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Trigger warning: I’m going to talk about trigger warnings. If you’re the type of person to flip your shit about people using trigger warnings, you might not want to read this post unless you have the resources to attack me for defending the use of trigger warnings.

That opening paragraph is at least half serious. Guess which half?

Recently, much has been made about a recent request that college courses provide trigger warnings for those courses that might contain discussion of racism, violence, rape, etc. And by “much has been made”, I mean that, once again, a great many people are arguing against straw dummies and complete misunderstandings of the topic at hand.

A trigger warning is a short note at the start of a piece of work that provides a cue to people that the contents of the work might contain violent, sexual, or any other sort of imagery or text that might constitute a “trigger” for those among us who have experienced such things and might have a particularly untoward and uncontrollable emotional reaction to the content. For the most part, these trigger warnings — which have evolved in the context of social justice online advocacy — are used in an effort to steel the readers / viewers of the content against the possibility that they might be triggered. This gives them a chance to meter their internal mental resources and not “overspend”. This largely is an empathetic response to the “spoons” discussion that happened some time ago: the realization that each human being has only so many mental, physical or emotional resources for a particular type of task and that some tasks might be more costly for some than for others. Knowing that people with traumatic life experiences might end up spending more resources than they intended in consuming, say, a blog post that they weren’t expecting to have an account of a violent rape, those of us who understand that these traumatic life experiences often leave gaping wounds or easily picked scabs on a person’s psyche take care to try to give clues in advance.

This concept is not, however, entirely new. Turn on a television (an archaic concept, I know!) any time after eight in the evening on any of the major networks, and you might see a message coming back from every commercial break (another archaic concept, in the digital age!) explaining that this program may contain violent or sexual imagery, or even “coarse language”, and that “Viewer Discretion Is Advised”. Go to a movie theatre or video game brick-and-mortar store, and you might find that the content you were about to consume has a rating of Mature, and warns of certain kinds of content. And with most works of literature, you have a synopsis on the cover that does not shy away from pointing out the potentially objectionable material that could be a draw for some, or a damaging experience for others. A news report of a child being killed by an Israeli sniper was aired on CNN with a warning on the top of the video that said “WARNING: Disturbing Video”, and included a preamble that “some of you may find this video disturbing”. They didn’t specify what would be disturbing — that they were essentially airing video of a young teen being murdered senselessly — but they damn well warned of disturbing content.

Even with blog posts that don’t explicitly contain content notes, you’ll often get a “setup” paragraph or two “above the fold” which provides a teaser for the argument that’s going to be made, and particularly well-written ones will act as a perfectly serviceable trigger warning for those who read for comprehension, even if the specific triggers aren’t bolded and in red text and fifty-two point font.

With all that in mind, I can’t help but think that all the objections against trigger warnings have to be coming from someplace other than an actual objection to pre-warning people about the content they’re about to consume. I’ve narrowed it down to a few possibilities.

The people who are complaining that it impedes free speech are arguing for one of two things: first, they’re suggesting that putting a content warning of any sort would “spoil the surprise”, meaning they’re arguing that the part of the piece in question that’s really of value is the emotional manipulation and that spoiling that “surprise” strips the piece of the only thing of value. Second, they’re suggesting that asking a person to have empathy for others, to actually include a little bit of extra speech before saying what they’re going to say or showing what they’re going to show, is somehow a restriction on their ability to say what they want when they want.

Both of these possibilities seems to me of a piece with the misunderstanding about “free speech” that you see all too often on the blogosphere, where people think that “free speech” means the freedom to say whatever you want, wherever you want, without any sort of consequences — consequences like being banned or having your comments deleted or left in moderation on someone else’s blog, for instance; or having people point to your words and show you to be an asshole, for another instance. It is entitlement to an audience that the “Freeze Peach” warriors misunderstand to be free speech; that if you’re free to say it, then others MUST listen and MUST be able to hear it, even if you’re borrowing someone else’s platform to do so. It is this core dispute that underlies every fight about “trolls” and curating your own online experience.

