then past peer review.

            Also, the title “Trigger warning: Empirical evidence ahead” he gave his paper is not the sort you give a paper you’re using as the tentative basis of a long-term research program. But it’s obviously the sort of title you use to stir the pot and get media attention. The title alone loses a lot of points from me.

            b) there was no broader research?

            I read Nornagest as saying there won’t be broader research about the long term impact of trigger warnings not that the researcher doesn’t do research on anxiety.

            I don’t have access to journals right now, but a quick glance doesn’t find this to be part of a pre-existing research program on trigger warnings or similar things.

            Obviously we don’t know the future, but I’m going to cynically bet that maaaaybe he spins off a few papers in the next 5 years in the topic but we find that 10 years from now there’s been little change. I’d love it if he proved me wrong though and was cynically using the publicity he’d obviously get from the topic and title to gin up hype to help his case for a giant longitudinal study.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            @quanta413:

            That title looks like it’s supposed to be the published paper version of a joke. My understanding was that this is hardly unknown or really even all that unusual?

            I’m also assuming that this is primarily the product of one of the doctoral students, as Bellet is the lead author and not McNally. As lead author, they are first and foremost interested in being published, as that is basically a necessity for getting a research position after completing their degree. The point I was trying to make is that there is ample evidence to indicate this was done in the context of a long term and broad interest by McNally in anxiety and remembered trauma. This might turn into more research on trigger warnings or it might not, but that would likely be on the Bellet’s ability and interest to secure funding for it.

            There is also always the possibility that this is making chicken salad out of chicken shit, and Bellet needed to cobble something together because what he had been working on hadn’t worked out. But that still places this in the context of a broad program of research on anxiety and remembered trauma. Not everything a lab does is going to be fantastic.

          • quanta413 says:

            That title looks like it’s supposed to be the published paper version of a joke. My understanding was that this is hardly unknown or really even all that unusual?

            It’s pretty rare in my field and adjacent ones. Maybe it’s not as rare in this field but I doubt it’s a common choice.

            I’ll respond more later. I think what you say is reasonable, but I think the incentives themselves are wrong and part of correcting that is pointing out when it’s likely to be happening to counterbalance the positive incentives to flood the literature with hyped noise that goes nowhere.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            @quanta413:
            As someone outside of research I obviously have less informed ideas about the subject; although, I am the son of a University professor, and my closest circle of friends has multiple people in research, as well multiple others in medicine (which is frequently research adjacent).

            With all of that throat clearing aside, I agree that some of the incentives in research can be deleterious. The bias against negative results, the requirements to publish, the requirement to self fund, and the further push for research dollars to fund general education at ever increasing levels are some of these. Broadly, however, much of the problems seems to me to stem from the deterioration of the acceptance of basic science as a public good.

            I will be interested in your reply.

          • Nornagest says:

            Quanta’s said most of what I would. But I would have cut it more slack with a less cute title, yes.

          • mdet says:

            To be clear, I meant that the results alleged by the headline were ridiculous, not the results as described by the actual researchers. If reading a trigger warning causes harm in itself, then starting a tv show with “TV-14” is actually an act of mass mental violence. There might be plenty reasons to object to trigger warnings and rating systems, but this doesn’t seem like one of them. And “I have scientific proof that just seeing a brief mention of sex and violence is harmful!” doesn’t even sound like a result the anti-fragility side should feel vindicated by in the first place.

          • quanta413 says:

            @HeelBearCub

            Just so you know I didn’t forget this thread I’ve been thinking about this a lot in spare moments, but I’ve been moving and had a lot of things break so I didn’t get around to setting up internet as fast as I expected.

            Your idea is very interesting though, so I’m going to post more thoughts when OT 108 starts. Broadly speaking, I agree that those are all significant problems, but I don’t see how the problem of public attitudes towards basic science for the last couple of decades causes the others. Funding has been rising or flat for most funding agencies for the last few decades. I found a real cut to the NSF after adjusting for inflation in 2016 when I checked but other recent years were flat or slightly up, while the DOE was up in 2018 by a lot. I didn’t find aggregates across all agencies (which would be a better measure) all the way up until 2017 but I remember checking a couple years ago and finding that funding just kept going up and up in real terms until a little after the 2007 crash when funding stagnated somewhat. There’s also some difficulty with defining what the public attitude is. I doubt the issue breaks top 10 of issues voters care about.

            So broadly, I could see how a causal arrow could exist from “lack of public desire to fund science” to “not ideal scientific behavior”, but it seems to me like something that practically has been around since the NSF got rolling.

            I do think there are problems flowing from “lack of public understanding of science and scientists” to “terrible regulatory policy” though. I also hold somewhat unusual positions on some things though (especially for someone vaguely libertarian); I’m almost willing to endorse vaccination for many serious communicable diseases at gunpoint which is pretty far from how most states have handled the issue. I don’t really consider any exemptions a good policy unless the exemptions are for rare medical conditions that make vaccines dangerous to a person or for groups like the Amish who are willingly mostly de facto segregated from the rest of the population.

            So, the bad and good news is that as far as scientific practice and funding go I think scientists are mostly in control of what is happening. Surely much more in control than most industries are of their own fate. A lot of good things are happening and are mostly scientists’ fault and a lot of bad things are happening and are mostly scientists’ fault.

            But I’ll elaborate in a fresh OT because I think the topic will make for lots of good discussion. Because 5 paragraphs is really more of a footnote.

  2. Aevylmar says:

    I still really want an Official List of Trigger Warnings, looked at and endorsed (if grudgingly) by An Assembly Of Reasonable People. I can look at it, look at my story, mark the ones I’m using on the Boring Legalese Page, and move on. As it is, the question of whether to use them or not (and if so, which ones to use) is politically charged and all answers are potentially offensive to someone. The easiest answer is normally just not to post stories online.

    (And I’d pay money for Scott’s Official List of Trigger Warnings, assuming it’s changed at all from the last time he talked about trigger warnings. Scott may not be perfect, but I think he’s the best substitute I’ve found for An Assembly Of Reasonable People.)

    • kastaka says:

      Archive Of Our Own, a large fanfiction archive site, has probably the closest you’ll get at the moment – they have a short list of standard warnings which were extensively debated by a fairly serious organisation as these things go. Obviously they are designed for fanfiction (e.g. they include ‘major character death’ which might not be so relevant outside the context of ‘here is some extra material for something you’re already emotionally attached to’), but they’re the best starting point I have seen.

      • johan_larson says:

        Another place to start might be the content advisory tags used by various film rating agencies. Here are the ones used in Ontario, Canada:

        https://www.ontariofilmauthority.ca/en/classifications/categories
        (Scroll down to the “Content Advisories” section.)

        I’m having trouble imagining someone who might actually find a “Tobacco Use” content advisory useful.

        • brmic says:

          I’m having trouble imagining someone who might actually find a “Tobacco Use” content advisory useful.

          Parents.
          All else being equal it’s preferable to have ones children view movies in which smoking is not a normal part of life. All else is rarely equal so the utility is indeed limited. Then again, on the one hand there are lots of old films where even the heroes smoke like chimneys everywhere they go, which may be something worth considering even to reasonable people and on the other hand I don’t have a family history of multiple lung cancer deaths, decades of struggle with nicotine addiction etc. but I can see how my perspective might be different if I had. Perhaps even to the point where I’d make a silly rule of ‘no ‘tobacco use’ films under my roof’.

          • albertborrow says:

            I really despise the whole idea of parents controlling their children’s media, probably because that intervention was absent from my life, and yet I didn’t turn into a tobacco-smoking gun-loving molester, or whatever those kinds of people fear. If you can’t, as an intelligent adult, convince your relatively stupid child with talking and good old fashioned persuasion that those things are a bad idea, you might be wrong yourself. And if trigger warnings turn into another MPAA or ESRB, the worst case scenario for me is if it becomes another one of those ways a closed-minded parent can restrict their child’s view of the world.

            I think that’s the worst fear of the gray-tribe associated people as well, who have thrown their hat in the ring against trigger warnings. If there’s something a lot of them agree on, it’s that giving narcissistic parents another tool to help control their children is a bad idea.

          • Jaskologist says:

            Children are shaped far more by imitation than persuasion. Probably adults, too.

          • Douglas Knight says:

            What is the current status of smoking in Indian movies?

            Wikipedia says that it was completely banned, 2005–2009, even in old movies. I didn’t hear about that at the time. I only heard about the 2012 rules that included a textual warning on the scene, which make old and foreign movies at least possible. (sample from article; image search doesn’t bring up other subtitles, but only intertitles) But that article suggests that further change is coming.

          • albertborrow says:

            That’s kind of the point, I think. Whether you’re happy with it or not, ceding your parenting to the television is exactly what it sounds like. Parents who restrict what their child can watch (to an absurd degree, anyway) are trying to have it both ways. I’m not advocating exposing your child in some forty-hour tobacco brainwashing series of movies when they’re four, or something dumb, but I think that by the age a child is capable of genuinely expressing interest in something, it’s probably safer than most think to let them watch it. If a kid is shaped most by imitation, then the people that shape them most are their classmates and peers, and the media they want to watch the most is the same media that everyone near them is watching. Maybe child-rearing-by-popular-vote is a bad idea, but something has to be said for allowing the consensus of the populace to judge whether something is good or bad rather than a silly warning label.

          • Jaskologist says:

            The consensus of the populace has generally been that we should put warning labels on things so it will be easy for parents to filter what their kids view.

          • Jiro says:

            I really despise the whole idea of parents controlling their children’s media, probably because that intervention was absent from my life, and yet I didn’t turn into a tobacco-smoking gun-loving molester, or whatever those kinds of people fear.

            Don’t assume that things that work for high-IQ SSC people who were interested in learning as kids will also work for average people.

          • Mark V Anderson says:

            I mostly agree with albert. I did have some restrictions placed on what I could see when I was a kid, but that was the ’60’s/’70’s, when these were community restrictions and my parents didn’t have to do much to restrict my viewing. With my kids, the only restrictions I put on them was I tried to keep them from watching movies too scary for their age, so they wouldn’t have nightmares.

            It is interesting that my kids showed very little inclination to watch highly violent or sexy movies, which is totally opposite to the kid culture I grew up in. And when they watched such things, they didn’t seem intent on imitating them either.

            By the way, my kids are adopted. I don’t know how smart they are, but both of them had test scores below the 50th percentile on college boards. I don’t think kids have to be particularly smart to be able to process adult shows.

          • deciusbrutus says:

            I think it was Arthur C Clarke, in /Ghost of the Grand Banks/ that discussed that one of the problems with updating old films was that smoking wasn’t so popular anymore.

            I could be wrong about the source, but it almost certainly was a science fiction writer that wrote a paperback that was in the discount section of the used bookstore sometime around 1999, because I remember exactly where I was when I first read the scene where a character decides to excise a scene because it’s not important to the movie and too full of smoke to edit it all out.

          • pdbarnlsey says:

            @deciusbrutus,

            You’re right, it was ghost of grand banks – a weird digression in a book with a number of them IIRC.

            Personally, I’m somewhat triggered by being reminded of snakes bearing live young.

      • Jaskologist says:

        major character death

        That’s not a trigger warning, that’s a spoiler, and should be forbidden!

        • Gazeboist says:

          Spoilers are a lie invented by publishers to sell bad books!

        • Error says:

          They thought of that, sort of. There’s an “Author chose not to use Archive warnings” option, which translates as “Read at your own risk.” I’m pretty sure the intent is to deal with the spoiler problem.

    • SamChevre says:

      A lot of sites with significant sexual content (nffge, fgbevrfbayvar) tag the stories with a fairly standard set of codes for protagonists and content. This and AO3 codes would probably capture 90% of the content that peopel want tagged.

      The problem with “real” triggers (as opposed to triggers that are partly about opposition) is that they are incredibly idiosyncratic–it’s like allergies: tagging the big 8 is certainly very helpful, but people can be allergic to extremely random things too, and no labelling system will be sufficiently complete for everyone. (For example, I knew someone whose reaction to certain propeller planes – only certain ones – was still instantaneous 50 years after being bombed by planes that sounded like that.)

      • albertborrow says:

        You and Kastaka both talked about AO3, but I don’t think looking to them for inspiration is a good idea. For one, aside from ratings (which are movie ratings, basically, same as FFNet) and archive warnings, the other useful warnings aren’t common enough throughout the entire website to be helpful for those problems. The archive warnings cover a lot of bases, but not nearly all of them, and there are typical problems with how the use of them is enforced.

      • deciusbrutus says:

        Sites with erotic content get a lot of benefit from a standard set of codes for content, in a proper database.

        A proper database lets readers filter both for the absence of content they dislike, and the presence of content that they like.

        But suggesting that people be allowed to use trigger warnings as an inclusive filter is of questionable use.

    • Cerastes says:

      Just so long as the list isn’t exclusive, in that it doesn’t forbid warnings on additional topics (which may be counter to it’s purpose). This is because the most useful trigger warnings I’ve seen in courses won’t show up on any standard list for college course material.

      The most important and reasonable “trigger warnings” I’ve personally seen, given my highly idiosyncratic collection of courses I’ve taken and taught, fall into two categories: 1) “This class/seminar will include an appearance/demo with a live [animal which many people are phobic of]”, such as snakes & spiders, particularly large ones, and 2) “This course involves dissection of a human cadaver, including regions which provoke strong emotional responses such as the face and hands,” in various medical anatomy courses for med students and advanced pre-meds.

      Both are pretty unusual, and unlikely to make any “standardized list”, but are also *highly* likely to trigger adverse reactions in a substantial subset of the population. Hence why any list should be non-exclusive.

      • deciusbrutus says:

        “This class involves the presence of a live animal of type: [spider]”
        “This class involves the presence of a dead animal of type: []”
        “This class involves the presence of a human cadaver”
        “This class involves the dissection of a dead animal of type:”
        “This class involves the dissection of a human cadaver”
        “This class involves the slaughter and butchering of a live animal of type: []”
        “This class may involve being present at the execution of a death row inmate”

        I don’t see why those can’t be standard warnings for class content. And I could see those warnings being true of classes being options or requirements for a vet, medical, agricultural inspection, or philosophy of justice program”

    • grendelkhan says:

      Have you seen the list on Does the Dog Die? It’s somewhat resistant against the whole ‘throw everything in there’ because it takes serious effort to fill it out for every movie. (For contrast, see CapAlert, which takes a very different approach, and uses centralized rather than distributed rating to maintain control of their rubric.)

      • Matt M says:

        I love that there is disagreement here. 13 people report no farting in Thor: Ragnarok, but 2 apparently heard one somewhere!

      • antpocalypse says:

        Wow, I had almost completely forgotten about CAP Alert. I extracted many hours of entertainment from it as a teenager. I found it really funny to read such a straight-faced, diligent application of a quantitative instrument that was designed from what seemed like completely alien values. (I really couldn’t empathize with someone who cared whether a movie displayed “Offense to God”, and if I can now, it’s only at a very academic level.)

    • Tenacious D says:

      Instead of a single Official list, I think it would be neat to have a plug-in (for your browser, Kindle, Roku, etc.) that allows you to subscribe to the lists of your choice for ratings/trigger warnings/content notes*. As an author, you could then mark the relevant items on a number of lists (other lists might prefer to do their own review instead of accepting what the author says) and leave it up to your readers which ones to subscribe to.

      *Personally, I find IMDb’s “parents guide” section on each movie to be a useful source if I have questions about content in movies.

  3. idontknow131647093 says:

    This study has the same problems as most other studies in the same field: Will it be rigorously repeated? I dont know. Does the study even support the theory? Possibly, but not strongly.

    If only the average media person applied the skepticism Scott applied in his OP to every study, almost no such studies would ever appear on my screen.

    Edit.

    I will disagree with Scott on 2nd reading. This is a bad study. The fact that he does not think so is a dark omen for the entire field and/or his judgement on studies within this field.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Any reasons it’s bad other than the ones I mentioned?

      • HowardHolmes says:

        My point is totally off the subject, but your question, Scott, is so very relevant that I have to comment. My contention is that the terms good and bad contain no information. There might be more reasons to criticize this study than you mentioned (not saying there are, just that there might be) but “bad” is not something in addition. To label this study as bad gives us zero information about the study (as your question implies). People use good/bad, better/worse, best/worst a lot, but always for some reason other than conveying information.

        • benjdenny says:

          I’m not sure I understand how it’s even possible that using “bad” would convey 0 information. If nothing else, it shows that the User doesn’t like the study – if it’s an individual with fairly known positions(I.E. Scott) this can actually convey sort of a lot of information(As an example, Scott likes studies that answer relevant questions well, are accurately represented in scope and are fairly rigorous in their design and implementation). Bad as stated by Scott usually encompasses a failure in one of those three categories.

          On a more fundamental level, Scott’s question above can’t even be criticized using your stated issue – he’s using bad in the way it’s meant to be used above, as a nebulous concept that needs further explanation. Paraphrased, he asked “I stated a number of specific problems and the reasons why those problems are significant above with a high level of specificity; those problems are why I think this study is overall iffy. Do you have any other specific problems I did not state?”.

          If your position is that that usage of bad is to be avoided, I’m not sure what other words we could use that relay the useful “this thing is negative in some unspecified way, but you probably know what I’m talking about from context” concept in a way that doesn’t require a ton more work/wordcount.

          • HowardHolmes says:

            using “bad”… If nothing else, it shows that the User doesn’t like the study

            The user could say instead “I don’t like the study” which is preferable because it makes it clear he is saying something about herself.

            Bad as stated by Scott usually encompasses a failure in one of those three categories.

            Each of those three categories contains information. “Bad” contains nothing and says nothing additional.

            Scott’s question above can’t even be criticized using your stated issue

            I was not criticizing his question. In fact, I thought his question was brilliant. To me he was saying just what I am saying. He was claiming that he covered everything and that by calling it bad no further information is given. He was calling for further information, not just something meaningless like “bad.”

            If your position is that that usage of bad is to be avoided

            My position is that we use all the words on the good/bad scale for another purpose which has nothing to do with information.

        • alwhite says:

          I find it kind of funny that Scott didn’t use the terms good or bad in his post and only in this comment after someone else used the term bad first. I sense an argument derailment based on misinterpretations of what has been said approaching.

