Trigger warnings are an insidious threat to academic freedom

Oxford University law students have asked to be protected from distressing material that may crop up in their studies of the criminal law. Lecturers have been told that they must issue “trigger warnings” before lecturing on subjects that may – it is claimed – lead vulnerable students into depressive episodes or even suicide. Students thus forewarned can either steel themselves to what follows, or, as some are now doing, skip the lecture altogether. The directive is primarily aimed at students studying criminal law.

When the story was published at the weekend I tweeted that Oxford students seemed delicate flowers. 

Early Purple Orchid (Orchis Mascula)

Did they really think that studying the law was just about the Leasehold Enfranchisement Reform Act 1967? Giorgia Litwin, an Oxford law student and a strong supporter of such warnings described this as a “Twitter hate campaign.”

On the face of it the students’ pressure for “trigger warnings” sounds perfectly reasonable. The more moderate advocates, as represented by Ms Litwin, argue that the warnings are not intended to prevent people being offended, they are a proportionate response to the fact that some students will suffer real trauma when they learn the terrible facts of some criminal cases. Very few law lecturers want to upset their students, so to give a brief warning before discussing the details of the case law on sexual offences is nothing to which anyone could reasonably object.

But universities should resist the pressure. Trigger warnings will do little to protect the vulnerable and the growing demand for them constitutes a real and insidious threat to academic freedom.

Anyone hoping to study law knows before they start that criminal law is an unavoidable part of the syllabus. Many lawyers can be rather sniffy about the criminal law: there isn’t much money to be made from it and many would rather spend their time drafting international collateral securities. Nevertheless, it is universally accepted, and for very good reasons, that to qualify as a lawyer, or even to pass a law degree, you need a basic grounding in criminal law. A lawyer who knows nothing about about criminal law would be the equivalent of a doctor knowing nothing about blood, and gaining a law degree without studying criminal law would be like achieving an MB without ever opening a cadaver.

Learning the criminal law involves hearing and reading about people behaving nastily, and sometimes quite unspeakably to each other. Indeed, for many that is part of its appeal. After a few hours struggling with fee simples and resulting trusts, most law students find it a great relief to read about the robbers, murderers and rapists who populate the racier pages of the Criminal Appeal Reports. As every great novelist knows, greed, lust and sin of all kind is generally fascinating, even when it is disturbing to read about.

At present the Oxford students seem to be most bothered about lust. They are demanding trigger warnings before lectures on sexual offences, pointing out the potentially traumatic effects on rape victims when they hear about graphic details of sexual offences. Even if we accept that vulnerable students can be harmed by talking about distressing cases (and the evidence is at least as strong that they are likely to be harmed by avoiding such talk), once the principle is conceded there is no obvious place for them to stop.

It is not just rape: if you have been traumatised by a burglary hearing the details of legally significant burglaries may be intensely upsetting.

Take the extraordinary case of Collins [1973] QB 100, still a leading authority on what constitutes an “entry” for the purposes of a burglary. Mr Collins climbed naked, apart from his socks, onto a girl’s bedroom window-sill; that alone would send shivers down the spine of burglary and rape victims alike. Lord Justice Edmund-Davies described what happened next:

The young lady then realised several things: first of all that the form in the window was that of a male; secondly that he was a naked male; and thirdly that he was a naked male with an erect penis. She also saw in the moonlight that his hair was blond. She thereupon leapt to the conclusion that her boyfriend with whom for some time she had been on terms of regular and frequent sexual intimacy, was paying her an ardent nocturnal visit.”

Mr Collins was invited into the room and indeed into the girl’s bed before she realised he wasn’t her boyfriend. In fact the case turned on the dry issue of which side of the window-sill he was on when the invitation was issued, but it would be absurd to warn students that they might prefer not to know about such a seminal case, although a trigger warning is amongst other things an invitation to delicate students to leave the lecture hall.

Nor is it just in the criminal law where nasty facts will need to be considered. Victims of road accidents may be traumatised by negligence cases, students from unhappy families may find cases on family law horribly close to the bone, and so on. Vast areas of law are riddled with horrible cases, any of which are likely to be potentially upsetting, or “triggering” to someone.

And if real facts can trigger, so too can the often deliberately florid problems set in law exams. Criminal law exams invariably have questions involving Hogarthian scenarios of debauchery:

Albert gets drunk and has intercourse with a sleeping Bertha who is aged 15 under the impression that she was actually his girl-friend Charlotte, whereupon the temporarily insane Charlotte appears on the scene and shoots Albert dead whilst aiming at Bertha. Advise.”

Examiners will soon have to offer strictly bowdlerised questions in order not to disadvantage those who would prefer not to think about the seamier side of life and death.

Will lecturers be expected to anticipate every case in which a trigger warning must be issued? Are law lecturers to become amateur psychologists and predict in advance the topics that may conceivably cause trauma to their students?