There are people complaining about a “waste of resources” in having to put a trigger warning before something that a person might experience that might trigger them. These folks completely miss the point that the resources spent on an extra sentence at the top of a blog post, or inserting a boilerplate slide at the start of a television show, or including a note in your syllabus in the course description (where course descriptions already exist), or just honing your craft such that your opening paragraph of your article actually cues people as to what it might contain, is so little of a drain on resources that it is negligible, and once you’re already in the habit, so negligible as to be unnoticeable. And certainly, this ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure when you have to spend a lot of resources defending yourself and quelling anger when your negligence hurts someone, and they raise a stink that might actually affect your bottom line, or your ability to do your job teaching the students who weren’t triggered, for instance.

The people who are complaining that trigger warnings are an infantilization of those who have traumatic experiences either don’t have such traumatic experiences themselves, or they’re actually more capable of handling them than others. They lack the empathy to understand that others might actually not experience the drain on their emotional or mental resources on being reminded of the events in question in the same way that they themselves experience it. Post-traumatic stress disorder, for example, can come about from relatively-benign events, or it can come about from relatively horrific events, and the disorder can be mild or it can be debilitating, and there is no correlation between the events that caused the PTSD and the severity of the disorder. That disorder is, in fact, a mental illness of a sort — a mental injury, more like, whose experience does not translate from one person to another.

Empathy is more than just taking your lived experience and assuming other human beings experience the exact same things. That is a horribly shallow understanding of the concept of empathy, and it, like the misunderstanding about free speech, underlies almost every single argument I’ve ever had on the internet. The people who treat trigger warnings as both unnecessary and infantilizing evidently do not care that some people who actually have been traumatized are asking for these things to be done more regularly.

And then there are the people like Dan Savage, who after having been tagged a few times as being triggery for a number of things he’s said — especially those things that contain apologetics for the rape culture in the Western world, or his transphobic language, or his dismissiveness of lived experiences outside his own — has turned whining about trigger warnings to an absolute art form. His characterizing trigger warnings as like kudzu, a weed, spreading thanks to a “liberal censorship” push, completely misunderstands everything about trigger warnings by reframing it only in terms of the absolute, and absolutely miniscule, extreme of putting a trigger warning about everything. His arguments include that “trigger warning” advocates go too far in demanding warnings for every single possible objectionable thing that you may as well never see them anyway because you’d be looking at a copy of the article, though out of order, before reading the actual article proper. He voices his concern that trigger warnings are “narcissistic”, e.g. “look at how sensitive I am about dealing with this topic because I posted a thing at the top of it that warned about triggers” when the content itself is not sensitive at all. Or he suggests that they are unnecessary because only those who deal with rape sensitively are going to put trigger warnings for discussions about rape, and thus such warnings don’t actually accomplish anything except turning people away from your scholarly and sensitive materials. This last is something I’d seriously need a full-on study to buy into — I’d like to see numbers on whether or not warning your readers that you’re about to talk about rape is correlated with dealing with the topic sensitively, and whether or not the consumers of that content actually appreciate the forewarning before dealing with it, even if it was dealt with sensitively.

The one concern of his that I do share is that, yes, we do have to prioritize what we create trigger warnings about. We can’t warn that “this post contains graphic images of cats” just in case someone is triggered by cats after a horrific event where Fluffy got run over when they were 4. But, technology can go a long way to fixing this problem for those who actually are triggered by mundane things. Metadata, like post tags, might give appropriate warning about certain content to those who have filters or flags set up before they watch a thing. Imagine if Netflix had keywords associated with every piece of content, and could allow you to search for “+fantasy -rape” (thus filtering Game of Thrones, for instance, from the list). Or if it could be configured to give you a popup box when a show contains, to use the extreme example, the tag “spiders”: “This program contains a keyword you’ve flagged: ‘spiders’. Do you want to continue watching Arachnophobia?” At which point we’d stop, or continue, depending on our own mental resources.

And there is, in fact, no debate presently as to whether or not a trigger warning for graphic violence at the start of CSI: Miami is infantilizing or unnecessary or a waste of resources. They just don’t CALL it trigger warning, even if it serves as such. So, there’s something to be said about the fact that “trigger warnings” include the term “trigger”, which indicates that the viewer might be helpless before the might of their emotional response to the piece. This, of course, neglects that “triggers” do not elicit the same response in all people, and that, at least anecdotally, in this community the only times people want trigger warnings is so that they can engage in the content without accidentally overrunning their resource pools.