          • HowardHolmes says:

            See per above, I was not criticizing Scott’s use of bad. I was criticizing Idontknow’s use of bad

        • Nick says:

          So Scott’s question is not asking about, say, “reasons to criticize this study [other] than you mentioned”? Because it sure looks like that’s what “bad” means here.

          ETA: Damn ninjas.

          • HowardHolmes says:

            Scott’s use of bad is mocking the other guy’s use of bad. The other guy said the study was bad, but said nothing. Scott recognized this and said, “tell me something. Give me some information.” Don’t just brag about how much better you are than the study.

        • MawBTS says:

          My contention is that the terms good and bad contain no information.

          Sure they do. Qualitatively favourable/disfavourable.

          To label this study as bad gives us zero information about the study (as your question implies).

          Why are you replying to Scott? He’s not the one calling the study bad, idontknow131647093 is.

      • From an earlier comment on twitter about the subject, I’ll add that it didn’t ask the single most important question, which is whether anyone chooses not to expose themselves to content on the basis of trigger warnings. (But the differential attrition very weakly implies that they did.)

        So the most critical thing that trigger warnings might do to be effective, i.e. get those who are sensitive not to expose themselves, was ignored in the study.

      • idontknow131647093 says:

        No, I just think that the reasons you mentioned are present to higher degrees than I initially suspected. For me, the study can’t ethically use the word “trigger warning” in the title or abstract. Its just an example of negative priming (and IIRC priming studies as a whole are generally under attack).

  4. AeXeaz says:

    Huh, your proposal isn’t half bad. My objection to trigger warnings is purely aesthetic, and in that sense the “legalese page” is already a lost cause…

  5. RC-cola-and-a-moon-pie says:

    In fairness to the Daily Wire piece, I believe the author (as opposed to the headline writer) not only does not claim a direct application to college students in the study but actually affirmatively notes the absence of college students and flags it as a limitation on extrapolating to the college context. (I think the study, for whatever it’s worth, purports to mimic the academic setting in certain respects.)

    I think the analysis of the study is a good one, but obviously the failure of this study to bear much on the debate over trigger warnings is not itself any argument for the use of trigger warnings. I know it’s silly even to point that out, but there can be a mild psychological effect of sort of subliminally seeing something like this and having the vague sense that the evidence against the use of trigger warnings is being debunked. Not, I’m sure, for most of the readership here, but for people more generally.

  6. Admin says:

    My primary objection to trigger warnings is that they give people power to decide what categories determines the severity of information, and therefore can be used to indirectly influence what information people pay attention to. It’s plausible that Amazon would force writers to trigger warning certain kinds of content, which be sorted into a certain way by default. I’m not sure about even the Boring Legalese option, because it effectively becomes the ESRB or MPAA for nonfiction and gets into a This Film Is Not Yet Rated issue. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness or anything by Houellebecq would be vastly less read due to sorting of this kind, and I could see the “content warning: misogyny” used to push out science.

    I’ve coined the term negative empathy to describe putting yourself in the shoes of a sadistic, manipulative, unethical or just jerky/bad person. I think this is one situation where negative empathy is important, because your sense of the potential for misuse of trigger warnings is contingent on how much you can imagine them being misused.

    • RC-cola-and-a-moon-pie says:

      Right, the warnings are often defended on the extreme cases like letting a survivor of sexual assault know that a writing describes a graphic rape. And who could oppose that? But (even putting aside the reality that a book is not a movie that rolls along of its own volition and a reader can put the book down if the text starts to get violent without the need for an advance warning) in practice these things creep into far different areas. Some are problematic because they are controversial political topics rather than depictions of violence. (E.g., some proponents might argue for warnings on texts that don’t treat gender or transsexual-related issues in preferred ways.) Some stray into suggestions that offense over ideas, as opposed to personal histories of trauma, can warrant warnings, which I think is wrong and dangerous. Some creep into areas that may genuinely bother some small number of people but that must be weighed against burdening all of society with a multiplicity of small burdens. In this category I’m thinking of an online list of trigger warnings that included things like references to spiders. I don’t doubt that there is some small number of people who are so phobic of spiders that they cannot even read a textual reference to them without suffering discomfort. But if we admit that as requiring affirmative disclosure obligations on everyone writing texts then there is simply no stopping point to absurdly numerous disclaimers for virtually every written work. All this is on top of the pointless invention of a neologism (“trigger”) whose novelty and vagueness seems to invite concept creep even beyond what would otherwise be inevitable with this sort of thing.

      But the biggest concern I have with the use of trigger warnings is the one about suggesting that offense may be something to be avoided, and that the discomfort associated with hearing ideas one disagrees with being suggested to be equivalent to a trauma. We need to encourage students to engage with ideas they find uncomfortable, so to the extent trigger warnings even might occasionally stray into the area of disagreements over ideas I think it carries the risk of a very large negative, outweighing the positive. And given the political and cultural environment of academia these days I am not at all confident that the warnings will not sometimes be used in that way. If we want some sort of notifications of extremely violent texts — beyond what one would ordinarily expect in the context of the course at issue — I’d be willing to talk if it could be definitively cabined to that context.

      • Machine Interface says:

        “the biggest concern I have with the use of trigger warnings is the one about suggesting that offense may be something to be avoided […]. We need to encourage students to engage with ideas they find uncomfortable”

        This is a talking point against trigger warnings that I often hear and consistently fail to understand. Why should offense *not* be avoided when possible, why is it good that students confront themself with material that upsets them? This sounds supsciously like “being miserable builds character”. Papercuts are certainly a life experience, they’re very painful while being perfectly survivable and non-traumatic, and may well teach you a thing or two. I’d still rather not be subjected to them, let alone be expected to deliberatedly seek them for the sake of intellectual betterment.

        If *you* enjoy subjecting yourself to material you deem highly offensive, that’s your prerogative, but for most people life is miserable enough as is without adding a moral duty to intellectually self-harm.

        • Jon Gunnarsson says:

          Engaging with material you strongly disagree with is not self-harm. There might be a cost associated with it, such as feeling offended, but unlike paper cuts, there is also a significant upside, namely learning about different perspectives.

          • deciusbrutus says:

            Consent is key. Choosing to engage with material that you disagree with is not the same thing as someone forcing or tricking you into engaging with material with which you disagree, and choosing to not engage with a subject is very different from being prevented from engaging with it.

            There is a very large moral difference between the two, and I think that the moral difference dwarfs any discussion of other costs and benefits. I acknowledge that there are costs and benefits to the reader, I just think that the magnitude of their sum is much lower than the benefit gained by helping people choose for themself, rather than making them choose with inadequate or inaccurate information or by preventing them from choosing options that are deemed harmful.

        • Baeraad says:

          Yeah, but if we’re talking specifically about students, as the line you quoted did, then the whole point of their current occupation is to better themselves intellectually.

          I am more sympathetic to your argument when it comes to general entertainment, though.

        • RC-cola-and-a-moon-pie says:

          Our society is premised on certain basic ideas, which include the concept of a representative government. In a polity where the people, through their elected representatives, have the right and responsibility to give equal input into governmental decision making, it is the duty of the people to familiarize themselves with arguments of all sorts regardless of any feelings of momentary discomfort at hearing ideas they disagree with. Cocooning oneself in a closed situation where you never hear the other side because it upsets you insulates you from the ability to correct and improve your views and do your duty as a citizen.

          More broadly, it surprises me a lot to hear a full-throated defense of shutting yourself off intellectually to avoid hearing differing opinions. Don’t you want yourself (and students generally) to learn to appreciate novel ideas and not be trained to narrow oneself intellectually by feeding the sense that any discomfort at different opinions is a bad thing to be avoided? Going to the gym can cause short-term pain but it can lead to longer-term health benefits. Should we teach our students that they may want to avoid all physical exercise because it can entail some pain? There’s nothing better than learning to be able to handle different point of view. It’s intrinsic to the educational mission and it is a basic requirement for being a mature adult who can learn and grow intellectually. And the discomfort at hearing ideas you don’t like really goes away with exposure anyway.

          • cuke says:

            Well said.

            I think there’s an important distinction between effort and harm. Pain might show up somewhere in the middle ground between those two. It takes effort to understand novel viewpoints and it takes effort to convey one’s own viewpoint. These kinds of effort may sometimes feel uncomfortable. It’s a good thing when living a life to get comfortable with discomfort. Stress isn’t always a problem to be solved.

            A lot of trauma and anxiety treatment is built around controlled exposure to things that cause distress. In those cases, the “controlled” part is key, and a big part of control is feeling that one has a choice about whether to expose oneself to a particular trigger in any particular moment. So I like Scott’s proposal to make content warnings very neutral, boring, business-like, and unobtrusive. People can seek them out to expand their sense of choice over what they expose themselves to at any given moment, but we aren’t adding a lot of emotional “oh dear” to it.

          • Machine Interface says:

            But all of this is a fictional narrative. Real voters have never been informed – “informed voters” has always been code for “people who vote like me”. Real universities have never produced open-minded, enlightened intellectuals – actual universities are 80% about perpetuating themselves and 20% about imparting some specialist, technical knowledge that doesn’t require any exposure to weird political opinions.

            Curiosity isn’t taught, it’s an innate trait. Curious students are far and few and between, and those will seek out whatever heterodoxy they can learn about. The remaining, vast majority couldn’t care less and just wants to learn the bare minimum to get a passing grade on the final – this has been my constant experience from preschool all the way to university.

            And my experience with both physical exercize and abhorent opinions is that the idea that you get used to it is a myth pertuated by masochists – the 12th month of push ups or the 500th time hearing racist thesis is exactly as unpleasant as the first time – my idea of being an adult is that I actually don’t have to put up with any of this just because other people have decided that being miserable was a moral duty.

          • quanta413 says:

            And my experience with both physical exercize and abhorent opinions is that the idea that you get used to it is a myth pertuated by masochists – the 12th month of push ups or the 500th time hearing racist thesis is exactly as unpleasant as the first time – my idea of being an adult is that I actually don’t have to put up with any of this just because other people have decided that being miserable was a moral duty.

            Interesting. Varies from person to person and thing to thing. I definitely have gotten used to a lot of physically and mentally unpleasant things although the process is sometimes miserable.

            Whether or not I consider making an effort at acclimation depends on the benefits vs costs. If I’m almost never going to run into something, I probably won’t try to reduce my negative response to it even if the negative response is bad for me. If I’m going to run into something all the time or the benefit seems good enough, I’ll try to acclimate and I usually see some progress. But the amount and ease of progress is variable from topic to topic.

        • lvlln says:

          The point of being a student is to learn. Sometimes, that learning is highly specific, but in many colleges in the US, much of the learning is a more general liberal arts/whole person/how to think type. Which includes learning about lots and lots of different ideas, as well as learning how to explore that landscape of ideas. Exploring that landscape necessarily carries the risk of running into ideas that offend you – because, by definition, you don’t know what you’re gonna find when you explore – and as such, having practice running into – and handling – ideas that offend you is an important component of such education.

          Offense is more like muscle pain from lifting weights than like paper cuts. Maybe in some far future scifi utopia, we’ll be able to build muscle without the pain of working out, but for now, that pain is a necessary component of building muscle. If you follow an exercise program that’s sold to you as helping you build muscle, you should expect that it causes you to go through some regular pain.

          Plus, if you’re expecting to go into an environment where you’re regularly harangued by paper cuts while having to maintain decent performance instead of shutting down, having regular practice getting paper cuts beforehand is probably a good idea.

        • albertborrow says:

          Failing to subject yourself to the beliefs of those you find offensive is failing to be sufficiently curious. Sure, you can content yourself with what you know at the moment, informed by your current political beliefs, but if you are wrong and you do not investigate, you will never know any better. It’s also possible to engineer offensiveness into things that don’t need it, just because you dislike the idea of changing your mind, in which case having a strong moral preference for “exposing myself to things I find offensive” is a good way to counteract the natural human tendency to shut yourself into a tribe. As with everything else other people above me have said.

          • Jiro says:

            Failing to subject yourself to the beliefs of those you find offensive is failing to be sufficiently curious.

            This is where negative empathy comes in.

            Think of how the attitude you describe can be weaponized by people who just want to make you miserable. (For instance, Holocaust deniers.)

      • brmic says:

        Same concern as machine interface

        We need to encourage students to engage with ideas they find uncomfortable,

        Was your education impoverished by not forcing you to carefully consider the perspective of cannibals? I guess not and conclude, that the phrase is an attempt to avoid the cost-benefit analysis. To be sure, there is also a notion on the opposite side that anything that potentially upsets someone is therfore of limits, but among reasonable people is usually pretty easy to establish that with time being finte, educational ressources should be spent towards clear goals and as effectively as possible. That should include lots of new ideas and occasionally it can be effective to include uncomfortable ones, but in each case we can’t bypass the need to consider and defend a particular choice, maybe even run an experiment to see whether a concrete uncomfortable idea is actually doing the work it’s supposed to do.

        In my experience, this notion of ‘uncomfortable ideas’ is often an attempt to avoid the work of searching for better materials or better preparing the existing materials. Like, say, a biology teacher saying that she really can’t help it that her sources are full of slurs about the stupidity of Christians, how Christiantiy fought science tooth and nail, the inquisition, and it’s really all part of some super-important context one needs to have to understand cell biology.
        By the same token, gay students are rightly upset if their lit teachers picks a dated text that somewhere casually mentions gays are subhumans that should be stoned to death unless he is then willing to make the lesson about that. This isn’t about uncomfortable ideas, they are aware homophobia is a thing and it used to be much worse. They are upset because their teacher chose a text that casualy denies their humanity without thinking it necessary to check for such offensive material, attempt to remove it, or at the very least warn them about it. Which, to be clear, is simply incredibly rude behaviour on the part of the teacher and ‘we’ve always used this text’ is not a good enough justification.

        • Jon Gunnarsson says:

          If we lived in a society where a significant proportion of the population engaged in canibalism, then it would be quite important to try to carefully understand them. We don’t live in such a society, but we do live in a society where a significant proportion of the population are, say, conservatives, so it would be useful to carefully consider conservative ideas, even if they make some people uncomfortable.

          Your biology example is rather strange. Sources that say that Christians are stupid or that Christianity fought science tooth and nail tend to be bad sources, because those claims are false. Maybe some of these sources have major redeeming features so that we might want to use them after all, but that’s unlikely.

          Your example of a literary text that denigrates gays is disanalogous for two reasons. First, there is a big difference between scientific papers and works of fiction. People expect objectivity and factuality from the former, but not from the latter. And second, the attitudes about gays described in your example are value judgements rather than statements of fact, which further underscores their subjectivity. I should think that gay students would be perfectly able to cope with a work of fiction in which some fictional character expresses strong negative opinions about homosexuality.

          • brmic says:

            I think almost anything goes as long as everyone agrees and/or as long as the trigger is the topic of the discussion. A seminar entitled rape something something shouldn’t need a trigger warning for rape, just like mainstream porn shouldn’t need content warning for nudity. The point of trigger warnings is to warn about the unexpected, the not necessarily obvious.

            I failed to get the point of the biology example across, so let me try again: Religion is irrelevant to cell biology. It absolutely doesn’t matter whether the claims about Christians are true or false. The teacher either needs to remove them (if irrelevant) or be prepared to defend their inclusion in terms of some pedagogical goal which can only be achieved by using these flawed texts.

            I don’t get the digression to scientific papers, what’s your point here?
            The final sentence is anodyne, the problem are in the gaps: Able to cope, yes, but should they always have to be willing to? Do they get to say, not here, not today? ‘Some fictional character’, sure no problem, but what if it’s the hero, who otherwise is flawless and therefore by extension this view is presented as correct as well? Also, again, as repeated above, the point isn’t that they can’t cope, it’s that the teacher has a moral obligation to either have a particular point, or to avoid such stressors or to at least warn them.

        • RC-cola-and-a-moon-pie says:

          I cannot conceive of studying a cannibal society without learning their ideas in a serious way. Can you? What should a professor do with a student who refuses to read and think about the ideas and worldview of a cannibal society because he feels offense at the exercise? This analogy isn’t original with me (and was originally designed to make a different point) but what would you think of an entomologist who refused to study fleas and lice because he found them gross and disturbing?

          • Jiro says:

            I cannot conceive of studying a cannibal society without learning their ideas in a serious way.

            That’s limited in scope, though. It applies when studying a cannibal society, but it doesn’t apply all the time.

            Also, “studying their ideas in a serious way” is a vague term. Even if you are studying a cannibal society, you need to study what their ideas are, but you don’t really need to consider the merits of those ideas.

          • RC-cola-and-a-moon-pie says:

            Thanks, Jiro. Responding to your first point, the discussion is not about whether there are choices to make in subjects of study. Life is short and decisions must be made. The question is whether material relevant to a line of study that has, in fact, been selected for study for whatever reason should be avoided (by means of a warning suggesting that the material might cause problems for the reader). That’s the relevant question for purposes of considering the trigger warning issue I think. I strongly doubt anyone would be foolish enough to think that he could have the time or capacity to expose himself to every idea that is out there (offensive or otherwise). This is a “limited in scope” point as you rightly put it, not an “all the time” point. On your second point, I’m not sure the distinction is relevant to the trigger warning debate. If you agree that the material should be read and considered for any purpose (whether or not in order to entertain the material as a serious intellectual prospect for adoption) I think you’ve already accepted the point that we shouldn’t filter out exposure to ideas that seem unpleasant to us and avoid being exposed to them to avoid the psychic pain of seeing the ideas expressed. In any event, I think the distinction you draw also is too categorical. Any serious engagement with a set of ideas really inherently includes an evaluation of whether it is true or not. If I were to study the worldview of some cannibal culture, part of my engagement would involve assessing its actual merit as a set of claimed true ideas.

          • Eugene Dawn says:

            I cannot conceive of studying a cannibal society without learning their ideas in a serious way. Can you? What should a professor do with a student who refuses to read and think about the ideas and worldview of a cannibal society because he feels offense at the exercise?

            It’s something of a side point, but if you actually tried to get students to engage seriously with the ideas of a society whose practices many find shocking and horrifying, some of the people who think trigger warnings are for wimps who can’t engage with ideas will accuse you of cultural relativism for not roundly condemning ideas that are just obviously inhumane and wrong.