This is why the call for ever more trigger warnings is so chilling to academic freedom. Who is to say what facts may be deemed triggering? The answer is that only the “traumatised” student can say, but woe betide a teacher who fails to anticipate it. Who will want to be the lecturer who strays into a “triggering” area without first issuing a warning, thereby risking the wrath of his or her students, and perhaps of the university too? This is not just speculation. Already, the Harvard law professor Jeannie Suk has warned that young law teachers are steering away from teaching about sexual offences because it is “not worth the risks of discomfort by students,” and at Harvard some law teachers are considering dropping rape law from their syllabuses. Where Harvard leads, Oxford often follows, but to do so on this issue would be an absurd folly.

The whole point of a university is that it is an institution in which students and academics can engage in free and uninhibited discussion. Nowhere is this more important than in the subject of legal education, which involves much more than being told what the law is.

It is at university that the lawyers and judges of the future ought to be asking the difficult questions that are central to any serious consideration of the law of sexual offending: What does “consent” mean? To what extent can – or should – children or the mentally ill be able to consent to sexual activity? How should complainants and sex offenders be treated by the courts? How does our legal system deal with false allegations? Shying away from questions like this will not produce better lawyers. It will produce a generation of infantilised milquetoasts who believe they have a right to avoid difficult arguments instead of engaging with them; it will help to select exactly the sort of men and women who are least suited to the practice of the law which almost by definition involves having difficult, important and sometimes distressing arguments.

This post was first published in the Daily Telegraph 11th May 2016

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Author: Matthew

I have been a barrister for over 25 years, specialising in crime. You may also have come across some of my articles I have written on legal issues for The Times, Standpoint, Daily Telegraph or Criminal Law & Justice Weekly

17 thoughts on “Trigger warnings are an insidious threat to academic freedom”

  1. How do trigger warnings inhibit free academic discussion? My understanding is that, after the warning is issued, the discussion goes on, freely and uninhibited.

  2. Gabriel is dreaming. Free and uninhibited discussion was stamped out in academia over the last ten years by leftie and homofascist loudmouths.
    Lecturers in America and the UK have been sacked, debates have been cancelled, conferences have been called off in universities, and professional bodies have expelled those who won’t conform.
    Almost every form of discussion has been silenced by these hypocrites . And they are hypocrites, because they don’t care about the distress caused to good, decent , normal people subjected to endless displays of homosexual obscenity, or propaganda for abortion and paedophilia. If you find those upsetting, or disgusting (as I most certainly do) you are labelled a “bigot” and sacked for not granting equality.
    Students need to be mentally stable to do their course. If t hey are so liable to be upset (and let’s face it, we know who the whingers are) then they are not mentally fit and will not be able to do the job of a lawyer or whatever.
    But the claim that they are upset is a ploy being used to censor everything.

  3. The main argument, I think, is this: If it becomes customary to issue a trigger warning before discussing cases of a certain kind, then soon it will become customary to avoid raising and discussing the kind of cases that would call for a trigger warning. Thus free discussion will be reduced.
    Seems a plausible argument to me.

    1. Yes, exactly. Trigger warnings are part of the “I’m offended” tactics of the left, which are blatantly a form of bullying.

    2. That sounds like a big leap from issuing trigger warnings to simply avoiding anything which could call for a trigger warning. The slope sounds just a tad slippery here. Even if it has happened in a university once, that doesn’t mean it’ll happen everywhere else or that proper precautions(such as simple guidelines to what is expected of the staff) cannot be taken against it. The answer to lecturers shutting down part of the course because it ‘is not worth the risk of making students uncomfortable isn’t to tell everyone to stop asking for trigger warnings, it’s to deal with the fact that some of the lecturers seem to think that that is a proportionate response to student discomfort. Does a call for an end to trigger warnings go only so far as needed in protecting academic freedom? Or are there other ways of going about this?

      Matthew has somehow associated trigger warnings with the idea that students receiving such warnings will then proceed to not interact with the material at all. It is entirely possible that the intended receipeints will simply take a deep breath, prepare themselves, and soldier on, or just come back to the topic at their own time. To those who complain that dealing with tough issues and difficult subjects is neccessary to the job : They aren’t in the job now are they? If people are not expected from day one of law school to be able to competently conduct their own legal research, why is it expected that they have all the skills neccessary for the job before they’ve completed their training? And if at the end of it they are still ‘delicate flowers’ as Matthew put it, then the requirements of the job will weed them out.

      “Trigger warnings will do little to protect the vulnerable and the growing demand for them constitutes a real and insidious threat to academic freedom.”
      You’ve shown how trigger warnings might have a chilling effect on academic freedom, but you haven’t actually explored how they do little to protect the vulnerable. Without both sides of the analysis how are we expected to make a reasonable judgement as to whether or not the balance has been struck between the possible threat to academic freedom and the possible good done arising from their use?

      1. Sure, it’s an argument in the ‘slippery slope’ category. That doesn’t make it good or bad.
        Some slippery-slope arguments are bad arguments. Others may be quite plausible. It’s a matter of judgement.
        Personally, I judge that in this case that there is indeed a nasty slope and a great danger that it will be slipped down.