Frankly, raising our societal consciousness to the fact that the body of human literature presently contains absurd amounts of homophobia, racism, violence, ableism, rape, and other objectionable material, is its own goal. If we strive constantly to be a more cohesive, more unified, more capable society, rather than one that lets bits of itself rot and wither and fall away and die without a second thought when it seems like a lot of effort to do right by those parts, then this is an area for potential improvement. Yes, much of language is ableist, and we use it with little care for its effects. Yes, much of literature contains rape casually, contains misogyny casually. Yes, a lot of our movies and television contains graphic violence, and glorifies violence while it vilifies sex. Nobody wants anyone to stop consuming this content, or producing it. You can have a historical piece where black folks are plantation slaves, and you can have a Victorian piece where women are treated like dainty flowers who faint at the least excitement (probably because of those horrible corsets you bound them up in!). Yes, you can include rape in a movie like Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, even though the rape doesn’t actually impact the story at all except to give the heroine a “troubled past”. But don’t make “troubled past” on the box the only warning that you’re going to have to watch a rape scene.

Viewer Discretion Advised television logo

“But, but, if viewers use their discretion, they might turn off this program, and that’s shutting down my freeze peach!”

And beyond that, if a rape scene is the only way you can give a girl a troubled past, or motivation for the male hero to get revenge in a violent revenge fantasy, then frankly, you’re a hackneyed writer, and I’d truly appreciate some prior warning before I consume your content that it’s going to be worthless as a piece of cultural memetics and I will gain nothing but hatred of you in exchange for my own efforts. Many of the things you’ll be putting trigger warnings for are mostly-agreed-upon by society to be traumatic, like violence and rape, or mostly-agreed-upon by our Victorian mores to be objectionable, like a woman’s nipples, or use of the word “shit”. An appropriate content warning lets me prioritize viewing the things that give real moral panic for no good reason by the religious hegemony in our society, like sex, over the things that shitty writers think are “gritty” or “raw” but are really banal and sometimes useless to the point of being there purely for shock value, like violence or rape. Which brings up another problem: the conflation of what is legitimately traumatizing, and what’s merely moral panic by conservative douchebags.

Oh yeah, trigger warning: this post may contain coarse language. The whole damn blog, too, actually. But you may have already known that — and you may have also noticed that I don’t consider “coarse language” to be a trigger point, but rather a moral panic, and thus I don’t bother with it, even where I will put up content notes for things I feel may harm someone stumbling into it unprepared.

If you object to the term “trigger warning” itself, but not the concept, then use “content note”. Or don’t call it anything, just include it before your content. And while I’m making suggestions, start treating “rape” as a separate category that is not “violence” or “sexuality” or “sexual violence”, since it overlaps both but is its own traumatic event. Rape != sexual content. And understand that not everyone experiences things the same way, and thanks to their previous education, discussion of traumatic issues might actually result in reactions that drastically undercut enjoyment of your content, even for others — causing that content to be subsumed by the furore that’s built in response to it. That actually undercuts your freedom of speech in a much more real way than asking that you post trigger warnings before them. Surely you want the content to be consumed without distractions like recriminations made against you, yes?

For fuck’s sake, we’re okay with warning of “coarse language” because “think of the kids”, but we’re unwilling to forewarn people with actual trauma — that says a lot about how our culture prioritizes things. And it’s a function of whose opinions we consider first: the privileged religiously-motivated folks and their moral panics, or the people who’ve been legitimately traumatized.

Comments

  1. oualawouzou says

    You know what… I think I’ll do my part. I teach literature, and I’ll start providing my students with such notices/warnings (it’s amazing how pretty much every “great” novel contains at least one key scene involving rape, torture, suicide or any other potentially upsetting experience). It costs me no effort and even if it helps only one or two students every year, it’s worth typing a few extra words on my lesson plan.

    It’s the second time now FTB has moved me to modify my teaching practices. For the better, of course.

