End use of Trigger Warnings in Australian Universities
Monash University is set to become the first third level institution in Australia to introduce a formal trigger warnings policy at the beginning of the academic semester in 2017. Academics will be responsible for including trigger warnings in their course guidelines in relation to course content.
Trigger warnings essentially are stated warnings that the content of the text, video or class to be presented, may upset or offend some people, especially those who may have experienced some related trauma.
In the United States and Europe, trigger warnings have been used extensively in the university campus setting when discussing topics such as racism, sexual identity, disability, colonialism and torture.
There are an increasing number of examples of the use of trigger warnings in Australian universities too. Melbourne’s La Trobe University student union board meeting passed a motion calling for the introduction of trigger warnings for a number of subjects including body image, spiders, vomit, eye contact and tokophobia (fear of pregnancy). Other universities have forced the withdrawal of invitations of so-called 'controversial speakers'.
A recent example of trigger warnings in practice was at the University of Sydney where a university lecturer asked a second-year student to stop mid-way through a presentation on modern instances of anti-Semitism. It is understood that the student was proposing a link between anti-Israel sentiments to anti-Semitism.
Matthew Lesh, Research Fellow at the Future of Freedom Program, in the Institute of Public Affairs states that “these types of (trigger) warnings encourage academics to not teach ideas, for fear of facing complaints, and students to ignore confronting ideas”.
Similarly, many universities are creating 'safe spaces' where students can retreat from reality and be shielded from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable. According to a report in the New York Times, last year, Brown University created a 'safe space' with cookies, colouring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, and a video of frolicking puppies, among other things, because a debate on sexual assault was taking place on campus.
Trigger warnings and safe spaces, arguably lead to a restriction on the discussion of ideas and open debate. A new phenomenon described as 'iceberg campuses' has evolved where to discuss any issues or opinions of sensitivity at university, means doing it only in the private sphere, below the surface.
The American Association of University Professors have stated that “the presumption that students need to be protected rather than challenged in a classroom is at once infantilizing and anti-intellectual.”
As we can see, Monash is not the only university that threatens free speech. The Free Speech on Campus Audit 2016 conducted by the Institute of Public Affairs Australia found that eight-in-ten Australian Universities have policies or have taken action that unambiguously threatens free speech.
Concerningly, those who challenge the system are often targeting for not conforming, treated with disrespect, and even face persecution. Students at the Queensland University of Technology are facing proceedings under section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act for criticising the existence of unmarked computer lab on campus that can only be used by Indigenous students on campus.
University is a time for discussion of ideas and discovery of the truth. This helps young people discover their talents and prepare them for active and positive citizenship. In reality, trigger warnings and safe space create a climate of intellectual conformity, a society of robots where genuine debate and learning is stifled. It is also highly likely to create a generation of graduates who are unwilling to tolerate differing opinions, which hammers the nail in the coffin of a democratic, pluralistic society.
Surely, such limitation on free speech will seriously damage the core mission of Australia’s higher education system.
We are asking that Monash University, and other leading universities in Australia re-think its proposed policy on trigger warnings. Our universities should become more in tune with the evidence from many other third level institutions that highlights the problems that have arisen since the introduction of trigger warnings. We need to establish more appropriate ways to ensure both freedom of speech, and the need for all students to feel welcome.
Finally, universities should also rethink the skills and values they most want to impart to their incoming students. Living in a pluralistic society and preparing students for how they can contribute to the common good is more valuable than limiting exposure and freedom of ideas.
Please sign this petition now asking for the removal of the trigger warning policy in Monash University. We will send the signatures of this petition to the Vice Chancellor of Monash University and we will also send a copy to the Vice Chancellors other universities in Australia where concerns over trigger warnings have been highlighted.
- Free Speech on Campus Audit 2016: The state of intellectual debate at Australian universities. Report from the Institute of Public Affairs.