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Lecture discusses trigger warnings on college campuses

May 13, 2022

Editor’s note 05/18/2022 at 12:28 p.m. EDT: A previous version of this article included the lecturer’s photograph and name in its headline. The article has been updated to remove both inclusions at the lecturer’s request.

Professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies at Bates College Rebecca Herzig addressed the increasing conversation about and presence of trigger warnings in higher educational spaces in a lecture on Monday in the Moulton Union Main Lounge.

The talk focused on the discussion around defining abuse—a theme which runs through much of Herzig’s work. She began by talking about her previous published work: “Plucked: A History of Hair Removal,” which tells the history of hair removal around the world.

“Plucked” begins by outlining the forcible beard removal of prisoners detained in Guantanamo Bay. She continued to return to a line from this piece throughout the talk: “struggle over meanings of suffering and consent shape the boundaries of liberal governance.”

Herzig then shifted into a discussion about how higher education can serve as an exemplary model for this form of liberal governance, which is why she chose to focus primarily on trigger warnings and the response to them in this college setting. Most of her focus is on private institutions, as the vast majority of the conversation surrounding trigger warnings occurs at this type of institution.

“Proponents of trigger warnings tend to characterize them as part of the larger duty to accommodate students’ increasingly complex mental health needs,” Herzig said. “By flagging graphic descriptions of topics such as sexual assault or self-harm, advocates hope that trigger warnings will empower audiences, thereby making participation possible.”

She spoke about the increased search history and social media presence of the term “trigger warning,” coinciding with the rise of social media in the digital age.

In higher education, there has been pushback on the use of mandated trigger and content warnings in professors’ syllabi. Herzig focused on a 2014 report from the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), which outlined the threat that required trigger warnings pose to power dynamics between professors and students.

The discourse around academic freedom coincides with the question of what constitutes the classroom in higher education. The AAUP recently announced that the classroom could be defined as anything “real or virtual” in which students interact. Herzig argued that this statement disavows the argument for academic freedom made in the previous statement on trigger warnings, as it blurs the lines of when teaching is happening.

She closed by citing the increased scientific knowledge gathered about trauma victims and how triggers physically affect people. In doing so, she underlined the dearth of discussions about this aspect of trigger and content warnings in higher education.

Following the talk, there was a broader discussion opened to the audience regarding trigger warnings and Herzig’s other works.

Luisa Wolcott-Breen ’25 asked about using alternate terminology when discussing potentially triggering content, especially online. For example, users online will often use different symbols to replace letters in words like sexual assault. She wanted to know where Herzig felt that might fall in the lines of censorship or help in the conversation of trigger warnings.

Herzig answered this question by discussing how terminology is often not the trigger. The torture practices in Guantanemo Bay intentionally use mundane objects to increase the residual trauma that victims would face.

“For many survivors of trauma, certainly not all, the things that inflame the traumatic memories and traumatic physiological responses often don’t have anything to do with the specific words,” Herzig said. “The real struggle is that you can never make it safe enough in that way.”

There were also questions about how Herzig’s work relates to the recent leaked decision about Roe v. Wade and the prominence of trauma narratives on social media today. “The way that the debate over trigger warnings, which again started on the internet more generally—like you would put a trigger warning on a tweet—has now come to coalesce around the College,” Herzig said.

Assistant Professor of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies Jay Sosa’s senior seminar “Doing Gender Studies: Intimacy and Consumer Objects” read Herzig’s book “Plucked,” so the majority of the class were active participants in the talk.

“There were several moments where I was like, ‘my classmate is working on that,’ which is really cool. I thought it was really interesting to start with Guantanamo Bay as a framing. It felt like a very extreme thing to put it in context that this exists at extremes and at the same time at these little moments,” Catherine Janszky ’22, who is in Sosa’s class, said.

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