Everyone's talking about 'em--like Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff in The Atlantic and Kate Manne in yesterday's New York Times. The Atlantic article is interesting and no doubt trigger warnings are overdone in some quarters, but when push comes to shove...yes, I've been issuing warnings for many years (though without using the word trendy word "trigger"). For example, when I show gruesome videos about factory farming and slaughterhouses, I let students know ahead of time they may find the images disturbing and are free to close their eyes briefly if necessary. When I teach the topic of death, and especially suicide, in my course on the meaning of life, I go much further, based on knowing that college age students are a vulnerable population. I advise them to seek help if the topics of the course make them feel depressed. This is appropriate, I've found. In fact, I've had students have to drop the class because the topics do occasionally exacerbate pre-existing problems. So, content warnings? Yes.
But why, in a world full of disturbing material, should a college classroom be a more protective environment? For this reason: Instructors have the power to say "you're going to watch this, read this, talk about this." Students can't walk away, once they're enrolled, without serious consequences. Also, in a classroom, they're not just subjected to material, but asked to interact with fellow students about the material, answer questions from the instructor about the material. So their reaction, whatever is, gets exposed. Beyond the classroom, people can avoid material they find disturbing, and certainly don't have to reveal their reaction to the material, or enter into conversations about it with strangers, or with people who react to the material completely differently. If we're going to demand that students wrestle with disturbing topics, it's only considerate and responsible to give them fair warning. I would even say that in extreme situations, it make sense to let students opt out--for example, a suicidal student might be given alternative readings if the death section of my syllabus is too disturbing.
So yes, I'm for warnings. One worry about them, though, is that they get issued with liberal bias. We care about the gay student but not about the homophobe who's genuinely very disturbed by acceptance of gay marriage--yes indeed, there are such people, especially in Dallas, Texas. We care about the person who's disturbed by the slaughterhouse images, but not the person who's disturbed by the message that "meat is murder." We care about the female student who's been sexually assaulted, but not about the male student who's being charged with sexual assault without due process. I probably need to work a little harder to be equitable when it comes to protecting student mental health, but should I protect student mental health? Yes, I should, to the greatest extent I can, without compromising course content unduly--because of the power I have to force students to be exposed to and publicly engage with highly disturbing topics.