The 'Trigger Warning' Test You Can't Fail

A multiple-choice quiz on what terrifies college students.

There are risks in safe spaces.

Photographer: Christopher Capozziello/Getty Images

"Trigger warnings" on U.S. college campuses have become easy targets for ridicule, but that doesn't seem to have dampened enthusiasm for them. Professors issue these warnings on their syllabuses or during class when the material studied turns to sex, race or violence. To some, this is a reasonable way to protect students who might take offense at what they read or see. To others, the warnings encourage young adults to be overly sensitive victims of political correctness imposed by self-appointed "elites."

Since this campus craze has spread and become a contentious subject in U.S. politics, let's make sure we know what we're talking about. One way to do that is with a 10-question practice test. Here goes:

Why the word trigger?

A. The warnings originally applied to representations of gun violence.

B. Images and stories cause traumatic reactions suddenly and uncontrollably.

C. To a survivor, troubling content has the fearsome power of a pointed gun.

D. Traumatized people have hair-trigger emotions.

Answer: B. The “trigger” says that some people can’t control their reactions to material that others handle just fine. When those people get upset, it’s not their fault.

What advice did a Rutgers University sophomore give to professors, via the student newspaper?

A. To review the readings on Day One of a class so that students may prepare for triggers or develop another reading plan with the professor.

B. To divide the class into traumatized and non-traumatized students and craft a syllabus for each one.

C. To poll the students and let them remove any works from the syllabus and propose alternatives.

D. To offer after-class group sessions devoted to that day’s triggering content.

Answer: A. Here we have a common premise of trigger warnings: We need another set of rules for those who can be triggered.  

What suggestion did an Ohio State department make to students who undergo a trigger during class?

A. Put on headphones and listen to classical music.

B. Raise your hand and object to the material.

C. Leave the class, go to the bathroom, debrief with a friend and contact a sexual-violence coordinator.

D. Remain quiet, breathe slowly and focus on a point on the wall behind the teacher.

Answer: C. This advice appears on the site of the school's Department of Arts Administration, Education and Policy. It says that withdrawal is the safest course. Separate yourself from the trigger.

An essay in Socialist Worker uses which of the following examples to demonstrate the consequences of NOT issuing trigger warnings?

A. On "Grey’s Anatomy," a ceiling fan gives a Vietnam veteran flashbacks to helicopters and battle zones, and he proceeds to choke the woman sleeping next to him.

B. In the film version of "The Prince of Tides," the patient recalls the time when escaped prisoners invaded the home and assaulted the mother and children.

C. In "To Kill a Mockingbird," Mayella Ewell says that if the jury doesn’t convict Tom Robinson of assaulting her, then they’re “yellow stinkin’ cowards.”

D. Hamlet’s dithers after the ghost of his father informs him of his brother’s foul murder.

Answer: A. The essay says this instance of a flashback “is just one example of what being triggered can look like.” In other words, not including trigger warnings can be dangerous.

“Warning: the content below contains discussions of nonconsensual sexual behavior and abuse, and may be triggering to some” -- this  statement appeared at the top of which web page at New York University? 

A. Group Counseling program.

B. Department of Gender and Sexuality Studies

C. A discussion of NYU’s Sexual Misconduct Training

D. English 2597, “Sex in the Archive” (a graduate seminar)

ANSWER: C. The web page reviews NYU’s sexual misconduct training for students.  The trigger warning proceeds to tell “survivors” that they may be exempted from the presentation even though it is designed to help prevent exactly what they have suffered.

According to an op-ed in the student blog, what percentage of females in readings in the famous Core curriculum at Columbia end up being raped?

A. 5% in the first semester, 10% in the second.

B. 10% in the first, 20% in the second.

C. 15% in the first, 30% in the second.

D. 20% in the first, 50% in the second.

ANSWER: D. The op-ed is titled “Reading Lit Hum’s Rapes,” and it claims to undercount the rape rate because it tallies each mass rape as a single instance. The op-ed does not count the number of males killed in the same texts.   

Which of the following topics would not be allowed on Common Core tests developed by Smarter Balanced because they would upset some test-takers?

A. Abortion.

B. Pregnancy.

C. Hunting for sport.

D. Sexual innuendo.

E. Gun control.

F. School prayer.

G. Religious disputes.

H. Ethnic conflicts.

I. Partisan politics.

J. All of the above


Which of the following topics are to be handled with care and are best avoided on Common Core tests?

A. Accidents and natural disasters.

B. Alcohol and tobacco.

C. Spiders and snakes.

D. Holidays and birthdays.

E. Lying.

F. Dancing.

G. Immigration.

H. Junk food.

I. Luxuries.

J. Obesity.

K. Religion.

L. Illness.

M. Slavery.

N. All of the above

ANSWER: Just about anything can upset someone, somewhere, sometimes.

What politician rebuked students for seeking too much comfort and agreement on campus?

A. Donald Trump

B. Hillary Clinton

C. Barack Obama

D. Bernie Sanders

ANSWER: C. In Des Moines, Iowa, in September 2015, President Obama told high school students that when they encounter people with opposing opinions, “you shouldn’t silence them by saying, you can’t come because I’m too sensitive to hear what you have to say.” He continued:  "I don’t agree that you, when you become students at colleges, have to be coddled and protected from different points of view.”

After a 9/11 display was vandalized at Occidental College, the Coalition for Diversity and Equity at the school issued a statement saying, "As students of color, this symbol of ________ is particularly triggering for many different reasons. For us, this ____ is a symbol of institutionalized violence (genocide, rape, slavery, colonialism, etc.) against people of color." What object were they talking about?

A. The Republican Party elephant.

B. The seal of the U.S. Army.

C. The American flag.

D. A photo of President George W. Bush.

ANSWER: C. Yes, many student groups regard the American flag itself as a trigger.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.