          • RC-cola-and-a-moon-pie says:

            Hey, Eugene. Sorry to extend this aside but I sort of agree with both of Shapiro’s points and I’m trying to figure out the inconsistency. I don’t like trigger warnings and I do feel comfortable making value judgments about topics that I read about. Am I being inconsistent here?

          • ana53294 says:

            From Shapiro’s opinion:

            This is not a mere cultural difference. It’s not a question of viewing skulls as flower-pots versus evidence of human value. It’s the difference between approval of the ritual murder of people up to and including children, and the disapproval of it. That doesn’t justify everything the conquistadors did, of course — they were brutal in different ways. But the Western belief that human beings are made in the image of God forecloses the ritual murder of children. And that is a pretty massive moral advance beyond seeing the slaughter of children as a spiritual good.

            He is refusing to examine the motives the people doing the human sacrifices had. Why did they do this? I don’t think the Aztecs believed it was a good thing to ritually sacrifice people; they probably believed that ritually sacrificing humans, although not good in itself (because it deprived them of useful labour) was good because it placated the gods, or brought rain or whatever. Kinda push the fat guy in front of a wheelbarrow type of utilitarian. Now, if you don’t think that rain depends on human sacrifice, then you will reject the obvious evil.

            But if you genuinely believe that if you don’t ritually sacrifice a human being, thousands of people will die of famine, the choice these people made seems to be more understandable. It was based on the wrong premise, but it has a certain utilitarian subtext to it.

          • Eugene Dawn says:

            It’s a glib point, and there isn’t necessarily a contradiction, more of a tension.

            The point I’m making is that, the argument against trigger warnings presented here (not necessarily Shapiro’s argument, to be clear) is that one needs to take other ideas seriously, and you can’t just refuse to engage with them because you don’t like them–it’s important intellectually and personally to really grapple with the mindset underlying positions that you find alien and even objectionable.

            On the other hand, (some of the times) when a liberal tries to get into the mindset of a society that does something a conservative finds horrifying, this is not regarded as a necessary and important step in trying to understand that society; rather it is dismissed as cultural relativism that can’t tell the difference between good things and bad things–how could anyone think even for a second that taking child sacrifice seriously is reasonable?!

            It seems like the noble obligation to take ideas seriously, even when we disagree with them, (sometimes) disappears when the ideas are ones that conservatives regard as self-evidently absurd.

            If you want to point out that not everyone who makes the first argument also makes the second, and vice-versa, I 100% agree. If you want to point out that the two positions can be made compatible, I 100% agree. If you want to point out that the connection to trigger warnings per se, rather than to the broader idea of extending interpretive charity to an idea, is tenuous, I 100% agree. As I say, it was glib.

            But I do think there’s a little bit of tension between the idea that a college student refusing to read old books because they contain terrible ideas about women needs to learn to judge authors on their own terms, and in context of their society, and the idea that trying to understand the mindset of an Aztec sacrificial victim is just ridiculous liberal guilt.

          • RC-cola-and-a-moon-pie says:

            Got it. Fair point. Thanks.

        • albertborrow says:

          RC-cola-and-a-moon-pie: [We should expose ourselves to views that we find distasteful]

          brmic: [literally objects by stating the fundamental premise of Three Worlds Collide]

          I choose to believe that this was intentional; anyone that believes otherwise can feel free to correct me, because my moral code compels me to expose myself to contrary viewpoints for the sake of objectivity.

        • Nornagest says:

          Was your education impoverished by not forcing you to carefully consider the perspective of cannibals?

          You’ve never taken an anthropology class, have you? The first couple days will usually tell you in great detail exactly why you should consider the perspective of cannibals.

          • Mary says:

            Yet many people live long, full, and useful lives without ever taking an anthropology course.

          • Nornagest says:

            Sure, and I wouldn’t expect most people to. But I would expect most people to run at some point into cultural attitudes they consider reprehensible.

        • MB says:

          “Was your education impoverished by not forcing you to carefully consider the perspective of cannibals?”
          Is it wrong to encourage students to consider the perspective of cannibals? Should anthropologists who study cannibal societies bury their results, never to see the light of day again?

          I chose to take a course in which Marx’s philosophy was discussed and found it useful and interesting. However, shouldn’t Marx and Engels come with a trigger warning?
          The peril of their ideas has been proved repeatedly. Their defamation of Polish people was used in the USSR as a justification for genocidal anti-Polish policies and, more generally, the implementation of their ideas has led to genocide in several other instances.
          Or what about the Bible? It can be used to justify both genocide and slavery. Or what about the Koran? (not going to get into the details here, for obvious reasons).

          Should exposure to such ideas and thinkers be mandatory or should students have a path to graduation that does not include them? If not, on what grounds should students be denied this right and who should take the decision?
          Or is the very idea of applying a trigger warning to them, of putting them in the same category as cannibalism, stigmatizing?
          Maybe there is an obviously correct answer here (just guessing — Marx and the Koran are OK, the Bible is problematic), and even raising the question is offensive.
          But in my opinion it is using cannibalism as an example that’s problematic. It falsely creates the impression of a consensus on this issue that doesn’t exist and is quite remote from the actual use cases that people struggle with.

      • gleamingecho says:

        +1

  7. RavenclawPrefect says:

    One number that seems relevant in this discussion (for which a quick search didn’t turn anything up): How many people actually use trigger warnings, and what fraction thereof are relevant per person? Presumably this varies quite a lot depending on demographic (and correlates well with material that actually uses such warnings), but I don’t feel like I have even rough numbers to go off of here. I can think of a single anecdatum in a person I personally know (a friend of mine read The Broadcast and wished they’d paid attention to the trigger warnings), but I can imagine so many confounding factors and filter bubble effects that I don’t feel like I have any good data on what the expected cost per reader is of including/omitting trigger warnings in different environments (general public / rationalist-adjacent / Tumblr user / etc).

    • Joseph Greenwood says:

      Posting on this comment to give it more visibility. I think this is a really good question and deserves engagement—unfortunately, I have no idea what that rate is. I could run an informal survey of my Facebook friends (or the people here), but there are lots of confounders.

  8. edanm says:

    This is one of those topics where I really feel that I’m hanging out in different circles than some of the other readers on this blog, because other than on this blog, I’ve basically never heard *anyone* talk about trigger warnings, much less care about having them or not. Much less a politically charged discussion to boot.

    Compared to most of my friends here (I live in Israel), I read a *lot* about the US, politics, and of course, rationality-themed things. And I *still* have barely come across this topic.

    So I’m wondering – is this a specifically rationality-blogosphere thing, or an SF thing, or something? (I’m asking completely sincerely, just in case someone thinks otherwise. No judgement or anything – I’d just really like to know).

    • poignardazur says:

      I live in France, and same thing, I mostly hear about trigger warnings from US politics, usually as related to social justice or universities.

      I’m guessing part of that the US are unique in that they both have a large amount of veterans vulnerable to traumatic input, and progressive activists speaking out for them, but there might be any number of other countries that fit these two categories, so I’m not quite sure.

      • johan_larson says:

        I doubt it’s about veterans. I suspect it has more to do with what aspects of society the US left tends to worry about. They worry a lot about identity, discrimination, and respect; they worry less about poverty, inequality, and social mobility.

      • toastengineer says:

        I’m guessing part of that the US are unique in that they both have a large amount of veterans vulnerable to traumatic input, and progressive activists speaking out for them

        No, progressives hate veterans.

        The U.S. is – apparently – unique in having a large political subgroup that realized that if you just keep making more extreme claims of victimhood a lot of people will just keep giving you what you want, plus a lot of kids who got caught up in an internet culture where pretending to have a mental illness is the cool thing to do. (Bear in mind the context of that video; it was made before any of this was a common thing to talk about.)

        • cryptoshill says:

          Progressives don’t hate veterans. They hate red-tribers. The overlap between those groups is just so strong it would be easy for anyone to mistake one for the other. I think this is interesting because even progressives who talk about how much they love vets sometimes have trouble with their tribal animosity towards the Reds.

        • hexane360 says:

          progressives hate veterans

          OT, but if progressives do, then everyone does, because progressives are currently the only sizeable contingent of American politics who have put forward plans to help veterans.

          • Mary says:

            progressives are currently the only sizeable contingent of American politics who have put forward plans to help veterans.

            All the progressive plans I, personally, have heard of to “help” veterans have been obviously the fruit of hatred, starting with the way they operate from the premises that all veterans have been rendered crazy by their service. (Stolen Valor: How the Vietnam Generation Was Robbed of Its Heroes and Its History by B.G. Burkett and Glenna Whitley covers the attitude and debunks it, too. I have seen more manifestations of subsequent to its publishing.)

            May, of course, not be statistically representative. Which plans are you discussing?

          • aristides says:

            This is highly uncharitable to conservatives. During Trump’s presidency alone, conservatives have passed the VA Accountability and Whistleblowers Protection Act and the VA Mission Act, not to mention several related executive orders. These two acts have helped Veterans tremendously, and based on the number of democrats that voted on them as well, many progressives think so, too.

          • wintermute92 says:

            A cynical answer that I think still carries some truth: helping veterans and hating veterans aren’t opposed traits in any way.

            Honestly, this is fairly common. I know a lot of people on the left who really, genuinely hate Trump-voting Kentucky coal miners. This isn’t a presumption on my part, they happily announce it with that exact word. But Kentucky’s branch of the ACA was one of the most successful, and unless something about Trump’s policy changes drastically an Obama vote will have been massively better for those miners than a Trump vote in sheer cash-value terms.

            The same goes for the religious-right people I know who put quite a lot of their income into local charity in full awareness that the main recipients will be people they think of as freeloaders or much worse. They simply don’t see their obligation to help their community as affected by their feelings about the people in it.

            On to veterans: WaPo recently ran a fascinating piece interviewing trans men about their experiences with gender. One of the men interviewed is a social worker who worked with homeless military vets. The political viewpoints of his coworkers aren’t stated, but pretty much all available evidence strongly indicates left/liberal. He notes:

            Plenty of research shows that life events, medical conditions and family circumstances impact men and women differently. But when I would suggest that patient behavioral issues like anger or violence may be a symptom of trauma or depression, it would often get dismissed or outright challenged. The overarching theme was “men are violent” and there was “no excuse” for their actions.

            I don’t want to take this into a gender debate, or even a political one. I only want to note that I have known skilled teachers who admit to seriously disliking children; career social workers who talk about their “piece of shit drug addict patients”; lawyers who talk about the need for everyone to have good representation, “even the obviously guilty ones”; and plenty of other people who do very good work on behalf of those they hate.

            I don’t think counting up net benefits a group gets from each political faction is actually very informative about how the individual members of that faction feel about the group.

      • keranih says:

        The group of Americans who are veterans and the group of Americans who are most concerned about trigger warnings don’t over lap all that much.

        The *concept* that certain stimuli can cause deeply distressing mental flashbacks is present in much veteran-associated groups, due to the phenomenon being a part of understanding combat-related PTSD. However, trigger warnings have their root in sexual assault/rape PTSD association, and it is from there that the concept made the jump to pop culture via fanfic.

        The intent of triggerwarnings was specifically to ‘protect’ rape survivors, not to protect people who had had family members murdered, or who had been in combat, or worked homicide.

        (Also, trigger warning labels in fanfic are/were used as *ads* for the particular type of story or porn being produced – people were looking for stories with rape, abuse, homosexual sex, etc, and this was an easy way to index them.)

        The use of triggerwarnings in the text book/fictional work context ignores how “triggers” work – a person who was raped sees or feels the color or texture of the carpet of the room where she was assaulted, and the memory of the assault comes back and can not be dismissed. A combat veteran steps outside into a certain intensity of sunlight and sees a bright red rag in deep shadow, and is overwhelmed by the emotional state when he saw his friend lying dead. Neither of these things generally comes from reading words on a page.

        Which is not to say that it can’t be upsetting to read about or discuss things that remind one of past traumas – to ones ownself or to others – but that’s not ‘triggering’. It’s the normal sort of mental weight of dealing with knowing there is evil/tragedy/distress/disagreement in the world.

        • cuke says:

          “Which is not to say that it can’t be upsetting to read about or discuss things that remind one of past traumas – to ones ownself or to others – but that’s not ‘triggering’.”

          If a trauma survivor experiences anxiety, panic, dissociation, etc as a result of being reminded of past trauma, that is indeed a trigger. There are obvious triggers and more obscure triggers, but they all count as triggers based on the person’s response to it.

          In a casual sense, some folks have come to use trigger to describe any unexpected thing that any person finds upsetting. I find the entire front page of the newspaper to be upsetting many days, but not because I’m a trauma survivor and not because I’m triggered. The popular use of the word may have muddied the conversation around content warnings.

          I treat a lot of trauma survivors (of war, sexual assault, physical abuse, crime, drug abuse, etc) and while it’s true that the triggers can be obscure sometimes, very often the triggers are just what you would expect. Someone panics when they hear a helicopter or firecrackers going off. A mother who witnessed her son die of a heroin overdose is knocked into panic by reading a story that describes a heroin overdose. Sexual assault survivors commonly are triggered while having sex or by sexual content they encounter in the world.

          Among the people I’ve worked with, straightforward content warnings would address a huge portion of triggers people encounter in media content. It’s impossible to make the world a trigger-free place for someone with PTSD type responses, so we’re just talking about minor helpful things. The bulk of the work has to be done by the person suffering the symptoms to overcome the effects of trauma over time.

          I think of content warnings as similar to a sign in a dim restaurant that says “step down” or on the highway “bridges freeze before road.” It’s not going to protect a person from ever tripping on a step or slipping on ice, but it does avoid some harm.

    • Ninety-Three says:

      Trigger warnings and the associated discourse are mostly a social justice sphere thing. They come up in the rationality community in significant part because it really doesn’t like social justice.

      • Randy M says:

        Despite that dislike, it does seem to seriously consider it’s ideas. For example, Scott unironically uses trigger warnings on posts.

        • eightieshair says:

          For example, Scott unironically uses trigger warnings on posts.

          They work just fine for blogs, and when they were confined to the blogosphere I don’t recall anyone complaining about them.

          The trigger warning concept got a bad rap because a few years ago there was a very ham fisted push to make educators in the 3d world use them. In this push, the common sense idea of content notices for things widely agreed to be potentially upsetting (graphic depictions of violence, explicit discussion of sexual assault, racial slurs) was hopelessly mixed up with the medical idea of triggers for PTSD. Totally unhelpful advice such as “include warnings for potentially triggering materials” immediately followed by “triggers could be anything” was widely offered, and if actual educators objected that what was being asked for was completely unworkable they were generally subjected to torrents of snark and self-righteous insults.

          The whole thing faded away and something else replaced it as the Thing We Should All Have Strong Opinions About On The Internet. If the concept has a bad odor now, its advocates are largely to blame.

          • Aapje says:

            Indeed. Back then I had a rather fruitless exchange with one of the more prominent proponents of trigger warning in colleges, who defended trigger warnings (also) as a tool to help people with PTSD, claimed to use methods akin to treatment of PTSD and yet who was unwilling to see his advice as a psychological intervention, nor interested in obtaining (scientific) evidence for the validity of his methods beyond the anecdotal.

            As one can see in the exchange, he made me a little angry as a result, resulting in me holding him to high standards.

          • March says:

            @Aapje,

            I didn’t read the entirety of that exchange, but it seems to me you’re not distinguishing between ‘treatments’ and ‘accommodations.’ A PTSD treatment is something like EMDR. A PTSD accommodation is not unexpectedly hugging certain people from behind. Or giving a heads-up when certain potentially triggering topics (and like Cuke posted elsethread, there is a pretty decent consensus list of what kinds of things are triggering, it’s not all idiosyncracies like ‘the particular floral pattern on the wallpaper in my childhood bedroom’) will be discussed. Lots of people without PTSD will also appreciate not being jumped from behind or getting a little heads-up. As to your remark about how growing up black can give someone PTSD about slavery, I think it’s more and more accepted that adverse childhood events and childhood trauma can cause something called complex PTSD (c-PTSD), and even that disorders like borderline personality disorder may be how c-PTSD shows itself in adults.

            Curb cuts are definitely something that’s implemented to help people with disabilities, including people who had to start using a wheelchair after breaking their backs, but nobody in their right mind would say that curb cuts TREAT disabilities such as broken backs.

          • Aapje says:

            @March

            I never argued that trigger warnings couldn’t be a good way to accommodate those with PTSD, but Johnston was going further than that and claimed that trigger warnings could help by allowing students to do exposure therapy. In that case I’m wondering whether it’s effective for students to try to do exposure therapy without the therapist present, whether the trigger warning narrative causes students to do exposure therapy badly, whether the trigger warnings are chosen in such a way by Johnston that facilitate exposure therapy, whether his narrative causes students to avoid seeking out therapists and trying to heal themselves (and if so, whether that is harmful), etc.

            Imagine a teacher putting a bowl with Ritalin pills in his classroom. One could make almost the same arguments that Johnston made, to defend this. However, I presume that people would generally consider that dangerous and unethical. I believe that amateur psychological interventions can also be harmful, not just pills.

            To me, Johnston came across as a person who believes that just because his intent is good, what he does can’t cause any harm. That certainty that I read into his words made me a little angry.

            If Johnston would have made the teeniest concession, by arguing that people with PTSD should talk to a therapist about whether and how they should use trigger warnings, that accommodation and treatment may require different interventions or such; I wouldn’t have been so upset with him.

            Curb cuts are definitely something that’s implemented to help people with disabilities, including people who had to start using a wheelchair after breaking their backs, but nobody in their right mind would say that curb cuts TREAT disabilities such as broken backs.

            Exactly, one of my issues was that Johnston didn’t properly distinguish between managing PTSD and healing PTSD. These are not the same things and can result in different needs, ethical issues, etc.

          • March says:

            That doesn’t read like ‘Trigger warnings allow students to do exposure therapy in class’ to me at all. It reads like ‘Exposure therapy is generally considered an effective but kind of brutal form of treatment (as an aside, even my friends who LOVE talk therapy hated exposure therapy; I personally hated EMDR) and they don’t even spring exposure on people without warning. If we assume that exposure therapists start their exposure at roughly the maximum safe level (too little and it’s a waste of time, too much and you might cause more damage), we can look at their best practices to help define a line in the sand that’s safe for our students.’

