There was a time when I opposed trigger warnings, because I worried they’d have a chilling effect. That was the mid-90’s, and the ‘trigger warnings’ in question were the FCC’s voluntary but widely adopted “TV Parental guidelines” that went into effect in 1997. I knew this system didn’t include any overt censorship, but I worried it might have a chilling effect on material that might be controversial–that viewers, advertisers, and networks might be worried about ratings, and the pressure on writers and directors to avoid the kind of content that might result in a TV-MA tag for the show. I think it’s safe to say, from the vantage point of 2015, that my concerns turned out to be overblown.
It would be a mistake, I think, to suggest that these guidelines played a major role in ushering the golden age of television they happened to coincide with; correlation is not causation and all. And the analogy is far from perfect; writers and producers were and are obviously self-censoring in a number of that syllabus creating professors are not (and vice versa). Viewers aren’t perfectly analogous to students, nor networks to administrators, etc etc.
But like many people who seem overly worried about trigger warnings on syllabi today, I thought I was capable of predicting how this would play out, based on what turned out to be an overly simplistic set of assumptions about the motivations and likely behavior of the various actors. I turned out to be clearly wrong, at least in part because I didn’t give some of the relevant actors enough credit. The rating system seemed to lead to less viewer freakouts, and less attention paid to them by advertisers and networks, and more potentially controversial and challenging material on the air. The prediction of a chilling effect from trigger warnings, similarly, requires taking a fairly dim view of maturity of students, and the professionalism of faculty. Perhaps that’s warranted, but based on the faculty and students I interact with, I’m not convinced that’s likely to be the case.