  2. Bruce says

    I think providing implicit (or direct) trigger warnings is a natural outcome of being mentally mature. While there are plenty of fifth-graders who are fully capable of this, it does feel like hard work for a small number of people. While most of these people are happy to put in the work needed to be a decent person, there is a small fraction of this fraction who resent being implicitly asked to put any of their effort into being reasonable for other people. These are the extremely small group of poorly adjusted people who would complain about expectations of providing warnings. Civilization impinges upon their presumed right to be inconsiderate without other people minding it.
    As with a rude noise in a restaurant, their whining stands out as noticeable only because it is so inappropriate.

  3. says

    Do trigger warnings really need to be everywhere, in every milieu? Or should they only be in places where certain topics aren’t likely or everyday discussions? People know the evening news is going to be full of stories about deaths and murders, but not when they turn on the Sunday night movie. Do both need a trigger warning, or only one?

    People go to colleges and universities to learn new things and have their ideas challenged. They don’t go to enter an echo chamber (except at creationist ‘schools’). College courses already have trigger warnings, so saying one in class isn’t necessary. The course syllabus tells students what they’re going to be learning and reading. Difficult or sensitive content in a course shouldn’t come as a shock to them.

  4. Vicki, duly vaccinated tool of the feminist conspiracy says

    The course syllabus may or may not have that information, depending in part on whether the instructor realizes that it matters. It would be easy to write a one-paragraph syllabus for a literature course that identifies the authors and time periods covered, and that the students will be expected to write essays and discuss the literature in class, without telling the prospective student whether they’re going to be reading about rape or murder, let alone whether the story is told by a third-person-omniscient narrator, a friend of the victim, or the perpetrator. Maybe the instructor assumes that everyone knows what’s in each work, or maybe the instructor doesn’t find these works emotionally difficult and have forgotten that someone else might.

  5. says

    Post-traumatic stress disorder, for example, can come about from relatively-benign events, or they can come about from relatively horrific events, and the disorder can be mild or it can be debilitating, and there is no correlation between the events that caused the PTSD and the severity of the disorder.

    Added to that is the fact that, whether the PTSD was caused by severe or by mild trauma, this has no correlation to the content or “horribleness” of the triggers.

    For example – a personal example, but illustrative of the lack of correlation – I can participate in discussions of this kind, read heart-breaking stories of abuse, or look at pictures of violent events with no personal effect other than a general bleakness that settles on me for a day or two. But certain things, like a mildly-worded threat to someone else of the “we know where you live” type, will cause a round of terrifying nightmares and flashbacks.

    My partner, a vet who says he was lucky in that he missed most of the trauma associated with being involved in a war, so that we could say his PTSD was caused by relatively benign stress, is triggered violently by any mention of politics and Christianity in the same paragraph. (He doesn’t read FTB, obviously.)

    So I appreciate a trigger warning, however it’s worded. I can decide, then, whether I have the internal resources at that time to handle it; I can wade in, as it were tiptoeing, ready to back out at the first hint of danger; I can leave it for later or ignore it altogether. Better that, infinitely better that, than being ambushed halfway through an article with something I’m not prepared for.

    The same goes for college courses. Years back, I was obliged to drop out of one course, mid-term, because the subject matter was focussed in a way I hadn’t expected and couldn’t handle back then, so close to the events that brought about my PTSD. A warning would have been helpful; there were other electives I could have chosen.

  6. oualawouzou says

    What Vicky said. The class I’ll be teaching next semester can be boiled down to “French literature from the XIXth and XXth century”. But I can’t expect my students to know they’ll have to read a graphic depiction of suicide through poison when I ask them to read “Madame Bovary”, or that “Boule de Suif” tackles sexual exploitation.of women. It’s easy to dismiss those concerns when you’ve been fortunate enough not to have suffered a trauma of any kind, but now I can better imagine the distress of, say, a young woman who has been forced into prostitution having to spend two weeks dissecting a story describing a nasty event all too reminiscent of her own situation. And before I’m accused of worrying about things that just do not happen, just three years ago, I had a young woman in my class who had to take a week off class because she had to testify in court against her former pimp…

  7. anne mariehovgaard says

    unnecessary because only those who deal with rape sensitively are going to put trigger warnings for discussions about rape

    He really is completely clueless. Even if this were true (citation needed!), it would make very little difference. No matter how “sensitively” you discuss/describe rape, the subject/descriptions alone is/are going to be triggering for some people.