            Trigger warnings aren’t part of exposure therapy. Exposure therapy does come with a massive trigger warning. (‘At your next appointment on Tuesday 11am you will be exposed to spiders. Prepare appropriately.’) Exposure therapy is a kind of process where someone deliberately makes your life terrifying for an hour and then helps you through it. Trigger warnings are there to prevent institutes that supposedly care about your effective learning (or blogs that supposedly care about your return eyeballs or friends who supposedly care about you wanting to do another movie night with them) from accidentally making your life terrifying for an hour without having the skill to help you through it. It makes no sense to say ‘calibrated exposure is part of a treatment plan, so to avoid looking like a treatment plan we should not give any thought to safety or calibration at all’.

          • cuke says:

            Hi March,

            Therapist over here, nodding along to all you are saying.

            I think we can get overmedicalized about how to take care of ourselves. As someone who treats trauma, I don’t think therapy is the only way to treat trauma. I think people with PTSD can and should make judgments about what works for them. I don’t think institutions are “treating” people when they provide content warnings or signs about slippery steps or disabled people parking spaces. I don’t think it’s in the same realm as putting out a bowl of amphetamines.

            An interesting aside: there’s growing research that exposure therapy, while effective, is not necessarily any more effective than non-exposure methods in treating trauma (supportive listening, CBT, mindfulness-based interventions, psychodynamic approaches, and so on). EMDR has exposure elements to it and I have noticed many people find it unpleasant, while others just love it, maybe based on how much people like intensity in general, I’m not sure.

          • March says:

            Hi Cuke 🙂

            Interesting to hear that other types of therapy are also being found helpful.

            I’d consider myself a bit of a thrill seeker, and when I hear my arachnophobic friend describe her exposure therapy sessions I think ‘that sounds right up my alley, gird your loins and then do something scary!’ (easy to say of course, since it’s not ME who is afraid of spiders). EMDR was more like the therapy equivalent of doing the plank in the gym, sit there and suffer. (I can’t stand planking either, my system is wired for DO and suffer, not SIT and suffer.) I didn’t feel like I had any control, just having to sit there and make myself feel as bad as possible while watching my therapist wave his hand up and down. Or perhaps it’s because the traumatic thing wasn’t just traumatic, it was something I felt personally responsible for and spending time with the traumatic memory also meant spending time with the unaddressed guilt. Or maybe it was that my support system was kinda barebones – an acquaintance of mine LOVED EMDR, but for her that included going to a massage therapist after each EMDR session and then coming home to her husband having drawn her a candlelit perfumed bath followed by her favorite dessert. I sure could’ve gotten used to that. 😀 Now it just made me feel terribly alone. Did help, though, so there’s that.

    • Chalid says:

      I live in NYC and the only times I ever hear about trigger warnings are through rationality-themed stuff online. But I’m old enough that I’m not directly exposed to what the college kids up to these days, and young enough that my friends’ kids aren’t in college either.

    • Baeraad says:

      I must admit that the only place I’ve actually seen trigger warnings is in fanfiction. And possibly in blog posts from hyper-progressive types, but I tend to avoid those,* so I’m not sure how common they are even there.

      I have seen people get well and thoroughly triggered, wailing and moaning mightily about what horrible reprobates the writers on Game of Thrones are for making them watch such terrible things… but given that this was circa season five or so, and apparently they had kept watching for all that time despite getting loudly and theatrically traumatised week after week, I don’t think trigger warnings would have done any good.

      * Because they usually trigger me, funnily enough. :p

    • Adam Kadmon says:

      I’m aware of a ton of feminist or feminist-adjacent Facebook groups where it’s de rigueur to put a content warning at the head of every post, even in topic-specific subgroups on cooking or pets or something.

    • Nick says:

      I saw trigger warnings once in a class, and it was for Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which includes depictions of rape, and which requires discussion thereof. Our professor also mentioned it briefly when she assigned one of those stories. I didn’t object to the use at the time, and I don’t think I would have now. It was at a pretty progressive Jesuit school in the Midwest.

      All the rest of my exposure, of course, has been through the Internet, whether on stories I read or on discussions in the rationalsphere.

    • keaswaran says:

      Even as a professor at a major university, I’ve never actually encountered a trigger warning “in the wild” (outside of the blog post and fanfic variety people mention below). However, I do have friends who teach at other universities, specifically on topics like gender studies and political struggle, that say that they find trigger warnings particularly helpful on their syllabus.

      Given the topics they teach, they often find it important to assign readings that contain very disturbing descriptions of rape or torture, and they find it important for students to engage with this material. However, they say that the point of the trigger warning is to make sure that a student who might have concerns about this material can see the warning on the reading, and instead of doing the reading late at night after a hard day of school on Thursday, they can fortify themselves with coffee and do the reading late morning on Saturday, when they are better prepared to think about the issues involved, and are less likely to be kept up at night from the reading.

      • Matt M says:

        Given the topics they teach, they often find it important to assign readings that contain very disturbing descriptions of rape or torture

        Perhaps if you are someone who is sensitive to these types of things, you shouldn’t study a field wherein it is “given” that it will be “important” for you to read such things.

        Like, if you faint at the sight of blood, we generally expect you to have the foresight to not attempt to become a paramedic or a doctor. We don’t demand medical schools ensure your ability to have a blood-free experience.

        • Lambert says:

          There’s a difference between being sensitive and being flat-out unable to work with something.
          And there are subjects where it’s unreasonable to expect anyone not to be affected by the content. (Holocaust etc.)

          • Matt M says:

            Is “affected” all we’re talking about here? I thought part of the purpose of the trigger warning was to give the potentially triggered the opportunity to disengage entirely. That students who wish to leave the room before a disturbing video clip are free to do so, etc.

            In any case, everyone is affected differently. If you are particularly sensitive, if you become significantly more affected than average, you should probably not seek expertise in fields with above-average exposure to the things you are sensitive to.

            I’m sure that even the most experienced doctors might occasionally see a sight so gruesome it affects them. But someone who is particularly disturbed, as in significantly more than the average person, by blood, would be well advised not to become a doctor, yes?

            I’m becoming more and more comfortable with the idea that people have every right, and should actively consider, structuring their lives such that they maximize their pleasures and avoid things that make them uncomfortable. But that requires the occasional sacrifice. If X makes you uncomfortable and you wish to avoid it, you probably must sacrifice becoming a well-known expert in the field of X.

        • cuke says:

          This part to me is key: “they say that the point of the trigger warning is to make sure that a student who might have concerns about this material can see the warning on the reading, and instead of doing the reading late at night after a hard day of school on Thursday, they can fortify themselves with coffee and do the reading late morning on Saturday, when they are better prepared to think about the issues involved, and are less likely to be kept up at night from the reading.”

          There’s no need to eject the student from an entire field of study.

          Most of us are works-in-progress, whether that means people with trauma histories who are recovering or people who are new to a field and are learning. Even medical students may be queasy at the sight of blood to start but after a year or so are no longer, not to mention that some doctors encounter more blood in medical school than they will in the whole rest of their careers.

          Early in training as a psychologist, they were very careful with all of us about not exposing us to a lot of vicarious trauma; later the focus was more on how to take care of ourselves given the inevitability of it. A certain sensitivity can be a desirable thing in a mental health care provider, so the goal isn’t to kick out people who can’t “hack it” from the start, but to give people the tools to be able to approach difficult material and take care of themselves in the process. Seems like that idea applies more broadly.

          We make accommodations for all kinds of people — more time to take tests, oral instead of written tests, ramps for wheelchairs, special chairs and desks for people with RSI or back problems, and so on. I just read that some grocery stores are having quiet hours intended for people with sensory processing issues. None of this seems like a bad thing to me.

          What accommodations do we think are reasonable in what settings? What’s the cost/benefit analysis of various options? Is the accommodation a new right/requirement or just a nice thing to do? Who decides?

    • Nornagest says:

      It’s a Tumblr-culture thing (started getting popular circa 2013, I think?) that’s started infecting the rest of the Internet and parts of American academia and activist circles. It’s not very widespread in mainstream society yet, but it matters if you’re an American nerd, blogger, or activist, and it might matter if you’re an American student or professor.

    • muskwalker says:

      I write fetish porn, and there it’s pretty common to have an interest in labeling things that can trigger disgust or negative emotional reactions, such as consent violations, scatological content, or violent/permanent effects (such as if a character undergoing inflation explodes). It’s true that those things being sought out are a factor in why they’re labelled, but it’s also that the people who are not specifically seeking them out are often interested in avoiding them.

      From this perspective I feel that a content warning system has at least one improvement over the default offendedness system: a response to content that calls for a trigger warning “you should be tagging this [so it doesn’t hurt people like me, at least not without a chance to be ready for it]” is an upgrade from “you shouldn’t be making things like this [because they hurt people like me]”.

  9. phil says:

    My wife and I always make a joke content warnings at the start of GoTs “what!?!? No nudity tonight? Argh!”

  10. deathtales says:

    I personally love what PEGI did for what essentially are trigger warnings. I’m not talking about the age label here but on the back of the box of each videogame, usually on the bottom near the legalese part/system specifications, you have a series if discreet yet instantly recognizable symbols each of which stands for a different type of content. This allow to quickly check for trigger warnings without having to read a whole legalese page and isn’t invasive at all.

  11. ParryHotter says:

    While I appreciate this thorough analysis/debunking, I think that even performing a study to test the claim is a fool’s errand, as the emotional trauma excuse is a red herring to provide cover for the real motivation of trigger warnings (in academic settings), which is to control what ideas are allowed to be expressed. Here are just a few examples highlighting this:

    * Freddie deBoer – round and round the trigger warning maypole. Excerpt:

    …the now-ubiquitous claim that trigger warnings are only warnings, and that they have no connection whatsoever to an actual censorship impulse. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been told, with absolute confidence, that “no one is talking about actually regulating content!” Which just is not true. Again, I’m forced to invoke my greater personal experience and knowledge of actual campus activists, rather than the purely abstract version that so many people in the media embrace. I have spent my entire life in campus lefty circles, was a campus activist when I was on campus, maintain an active network of people involved in campus politics today, and keep my ear to the ground still. And there have always been campus leftists who think that many types of speech that we generally acknowledge as legitimate political expression should be banned….. there is real overlap between the people who push most forcefully for trigger warnings and those who want to push ideas they find offensive off campus.

    * Salon – My trigger-warning disaster: “9 1/2 Weeks,” “The Wire” and how coddled young radicals got discomfort all wrong. Excerpt:

    Later that day, I had a white female student come to my office hours crying. Between picking up tissues and blowing her nose she said, “I’m doing a minor in African American Studies. How could your first images of black people be that horrible?” I told her that I understood her concerns. I went on to explain how the class was a historical look at sex on screen and as the reading for the class articulated, it was one of the first film’s to show black people having sex and was important to film history. She still didn’t get it. She said I had to show some positive images, otherwise it was unfair, that the other students weren’t African American Studies minors so they didn’t understand race politics as she did….. all of the students who were upset were the feminists, the activists…

    * The New Yorker – The Trouble with Teaching Rape Law

    • J Mann says:

      That Salon article is excellent.

      I think some older people, particularly but not exclusively white men, and certainly me, have a sense of “When I was a teenager or college student, all kinds of things offended me, but I realized I had to get over it to function, and I did mostly get over it, and it made me a better person.” (And that the experience of not being very offended when someone calls me names is now a substantial part of white privilege).

      Of course, I can’t know if it’s possible for other people to get over their offense triggers, but I worry that enshrining them causes their vulnerability to be worse.

      • cuke says:

        The conflation of “trauma triggers” with “offense triggers” seems to be causing quite a lot of trouble, in conversation if not in reality (I can’t tell).

        It makes sense to me to provide a bit of reasonable accommodation to people who are trauma survivors by providing simple content warnings around the most common categories of trauma.

        It seems beneficial to distinguish this from the idea that people are entitled to be protected from ideas they find offensive. And it seems further worth distinguishing offensive ideas from people who are creating a hostile environment by being offensive (bullying, etc).

        I get that there may be gray areas, as with most of life, but it seems to me we can help by being clear when we speak whether we’re talking about trauma triggers, people being offended by ideas, or people acting offensively or threateningly.

        • March says:

          Yeah, it’s strange to me too how ‘I’m triggered’ seems to be taken as ‘I find something offensive’. Perhaps I (as a person who experiences triggers both small and large) am typical-minding in that I expect most sensitive people to take a content warning the way I do, as the chance to say ‘am I up for reading this right now or should I wait until after I’ve eaten and shaken off the stresses of the day?’ Perhaps others are typical-minding in that they never really get triggered and can’t imagine anyone displaying my kind of behavior except for attention.

          I actually find it a little offensive (if not at all triggering) that people interpret the discussion about trigger warnings as ‘not wanting to engage with offensive material.’ 😉

          Of course, some things can be trigger hazards, offensive and bullying/threatening at the same time. ‘I’ll make that lesbian want to get back into the kitchen serving her man with my big dick’ is all three. A co-worker without power over you and without a joking relationship with you saying ‘Get back in the kitchen and make me a sandwich’ is offensive and bullying, but is probably not triggering. ‘Women belong in the kitchen’ is usually pretty offensive, if only through pattern-matching. ‘I think there’s a case to be made that societies work better if there is gender-based division of labor, and I’d like to discuss all sides with you’ is, in many cases, none of the above. (If potentially exhausting.)

          Even beyond trauma triggers, there’s a vast range of sensitivity among otherwise normal people. I used to love horror flicks as a kid but can’t stand the particular cruel fucked-upness of gangster movies. My husband adores gangster movies but gets a little green around the gills at hospital documentaries (and that piece in the series Nip/Tuck where whatshisface gives himself a nose job without anesthesia by sticking a chisel up his nose). We have a 1-year old, and we’ve both gotten more sensitive to news about stuff happening to kids. I don’t like horror movies as much anymore because I made the mistake of trying to watch one when I was home sick with the stomach flu. Turns out ‘she has a strong stomach’ is more than just a figure of speech. I threw up watching that horror movie and now my body has rewired itself to get nauseous in anticipation. Ah well.

          Anyway, you wouldn’t invite a dozen friends for a fun movie night and then spring some gory movie on them. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with labeling heavy stuff with ‘hey, this is potentially heavy, read now or wait until a better time.’

        • J Mann says:

          There’s kind of a thin line between offense and trauma in practice – the DeBoer and Salon pieces describe the way trigger culture is playing out on the ground in some places. I agree that more clarity would be helpful, but in practice, it’s hard telling someone that you don’t think they meet the criteria for trauma.

        • Conrad Honcho says:

          I have no problem with offensiveness triggers. That’s the same as content warnings for movies or whatever. It’s useful to know that there’s overt sexual or graphic content in a movie to know whether or not to let your kids see it, or if those things are particularly troublesome to you.

          I’m not sure what this does about trauma, though, as I was under the impression triggers for panic attacks / PTSD are often specific to the individual trauma experienced. Like someone witnessed a horrific traffic accident and now gets a panic attack when they hear tires squeal in a certain way. You can’t put a trigger warning on that.

          Mainly I’m just opposed to people berating others for not using trigger warnings. It frequently looks like speech policing and a power play to me, rather than genuine concern for potential emotional distress.

          • AnonYEmous says:

            Mainly I’m just opposed to people berating others for not using trigger warnings. It frequently looks like speech policing and a power play to me, rather than genuine concern for potential emotional distress.

            on the one hand, I feel like this is kind of a “I agree with the reasonable people on the other side, but my side still has a point!”

            on the other hand this is basically what I came here to say anyways so whatever

            point is uh the thing that really bothered me when reading about trigger warnings were cases when students berated teachers for not putting in trigger warnings for arguably innocuous stuff. of course there’s cases for being mad at a professor for failing to do it in the right way, assuming you accept trigger warnings as legitimate, so there’s no way to safely be in the middle, but it’s probably worth trying anyhow.

          • cuke says:

            I taught at UC Berkeley for a few years and my experience was that college students complained about a great many things that seemed unreasonable to me to complain about.

            People would come to my office to complain that they got a B on a paper instead of an A, when they clearly hadn’t fulfilled all parts of the assignment. People complained about getting marked off for writing things by hand that they were supposed to type, for not getting to decide which group they were in for some project where there was no way to honor everyone’s preferences, and for bunches of other things.

            As a therapist now, I am struck by the great many things that people complain about that seem not to be someone else’s problem. I think I probably do this too and probably did some of as a college student (oh, I can remember one particular time that I did and feel embarrassed for my earlier self).

            My point is, it seems like the media elevates student activity that feeds a topical culture war narrative. I’m not saying there aren’t ever trends worth pointing out, just that we need to keep in mind how much humans like to complain in general. And that the media is incentivized to highlight topical complaining that increases the likelihood of clicks.

          • AnonYEmous says:

            you’re right that students complain about many silly things, but complaints about trigger warnings seem to be taken a bit too seriously as opposed to these silly complaints. I’d honestly consider it to be a much bigger problem if students could berate teachers for giving them a B instead of an A and get taken seriously. In fact, increasingly I believe this does happen, sort of, and I consider it to be a much bigger problem than trigger warnings.

          • Matt M says:

            you’re right that students complain about many silly things, but complaints about trigger warnings seem to be taken a bit too seriously as opposed to these silly complaints.

            Perhaps “trigger warning” and associated complaints simply get signal boosted because they are political in nature and are culture war ammo.

            “Student complains about getting a bad grade” doesn’t really interest anyone. But “student complains about trigger warnings” interests both left and right-wing media, to boost and to denounce it respectively.

        • ParryHotter says:

          Excellent point. I will try to spell out these distinctions when I discuss it in the future.

          I’m all for the idea of helping people avoid things that are justifiably emotionally traumatic for them. And I’m not at all in support of the idea that people should be able to avoid ideas that they simply find disagreeable/offensive (discounting the bullying kind of offensiveness).

          But I think many people will simply attempt to do an end-run around that distinction by claiming that hearing an idea they find offensive is itself traumatic for them! E.g. one might say, “As a black person, hearing you argue against affirmative action is not just hearing an idea that I disagree with, but is inherently a denigration of my humanity, which is traumatic for me!”

  12. Matt M says:

    Let’s stipulate that it is wholly unproven, in both directions, whether trigger warnings help or harm any particular person.

