Trigger Warning for 1984 at the University of Northampton

Daily Mail (UK), (Chris Hastings), reports

[S]The University of Northampton staff issued a warning to students about George Orwell’s book because it contained ‘explicit content’ that some may find offensive and disturbing.

Advice [was] revealed following a Freedom of Information request by The Mail on Sunday….

[I]It’s one of the many literary works flagged up by Northampton University students studying Identity Under Construction. They are warned that the module ‘addresses challenging issues related to violence, gender, sexuality, class, race, abuses, sexual abuse, political ideas and offensive language’….

Individual faculty should have the right to tell students that certain books are not recommended. And I actually support warning students generally about this—preferably in orientation, but perhaps even at the start of a class syllabus—precisely to remind them that studying the human experience at a university necessarily involves confronting the dark sides of humanity.

It is wrong to provide such detailed advice on each book, as it only reinforces the notion that law students, historians, anthropologists, and literature majors are able to read every page. Classes should expect nothing to be offensive, disturbing, or explicit and they are entitled to be warned about deviations from this standard. In large part, history has seen the rise of oppression such as tyranny or mass murder and slavery. It wasn’t just that. There are many real and fictional serious accounts which will mention the good as well as the bad.

This is something adults who are interested in humanity need to recognize. This should not stop them from being prepared for it in all aspects of their lives. The more they are willing to combat such evils the more they need to be prepared to face it. These institutions should encourage such an outlook as part of their education function.

Evidence from empirical studies suggests that student disturbances can be prevented by using trigger warnings. See Mevagh Sanson and others. Trigger Warnings Can Help Reduce Negative Affects, Intrusive Thoughts, And Avoidance7, Clinical Psychol. Sci. Science. Is it helping? Trigger Warnings for Individuals with Trauma Histories8, Clinical Psychol. Sci. Sci.[ing]A subset of people who have predisposed beliefs to an immediate anxiety response will experience this response. Benjamin W. Bellet et al., Trigger Warning! Empirical Evidence in the Future, 61 J. Behav. Therapy & Experimental Psychiatry 134, 140 (2018). But to the extent the empirical debate on that subject is unsettled, I think they are generally unsound in universities, at least when it comes to work-by-work or class-session-by-class-session warnings.