Genocide scholars not united on the need for trigger warnings

Scholars of genocide are not united on the need for or use of trigger warnings in their teaching.

Trigger warnings are proliferating at universities: warnings on sensitive subjects or disturbing images, safe spaces and the recent removal of scales from a gym at Carleton University. However, scholars and educators of genocide are not all on the same page when it comes to the use of trigger warnings.

Bodies hacked to pieces by machetes, deceased mothers and babies intertwined with mouths frozen in horror, piles of shoes outside gas showers. The study of genocide is by its very nature gruesome, as it offers a mirror of humanity at its most base and barbaric.

At the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre, students are warned in advance what they might encounter graphic images and other disturbing material. “We give them the context for sure, so they know what to expect,” said Ilona Shulman Spaar, education director at the centre. “We don’t want to traumatize students, we want to educate.”

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Lithography by Holocaust survivor Leo Haas. Photo by Center for Jewish History.

Yet not all Holocaust educators agree with this practice at the university level.”Basically, I’m not a huge fan of trigger warnings as a general principle,” said Rachel Mines, English instructor at Langara College who runs Writing Lives: The Holocaust Survivor Memoir Project. Mines said the course, where students work with local Holocaust survivors to write their memoirs, brings in a member of the counselling department at the beginning and Mines often references that certain course material might be challenging.

While Mines acknowledges some individuals require trigger warnings, for example those with PTSD, the Writing Lives class members self-select this course and are “presumably interested in studying the Holocaust and know ahead of time they might get upset,” Mines wrote in an email. “They are also adults and know where to go for help.”

Don Dutton’s research often veers into areas that may be considered triggering: genocide, relationship violence, mass shootings. A professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, Dutton thinks confronting disturbing material can foster intellectual growth.

“Every intellectual growth path I ever took starting with discomfiting dissonance between what I was hearing and my previous beliefs,” Dutton said in an email. Dutton explained that when we are faced with information contradictory to our beliefs, humans feel an unease and an instinct to reject this information.

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A woman by a grave in Srebrenica. Photo by the Advocacy Project.

As we are conservative in the way we approach new knowledge, Dutton said the only way to grow intellectually is to consider new facts. If we don’t consider these uncomfortable facts, Dutton thinks humans are likely to veer towards groupthink. 

Dutton doesn’t use trigger warnings in his teaching and criticizes this campus trend as a velvet gloves approach that serves the monetary interests of universities. “Trigger warnings are part of the entire “don’t upset the students” Zeitgeist that universities now hold, and consistent with generating tuition cash by increasing enrolment and not upsetting anybody,” he said in an email.

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