    If that’s the case, then the mere existence of a trigger warning anywhere implies that they do, in fact, help. Otherwise, why would anyone bother to put them there?

    And the more frequently such a position is implied, en masse, the more it will be believed. Trigger warnings have become a self-fulfilling prophecy in this sense. A bunch of people in academic positions have just started insisting that trigger warnings help people with trauma, and that NOT having them does significant harm to such people.

    What this study seems to confirm (which Scott himself seems to accept as basically common sense) is that the more you tell people something is true, the more likely they are to believe it. Therefore, the promulgation of trigger warnings is also an assertion that such warnings are effective. If this is not adequately proven, we should reject this as unsupported.

    • ARabbiAndAFrog says:

      Existence of trigger warnings imply they are necessary. That doesn’t make them work because no kind of warning can ever be sufficient. Unless you recap the entire work word-to-word maybe, but that would be a weird ritual where you just dump work on people unprepared, but preclude it with magical spell “Trigger warning”.

      I’d say trigger warning is bad, because it shifts onus of your well-being outside. Everyone has fears and insecurities and you can’t rely on other people fixing world for you. But that’s part of “trigger warning” mindset – what distresses ME is a fault of YOU. It’s not viable, because only you can prevent your mental fragility, and it’s also a divisive tool – everyone can’t put trigger warning for everyone; there’s always going to be people whose feelings are protected and those who are not (As in, I don’t imagine ever trigger warning about “Positive depiction of Negroes and homosexuals” or something to this effect.

      • baconbits9 says:

        I’d say trigger warning is bad, because it shifts onus of your well-being outside.

        I agree strongly with this, but think it needs to go further. Not only does it cede your well being to others but it shifts the power structure in such a way as to make it more likely for awful people to gain power. One of Trump’s (and Trump is at least bad, if not awful) strengths during the campaign was to dictate reactions and not get his reaction dictated. Clinton’s gaffe use of deplorables out to have been followed up by a further attack on the truly deplorable section of Trump’s supporters. Sure it would be a motte and bailey, but coming out and saying in response “do you think Trump supporters are all deplorable” should have been along the lines of “Trump is supported by the klan and neo-nazis, if you are thinking about voting for Trump remember that, remember that truly deplorable people support him” and basically nothing else.

        I would argue that the Left has been steadily weaponizing words within its own groups, and the people rising to the top are those who can shame others, that fell apart when it was exposed to a person who did not react to their shaming (or did not react the way they felt he ought to). A lot of what people are calling Trump Derangement Syndrome I see as an after effect of the left’s most “powerful” weapons bouncing off him, switching him from cartoon villain to cartoon super-villain.

        • mtl1882 says:

          Yeah, I agree with this. It creates a huge potential for people getting distracted by what “should have” changed Trump’s (or his supporters’) behavior, instead of what does. Many people are not ashamed by what you feel they should be, and getting stuck on that issue can be a massive failure mode. I don’t necessarily oppose trigger warnings (though I suspect they are pretty useless, given the unique characteristics of trauma), and if anything, we should encourage people to boldly discuss their traumatic reactions and why they find the warnings valuable, rather than berating others for failing to feel sufficiently interested. Most people won’t care very much, because most people are not very thoughtful or compassionate, but it’s enough that some people do if they advocate strongly enough. Of course, I know some people are not comfortable discussing this, but I think many are. Rather than shutting the opposition down, people should speak more forcefully about their own beliefs and their justification.

          I react strongly to the abuse of animals – I don’t know why. I know it’s irrational. Even in fiction, I can generally watch people suffer without issue (there are some exceptional disturbing cases), knowing they are acting, but the animal abuse still disturbs me enough that I can’t engage with it, even though it’s also fake for them. I guess it is not completely irrational – it is a reaction to their helplessness and lack of understanding. I do appreciate knowing about this so that I can avoid it. But I also know that it is impossible to accommodate the traumas of most people, which can seem baffling to others. But I know they are very real and complex.

    • Urstoff says:

      If that’s the case, then the mere existence of a trigger warning anywhere implies that they do, in fact, help. Otherwise, why would anyone bother to put them there?

      Someone turn on the Robin Hanson signal!

    • drunkfish says:

      Whether they’re net helpful or harmful is obviously a subtle question, but it seems like you’re asserting that we don’t know if they provide any benefit at all to people. To me it seems basically self-evident that they have benefits.

      1) There exist trauma victims
      2) Those people sometimes see trigger warnings and abstain from viewing that content
      3) Therefore people have more control over their own lives

      1 is obviously true. 2 I think is obviously true, at least it is to me because I know people who fall into it, though I guess it’s conceivable to not believe those people exist. 3 is maybe debateable, on the grounds that consent isn’t inherently a benefit, but I strongly disagree.

      In what way are you saying it’s undetermined whether trigger warnings have benefits?

  13. quitelikelyblog says:

    Given that people are generally vulnerable to trauma and that they really can suffer persistent negative effects from trauma, it seems like the most accurate description of the results of this study is “Trigger warnings teach people about the effects of trauma.”

  14. Randy M says:

    I don’t want to blame the researchers, who are experts in the psychology of trauma and doing important work.

    I don’t know, I think you should probably blame the researchers here. They basically determined that a barely significant number of people will attempt to give the researcher the answer that the researcher wants to hear (based on the fact that the researcher told them about the anxiety in the text given). It’s a test of reading comprehension that says nothing interesting about anything.

  15. bkennedy99 says:

    I don’t like the phrase “trigger warning”, and a lot turbulence could be avoiding by using a more neutral phrase like “content advisory”.

    Also, I love content advisories! I have kids, and might want to know if something is particularly violent or has inappropriate sexual content. Personally, I don’t have a high tolerance for graphic violence and gore, and would rather stay away from that. Avoiding trauma is just one of many legitimate purposes for wanting to understand content before consuming it

  16. Tamar says:

    Largely agree with bland content notes. I dislike framing them as “trigger warnings” because it seems to imply that anything that could be triggering should be preceded by a warning, and that non-trigger responses don’t relate to the appropriateness of a content warning. Someone with PTSD might have something generally innocuous (I don’t know – mention of a hive of bees, for example) trigger a real trauma response. On the other hand, I might be able to read about, say, sexual violence with some discomfort but honestly not have a trauma response triggered. That doesn’t mean that any literature mentioning a hive of bees should have a content note warning the reader, and it also doesn’t mean that descriptions of sexual violence wouldn’t be something I and others might appreciate having a content note about. Framing it as content notes emphasizes that some topics are worth mentioning regardless of whether the audience is at risk of being triggered and avoids the idea that such warnings can or should cover all possible cases where a real trauma-related response might potentially be triggered.

  17. AC Harper says:

    But a much more fundamental concern is that this isn’t measuring anything we care about.

    I’ve come around to the idea that there are allegedly so many things wrong with the world, too many for any sane individual to try and hold in mind, that we should habitually ask ourselves “Is this a real problem for me to get involved with?” Just asking that question might shape what data and analysis we might expect.

    If the problem is Not A Real Problem (NARP) then we should be disciplined enough to pass by. So many headlines, hashtags and twitter storms are just distractions.

  18. IsmiratSeven says:

    First, an effect that happens a split second after you read a trigger warning stating something would have to stick around to become a permanent part of the psyche.

    Just taking a sip of beer isn’t going to do much, but what if you keep sipping for eight hours? This could be a problem with sustained exposure to trigger warnings – as one might find on an extra-“woke” college campus.

    As for trigger warnings themselves, I’ll repeat my own proposal: have them, but put them in the Boring Legalese Page of the book, the one where they list the ISBN number and the city where the publishing company has its headquarters and something something Library Of Congress. Make them matter-of-fact, like “Content: rape, murder, ethnic slurs”. You don’t need to embellish with “AND THEREFORE YOU SHOULD BE ANXIOUS” or “SO PEOPLE WITH A TRAUMA HISTORY SHOULD BEWARE” the way this experiment’s warning did. Just put a list of things people might want to know about on the Boring Legalese Page page, and let the couple percent of people with a trauma history check it before reading if they want. If it’s a worksheet or syllabus, put it in small print somewhere consistent.

    And who gets to determine whether a story necessitates these warnings? Do we put a rape warning on Greek mythology (Zeus in particular loved to flirt with the boundaries of informed consent)? Does a Raymond Chandler book get a murder warning, or is a murder warning reserved for more vivid, lingering depictions of the act itself? Do Huckleberry Finn and the Turner Diaries get the same “racial slur” warning?

    You may think I’m overly stressing this, but considering that every other rating system has not just eventually been used as a cudgel to keep things middle-of-the-road, but also inconsistently applied to favor big studio efforts (Terminator 2 gets a PG-13, the Kids documentary gets an NC-17) and with racially-disproportionate targeting (hip-hop is much more likely to get a Parental Advisory than hair metal on a pure cussword-for-cussword basis), I think it’s prudent to be extra, extra cautious when advocating for “warning labels”. These things absolutely matter when major distribution chains refuse to stock the “extra-naughty” Parental Advisory/NC-17/AO stuff.

    • Gazeboist says:

      Just taking a sip of beer isn’t going to do much, but what if you keep sipping for eight hours?

      You’d metabolize it away with no problems, and also have to pee a lot? The dosage of anything needs to be concentrated in order to matter, not just large in quantity.

      • hexane360 says:

        Well, assuming that it has a non-negligible metabolism rate. Which is pretty likely if you exclude things like asbestos and organomercury (and maybe some organofluorides?).

      • IsmiratSeven says:

        Except even Scott states that these beer sips are enough to get you buzzed:

        First, an effect that happens a split second after you read a trigger warning stating something would have to stick around to become a permanent part of the psyche. This is definitely not how these things work. For example, in 2016 I made a group of people read either an essay warning of the dangers of artificial intelligence, or a control essay that didn’t mention the topic. Then I surveyed people on how dangerous they thought AI was. Unsurprisingly, the people who read the control essay were less worried. The effect stuck around after a month on another survey that explicitly reminded them of the essay they’d read

        (Bolding mine. Anti-italics also mine, to hopefully ward off people from accusing me of skipping over that part)

        In essence, through sustained exposure to the mild, temporary effects of trigger warnings (or “content advisories”) what you’re doing is creating an entire class of people who believe certain things “matter” far more strongly that is the case, and will be happy to make decisions using these faulty priors with just a slight bit of priming (“think of the children” being the classic priming of the previous generation).

        This is an extremely strange notion for self-professed “rationalists” to be comfortable with.

    • engleberg says:

      Re: Huck Finn-
      ‘Ladies and Children not admitted’, ‘If that don’t git ’em, I don’t know Arkansaw’. ‘Banned in Boston’ sold a lot of books. How many trigger warnings are there to advertise salacious content?

      • IsmiratSeven says:

        What’s great for punk rock isn’t so great for classical music. Or, what works in the mid-20th century’s scattered mishmash of independent outlets and informal gentleman’s agreements doesn’t work in the 21st century where the distribution chain has been reduced to a functional duopoly at best and I can produce an exhaustive list of ~fiscally inappropriate~ content in ten seconds with the click of a button.

        If this really was the comforting “no such thing as bad publicity” global you make it out to be, then why aren’t there more NC-17 movies?

        • engleberg says:

          Re: What’s great for punk rock isn’t so great for classical music-

          Mark Twain as punk rock, today’s political lay preachers as classical music? I could see the Duke as Johnny Rotten.

          Re: If this really was the comforting ‘no such thing as bad publicity’-

          I’m making it out to be, in part, an enticing display of salaciousness. Hemingway said you say ‘shit’ so you can say ‘noble’. Lay preachers claim to speak with Biblical freedom and call a whore a whore because moral duty. People who like to talk trash claim to be a combination of Hemingway and the Prophets in order to talk trash. People who want to hear some good trash talking sometimes like a cover story.

  19. knockknock says:

    I’ve seen serious trigger discussion regarding vets and rape/assault victims, but more often it’s become an eye-rolling theme to mock pampered college students who need a “safe space” with crayons if they read a history book about a less inclusive past or God forbid see a Trump poster.

    I think of “trigger” not so much re legitimate trauma or mere hurt feelings, but more in terms of self-destructive behavior like cutting or substance abuse, and what triggers the pattern or individual episode. Discussion for some other day.

    But here Scott takes what sounds like a pretty mediocre piece of research and uses it to launch — er, trigger — a really useful discussion on warnings in various contexts. We are so lucky to have him.

    On a lighter note, some of these triggers remind me of the clever Avengers episode where the assassin ring pretending to be a market-research firm uncovers an individual’s triggers — spiders, heights etc. — and frightens him to death.

  20. Jeffery Mewtamer says:

    Speaking as a writer who posts to A3O on a semi-regular basis, I include a “content warnings specific to this chapter” section in the forenotes on pretty much everything I post. Not so much that I have strong opinions one way or the other on trigger warnings, but just because I know my writings aren’t to everyone’s taste, and as an entertainer first, I’d rather my potential readers read something that matches their tastes than waste time reading something only to find out halfway through that there’s something that ruins the experience for them.

    That said, I’ll agree that A3O’s content labeling system has a critical weakness in that its entirely up to writers to decide what is worth tagging, and even the tags that are elevated to check boxes arguably have grey areas or multi-dimensional aspects not encapsulated by the binary. Plus, as far as I know, works can only be tagged as a whole, which can cause issues for episodic multi-chapter works and short story collections.

    As for existing ratings systems like those provided by the MPAA and ESRB and their foreign counterparts, I’ve always thought their content descriptors to sometimes be vague to the point of useless, and even when the descriptors are something meaningful, they almost always get over shadowed by such systems having age-based censorship as their primary purpose(Unless things have changed since I went blind back in 2012, I know US game boxes had the ESRB age rating prominent on the front of the box, while the content descriptors were in fine print on the back of the box where they could be easily missed if you didn’t know what you were looking for, and most retailers kept games in locked display cases, so even if you knew exactly where the descriptors are, they weren’t accessible to someone browsing the displays at their local Big Box store).

  21. HeelBearCub says:

    Blaming the reporting would be better, but the right-wing sources that exaggerated this are still light-years behind the left in their ability to falsify and weaponize study results

    Scott, what is your aim here? Merely to signal “I am gray tribe, and my enemies are the left”?

    How much time do you spend paying any attention to falsifications that are weaponized by the right? Do really have any sense of the difference between them on this issue? How much of right wing media do you even read?

    I think this is a little like living in New Orleans, noticing you are bored, and concluding that there is “nothing to do” in New Orleans.

    • Thegnskald says:

      Or the purpose is to signal that he is not hostile to right-wing people so that they are more inclined to trust that he is acting in a nonpartisan manner as he criticizes them? You know, like he has said outright that he does?

      Nah, that couldn’t be it. He is just an enemy of the left, because he isn’t busily trumpeting how much he hates the right. You clearly know the right way to be a Leftist, since you are diagnosing him as not-left – so he should say how terrible the right is at every opportunity while minimizing the wrongs of the left, right?

      The real problem with the left-right balance here is that Scott bans even slightly terrible right-wing people, but ignores similar issues among leftists, producing an environment in which many of us on the left are loathe to comment because of how terrible leftism is represented here. Nobody attacks anybody for not being “true” right wing or libertarian, but Jesus Christ at the leftist infighting.

      • HeelBearCub says:

        so that they are more inclined to trust that he is acting in a nonpartisan manner as he criticizes them

        In the past Scott has contended that his readership is mostly on the left, and that his aim is to speak mostly to the left. He has also repeatedly contended that he is mostly interested in the truth (and conveying the truth).

        The real problem with the left-right balance here is that Scott bans even slightly terrible right-wing people, but ignores similar issues among leftists

        I honestly don’t know what you mean in this whole paragraph? I find little “left” infighting here, unless what you mean is that this blog is fairly explicitly anti-SJW (where SJW mostly means inter sectional feminism). I really don’t know what kinds of commenters you think would need to be banned or how that would help.

        • Thegnskald says:

          Question: Given that you just implied Scott isn’t a member of the left, would you recognize leftist infighting?

          • HeelBearCub says:

            Scott in the past has self-described as on the left.

            He also recently said he “is” a libertarian (which is a position he explicitly rejected in the past). It was unclear to me whether this was one of his sarcastic asides that is supposed to be obviously false, or something he was presenting as true.

            He also explicitly disavowed blue tribe and claimed membership in gray tribe in a post that specifically wanted to distinguish between Dem vs. Rep and Blue tribe vs. Red tribe, but also acknowledged a fair amount of overlap.

            I would say that, from a left-right perspective, Scott isn’t very sure he wants to be in coalition with the left, even though he self identifies as left. He isn’t much interested in promoting those things that he think the left coalition is correct about. His apparent preference is to be in coalition with other rationalists and grey tribe in general. Grey tribe as a whole seems to think that politics is “dirty”, but maybe necessary.

            If you wonder why I use the word coalition above, it’s simply because left and right are inherently terms about coalitions, specifically political coalitions. They don’t really have much intrinsic meaning, and aren’t ideologies.

            As to what in-fighting among those left of center looks like, I don’t see much of fighting of the Socialist vs. Intersectionalist (Identitarian, if you must) vs. Incrementalist/Pragmatic camps going on in these comments. There is some discussion, but not much heat. If you have different kinds of infighting in mind, or a different read on this, I’m open to changing my opinion.

          • Thegnskald says:

            Is this a correct summary of your position:

            “Scott may consider himself a leftist, but leftism is a matter of coalition, rather than strict political beliefs, and Scott doesn’t qualify because he explicitly rejects the coalition on multiple levels of identity”?

          • HeelBearCub says:

            @thegnskald:
            I’d say Scott is left-of-center*, but not very committed to it. Push come to shove, he votes on the left. If I had to guess, large coalitions of regular people trigger certain kinds of impurity reactions in him.

            But, as he mostly isn’t interested in identifying the positions of the coalition with which he agrees, nor really in defending any policy positions at all, it’s hard to describe disagreements with him as “in-fighting”. In-fighting is Naomi Klein hating on neo-liberal Jonathan Chait. In-fighting is Bernie Sanders campaign surrogates saying there is no difference between Hillary and Trump.

            But, if you want to say that I am “in-fighting” with him because we are both on the left, that could at least clarify your point. Although it still leaves muddy to me who the “terrible” left-wing commenters are who need to be purged, and how that would help. I’m not sure if you are trying to imply that I am terrible (I don’t think this is your point, but I’m not positive) or whether it’s people who espouse marxism or people who are centrist or people who are rude, etc.

