Oxford Law Faculty introduces trigger warnings

The Law Faculty has reportedly included so-called ‘trigger warnings’ in lectures on sexual offences. The move has come after the Director of Undergraduate Study at the faculty suggested lecturers “bear in mind” the warnings.

An unnamed student quoted in The Daily Mail, has described the procedure:  “Before the lectures on sexual offences – which included issues such as rape and sexual assault – we were warned that the content could be distressing, and were then given the opportunity to leave if we needed to.”

‘Trigger warnings’ are like spoiler alerts, but serve a different purpose. The BBC defined them as “a sentence or a few words to caution readers about the content which will follow. The author adds a warning in recognition of strong writing or images which could unsettle those with mental health difficulties.” They have been used by some mental health charities to warn those with mental illnesses about content on their websites. The rationale is that vulnerable people might find it difficult to read about accounts of similar illnesses.

Speaking to The Daily Mail, law lecturer Professor Laura Hoyano defended the move arguing, “If you’re going to study law, you have to deal with things that are difficult.” But, after the comments about the lectures appeared online, Oxford law student Giorgia Litwin, advocated their use in an academic context. Likening the warnings to notices which appear before movies or TV shows, she said: “This is not an ‘everything offends’ argument. Students are not being ‘fragile’ or ‘over-sensitive.’ The introduction of a discretionary trigger warning is not going to cause every law student to drop sticks and walk out of a lecture. This is a hugely beneficial and valuable step towards recognition and awareness of mental health, and shows a lot of respect to those that may have suffered traumatic experiences.”

Nonetheless, some commentators have expressed scepticism or criticism at the move. Matthew Scott argued in the Telegraph “universities should resist the pressure. Trigger warnings will do little to protect the vulnerable, and the growing demand for them constitutes a real and insidious threat to academic freedom.” The classicist Mary Beard recently warned of their effect. Writing in the Sunday Times, she argued that it would be ‘dishonest, fundamentally dishonest’ to miss out the rape of the Sabines as ‘we have to encourage students to be able to face that, even when they find they’re awkward and difficult for all kinds of good reasons.”

A University of Oxford spokesperson said: ‘The University of Oxford has not adopted a formal policy on trigger warnings. The University aims to encourage independent and critical thinking and does not, as a rule, seek to protect students from ideas or material they may find uncomfortable. However, there may be occasions when an individual lecturer feels it is appropriate to advise students of potentially distressing subject matter.’

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