Thursday, 16 October 2014

Striking the right balance: trigger warnings in debating

Trigger warning: this article discusses the application of trigger warnings. As thus, certain subjects commonly associated with trigger warnings such as violence or sex will be mentioned.

This article was written based on past experiences, particularly at the Edinburgh Cup 2014, where I was a member of the adjudication team. This article is written on a personal title, and nothing which I say here should be taken to be the opinion of anyone else associated with the running of that tournament, be it the CA-team, the equity officer, the organisational committee or anyone else.

At the Edinburgh Cup the CA-team wished to set a motion on the legal definition on rape. In particular, the discussion would revolve around affirmative consent legislation (or "yes means yes") that has been making headlines in California and New Zealand, and has as a definition been used to teach sexual consent during the Fresher weeks at Oxford and Cambridge. Owing to the complex and sensitive subject matter it was provisionally set as the semi final motion. During the competition the CA-team and the equity officer felt that a motion discussing rape might create undue pressure on a number of competitiors, judges and audience members, and thus created a couple of procedures to make sure everyone would be comfortable. Firstly, it was decided that the public announcement would be accompanied by a trigger warning. Before that, however, the competitors would be told in privacy by the equity officer that the semi final motion would concern a "legal discussion surrounding rape". They could then write on a piece of paper anonymously if they wanted to debate the motion or not. At Edinburgh a number of debaters wrote that they would rather not debate such a topic, and another semi final was ran (a public trigger warning was therefore not given).

I think this was an important thing to do, and would suggest to future CA-teams and equity officers that they take these matters into consideration and, where possible, implement simular measures. I do think, however, that we need to have a discussion surrounding the scope of these policies, as there might be slippery slopes and chilling effects associated with a full-scale application of trigger warnings in debating. While broadly supporting the aims of trigger warnings and asking for consent of participants to debate sensitive topics, in this article I want to sketch some of these possible pittfalls, in order to provoke a discussion about what the limits of trigger policies ought to be.

I understand that the 'trigger warning' container term does not adequatedly capture the entirety of the policy outlined above. In this article I am in particular concerned with the usage of trigger warnings itself. The part of the policy where participants are asked whether they are comfortable arguing on very controversial and potentially personal topics, certainly in front of a crowd, should in my opinion not be too controversial at al.

Why trigger warnings are important

We must never forget that at its core debating is a fun pasttime for students. While there are many educational benefits attached to debating, and it can indeed change the life of some individuals practicing it, for all of us this was an activity that we got sucked into because of the fun it brought us (I dread to consider the lives of individuals who continue doing this activity while disliking it). That means it must continue to be fun for everyone. Debating talks about controversial political issues, however, and some of these might be personally upsetting or link to personal traumatic events for individual debaters. It could diminish their fun if they were forced to argue on those.

A trigger warning thus tells debaters and the audience before the motion is announced that the motion is of a sensitive type and might be triggering to some. It is important to remember what those types are. The concept of a trigger warning is associated with victims of post-traumatic stress disorder, where certain words or phrases could 'trigger' these people in reliving their traumas. This means that in all likelihood the topics trigger warnings should be most commonly used for in debating concern sex crimes, (domestic) abuse, mental health issues (such as eating disorders), deaths (murder and (assisted) suicide) and war events. It does not mean that you can get away from having to argue against your political viewpoint on a motion. For example, Scottish debaters still have to defend the policies of Margaret Thatcher on certain debate motions, because while they might heavily oppose her politics, it is not likely to have been a traumatic event for them.

I would imagine that as an extension of the trigger policy set out above, that if CA-teams set motions in inrounds that is of a triggering nature they always have a back-up motion, and that an individual can request to the equity officer that she wants to debate the back-up motion in her room instead of the given motion at the start of prep. This idea might be further refined to be more considerate to the delicate nature of the process to people with more experience than me in equity affairs.

Implementation issues

There are however a couple of difficulties with the clear framework as I set out above. The first one concerns the scope of motions applicable to needing trigger warnings. Trigger warnings are difficult to understand, because they differ on an individual level; different things might trigger different people. Therefore these warnings might not be able to sufficiently warn for each trigger event. The particular danger we have to be worried about is overreach. There is a tendency on the debating circuit to try to prevent each individuality. Doing so in this case might create a torrent of trigger warnings. This might provoke people to take these warnings less seriously, thus eroding public acceptance of trigger warnings and future application of the idea. 

A second issue with trigger warning is that while they capture motions that have triggering potential, they are not capable of doing the same thing for individual arguments. A motion about miscarriages of justice, for instance, has equally valid discussions surrounding racism in the legal system and the low conviction rate for sexual assault. Asking individual speakers to give trigger warnings before their speech would be inadvisable, though. This, again, because it is uncertain what could trigger a person, and therefore it would be an undue burden on individual speakers. But secondly because this could lead to a large degree of self-censorship amongst debaters, where they would be afraid to ever make arguments mentioning triggering terms. This would, I think, be a too big imposition on the enjoyment and natural speaking style of participants. An added warning here is that equity officers should not strike down punitively on speakers who have made a comment that was perceived as triggering. Again, this is because of the uncertain nature of what comment might be triggering, and because speakers would probably not know if someone else in the room was witness of a traumatic event. Of course, if someone gave a deliberative provoking and inflammatory speech that might still be regarded as an equity matter. It doesn't, however, relate to the issue of trigger warnings directly.