  4. Not just law. You can’t study history without learning of the evil people can do to each other.

    It’s all preposterous. Just like “safe space” and “no platforming”. If you can’t stand the heat get out of the kitchen.

  5. Produce? We already have a generation of infantilised milquetoasts with massive, easily bruised egos and a huge sense of entitlement, be it about learning things that make them uncomfortable or actually being expected to look a certain way and wear appropriate clothing in one’s place of employment, or pretty much anything else that takes their fancy. What is more galling is that they have hijacked the idea of liberalism and turned it into a grotesque imitation that claims the same name and pretends to the same outward appearance but hides a host of hideous ideologies behind that formerly respectable mask. Is this the end result of all that helicopter parenting and indulgence, I wonder?

  6. Absolutely incredible. “A lawyer who knows nothing about criminal law would be the equivalent of a doctor knowing nothing about blood”. A doctor who knows nothing about blood because their squeamishness is more important than helping patients.

  7. Great post! It does seem as if people want to wish the reality of the world away, instead of trying to improve it.

  8. Who would wish to instruct a lawyer, or indeed any other professional, who is so fragile and easily upset, that they have to be given special warnings as to the content of material? Will the client have to pay for a third party to pre-read the case, so areas of potential upset can be avoided/redacted? And it is not just criminal law, all manner of civil cases can contain ‘upsetting’ material.

    What next? Our precious students getting angry at statues…?

  9. A friend of mine has adopted the policy of giving trigger warnings which state that students may leave the room – without disrupting the class – if they find the subject matter temporarily unbearable, but that in any such case they are expected to catch up on everything they’ve missed. If you can’t bear to hear about DPP v Morgan, fair enough, but you’ll still have to go away and read about it. (I teach Morgan myself; I tell students up front that there’s going to be some fairly distressing stuff in that particular lecture, but it’s more to get them in the right frame of mind than to give anyone an excuse for leaving.)

    I do wonder how many students have had traumatic life experiences which prime them specifically to react to stories of sexual assault, etc – as distinct to reacting to those stories with horror and disgust, which is what we’d expect from everyone. In my (sociology) department, a discussion of trigger warnings concludede with a semi-serious proposal to put a trigger warning on the entire programme – “there are some deeply upsetting and disturbing things happening in the world, and as a student of Sociology or Criminology you will be learning about them”.

  10. I am surprised that, despite the many comments on this thread, nobody has yet pointed out that the idea of ‘Trigger Words’ (a completely disproven pseudo-psychological idea first developed from naive 1950 misunderstandings related to Communist ‘brainwashing’ methods – the ‘scare’ of the period ) was re-injected into the moral entrepreneurship of the 1990s by fundamentalist Christians who also had a hand in starting the Satanic Panic of those days. Trigger words are closely related to their imagined ‘backward masking’ which they see in every rock-music lyric, in the very same way that McCarthy saw ‘communism’ in every film made in Hollywood.

    The very close symbiotic relationship between fundie armageddonism and the freestyle feminist therapy movement meant that ‘Trigger Words’ were imported into the therapy arena by cross-pollination from fundie ‘counsellors’ who recruit ‘victims’ for the feminist movement and has now become an ‘accepted fact’ of all fringe therapy and particularly the idea of ‘victimhood’ where the mere fact that one might one day, in a low moment, think introspectively that there is an exterior cause for one’s being depressed, means that one has actually been the victim of some conspiracy of abusers who have used unspecified and by qualification unknown ‘Trigger Words’ to make one forget about torture (or remember it as is convenient to their world of blame)

    The SAFF wrote about these dangers at the time (25 years ago) and completely dismantled the idea ( see
    http://saff.nfshost.com/triggerw.htm
    for full analysis of the idiocity of their arguments.

    Yet gain time has proven the SAFF correct!
    The best thing that could be said of these law students is that they aught to consider switching to a psychology degree, the worst is that they are far too touchy-feelly for the legal profession and should be chucked out.

    John Freedom, SAFF

  11. What utter bunkum.

    If you don’t study the material, you don’t pass the exam. In the meantime, actually taking a few seconds to acknowledge that the forthcoming material might in fact be unpleasant to any rape victims in the audience, which in a typical undergraduate course will be a number substantially greater than zero, is some kind of travesty?

    It’s not surprising everyone chiming in on this thread to agree how awful it is to be polite to people is a man.

    Insidious threat to academic freedom indeed. An insidious threat to maybe having to pull your heads out the sand and admit that treating people decently is a perfectly reasonable thing to do.

    1. How delightfully misogynistic of you to ascribe gender to opinions without any supporting evidence for doing so, just because in your little world you cannot conceive of people – women – thinking differently from you. Aren’t you a good little gender essentialist? Also, the fact that you have to resort to imagining ad hominems as a response tells all about the quality and integrity of the arguments you can offer to support your position.

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