2 More Cents on Content Warnings

by Yukiho Semimoto

This post will include discussion of trauma, and brief mentions of sensitive topics including sexual assault, gun violence, and suicide. 

Cole’s post [read here!] covers the in-depth nuance on the relevance and importance of content warnings in the debate space. While we both write from the perspective of Public Forum Debate, some of what I discuss below can have relevance in other debate and speech events. 

Here are my two cents and my guide on the basics of content warnings— hopefully another way to further push the norm of content warnings in the activity of debate. 

  • What is the purpose of content warnings?

In the debate space, content warnings serve as a notice to the opponents, judges, and a possible audience in a room that there may exist potentially sensitive content within the arguments that a debater plans to read. The most common practice of content warnings work so that debaters and judges often have the option of opting out of engaging in certain sensitive topics (i.e. the person who proposed the content warning gives the option of reading another argument if people in the room are uncomfortable), or at the very least, gives room for opponents and judges to describe to what extent they are allowed to discuss the argument. For example, an opponent might conclude after a content warning that details of assault may not be described within someone’s argumentation — especially in weighing mechanisms and case — but the mention of it would be alright. In an activity where teams may read often legitimate but sensitive arguments like sexual assault on any given topic, content warnings have become a way for people to not have to engage in traumatizing arguments. 

This practice supports the safety of rounds and is meant to be a prioritization of that over the concept of “education”. When a sensitive argument is often read without regard for people’s traumas, the education that only exists in the room are for those that are choosing to read the argument. Thus, content warnings that offer an opt-out preserves the educational impact of a debate round for everyone, even the judge. 

While I don’t recommend not giving the option to opt-out, content warnings without an opt-out are on-net good too:

Individuals do not have control over what triggers them, but many have personal strategies they use to cope with triggers when they must be encountered. Those strategies generally work best when the trigger is expected and can be prepared for in advance of the encounter. Hence the importance of content or trigger warnings: they give people the forewarning necessary for them to make use of the strategies that will decrease the harmfulness of encountering triggering material.   University of Michigan

Lastly, even if an individual may not choose to take an opt-out out of fear of exposing their traumas on specific topics, content warnings can become a reminder for those that might be affected by the topic that the people in the round are actively looking out for them and want to foster a safe environment. While the gesture may not entirely prevent trauma from affecting the debate round, it becomes a good courtesy, and at least a way to make the round feel safer than it was before. 

  • How can I do a content warning properly? What topics should I be careful of?

If you suspect or are certain that you are going to be addressing a sensitive argument in a speech, before you begin, ask if it’s okay. A simple “Is everyone in this room comfortable with us reading an argument that discusses x topic,  (with description of how detailed you will go– just a mention of the topic? descriptions of it?) ?”” would suffice. 

The topics that you should be careful of seem intuitive; for example, mentions of sexual assault, suicide, and gun violence without content warnings are discouraged. 

Yes, there is a grey line on what arguments should constitute a content warning. The most common question I get when introducing the nature of content warnings is: should common impacts like war come with content warnings? In my opinion, no. Especially on topics like the Saudi Arabia topic, debaters expect to go into round and be read impacts like Yemeni deaths because the resolution surrounds that issue. Thus, there are exceptions to the rule about content warnings, especially if an entire topic is about guns, debaters already expect to walk into the round and more or less understand that it is infeasible to have a debate round without discussing that issue.

Many people may not agree with me on this front, however I’m generally a believer that theory arguments will check back on what topics should and should not have content warnings, and that discussion outside of debates will help limit the greyness of the line on what constitutes content warnings. 

  • I’m a judge. How should I evaluate a lack of content warnings? 