Fundamental concerns

There are some more fundamental objections to trigger warnings as well.

The first one concerns the efficacy of trigger warnings themselves. They might skew the perception of the debate topic to participants, therefore making it more likely that they will notice the triggering elements in the debate, or making it more likely that they are triggered. It might be that a trigger warning itself could provide a trigger, although that is a quite uncommon phenomenon. Some sufferers of PTSD also find the 'coddling' aspect of trigger warnings upsetting.

The second contentious issue surrounds the stifling effect trigger warnings may have on the topics set for debating. CA-teams, fearing that their motions would get shut down, would choose not to set contentious topics in the first place. That means that a lot of current and topical things won't get discussed. There a couple reasons to be worried about this. Firstly, people might get worried that this problematises certain valuable topics for discussion, much like how well-valued literature at Oberlin College was problematised by the usage of trigger warnings. This means we might miss out on genuinely good, enthralling and important debates that resonate to people listening to them, create a discussion amongst debaters, changes opinions and calls out for action. In this regard it is interesting to consider that the motion that wasn't run at the Edinburgh Cup was run as the semi final of Dutch Nationals, where it produced two good debates and did generate a lot of useful discussion about the topic of rape prosecution afterwards. I don't imagine this to be the most persuasive argument for most debaters, however, given we have to trade off this harm against the enjoyment of people participating in a hobby. There might be lofty goals in debating, but it is unclear how not setting particular topics necessarily harms these goals.
A second and more problematic strain of thought goes that using these trigger warnings might rub a group of people the wrong way, and in this way means that a group of people would no longer go on or enter into debating. Now, the thought might be that the circuit wouldn't want these people anyways. I think however that creating rules of the game that are felt as intrusive for what you are allowed to argue ("we don't discuss sexual assault here, nor war, so don't make arguments about that. You'd be better off going to the MUN club") would put people off that would add to the circuit, and that the circuit has the opportunity to change the opinions of people around topics such as political correctness. 

A third concern is related to the idea that "real life doesn't come with a trigger warning". Trying to create a safe space for debating is unnatural, as triggers might exist in the real life. It might happen through what people say in daily conversation or what is shown in the media. I personally find this argument unpersuasive. A related, more persuasive, argument for me is that this might influence the way the debating circuit talks about triggering issues in either polite conversation or when addressing equity incidents. If debating creates a culture where it is felt taboo to talk about these sensitive matters this might be problematic when the debating circuit has to come around actually talking it. If equity concerns need to be redrafted the circuit might miss the language to address the issue appropriately, or ineffectively conduct the discussion by using overly sanitised language.

In this light, I would suggest that in out-rounds I envision CA-teams should not pull motions if members of the audience object to the content matter but the speakers have no issue with it. The advise should be that these participants should not watch the debate. Similarly, I would advise participants to think about their personal motivations for wishing to debate the topic or not, and that these should weigh above any intuitions they might have about the audience watching the debate. Of course, these debates should not be recorded in any way when speakers don't want to be recorded.


The debating circuit should consider implementing trigger warnings and asking for consent to participants before setting potentially upsetting topics. These considerations should be aimed at genuinely helping people with traumatic experiences and ensuring that debating can be done in an as natural environment as possible for all participants. Before the debating circuit makes a decision on whether and how to implement such rules, it would be best to confer, not only with experienced equity officers, but also with trauma professionals before taking a final stance.


  1. Another option might be having people mention topics they would feel uncomfortable discussing on registration/pre-reg forms, in the same way they do for clashes and allergies and making this information available to CA teams. Then the CA team can make a judgement about what motions to set in light of that information. [This is just off the top of my head and doesn't tackle all the issues you raise.]

  2. While I'd be up for trigger warnings in advertising I can't make my mind up when it comes to debating for two reasons.

    1: Won't it will quickly become obvious who is asking for a motion to be changed and hence has experienced trauma. Maybe this wouldn't be an issue in the UK but in a small circuit such as ours, everyone knows pretty much everyone else and, if one team or speaker consistently gets different motions in their room, people may well figure out who exactly is requesting the changes. I realize a response to this is that some choice is better than none and people can weigh up the risk of discovery vs skipping a panic attack themselves but I was wondering if you'd thought of any way to get around this. (N.B: Obviously in semis/finals you don't have to tell people the motion has been changed but inrounds are a whole different issue)

    2. Cheating. Debating generally is full of lovely people but I've talked to quite a few debaters who are very competitive and have done very sketchy things (clashing out bad judges comes to mind). Wouldn't some people abuse this system to skip motions they don't like. More importantly wouldn't every trigger warning motion switch eventually lead to suspicion of cheating? Maybe I'm overdoing it but as I see it this could be an issue.