  8. says

    Free speech loons with concerns about people consuming their content would be stupid not to use TW. One episode triggered for a consumer, an they probably are not going back for more.

    I actually doubt they have any coherent reason, they just feel like things are vaguely changing, or some small change is expected of them. This is seen as an extreme threat. The really vocal (including self-identified) bigots of all stripes, and those in the freeze peach at all cost camp, and anyone who doesn’t like their privileged sense of entitlement and self-importance challenged – they don’t need to have a reason, they are simply contrary to anything suggested or endorsed by “liberals”, or “the left”, or “extremists” and “fascists”. Most of the words they spew about these things mean nothing. It’s like they are playing “s/he’s touching me!” in the back of the car on a family road trip. Even though the sibling isn’t doing anything of the sort at all.

  9. embertine says

    if a rape scene is the only way you can give a girl a troubled past, or motivation for the male hero to get revenge in a violent revenge fantasy, then frankly, you’re a hackneyed writer, and I’d truly appreciate some prior warning before I consume your content that it’s going to be worthless as a piece of cultural memetics and I will gain nothing but hatred of you in exchange for my own efforts

    This is delicious and requires a trigger warning for deliciousness.

  10. says

    I, for one, really would have appreciated a little “heads up” prior to discussion or lecture on the few occasions of in-class triggering, especially the one that involved a graphic account of domestic abuse.

  11. Psychopomp Gecko says

    I know just the place that whines about this sort of stuff. A group called FIRE. They’re all about protecting the first amendment, and by doing that, they mean that they will give your college a bad ranking for having trigger warnings, or for telling groups they can’t restrict membership according to religion or political views, or for having anti-bullying and anti-discrimination policies.

    Good idea in theory, but I think they’re mainly just conservatives (in terms of being reactionary) trying to hold on to bad ideas of the past just because they were the bad ideas we already had. That would certainly explain why the group hasn’t bothered joining up with the ACLU.

  12. Psychopomp Gecko says

    And as for a heads up and warning…I could have used that before this one history class where we watched this film from an embedded cameraman with a unit in Vietnam. Went right from outside a hut with the sound of a baby crying to a shot straight between the legs as the whole class gets to watch a baby get born with no warning.

    Couldn’t get an erection for a week afterwards.

  13. Ann says

    I can see a potential for abuse, though.

    I mean, in theory, there’s a difference between campaigning to put a trigger warning on Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and campaigning to have Adventures of Huckleberry Finn removed from school library shelves and classrooms, as has been regularly occurring since it was published.

    But that’s not necessarily — or even logically — going to be the case in practice.

    The thing is: When you don’t keep an eye out for the possibility, content controls (on race- and sex-related matters in particular) always end up operating against the interests of the oppressed and under-represented. So a where’s-the-harm attitude can be short-sighted.

  14. scenario says

    I’m a little worried about trigger warnings by committee. Especially in lower grades there are parents who want to protect their children from everything. I could see a 5 page book with a 10 page trigger warning, if every parent who thought their child might be upset about something got to add another warning. This would defeat the purpose of having warnings.

    Many people don’t really understand what triggers are.

  15. jenny6833a says

    Having read the above, I’m now staunchly in favor of trigger warnings. I’ve resolved to put signs at the street corners on my block warning of the red roses in my front yard. I don’t want anyone who has been ever stuck by a thorn, and traumatized thereby, to have an untoward emotional reaction.

    I’d appreciate advice, however, on how to deal with the property owners at the street corners who may not want my warning signs in their yards. And, given the track record of my HOA, I suspect that I’ll be fined under Section 301, Subsection 97, Paragraph 127(d) of the HOA rules. What should I tell them?

  16. says

    Having “read” the above, surely you should have seen the passage that went:

    We can’t warn that “this post contains graphic images of cats” just in case someone is triggered by cats after a horrific event where Fluffy got run over when they were 4.

    Therefore, I strongly suspect you’re not staunchly in favour of trigger warnings, but rather staunchly in favour of making fun of a strawman of what you believe trigger warnings to be.

