The question has been raised at schools across the nation alike: should content warnings be required in class? With more media attention to trauma and mental health, people are beginning to consider the implications their words can have on others. There is so much chaos and violence in the world today that it is important to look out for each other however we can. Especially here, at Simon’s Rock, where many classes are discussion based and our students come from a myriad of different backgrounds and experiences, the query is very relevant. While there is no rule dictating that our faculty and students must use content warnings, I believe that the members of the Simon’s Rock community should strive to use them in order to create a safe learning environment.
For those unsure of what they are, content warnings are announcements prefacing a statement or discussion that you will be mentioning a sensitive topic and informing everyone what that topic is. The purpose of these warnings are to allow anyone who will be made uncomfortable by the discussion leave.
Despite what many believe, this is not censorship. Content warnings do not mean that a class cannot discuss a topic; they instead prepares everyone so that the class can discuss the topic. Simon’s Rock dialogues are incredible, in my experience, because of the out-of-the-box ideas that our diverse students have to share, but it’s that same diversity that means some people are uncomfortable with certain conversations. Some students have traumatic experiences that resurface upon mentioning. While some students are incredibly well read on an issue, other students may have firsthand experience with that matter and would be made more uncomfortable instead of more informed by listening to them speak. Nobody can learn from discussions when they are having a panic attack or break down, very common reactions to mentions of their trauma. Content warnings mean some students can leave so that they can feel safe and rest of the class can continue to learn, meaning they are not at all classwide censorship.
Though clearly content warnings do not censor the whole group, dissenting voices for warnings still say that students should not be allowed to leave when faced with opinions and ideas they do not like. It is true that people learn best in stretch zones, when they are feeling slightly uncomfortable or confused because they are being presented with ideas that they are unfamiliar with. However, the purpose of content warnings is not to keep students out of their stretch zones, where the key word is slightly uncomfortable, they are meant to warn students of topics that will make them extremely uncomfortable to the point where they feel unsafe.
Everybody has different experiences, it is the beauty of our student body at Simon’s Rock. But with these experiences come different fears and traumas. Some students have faced mental illness or abuse or violence, and mentions of these topics topics make them uncomfortable to the point of an anxiety attack or a break down, which are very understandable and human reactions. If this happens to a student, they are not learning from the discussion. They are being harmed. Not to mention the impact that this could have on the whole class’s education, if they have to stop to help a student that was pushed to a break down. Content warnings protect the education and health of all students.
Let me share a story, both an example of how and why we should use content warnings.
Content warning: self-harm (here, any students who are made uncomfortable with mentions self harm can stop reading, or if this were a discussion in a class they could leave):
Once upon a time, I had a friend who was having a class discussion where the topic shifted to depression and people who self harm. Neither the teacher nor the students gave a content warning, and they had no option to leave the class when the discussion got more intense. Not only did this leave them in a state of panic and depression for the rest of the day, but they felt so undone that it caused them to break a several month clean from self harm. That night, they called me crying from their bathroom while trying to figure out how to clean their own blood from the sink.
Content warning over, if anybody stopped reading.
Content warnings are not for the sake of people who want to get out of class, or who do not want to have to face opinions other than their own. Content warnings are for health and safety. They are to make sure every student gets a classroom and not a panic attack. They are so everybody knows they are respected in a learning space, no matter what they have been to.
Even if you are not a believer in content warnings, or if you don’t need them yourself, I urge you to see their importance. I urge you to look around at your classmates and know that their experiences are not your own and that this is ok. A simple warning can do wonders for a students safety and health. Words can hurt, and warnings can save lives.
Gabby Brummer is a member of The Weekly Cad.