            *You keep using the term “leftist”, which frequently means something like communist, but I don’t think you mean it that way.

          • Thegnskald says:

            People who are unnecessarily nasty/rude. Which frequently includes myself, I will note, and yes, you. And a few others, such as Brad.

            It isn’t a matter of “These people make things worse” as much as “These behaviors make things worse”, and establishing social norms of behavior by making a few examples. (Although I definitely do not miss two specific banned “leftist” commenters who kept the nastiness up for months before being banned, and seemed so dedicated to making us look so bad I am still not convinced they weren’t right-wing trolls)

            I didn’t start the “Left” argument. I’d say you did, because what Scott was actually doing, if you look at the quote you selected, was making a joke about how terrible the sources in question are at twisting a study to fit their agenda; it didn’t even imply the right in general was worse at it, and indeed, the omission is quite suggestive if you think about it, in terms of suggesting the two are equally bad.

            However, you talk about purity reactions, but – what exactly was your reaction, when he didn’t signal loyalty to the leftist coalition, when he suggested there was something to criticize in the left?

          • HeelBearCub says:

            People who are unnecessarily nasty/rude.

            Ummm, I don’t think there would be any commenters left. Conversations get heated. This is the nature of argument. It’s the whole reason why CW free threads started. (ETA: It’s also why the tripartite rule of true, kind, necessary is two out of three).

            My reaction to Scott is not born from purity responses, but rather my desire to see him acknowledge and confront his own biases, as well as the way he self-sabotages.

            I was reading along, mostly agreeing with the points he was making, and then he makes a snide, false, verbal jab that accomplishes nothing other than to prejudice readers and feed a certain conspiratorial mindset. There is a ping-pong thread in the last OT where people are just casually asserting that there is no journalism and all journalists are propagandists with no push back. For someone who claims to value free speech, he seems to find little value in the fourth-estate.

            Of course, this doesn’t mean that critiques of the media can’t be made. But that isn’t a critique, it’s more of casual statement asserting inferiority, which is generally a signalling device.

          • Randy M says:

            For someone who claims to value free speech, he seems to find little value in the fourth-estate.

            This is in no way contradictory. I’d bet he’s also in favor of freedom of religion and finds little value in professional clergy.

          • Thegnskald says:

            Okay. So, this is something I just learned I myself do, and I am trying to stop it, with very limited success (I have just noticed I did it again in my opening response comment to you, der)

            I make a comment which is “This is the least charitable way to interpret what you just said”, and expect the other party to infer that I am telling them that their phrasing implies something worse than what they intended.

            What it actually comes off as, I have discovered from what felt to me like bizarre arguments, is “I am asserting that you believe this”.

            Apparently it isn’t as useful as a slightly.more verbose explanation detailing what you are doing and why. Go figure.

      • ana53294 says:

        The real problem with the left-right balance here is that Scott bans even slightly terrible right-wing people,

        There have been people who have advocated for such things as killing every illegal inmigrant who crosses the border by vigilante groups, and they weren’t banned. Wouldn’t that be the definition of “slightly terrible right-wing people”?

        • Thegnskald says:

          There are also leftists here who have defended the execution of emigrants by the Soviet government who haven’t been banned.

          People don’t generally get banned for policy belief here, but behavior.

      • dick says:

        Um. Unless you think “He is just an enemy of the left, because he isn’t busily trumpeting how much he hates the right” is a fair characterization of HBCs post and not a straw-man exaggeration, it would seem like you just bemoaned leftist in-fighting and engaged in leftist in-fighting in the same comment.

  22. cuke says:

    The conclusion of the study seems particularly egregious to me: ” Trigger warnings may inadvertently undermine some aspects of emotional resilience.”

    They seem to operationalize “resilience” three ways: “(Q1) affect participants’ perceptions of their posttraumatic vulnerability, (Q2) affect participants’ overall degree of implicit identification as “vulnerable” versus “resilient”, and (Q3) affect participants’ perceptions of others’ posttraumatic vulnerability.

    So, are they more likely to see themselves and others as “vulnerable”? To me, these passing perception effects could be explained entirely by their immediate salience in the context of the experiment. None of these three passing perceptions constitute what I think of as resilience. I think of resilience as how well a person adapts to adversity. Opinions/perceptions are notoriously transient and subject to passing influence. How well we bounce back from difficulty is not, but rather is the product of more enduring traits, world-views, and lived circumstances. Resilience isn’t largely a subjective phenomenon — it’s more about how well in actuality you bounce back from real life setbacks.

    They also conclude: “Our results also indicate that trigger warnings enforce a “soft stigma” concerning trauma survivors, implying their inability to function as other people can.” So because content warnings make respondents more likely to see trauma survivors as vulnerable, this is seen as a deleterious effect of them. Does that mean that ramps for people in wheelchairs are going to stigmatize people in wheelchairs? Many trauma survivors do in fact have difficulty in some areas of functioning and that’s the reason some people advocate for content warnings, to accommodate this difficulty. Accommodation of any kind to anyone’s disability will bring along some elevated awareness and thus the possibility of stigma. On the other side, people in wheelchairs not being able to get into buildings where they work creates other kinds of stigma problems.

    I find these kinds of studies dispiriting. I get that systems need to be simplified to study them in this kind of controlled experiment way, but to simplify them to the point that what you’re studying (passing self-perceptions) bears no resemblance to the thing you claim to be studying (resilience) and your conclusion is not supported anywhere by your research — well, that’s very grim.

    To the extent that content warnings are intended to help people who are trauma survivors, it seems more useful to study how trauma survivors experience content warnings. To the extent that other people encounter content warnings and don’t need them, it does seem likely they may have all kinds of judgments and perceptions about encountering them. But they weren’t written for them. Just like disabled parking spots were not created for people who have no mobility issues, and yet I’m sure we could study people’s various emotional reactions to having to avoid parking in them. I don’t think that study would tell us much about the usefulness of disabled parking spots.

  23. Some Troll's Serious Discussion Alt says:

    Trigger warnings fail the heuristic of “is this profound enough to outweigh anything parents are likely to do to their children?” So I don’t expect they’ll turn out to have any lasting impact.

  24. To_do_list says:

    Hi there, first comment – have been lurking around for a couple of months…

    I am a little confused by many of the sub-threads in this current discussion on how the whole purpose of trigger warnings is seen as: Allowing people to opt out of learning new and uncomfortable information. I have generally resided in social justice and intersectional feminist circles for the last couple of years, and this notion strikes me as very different from trigger warning coverage I have seen there. The reason I have always thought trigger warnings are reasonable, is precisely because to me, in academic context, their purpose is the opposite, : They could allow people to engage more productively with potentially distressing and uncomfortable material. The proposed mechanism is that with a trigger warning in place, one could do whatever mental preparation one needs before engaging with the material, instead of being blindsided.

    I suppose, one *could* use them to avoid a topic as well… However, if we apply the logic of “students should engage with new ideas, rather than be coddled” to the content areas often implicated in social justice debates (e.g., various dimensions of discrimination, prejudice, poverty, or mental health concerns), then wouldn’t it be the case that those students usually already had exposure to those ideas? For example, I see many people in the LGBTQ+ activism circles supporting trigger warnings, especially applied to discussions and graphic examples of various forms of prejudice, precisely because they have encountered prejudice and many views/ideas supporting it.

    Of course, the details of what is and is not sensible in practical implementation could be further negotiated. As well, avoidance versus engagement likely differs between academic and other contexts (e.g., trigger/content warnings are definitely used for both in fanfiction and entertainment). But I wanted to highlight the different perspectives on the intended purpose and function of trigger warnings, before getting down to those details.

    • March says:

      I’m starting to think that the part of the confusion (or ambiguity, at least) that’s not caused by the typical mind fallacy is caused by worry about different types of people. For the people who WANT to learn, trigger warnings/content notes are a tool to help them do it better and become more resilient. As someone said in another comment, for many fields of work it’s beneficial to be sensitive. For the people who just want to get out of doing work, trigger warnings/content notes are just another excuse to get out of doing the work.

      I may be an optimist, but I’d think that the benefits to the first group are worth a bit of hassle. And the second group will reach for any excuse to get out of things, so it would be reasonable to establish a clear policy of ‘we’re not making any graphic gruesomeness mandatory in the basic courses that every student has to take, we’re being selective with our course materials so there’s no gratuitous gruesomeness (no math exercises about ‘if one serial killer can rape and dismember 12 toddlers per year, how many toddlers can 10 serial killers rape and dismember in a month?’ if you can learn the same with an example about painters/walls, a wide choice of literature assignments so people who want to can avoid the more overly racist/misogynist/what have you topics), we’re warning for gruesomeness clearly and up-front so students can decide ahead of time if they even want to do this major/go into this field and, if they do, so they can plan when and how they will engage with this difficult material.’

      Personally, I think the people who use trigger warnings to get out of stuff are the same people who will sic their moms on the lecturer for giving poor little them a failing grade, so screw them anyway.

  25. ana53294 says:

    I don’t really understand the position that you have to be exposed t unpleasant ideas to receive a university education, or even to be a well rounded person. I have received a perfectly good education in Biology without being exposed to any unpleasant ideas.

    Universities don’t have to coddle you, but neither should they expose you to unpleasant ideas unnecessarily. A student in Modern History will be taught about he Holocaust, but they won’t be exposed to Holocaust denial (because it’s false). In the same manner, students of medicine will not learn about anti-vaxxer ideas, but an anti-vaxxer who goes to study medicine will be exposed to the knowledge about the benefits of vaccines.

    This exposure has a point and is useful. But the idea that you should be exposed to unpleasant ideas just out of curiosity seems strange to me. I am perfectly fine not being exposed to racist, homophobic or misogynistic ideas. Why would I gain anything from being exposed to them? I am broadly aware that there are people who have those positions, and do my best to avoid them. Why would you seek them, just because you happen to be in college?

    EDIT: my understanding of what African-American studies teaches is vague, but I get the idea that they study the slavery, racism and discrimination they faced. You can’t avoid studying racist ideas in the subject that teaches the history of racism.

    • Matt M says:

      A student in Modern History will be taught about he Holocaust, but they won’t be exposed to Holocaust denial (because it’s false).

      I certainly hope there are students in modern history who are actively learning about holocaust denial. For two major reasons.

      1. Holocaust deniers exist. They are out there, in the public, making arguments. And some of these arguments have a certain level of nuance and specificity, that is, they go beyond the mere “IT WAS ALL FAKE AND YOU CAN’T PROVE OTHERWISE!” They make specific claims, claims that can and need to be disproven. It seems unlikely that one could muster the knowledge necessary to disprove their claims while simultaneously ignoring them entirely. If one side is making very specific arguments as to why they believe the way they do, and the other side has nothing to offer but “EVERYONE KNOWS THEIR GENERAL PREMISE IS WRONG,” that doesn’t look good at all. IMO, a world where nobody bothers to learn about holocaust denial is a world that’s well on its way to having holocaust denial become a mainstream position.

      2. Every so often, historical revisionism ends up being correct. There are plenty of other examples of things we “knew were false” that ended up being proven correct. I want people critically examining the issue, just in case the 1-in-1000 chance this is one of those issues.

      I am perfectly fine not being exposed to racist, homophobic or misogynistic ideas. Why would I gain anything from being exposed to them?

      See #1 above. If you want to be a public intellectual, or to have your opinions taken seriously in general, you need to be able to intelligently respond to and counter the arguments of your opponents.

      If you just want to live peaceably by yourself and not engage on these issues that’s totally fine. More power to you. But you can’t have it both ways. You can’t engage in public debate on an issue and expect to be taken seriously while simultaneously flat-out refusing to fully educate yourself on the topic at hand, solely because your opponents are icky.

      • ana53294 says:

        There are also people who deny the moon landing, who say 9/11 was orchestrated by the CIA, who say victims of school shootings are child actors, and people who believe that water makes you gay. And some of their specific arguments may be convincing.

        How much time should students be exposed to every false but popular idea?

        If you happen to be a scholar on the Holocaust, then you need to know what the deniers think. But students will need to specialize.

        • RC-cola-and-a-moon-pie says:

          There’s a big difference between avoiding wasting time on something because you don’t think it’s useful or sufficiently likely to repay your investment of time and avoiding something because you disagree with it and get emotionally upset at hearing someone express a differing viewpoint on a topic you feel strongly about. It’s the latter that is really relevant to the present topic. There are all sorts of things that many people might find don’t warrant an investment of time for various reasons. Remember, when we have a proposal to put a trigger warning on something in a class curriculum, that is by its very nature something that has — unlike your examples — been deemed worthy for inclusion and study by the expert teaching the course. If we were talking about something pointless to consider, it would not be included and the issue of a warning would never arise in the first place. People should not be encouraged to avoid ideas that are included in a school curriculum based on the unpleasantness of feeling offended by it. Rather, they should be taught that exposure to that feeling is a necessary and important good that should be experienced and actually cherished as a necessary part of intellectual growth.

        • AnonYEmous says:

          If you happen to be a scholar on the Holocaust, then you need to know what the deniers think. But students will need to specialize.

          this seems like a shift away from “not teaching x because FALSE” to “not teaching x because OVERSPECIALIZED”, which, for what it’s worth, I am fine with; I didn’t exactly learn about holocaust denial in school or anything like that, nor do I think that would’ve been necessary.

          • Matt M says:

            I also agree. Not everyone needs to specialize.

            But somebody needs to specialize. Society is worse off if nobody is learning about holocaust denial because “everyone knows it’s false.” And any particular individual who decides to become an expert on the holocaust probably damn well be familiar with the most common critiques of his life’s work.

          • ana53294 says:

            Well, but the person who decides to become an expert in the Holocaust chooses to do so. I am sure that, for example, reading the Nuremberg trial files (apparently, the Nuremberg files are not Holocaust related), is much more traumatic than reading ideas of deluded nutjobs. But if you are Jewish, and you decide to focus on, say, communist China’s history, why would you need to learn about Holocaust denial? It may be doubly unpleasant, because of your heritage, and you don’t need to know every antisemitic idea that is popular nowadays.

            As I said, if you choose to study African-American history, there will be no way of avoiding the study of slavery, Jim Crow laws and every other unpleasant thing they were subjected to. But unless you choose that as your specialization, why subject yourself to graphic descriptions of really unpleasant events?

        • bean says:

          There are also people who deny the moon landing, who say 9/11 was orchestrated by the CIA, who say victims of school shootings are child actors, and people who believe that water makes you gay. And some of their specific arguments may be convincing.

          How much time should students be exposed to every false but popular idea?

          I’d suggest a different metric. “You thought you learned about the Holocaust in school? Here’s what they didn’t teach you…” followed by stuff that doesn’t contradict any details you remember sounds a lot more likely to be convincing than “You know, fluoridation will sap and impurity your precious bodily fluids.” The later doesn’t have the ready-made hook into your mental processes.

          • ana53294 says:

            A lot of the 9/11 was a CIA job and the moon landing was a fake arguments may also sound convincing.

            One of the arguments that they keep repeating about the moon landing is the wave of the flag, and point out that there is no air in the Moon. Now, to anybody superficially acquainted with physics, this sounds convincing.

            Should we really spend that much time going over every reasonably sounding argument about every crackpot idea there is?

            I personally* know a lot more people who believe the Moon landing was false than people who are Holocaust deniers. According to Wikipedia,

            Opinion polls taken in various locations have shown that between 6% and 20% of Americans, 25% of Britons, and 28% of Russians surveyed believe that the manned landings were faked.

            And it seems like in Western Europe, there are about 11% of Holocaust deniers vs 20 % of moon landing deniers (although the definition of Holocaust deniers is a bit too broad; this includes people who believe it did not happen and those who think it was exaggerated).

            *Moon-landing denial is not racist or anti-semitic, so it is probably a more socially acceptable opinion to voice. Statistics do seem to support my impression, though, at least for Western Europe.

      • Eugene Dawn says:

        It’s not clear that you need people specifically being taught Holocaust denial to answer your two points though.

        When I learned biology, I wasn’t taught creationism just to dispute it. Sometimes a teacher would pause at a point and say something like, “now, sometimes you’ll hear creationists say [xyz] about this, which might sound superficially convincing. But actually, once you realize that [abc], you’ll understand the flaw in reasoning”.

        I certainly think students studying the Holocaust should be exposed to Holocaust denial similarly: “here is a point that deniers latch onto, because they (mis)interpret the evidence in this way, but once you read more carefully you’ll see that…”

        But teaching more than that risks just widening peoples’ exposure to a wrong idea; there’s no reason to teach more than is necessary to knock down common arguments.

        Similarly, though it’s possible that creationism will turn out to be correct, it’s not necessary for biologists to study creationism specifically in order to figure that out. If there are flaws in the standard story, experts in the field who study that topic closely are already well-placed to notice them.

        By your standard, we’d need physicists to devote some attention to the study of phlogiston and the luminiferous ether just in case it turns out standard theories are wrong. But it’s far better to just let physicists study physics, and unravel any flaws in our current theories in the normal course of their studies.

        EDIT to say, my point can be summarized as “learning the correct theory ought to give you the tools to rebut the incorrect theory anyway”.

        • dndnrsn says:

          It’s certainly true that learning the correct stuff will help rebut the incorrect stuff, without needing to specialize in rebuttal. The various expert witnesses the defence brought in for Irving’s libel suit were scholars in various aspects of the Holocaust, not experts specifically in rebutting Holocaust deniers. Being able to say “actually, that’s not right” when Irving said something incorrect was enough.

          At the same time, don’t physicists learn about phlogiston theory? Phlogiston theory seems different from Holocaust denial: it’s a formerly-mainstream-accepted explanation for something that turned out to be incorrect, and it would presumably be taught as part of the history of the field – in the same way that a scholar of the Holocaust might learn about the Historikerstreit or about the ways that scholars responded to Nazi documents that the Soviets had grabbed in 1945 becoming publicly available following the fall of the USSR. Phlogistion theory is an old theory that was mainstream but discarded as incorrect when new evidence came up; Holocaust denial has never been mainstream and is instead a sort of parallel fringe tendency. A better composition would be to something like fringe “free energy” theories – automotive engineers don’t have to spend time learning about claims that some guy somewhere has built an engine that runs on water.

