Trigger Warning

“The backlash against trigger warnings is part of a larger iteration of backlash against political correctness, which tells us something important about where the public thinks the power lies. …The P.C. backlash and the trigger-warning backlash hold a common fallacy: They see pushback from the margins and mistake it for threats to the most institutionally powerful.” – Aaron R. Hanlon, New Republic, 14 August 2015

Kim D. Chanbonpin published “Crisis and Trigger Warnings: Reflections on Legal Education and the Social Value of the Law” in the 90th volume of the Chicago-Kent Law Review on 15 September 2015.

Why the study? Prof. Chanbonpin focused on the recent trigger warning debate in the context of the U.S. legal education crisis because the student-led movement represents one way marginalized law students’ voices are being heard. It also adds to the growing body of research that shows trigger warnings can actually be useful tools.

Results of the study? The study shows that, especially in the first year, law students are trained to ignore emotions or subjective experiences that may be related to the curriculum. This indoctrination shuts some students down, especially those who have experienced trauma. For many, particularly women and students of color, their lived experience is not easily severed from the cases studied in class. Trigger warnings and the discussion surrounding them provide a way for students and teachers to collaborate in the creation of knowledge.

Quick summary? Law schools are struggling economically, and they have become the target of media pundits and more. Like the disaster capitalism model would predict, reformers promote corporate values like austerity, efficiency, outcomes, and consumer-oriented servicing. These values are treated as neutral and objective, and they become principles that structure students’ learning processes. In this context, student-led calls for trigger warnings can be understood as pushing back against demands for emotional detachment. More than that, the trigger warning debate provides an opportunity for law teachers to respond to the needs of a changing student population and highlight the centrality of the law in achieving social justice for the marginalized.

Take-aways?

  • Trigger warnings in education are not new–professors use content advisories frequently
  • “Trigger warnings are not mechanisms for avoiding emotion, but are tools to aid in contextualizing it.”
  • Teaching detachment and dispassion from issues alienates students from themselves
  • Students have little power when weighed in the context of the corporatization of legal education
  • Trigger warnings can be understood as student critiques of traditional objectivist law pedagogy
  • Students are far from weak or unable to cope–making trigger warnings available is one way for students to reclaim power
  • Responding to the student-led call helps teachers create a democratic space in their classrooms where students are active social agents

So what?

  • With this knowledge, teachers can reflect on how trigger warnings and the related discussion might function with their students
  • With this knowledge, journalists can include positive studies about trigger warnings
  • With this knowledge, students can reflect on their and others’ engagement with curriculum

Kim D. Chanbonpin is Associate Professor at The John Marshall Law School. The author thanks Blair Pooler and Mary Lu Cole, two former Criminal Law students, for their research assistance. Thank you Professor Francisco Valdes for providing helpful comments on a draft of this study.

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