Trigger Warnings lecture discusses power of words on college campus

 Author and University of Illinois professor Emily J. M. Knox speaks on her research about the history, context, and theory of trigger warnings at Konover Auditorium on April 23rd, 2018. Knox also responded to questions from UConn students and faculty. (Judah Shingleton/The Daily Campus)

Author and University of Illinois professor Emily J. M. Knox speaks on her research about the history, context, and theory of trigger warnings at Konover Auditorium on April 23rd, 2018. Knox also responded to questions from UConn students and faculty. (Judah Shingleton/The Daily Campus)

Red trigger warning boxes are something most of us have had to deal with, whether surfing through websites, reading news articles or viewing sexual assault awareness videos required by the university. Assistant Professor Emily Knox from the University of Illinois gave a speech on Monday in Konover discussing different frameworks for trigger warnings and the overlaps they have with one of her own field of study, banned books, in the context of college classrooms.

Knox discussed how it’s hard to really define trigger warnings, although she did utilize every professor’s favorite reference book, the Oxford English Dictionary, to give one definition: “a statement at the start of a piece of writing, video, etc. alerting the reader or viewer to the fact that it contains potentially distressing material.”

Connotations tend to differ from this formal definition, which is in part why the phrase has come to mean slightly different things in different places, and can become confused with “content warnings,” which typically label less traumatic content.

One thing Knox made very clear from the beginning of her talk is how she doesn’t have answers; rather, she explores different ways to talk about trigger warnings and what questions we might want to start asking.

“Who is the audience for trigger warnings?” Knox said. “Who gives them out? And what is the purpose of a trigger warning?”

The topics most commonly associated with trigger warnings are sexual assault and sexual violence, but as Knox brought up in her talk, trigger warnings have also been very important to military communities and those suffering with PTSD. They can even hold important implications for more obscure struggles, like eating disorders, which might come along with food triggers.

How trigger warnings might be used is part of the problem Knox identified with providing answers. No matter how many answers you give, according to Knox, you could always leave something out.

The reason people need answers ties into Knox’s work with banned books.

“Words have power,” Knox said, and that includes labels. Even genre labels, she discussed, discourage certain people from reading certain content. She discussed this in terms of African-American literature and LGBTQ literature, which may throw some readers off, making them wonder if it's right for them, but genre labels can even apply to labels like “romance.”

“When was the last time you saw someone who was male in the romance section?” Knox asked.

Knowing the power words can have plays into not only why books are banned, but also how we label content and when we provide “trigger warnings” so that people can learn without being discouraged, which is important in a classroom setting. When is it a professor’s responsibility to warn students, and how much is the responsibility placed on the student?

In addition, the phrase “trigger warning” has become very politicized, similar to the way terms like “safe space” have neoliberal connotations, which may also turn people off.

“It’s very unfortunate that we’ve come to that,” human development and family studies graduate student Craig Alejos said in response to the event. “We’re just trying to keep people safe.”


Alex Houdeshell is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at alexandra.houdeshell@uconn.edu.