          Of course, this isn’t just about specialists. Most people don’t learn very much about the Holocaust one way or the other, and that’s where the deniers get their hooks in. Learn enough about the Holocaust and the claims of deniers are simply ludicrous.

          • Eugene Dawn says:

            I don’t think physicists learn much more about discredited theories than what’s necessary or convenient to motivate correct ones; I was a math student, not physics so my education might not be typical, but I learned nothing at all about phlogiston, and only learned about the ether in history of science classes.

            They certainly won’t study phlogiston in any serious depth, I am almost certain, though welcome correction if anyone has a different experience.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            At the same time, don’t physicists learn about phlogiston theory?

            I can’t think where that would fit into a physics curriculum? I took 3 under grad physics course and it was never mentioned and I can’t see how it would really have been relevant? I doubt my sister who just finished a Physics major and is now pursuing a PhD would have been taught that either, unless it was an aside. Of course I could be wrong.

            That said, I think the concept of not being even exposed to difficult material is mostly a weak man. I don’t believe there is actually much support for the idea that students should be exempted from standard material, but rather accommodated in how they are expected to learn it.

            Of course, some of what is being asked for is a certain kind of flexibility. Going back our putative physics major, if they were Stephen Hawking, and certain lab work required accessing a telescope in some remote area, we might reasonably expect that Hawking would be let out of that if it wasn’t possible to get him there.

          • dndnrsn says:

            My impression was that most universities require some kind of breadth requirement – scientists gotta take one humanities course and vice versa – and that this is often served by courses like “History of Science” – the scientists can take it as a history course, and the historians as a science course.

            I may also just be thinking that learning about the past of one’s field is a general thing, when it might actually be confined to the humanities, or to the social sciences and humanities. I took as few science courses as possible. That stuff’s hard.

        • Thegnskald says:

          It is critically important for scientists to learn theories that were disproven – because that is how you learn how to disprove things, by examining how things were tested and disproven in the past.

          This seems… I don’t know, transparently obvious?

          • Eugene Dawn says:

            I’m genuinely curious if this is actually how physics is taught. I only took a handful of physics courses, so my experience might not mean much. Can you point to the curriculum of a university where they discuss phlogiston in any sort of detail?

            My guess is they “disprove” phlogiston in much the same way that my high school biology teacher “disproved” creationism: by presenting a highly stylized version of it to present the biggest weaknesses, contrasted with the strengths of the replacement; not at all by treating it as a stand-alone theory with merits and demerits worth exploring on their own.

          • Eugene Dawn says:

            Just to follow up, a quick Google search for “phlogiston lecture notes” turns up only history of science material, and one brief mention in a “Early History of Chemistry” section in actual chemistry notes with essentially no detail.

          • Thegnskald says:

            I have never encountered phlogiston theory.

            I did encounter in my basic physics coursework Aristotlean physics, and then impetus, and then inertia (and the reasoning for discarding them, as well as experiments that could work).

            I remember similar material from thermodynamics, but the only name I recall is Maxwell’s Demon, on a thought experiment on how entropy might be disproven (although clearly it wasn’t).

          • dick says:

            I have a BS in Physics and I think phlogiston was probably mentioned once or twice, but it certainly wasn’t important and it’s probably not a good example of needing to understand an outmoded theory in order to understand what replaced it better. Maybe the Bohr atom would be a good example of that? But that’s pretty far off of the topic that got us here (the value of teaching offensive material).

          • Thegnskald says:

            Dick, on the value of controversial material:

            Inoculation.

            There are a few people here that “know” racism is bad. Do they know -why- it is bad? Do they know what arguments made it seem like a good thing a few decades ago? Would they recognize those same arguments, posed today against other groups of people?

            Honestly – I think the answer is an obvious and overwhelming “No”, because a whole hell of a lot of my fellow leftists use arguments that would have fit in perfectly in pro-white rhetoric a few decades ago, they just now apply them to a different outgroup.

            It isn’t enough for our society not to repeat the mistake of racism, if we just repeat the same logic to produce new prejudices.

          • dick says:

            Dick, on the value of controversial material: Inoculation.

            I wholeheartedly agree, I just don’t think phlogiston is a good example. You started this subthread by saying, “It is critically important for scientists to learn theories that were disproven,” and I don’t think it’s critically important for anyone to learn very much about phlogiston. The Bohr atom, on the other hand, is a “false” model that’s still used because it’s a useful model in some contexts, and learning which contexts it is and isn’t useful in is a great way to learn some important aspects of QM.

            Edit: I do agree that it’s important for aspiring physicists to learn about disproven theories generally, and they do; phlogiston just isn’t one of the ones that gets a lot of focus. I know it was more or less picked out of a hat and is not central to anyone’s theory of anything, so this is probably beating a dead horse, I only piped up because you and Eugene were discussing it.

    • cuke says:

      My understanding is that medical training does include discussion of the various concerns of anti-vaxxers — particularly family practice and peds training — precisely because a lot of being a doctor means being able to engage with patients’ fears around all different kinds of medical interventions, and this particular one involves doctors in their duty to safeguard public health. Anti-vaxxers have varying reasons for being against vaccines, not all of which are religious or conspiracy-based; some of them have to do with the particular health conditions of their kids or specific family histories. A doctor has to know enough about these different concerns to speak to them accurately.

      In other fields — policymaker, elected official, entrepreneur, engineer, etc — you aren’t going to be effective at winning support for whatever your project is if you don’t have the tools to engage with people who have very different views from you.

      My main thought as a mental health provider is that a strategy mainly of avoiding unpleasantness tends to reinforce anxiety and depression. Feeling sturdy and curious in the face of widely different views seems to bolster confidence and a sense of safety in the world. I think that’s a good thing for educational institutions to be engaged in helping people with. Having said that, one of the reasons I think content warnings are probably a good idea in some contexts is so that people can have a little more choice about when and how they encounter some flavors of unpleasantness.

      • To_do_list says:

        As another mental health provider, I fully agree with you regarding potential effects of avoidance and curiousity 🙂 I wonder if a key underlying point in these discussions is how to get there: how do you get to curiousity?

        From this perspective, I am not a CBT therapist, but it is my understanding that effective therapeutic protocols of exposure usually involve informed consent, establishing safety, and gradual exposure. Whereas unpredictable exposure to difficult things in real life often maintains the original difficulty. I mean, some people do overcome things on their own and resilience is definitely a thing, but this varies a lot.

        So it strikes me that the idea of content warnings fits quite well with several therapeutic exposure principles (as I understand them). First, at the very least, it allows for informed consent. Second, as you said, some choice about where and how to encounter things: Potentially, having this choice could increase a sense of safety and/or enable some control of the extent of exposure. Oh, a study that could test these mechanisms…

    • Randy M says:

      “unpleasant” is subjective.

      • ana53294 says:

        I am mostly referring to ideas that are controversial and unnecessary for the study of the subject. This includes misogyny, racism, anti-semitism, LGBTQ+-phobia, or denial of established scientific ideas.

        I maintain that when studying a degree you don’t need to be exposed to every controversial/crackpot idea that is popular about that field. Now, a GP or a pediatrician may need to know about anti-vaxxers, and what their ideas are, so they can allay fears and convince people to vaccinate their kids. But not every doctor needs to know how to respond to anti-vaxxers’ convincing arguments. Why would, for example, a cardio-thoracic surgeon* or a neurologist be studying anti-vaxxer ideology? Why waste their time when they can spend it learning something more useful?

        Universities already teach a lot of useless stuff. If they start exposing people to every idea that contradicts their teachings (anti-vaxxers, climate deniers, Holocaust deniers, young-earth creationists, etc.), a lot of time will be wasted without much good achieved. Nobody talked about young-earth creationism during evolutionary biology class, and I don’t think I missed anything.

        * A surgeon may need to learn the law on blood transfusions, so they can force kids of religious parents to accept blood transfusions. In Spain, parents cannot legally oppose their kids receiving a blood transfusion if the minor’s life is in danger. Knowing the law enables the doctor to act swiftly.

        • Randy M says:

          You said unpleasant. Unpleasant and controversial–and false, for that matter–are different and not very closely correlated qualities, neither is necessarily traumatic to healthy people, and examples of both will likely be found in the course material for any particular subject.

          Universities already teach a lot of useless stuff.

          I’m not sure useful is even considered for the mission statement of most universities.

    • lvlln says:

      This exposure has a point and is useful. But the idea that you should be exposed to unpleasant ideas just out of curiosity seems strange to me. I am perfectly fine not being exposed to racist, homophobic or misogynistic ideas. Why would I gain anything from being exposed to them? I am broadly aware that there are people who have those positions, and do my best to avoid them. Why would you seek them, just because you happen to be in college?

      You have no way of knowing if those ideas are racist, homophobic, or misogynistic, without actually being exposed to them. Now, after some level of exposure, you might learn enough about them to actually KNOW that they are racist, homophobic, or misogynistic, but without that initial exposure, you’re just taking it on faith based on someone else’s word, and much of college education is figuring things out why and how true things are true, rather than just being indoctrinated into believing things as being true.

      Furthermore, there is no way to accurately predict the ideas that one will be exposed to in the future. We aren’t ems living in perfectly controlled simulations yet. Being a well-rounded educated person means being able to handle any ideas that come your way in a reasoned way without letting one’s lizard brain take over and supersede your mental faculties. That means having practice being exposed to unpleasant ideas that cause you to experience negative emotions is useful. It makes perfect sense for colleges to make students practice this.

      That doesn’t mean hitting students with as many unpleasant ideas as possible willy-nilly. It means doing so in structured ways designed to keep students right on the boundary between comfort and discomfort, while constantly pushing the size of their boundaries. Exposure therapy doesn’t work by just tossing the patient right to the thing that triggers their phobia, after all.

      • Matt M says:

        Right. And despite the absolutely ridiculous left-wing bias of all major universities, I’m still willing to let the professors use their own judgment on this.

        What I reject is the notion that students can or should dictate to their professors what content must not be covered because it’s too icky or because it’s obviously wrong or what have you.

        If a history professor thinks it’s appropriate to spend some amount of time covering holocaust denial, they should be free to do so. If a gender studies professor considers it critical to assign readings or films that explore rape or other graphic themes, they should be free to do that as well.

        • cuke says:

          “What I reject is the notion that students can or should dictate to their professors what content must not be covered because it’s too icky or because it’s obviously wrong or what have you.”

          Agreed. Is it your sense that professors are practicing a lot of self-censorship in response to feeling dictated to? Do you think content warnings are likely to make professors feel more protected to include controversial/difficult material or less?

          Just speaking for myself, if I were a professor now, I think I’d feel more secure about including potentially inflammatory content to my courses if I added content warnings.

          If I had time to write more now I would say something about how I think we’ve moved some as a society towards recognizing the merits of getting people’s informed consent for more things that we used to. I think this could be both a good and bad thing — an extension of our very litigious society and a reflection of valuing people’s autonomy more.

          • Matt M says:

            I have no idea what professors are or aren’t doing out there in the field.

            The comparison to “informed consent” is fine, such as it is. That said, I don’t think “I find this icky” is a reasonable excuse to avoid anything that the professor determines is part of the normal curriculum.

            If someone wants to avoid content they find objectionable, I’m fine with them getting up and walking out of the room, so long as they don’t make a scene about it. However, I would treat such an act as the exact same as if any random student got up and walked out of a lecture for any random reason. No excuses, no special privileges, etc. Just like in real life. You are free to participate or not participate in whatever you’d like, but your behavior is not free from consequence.

            The student who chooses not to read Huck Finn because they find the language offensive should be treated the same way as the student who chooses not to read Huck Finn because they were out drinking and partying and didn’t feel like it.

          • Thegnskald says:

            Feeling secure in providing content that would have gone unremarked a few decades ago, because now you can comfortably know you are failing in your duty to educate your students…

            Well, I guess that is one approach to the problem of societal oversensitivity.

    • Thegnskald says:

      Part of the purpose of a college degree is to demonstrate that you can jump through all the hoops and navigate all the obstacles.

      Assume, for the moment, you are a stuffy and sociopathic HR drone who wants to maximize productivity and minimize potential lawsuits.

      You are looking at applicants with degrees from two universities. One has extensive trigger warnings, and opting out of emotionally difficult material is possible. The other has no trigger warnings whatsoever.

      Which do you hire from, assuming trigger warnings have some effect at all, and the marginal student who would drop out at the latter university would be able to succeed at the first? Remember, you have no humanity, you are corporate interest in corporeal form.

      —-

      Either trigger warnings do nothing – which is my suspicion, to be honest, as I think they are just weapons of social warfare – or they are a symptom of a deeper and harder to define problem in society. Each generation born with antibiotics has that much less selection pressure to have a good immune system, increasing future need for antibiotics. What are we looking at here?

      • ana53294 says:

        If students read trigger warnings, and instead of learning about some bullshit culture war topic choose to learn something hard or more marginally useful, wouldn’t that be a positive sign?

        So, if a student avoids a course called “Sexual violence perception in the Classic Era”, which is full of trigger warnings and instead chooses to study a course called “Classic Greek I”, which has no trigger warnings but is quite hard and involves being able to read Classic Greek, which one would you choose?

        Now, if students choose trigger warnings to not study parts of the official syllabus for the course and insist on getting full grades despite not knowing that part, then there is a problem. But not with the trigger warnings, but with students getting full grades for something they didn’t study.

        If avoiding a topic is important enough for somebody to fail a course they paid thousands of dollars for, then I think that is OK.

        • Matt M says:

          If students read trigger warnings, and instead of learning about some bullshit culture war topic choose to learn something hard or more marginally useful, wouldn’t that be a positive sign?

          If your goal is to make college “more marginally useful” then we can start by immediately disbanding all of the “gender studies” and other such similar departments.

          You’re grasping for straws here.

          (whoops, trigger warning, post includes commentary on banned environmentally toxic drinking device)

      • ana53294 says:

        If I were in charge of personnel selection, I would value the trait “avoids controversial/unplesant/culture war topics” quite highly. As was proven by the recent CEO says-the-n-word hullabaloo, avoiding such topics is the best strategy. They should pivot, deflect, joke, or resort to “no comment”. There is no way to win. You lose customers from the blue or red tribe.

        Being able to take outrageous ideas, and debate then rationally is a useless trait for a job. One of the things most people learn after college is not to mention your controversial opinions even with your closest colleagues. You should avoid them, and refuse to participate in conversations on those topics. And when somebody says something that could be true but is socially unacceptable publicly, you should wait for the others to react and then follow the crowd.

        Having principles that are opposed to the general social consensus may be good for your soul, but is not a good trait for the company’s bottom line.

        • Thegnskald says:

          In case you haven’t noticed, “People should be able to avoid controversial positions” is a controversial position. So you don’t get any non-controversy points for holding it.

          • Matt M says:

            Right. And if the professor assigns certain readings, the least controversial thing you can do is… shut up and read what is assigned.

            Making a scene and refusing to read the topic because you declare it to be too controversial isn’t avoiding controversy… it’s stoking it.

        • lvlln says:

          Being able to take outrageous ideas, and debate then rationally is a useless trait for a job. One of the things most people learn after college is not to mention your controversial opinions even with your closest colleagues. You should avoid them, and refuse to participate in conversations on those topics. And when somebody says something that could be true but is socially unacceptable publicly, you should wait for the others to react and then follow the crowd.

          This seems to presume that we have some knowledge of what counts as “outrageous ideas,” which is false. There’s no master list of “outrageous ideas” that you can just find out if someone wants to avoid or debate. Whether or not an idea is outrageous to someone is subjective and is difficult to determine beforehand.

          That’s why some would argue that it’s desirable to have employees who have demonstrated the ability to handle ideas that they find “outrageous” without shutting down or becoming emotional messes. Obviously different jobs differ in what’s required, but a lot of work that requires a college education requires people to engage with and learn new ideas every day, and it’s impossible to filter those beforehand for which ones the employee considers “outrageous” and which ones they don’t, and if it turns out that an “outrageous” idea is necessary for doing the job and the employee isn’t equipped to handle it, that’s likely bad for the bottom line.

        • Randy M says:

          Being able to take outrageous ideas, and debate then rationally is a useless trait for a job.

          This strikes me as a failure of imagination. The ability to set aside your emotions and debate rationally translates to any position with any thought required.

          Picture an engineer trying to solve a problem with a product. The boss is sure it is on the customer’s end; the employee may upset them by presenting the case that it is not. Unfortunately this employee has been conditioned to think that considering opposing viewpoints is likely to cause them to break out in a panic attack. How will they proceed?

          • ana53294 says:

            That is not the same thing. What I mean by the sentence you quote is, if somebody says something outrageous and socially unacceptable “black people are imprisoned more frequently because they are more aggressive”, the most socially acceptable response is to shout racist, not to analyze whether blacks are more aggressive. If you try to look at the data, and try to see statistical patterns, you will loose and you will become a pariah “that guy agrees with racists; he takes what they say at face value, when they are obviously trying to give a post-fact explanation to the high black imprisonment rate, which is obviously due to institutional racism”.

            Dealing with an angry customer is different.

          • Randy M says:

            That is not the same thing.

            Clearly. The skillset is the same, though.

            Your new argument is interesting, though. Paraphrased, people need trigger warnings because they act as more or less explicit warnings about what topic is controversial. Honest, at least.

          • ana53294 says:

            You need to be able to distinguish when it is approppriate to be dettached and analytical and when it is not. It is OK to do it with an angry client (although if an angry client say, insists that he doesn’t want to be served food by a black person, the best strategy is to kick his ass out). But you also need to have the sensibility to social issues to avoid controversial topics that, although they may not be emotionally changed to you, are still very personal to a lot of people.

            Mostly, you should keep your mouth shut and keep your opinions on your clients hands growing from his ass and on the lower intelligence of women being the reason they don’t get a tech job to yourself. Not saying stuff that is going to anger important people is very important (and your customers are important people, even if their social status is lower than yours).

        • Aapje says:

          @ana53294

          If I were in charge of personnel selection, I would value the trait “avoids controversial/unplesant/culture war topics” quite highly. As was proven by the recent CEO says-the-n-word hullabaloo, avoiding such topics is the best strategy. They should pivot, deflect, joke, or resort to “no comment”.