  17. jenny6833a says

    @Jason: There’s a substantial difference between a photo of something and the something itself. My roses are physical objects and their rose thorns are real.

    Help me understand where you think one should draw the line?

    And you might want to discuss how society can ever change if those who scream in horror about certain harmless sights can decide to avoid seeing how harmless they really are. I’m reminded of a quote from Moses or Hemmingway or someone that goes, “Familiarity breeds acceptance.”

  18. says

    You may want to specifically pay attention to the part that says:

    Many of the things you’ll be putting trigger warnings for are mostly-agreed-upon by society to be traumatic [...] there purely for shock value, like violence or rape.

    And you’re in moderation because I have zero interest in quoting the original post at you until you start actually reading what I wrote and engaging with that, instead of what you imagine it to say.

  19. Ann says

    @Jason: There’s a substantial difference between a photo of something and the something itself.

    Deep.

    My roses are physical objects and their rose thorns are real.

    Hey-nonny, hey-nonny, hey-no.

    Help me understand where you think one should draw the line?

    Are the roses your original creation? Or are they just, you know, roses?

    Fine. Then you have nothing to draw the line over.

    And you might want to discuss how society can ever change if those who scream in horror about certain harmless sights can decide to avoid seeing how harmless they really are.

    You’re the one who evidently feels imposed upon by the contemplation of trigger warnings in the abstract.

    Toughen up.

    I’m reminded of a quote from Moses or Hemmingway or someone that goes, “Familiarity breeds acceptance.”

    Sure. And that’s why it makes no difference whether children grow up watching Sesame Street or <Evil Dead, as long as they get good and familiar with it

  20. Ed says

    Yea, trigger warnings are great as long as they are brief and non-intrusive(which they are!) These complainers act like you have to get a note from a pannel of psychiatrists or sit through a two hour lecture in order to get to see or read disturbing subject matter. Anything to go on about “political correctness run amok.”

    We’ve had warnings like this for years anyway as you say. Horror movies even used to use them as a marketing gimmick….”If you are easily frightened, have a heart condition, a seizure disorder or are pregnant we advise you to leave the theatre NOW! A nurse will be standing by in case of emergencies.”

  21. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    Turn on a television (an archaic concept, I know!) any time after eight in the evening on any of the major networks, and you might see a message coming back from every commercial break (another archaic concept, in the digital age!) explaining that this program may contain violent or sexual imagery, or even “coarse language”, and that “Viewer Discretion Is Advised”.

    Very good analogy – agreed.

    In addition on TV many people and scenes that may be considered disturbing or upsetting get pixellated and hidden.

    I think its good that people can see things raw, unvarnished and uncensored at times and on some sites.

    I also think its good and appropriate to be considerate of others and give warning of things that may upset and traumatise.

    So, yes, trigger warnings area good idea and should be provided just as TV lets people know what they’re in for and thus empowers them to choose to watch or not. Not really sure why this is anyway way “Controversial” or an issue.

  22. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    ^ Aaarrgh! That’s : ” Not really sure why this is in any way “Controversial” or an issue. ” Natch.

  23. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    “Our channel warns viewers that the following story contains images which may disturb some viewers ..”

    Commonly heard phrase that, I’ll be honest, usually makes me for one pay more attention.

    Also on Aussie TV before certain programs / news items we often get warnings that Indigenous veiwers may be upset because images and voices of now dead people may be shown.

    Y’know what, that custom makes less than zero sense and sounds silly to me – but I don’t mind them saying that for warning people to whoem it apparently does make sense and ain’t silly. Its hat all of ten seconds to me that doesn’t effector harm me in any way. If it stops other peoples from violating their taboos and being all bent outta shape. Well, fair enough.

Trackbacks

  1. […] In case you haven’t noticed, the fires of the Great Trigger Warning Debate are burning high again, this time in the halls of academia. Students at UCSB have called for trigger warnings in course syllabi, prompting the New York Times to equate dissociative spells, nightmares, and anxiety attacks with “squirming”. Now, along comes Pacific Standard with an article that tells us science says we shouldn’t give sexually assaulted students with PTSD even the same consideration we give television viewers who don’t like nudity on their screens. […]

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