Before I address how to evaluate content warnings in round, I want to talk about paradigms. I think that it is incredibly important to put that you require content warnings for sensitive arguments in your judge paradigm, if you are at a tournament that provides one. www.tabroom.com is a common place where paradigms exist and judges are allowed to delineate their opinions of debate and how they will evaluate the round. It is a common trend for judges to want to keep short paradigms or only input memes in their paradigm, however delineating what is okay and what isn’t can help debaters that were unaware of a norm like content warnings to understand the need for them. Indeed, an incredibly common criticism of content warnings is that it is often a “national circuit practice”, and those that don’t get the privilege of traveling across the country often don’t understand the necessity of it because they were not exposed to it. Requiring it in your paradigm prevents this specific harm to content warnings.

My paradigm details ways in which I hope to make the round safer, including a requirement to respect pronouns. Specifically to content warnings, a paradigm discussing it can look like this: 

I require content warnings for arguments that discuss sensitive topics (hi I will list sensitive topics here: e.g. forms of sexual harassment/ assault, gun violence, suicide). I believe that debate is first and foremost an educational activity, and the benefits of discussion no longer exists when the discussion at hand is a potentially triggering topic. The content warning should come in the form of “is everyone in this room comfortable with us reading an argument that discusses x topic (with description of how detailed you will go– just a mention of the topic? descriptions of it?) ?”

If you are confused about the series of topics that might require content warnings, and how to execute it properly, please feel free to ask before the round or before a speech.

Respect your opponent’s wishes. If they say no to your request to read an argument about a sensitive argument, it’s a no. Not reading content warnings or not respecting the wishes of your opponents warrants an automatic loss and severely low speaks.

If you are ever in a situation where a team did not prepare another argument but the opposing team would not like the argument to be made, it is perfectly fine to be open to switching sides or speech order (so long as both the teams are fine with it too). 

If content warnings are not read in round, it is ultimately your choice to choose how you want to deal with it. It is not an uncommon practice for a judge to make it a voting issue, especially if they require it in their paradigm to begin with. It is also not uncommon for a debater to make it into a voting issue, in which you would be forced to evaluate it as part of the round. 

  • How can I make my opponent not reading a content warning into a voting issue? 

Having the option of not being forced to engage with traumatizing arguments and instead reading arguments about content warnings being critical to the safety of a debate round can be good; it can feel safer, and allows debaters to discourage others from doing the same thing again. 

Theory arguments are common in Policy and LD debate as a form of “progressive argumentation” and in Public Forum specifically, are seen sporadically to check back against in-round abuse like the practice of offensive overviews in second rebuttal or spreading without flashing. Debaters introduce arguments about how debate should be debated in order to cement norms— that’s what theory arguments help do. In order to understand better how theory arguments work, here is a quick guide and here is a link to a content warning shell that you may adopt, read in round, and shorten(Scroll to the bottom!).

If a team refuses to respect your wishes for content warnings, or fails to read one in the first place — 

 we support your decision to want to make content warnings a voting issue and read reasons as to why a judge should vote you up for a lack of it. Of course, keep in mind that some judges might not be susceptible to this type of argumentation. 

Talk to your parent judges and coaches about how it is an acceptable way of evaluating the debate round, if you believe in content warnings too. It can help further the norm faster— the more a judge is willing to evaluate arguments not about the resolution, the more people will feel comfortable talking about it in-round. 

Lastly, if you don’t feel like the lack of content warning affects you but are bothered by it, there isn’t necessarily always a harm in reading the argument as the benefit would be furthering a better norm in the community. However, being a good ally and talking with your opponents after the round would often suffice in that scenario. 

Content warnings are a practice that I wholeheartedly believe in and personally need in the debate space. With that said, I am always open to discussion and other perspectives. Without conversation, there is no great way to come to a good conclusion on topics as important as this. 

Ultimately, I stand by my belief that in order to be a respectful coach, debater, or teammate, and to be a good ally, it’s important to encourage younger or other debaters to follow norms on content warnings.  It’s important to use our individual powers to ask judges and instructors to both consider it and put a need for it on their paradigm too. 

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