          Do students learn these different strategies and their applicability when the college policy is to very carefully introduce controversial/unpleasant/culture war stuff and when it allows them to disengage when they want to?

          A colleague/customer/superior may say very unpleasant things without warning. Disengaging may not be an option.

          I don’t disagree with your post per se, but merely pointing out that this logic isn’t necessarily a good defense of trigger warnings, the right to exit the classroom when certain material is discussed and such.

  26. ana53294 says:

    Content warnings in videos may be useful if you don’t want kids to watch what wasn’t intended for them. A year ago, there was this advertisement by a German sex shop that apparently a lot of kids watched, because kids liked it.

    I don’t think any of the kids realised the content of the video (I didn’t realise at first, until I was a minute into the video). The video is very kid friendly, except for the sex toys: very bright colors, catchy song. I don’t think any of the kids were traumatised (if anybody was traumatised, that was the kids’ parents when they realised their kids watched a sex-shop ad). But parents may wish to avoid exposing their kids to such things. The filters in Youtube break all the time, and kids are exposed to content a lot more gory than the sex-shop ad, so this can be a problem.

    • xXxanonxXx says:

      Content warnings had the exact opposite effect when I was young. “Unrated and banned in 20 countries!” was a great selling point.

      • Edward Scizorhands says:

        In college we used the number of warnings before a movie as a star system.

        Brief Nudity = half-star
        Adult Situations = half-star
        Nudity = one star
        Violence = one star
        Explicit language = one star
        Sexual Content = one star
        Graphic violence = two stars

  27. Thegnskald says:

    How do you warn people who are triggered by the word “trigger”? It is very triggering to victims of gun violence.

    ETA: Also, rural eateries sell dollops of ointment to help prevent moist nuggets of curdled phlegm after eating pulped yeast cakes.

  28. 57dimensions says:

    I’ll just add my 2 cents as a current student at a very “woke” liberal arts college, the type of place that is the setting for trigger warning/sensitive students news pieces. In my freshman year I cannot recall a single instance of a professor using the phrase “trigger warning” or stating or writing any kind of content warning. It’s possible that it was such a minor occurrence that I didn’t have any reason to remember it. And it’s not like I took only math courses, the content I was exposed to included: rape, graphic description of heroin abuse, racially motivated murder and lynching, cannibalism and human sacrifice (in an ancient history context, but something that was mentioned in the comments above), a 1st person experience in a concentration camp, videos of human corpses, and more that I can’t remember. No one left the room when we watched or discussed these things, no one raised any issues about the content. And I didn’t hear of any controversy across the whole campus about trigger warnings or content of classes, and this is a pretty small school where things like that would be a big topic of discussion. I don’t doubt that these “sensitive students” incidents have happened, but I think they have been massively overblown and is a controversy that mostly exists on the internet.

    • Thegnskald says:

      Sure.

      That doesn’t mean it isn’t an important discussion.

      Cases only get to the Supreme Court when something very unusual occurs; frequently, these cases are extreme outliers that are far from representative of the usual sort of case.

      But edge cases are precisely the situations that produce novel thought, or permit us to discard what seemed like a workable solution.

      Edge cases provoke debate, via toxoplasmic effects. They also tend to be the most useful cases to debate, since they are precisely the cases where ambiguities start causing the core assumptions of the status quo to fall apart.

      • mtl1882 says:

        Excellent point. I agree with 57dimensions that this seems to be largely blown way out of proportion, and I’m sick of hearing about it, but you are definitely right. I guess the reason this bugs me is because I feel like thus far the debate has been anything but enlightening (outside of some people on SSC). I suppose I don’t really view it as an edge case. It is clear that trigger warnings are a matter of choice, just like other difficult choices we make in the education field. Few hard rules were ever present, and it just boils down to people arguing over context, relevance, scope, and respect. These debates are fine in themselves. It’s not like professors weren’t already making choices as to subject matter, sometimes in a way that was detrimental to a good education in the subject; I’m sure they were also pressured by administrators to tone down certain things quite frequently. Things have not changed that much; students who make outrageous demands probably weren’t intellectually curious enough to have appreciated the material anyway. People just need to get better at making their points clear. People just like to try and take a moral high ground here (I know some people are legitimately concerned about trauma victims or educational implications, but I don’t think most of those complaining are that thoughtful, on either side) – there is no new dispute.

    • cuke says:

      I’m glad you shared your experience because I was wondering this myself and thinking the media has pretty big incentives to overblow stories like this.

      I had quite a number of professors from the early 80s to the mid-00s (when I was in and out of undergrad and grad school) do verbal content warnings to students in class about all kinds of content.

      I wonder if the equivalent of content warnings had been going on informally for a long time, but during a time when we didn’t have an internet or online teaching and most professors could assume they’d be in contact with their students in classrooms when they gave out reading assignments. I wonder how much the internet and the use of internet-mediated instruction has produced a more formal written CW, rather than it being a product of more snowflake-y students.

      I appreciate Thegnskald’s view that unusual cases are worth talking about. I think then it helps to recognize that’s what we’re doing. A lot of the heat of discussion around content warnings suggests that they are pervasive, that students feel entitled to dictate content to professors, and that professors are self-censoring out of fear of touching on anything even remotely controversial.

  29. P. George Stewart says:

    If you put trigger warnings in the Boring Legalese bit they’re no longer trigger warnings.

    And they’ve got nothing to do with trauma sufferers, they’re just ideological/intellectual pocket lint from the identity politics brigade.

  30. Windward says:

    De-lurking to note a sort of mundane use of “trigger warnings” in non-academic settings: they help you choose whether to invest your time and effort (and possibly money) in a particular story or other piece of material. Call them spoilers if you like, but honestly – I can’t be alone in the experience of coming to a point in a book or a short story and encountering a plot twist featuring something that I find disturbing or repulsive and thinking, “Had I known where this road was going, I wouldn’t have gone so far on it.” Sometimes it’s pretty obvious that certain material contain certain things – from titles, opening paragraphs, etc. – but sometimes it’s hidden because it’s part of the solution for a mystery, or a character’s traumatic backstory reveal, or possibly something the author just doesn’t consider in need of foreshadowing. In this case it’s less of a “well, X thing being mentioned harms me” and more of a “if engaging with this material will eventually involve engaging long-term with details on X sensitive subject, I might not consider it worth the later discomfort to invest in it the first place.”

    I actually use this quite a lot in terms of reading reviews, etc. before picking up new books.
    The applicability of this to an academic situation would be that, if a grade were involved, I would be a lot more likely decide that it *was* worth the discomfort to engage with the material… although possibly skimming warily, depending on what it was.

    FWIW, there also are times when certain topics tend to get snapped up by my Intrusive Thought Generator, and then yes, actually, I *do* appreciate knowing when I should avoid or skim. So I’m actually more sympathetic than not to the concept of trigger warnings. The tumblr function of tags and blacklisting is useful because you can see that So-and-so reblogged a post containing ‘____’ and depending on the day and how much you know about so-and-so, you can then choose to click to view the post or not. Which goes back to my first paragraph as well. I may read Author A’s book even if it contains (for a random example) serial killers, but avoid Author B’s take on the subject because I know how Author B tends to deal with things and don’t fancy seeing them try their hand at it.

    tl:dr I think “trigger warnings” by whatever name we call them can be useful information and in practice can be used much more broadly than “read/don’t read.”

  31. pansnarrans says:

    I probably missed this in the article, but isn’t the study utterly irrelevant anyway because people were still required to read the passage after the trigger warning? I thought the whole point of trigger warnings was so you could avoid the material in question, although I guess some people might just use them to steel themselves for an unpleasant experience.

  32. deciusbrutus says:

    Breaking this to a top level comment:

    The steelman of trigger warnings is that they allow people to give informed consent about the type of content that an author is causing to be loaded into their brain. In the absence of information about whether the next page of an anatomy textbook is going to be a full-page picture of a major trauma, the student who turns that page *has not given informed consent* to be exposed to that image, and it is just as immoral for the class to use that textbook without making it clear that such images would be present as it would be for a student presentation in a literature class to, without warning, display that same image to everyone, or for someone on the street to print it on a large sign and display it to everyone walking past.

    I’m not going to address the political/legal question of whether people should be fined or imprisoned for doing that.

    I am going to address the moral question of ‘to what degree *should* responsible actors actively refrain from doing things in the category of “Cause things which are reasonably expected to create distress to somebody be presented to them without first receiving informed consent”‘.

    First, I will defer the discussion about which categories of trigger are “reasonably expected to cause distress”. That is largely question of fact that can be evaluated by reference to actual facts, and frankly the intuitions of someone who is being honest about the matter (rather than lying to themselves to promote a particular conclusion) would be good enough if we could find a way to use them.

    Having pushed the parts that are hard to implement into a different discussion, and generalizing a bit, we are considering to what degree it is acceptable to unilaterally decide whether the expected harm to another person outweighs the expected benefit to them.

    I say that only under exceptional circumstances is it justified to decide such things for someone else. I think medical ethics backs me up, and the textbook case will be a person who religiously objects to receiving some type of medical intervention, like a blood transfusion. I won’t repeat the discussion about when it is okay to treat someone against their will, but I include by reference the reasoning and conclusion that by default, if someone refuses treatment that will help them, you don’t force them to receive it.

    There does appear to be a difference between giving someone a blood transfusion and writing (fan)fiction or setting a curriculum. The physical acts that implement those things are very distinct. But they are all things which initiate a causal chain intended to alter the state of someone else- for medical treatment it is obvious how that works.

    For the author of a work of fiction, that decomposes into the abstract nature of communication in general- the Speaker has a concept or state of mind, which they encode into Media, the Media passes to the Listener, and the Listener decodes it back into a concept or state of mind. Removing the non-agents from the process: The author wants the reader to feel or think something, and performs actions that cause that intention to occur. But because the intention of the author is to make a change to another agent, it would be immoral to do so without the actual consent of the reader.

    Negotiating all of that consent explicitly is probably not possible. The trivial part is trivial: It’s generally not okay to speak to someone with the primary purpose of causing harm to them. (If you disagree with that, I have a message for you [TW:Suicide],ROT13 )

    Yvgrenyyl xvyy lbhefrys. Rirelbar jvyy or orggre bss vs lbh fgbc rkvfgvat. V frevbhfyl jvyy uryc lbh, ng zl bja yrtny naq zbeny crevy.

    The hard part of it is handled through a deep level of social norms that are a sub-sub-specialization of sociology, and beyond my ability to analyze, but it’s okay to say most things in public without getting into infinite recursion asking if you can ask consent to be asked consent. Generally, saying or writing things that don’t harm anybody (too much) is allowed.

    The easy part is harder- how to handle media intended for a mass audience, but which is harmful to some people.

    We did manage to do some of it- back when video stores were a thing, the “adult” sections, where the box covers were likely to contain pictures that were, at the time, reasonably expected to cause distress to some people would be placed in such a manner as to prevent people from observing them without knowing that they were entering the adult video section.

    Having a scene that is reasonably expected to cause a harmful PTSD episode in the middle of a book is substantially equivalent to finding a hardcore porn video in the Comedy section; a thing that causes harm to some people is present in an area where they encounter it without agreeing to do so. Placing the triggering scene in a correctly labeled work doesn’t reduce the harm it does to people it harms, any more than someone who faints at the sight of the female nipple is safe if they walk into the adult section, but it does mean that anyone who encounters it has consented to encounter it. The patient who accepts a blood transfusion consents to some chance (the base rate) of experiencing Transfusion Reaction Syndrome, and while it doesn’t cause any less harm if they agreed to the transfusion, it’s intuitively a very different situation if the transfusion was given over their objections and complications arise.

    The professor setting the curriculum demonstrates the “informed” portion of informed consent. The only common knowledge available is that the students can read the course description when they sign up for the class; any word of mouth rumors, faculty recommendations, or news stories about the content of the class do not meet the information theory standard of common knowledge.

    The student, by reading or willfully ignoring the course description and signing up for and attending the course, explicitly consents to be exposed to the content discussed in the course description. Content not in the course description is not included in that explicit consent; the harmless bits that are covered by the social contract theory that covers the hard part of the problem. But causing someone to put sunk costs into attending the class, and revealing how the class will harm some people only after the add/drop timeframe has closed brings the validity of the students’ consent into question. Where the professor knew that some people would be harmed by discussions required for their class, and failed to disclose that information in the course description, they intentionally coerced consent for personal profit. (Coerced, because students who have sunk costs in the class are not free to simply withdraw. For profit, because if more students paid for the course as a result of the deception, it’s straight-up money; if the professor simply had to do less work, it’s merely the benefit of doing less work. Either way, it can be malicious or merely negligent).

    Now we try to answer the first question: To what degree must we seek consent before possibly harming them? Obviously that depends on the likelihood and magnitude of the harm; since most ordinary consent is handled non-explicitly, it makes sense for the weakest cases to be handled mostly implicitly. But it is impossible to consent to something with no idea of what it is. It is absolutely necessary for content descriptors to exist before consent to read can be given; once content descriptors exist in a usable form, I think that having them accurate and available is completely sufficient for consent to read.

    To those who argue that the world lacks content descriptors: I blame that entirely on the author of the world, whose decision process you should not emulate in any manner.

    tldr; Don’t hurt people without their consent. Some people are hurt as a result of being exposed to the contents of certain information media. Telling them about the contents before they choose to be exposed to them is sufficient to get their consent.

  33. rm0 says:

    There seem to be two very different ideas about what trigger warnings do/should/would cover. There seem to be two camps: warnings as tags describing the content (e.g. “red tribe views”, “religion”, “atheism”, “mortality”), where people might not want to engage with the content, but it’s in their best interests to do so, and warnings as specific topics that make people feel really bad and not just in a this-view-makes-me-uncomfortable way (e.g. “suicide”, “graphic violence”, “rape”).

    The people in camp 1 (the high-decoupling crew), see the phenomenon of people choosing not to engage with material that makes them uncomfortable as a bad thing. They might fear that saying “cw: homophobia” would devolve into “cw: Wrong and Bad views” or “cw: incredibly specific thing that you’ll get yelled at for forgetting”. I would expect these people to dislike filter bubbles, not be very convinced by the current performative direction social justice is taking, and be more red/grey tribe.

    Examples:

    You’re grasping for straws here.
    (whoops, trigger warning, post includes commentary on banned environmentally toxic drinking device)

    …opting out of emotionally difficult material

    And who gets to determine whether a story necessitates these warnings? Do we put a rape warning on Greek mythology (Zeus in particular loved to flirt with the boundaries of informed consent)? Does a Raymond Chandler book get a murder warning, or is a murder warning reserved for more vivid, lingering depictions of the act itself? Do Huckleberry Finn and the Turner Diaries get the same “racial slur” warning?

    The people in camp 2 (low-decoupling) see it not as people avoiding difficult things, but as people avoiding things that are a) more difficult for them than 99% of the population and b) not part of something really that important. They see the hurdles camp 1 focuses on as implementation details. I would expect these people to lean more left, be less contrarian than camp 1, and be younger.

    Examples:

    For the people who WANT to learn, trigger warnings/content notes are a tool to help them do it better and become more resilient.

    I’ve seen serious trigger discussion regarding vets and rape/assault victims, but more often it’s become an eye-rolling theme to mock pampered college students who need a “safe space” with crayons if they read a history book about a less inclusive past or God forbid see a Trump poster.

    This next section will be difficult to write, but I think it’s important. CW: self harm

    I have had experience with self-harm. It was quite bad and I never want to feel that way again. Descriptions of it, even mentions of it aside from impersonal things like “CW: Self harm”, razor blades, the sight of blood, and worst of all, video of it snaps me back into the mindset I was in back then. Even certain songs trigger it: “Hurt” and “My Immortal” (Yes, this is a very embarrassing selection. I am aware.) are incredibly difficult to listen to. I was in a movie theater once and Hurt was playing for a trailer, and I don’t think my mental state has ever done the kind of 180 from “having fun with friends” to “I want to go to a bathroom and get the blade out of my wallet” so fast.

    I don’t need trigger warnings for those songs, they’re just something I have to deal with. But I don’t want to feel this way any time it could be avoided by three words, “TW: Self-Harm”.

    This is what I want a trigger warning for. Not things I disagree with, not things that are difficult, not things that make me angry. I don’t want colleges to be “safe spaces” – we make our own ones of those in the form of support groups, and I think it would be frankly ridiculous to expect everyone to always have the “right” opinions.[0] But if a film we’re watching in class features someone who slits their wrists in a bathtub, please tell me first. I can probably handle it. But I’d like to make that choice for myself.

    [0] more opinions on request; tldr safe space=we’re not gonna call people f*gs is good, safe space=no trump voters is bad.

  34. mtl1882 says:

    I don’t have strong feelings on trigger warnings, but the issue that keeps coming back to me is how to deal with disturbing characters/situations in fiction. A character may use racial slurs or do some other terrible thing, but that, to me, is very different from books where the writer him/herself does the same. Including a character reflective of the world we live in is not necessarily an endorsement of that character, and sometimes the book may be clearly indicating that this character is terrible. It’s very necessary to address certain issues and make certain points. Many songs are like this, though of course I’m blanking on a good example. Maybe “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” or “Every Breath You Take.” I don’t think those songs endorse statutory rape or stalking, but they portray the thought processes of people who exist, and that can be quite useful. I don’t think “Wake Up Call” is endorsing killing your cheating partner’s lover, but it is exploring a situation that happens. That doesn’t mean some people wouldn’t still want to avoid the scenario, but treating those situations as the same always seems wrong to me. I realize we already do this with most content warnings – we treat certain things the same regardless of context, which is why regulating obscenity and offensive behavior is generally impossible to do intelligently. And many people are actually unable to distinguish the inclusion of a character from the promotion of it.

  35. Plumber says:

    “….but the right-wing sources that exaggerated this are still light-years behind the left in their ability to falsify and weaponize study results…”

    “….but the right-wing sources that exaggerated this are still light-years behind the left in their ability to falsify and weaponize study results…”

    Any particular examples in mind?
    I’m sure there’s some (it’s a big world) but I’m genuinely ignorant, probably because I’m 50 years old and never went to college (though I did grow up near UC Berkeley, so as a youth I’d sneak into their libraries), but I don’t know of such “studies” and I’m curious