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Filtering potentially harmful content is doing more harm than good.

As students and professors settle into the swing of new classes and begin to immerse themselves in course content, it’s important for everyone to remember that university is meant to be a place that challenges people’s assumptions. The moments in which students are exposed to new ideas and forced to reconcile some harsh realities with their own beliefs are often the most formative and valuable experiences of their academic careers. 

However, in an era of frequent trigger warnings and self-censorship among professors, such moments are increasingly rare. What is perhaps most concerning about the recent trend toward intellectual and emotional comfort on college campuses is that few people acknowledge it as a problem, and many have begun to see university as a sort of vacation from reality where young adults should be kept in a state of mental safety and comfort. 

Professors who are considering shying away from a specific topic due to its controversial, upsetting, violent or potentially triggering nature should be sure to touch on that very topic in class — because of its intensity, not despite it. Students should be shown those black-and-white photos of emaciated Holocaust victims. They should hear about war crimes, rape, murder and all the ugliest pieces of humanity. Students should learn about morally ambiguous issues and have it made clear that there are as many people who disagree with their opinions as there are those in agreement. Professors should make it clear to students that there are many things in the world that they would be horrified, confused or repulsed by, and in doing so, mentally prepare students to make difficult, practical decisions informed by hard truths.  

Many professors are afraid of triggering students with this intense material and instead choose to censor themselves. To prevent an environment of self-censorship and culture of timidness from taking over college campuses, students who don’t have some form of PTSD or severe anxiety shouldn’t exaggerate their feelings of being triggered by such content. In reality, they feel uncomfortable, offended or shocked by what they’re being told, but not “triggered.” Such a term should only be used sparingly, not applied carelessly to every inconvenience or unpleasant topic students are forced to confront in class. 

As for those who may actually have a severe psychological condition, being exposed to repetitive, fairly small amounts of triggering content is actually the core of exposure therapy, which helps people confront and cope with their trauma so they can overcome it. In short, not only is self-censorship a hindrance to the mission of educational institutions in general, but self-censorship and the avoidance of intense content also fails to actually protect students in any meaningful way. 

It’s far better for professors to address tough topics in class and for students to grow accustomed to ideas, events and images that initially shock them. To ignore humanity’s worst aspects and moments in the classroom is essentially teaching an entire generation that these aspects don’t exist and these moments never happened. 

Sophia Cabana is a senior history and independent scholars double-major. Contact Sophia at cabanasl@dukes.jmu.edu.