By Megan Ryland
I have heard good arguments from people who understand trigger warnings and object on the grounds that it doesn’t serve their needs, as people who are sometimes triggered by certain things. Why don’t I hear from someone like that in all the articles bemoaning censorship and citing freedom of speech, instead of from people with only an academic interest in the whole notion? (See here for oh so very many examples) The answer, in my opinion, is that many of these articles have missed the point of triggers warnings: to consider the people who need them. So, let’s forget about them as I address some of the more convincing statements I’ve heard about trigger warnings.
Argument: Triggers are Too Personal
This argument can be a straightforward critique that trigger warnings don’t do their job. Triggers are so personal that we cannot possibly, honestly anticipate them and it’s potentially disingenuous to pick some over others. However, you don’t have to do something perfectly or not at all. A warning for the obviously difficult subjects is a) not difficult and b) not going to hurt anyone.
A more interesting argument is that triggers focus attention on personal experiences of trauma and distract from the larger systems at play. This can be done by focusing on the moment of “triggering” someone and creating interpersonal challenges, or by spending more time talking about specific incidents of oppression and less on addressing the larger systems of oppression that drive it. In some ways, I understand this as an academic argument, but I think it leaves out the minute-by-minute lives of people who do have to live in systems that trod all over their trauma.
Jenny Jarvie gets at this argument a little when she says, “My sense is that by putting all the emphasis on individual feeling and sort of structuring public life around these fragile personal sensitivities, there’s very little room for coming together to negotiate and work things out. Trigger warnings are presented as a gesture of empathy and of compassion but, in fact, I think they lead only to greater solipsism. They encourage us to impose our personal feelings on the public discussion and claim offense when something disturbs us.”
Of course, I think she says it poorly, because I would hardly say that panic attacks are caused by “fragile personal sensitivities.” Plus, I think it is reasonable to structure public life around the notion that we are all surviving in an unjust world where many people have experienced trauma, and that dealing with the discomfort that this might create—even the minor inconvenience of a trigger warning—is the price we might just have to pay to live in a society where trauma is part of the system.
I would also add to this section the recent statement by Jack Halberstam regarding “how a neoliberal rhetoric of individual pain obscures the violent sources of social inequity.” He goes on at length and many people have found his piece worth a conversation.* Again, we do see this idea that individual pain isn’t the point; the system is the point. In my opinion, there must be a way to balance the immediate needs of an individual with the wider issues at play.
Argument: No Space is “Safe”
This is an important argument because it acknowledges that we cannot warn for everything and that, most of the time, people aren’t given any warning to prepare for something triggering them. Life is triggering, no space is safe, and words alone won’t fix that.
Writing as an educator, Brittney Cooper puts this well,
“…part of what we as educators, parents and students have to recognize is that classroom spaces in which difficult topics like trauma, rape, war, race and sexuality are discussed are already unsafe. When students of color who have endured racism have to hear racially insensitive comments from other students who are in the process of learning, the classroom is unsafe. The classroom is unsafe for trans students who are often referred to by the wrong gender pronoun by both students and teachers…”
It’s hard to argue with the truth of that.
She goes to say that “trigger warnings won’t solve or ameliorate the problems that open, frank, guided discussion by well-trained, competent instructors can. Every semester, I gird up my loins to address the range of defensive and uncomfortable reactions that students have to material they have been taught never to discuss in polite company.” There is something to be said about the hard spaces where uncomfortable conversations happen.
However, Angus Johnson puts it nicely when he says,
“As a professor, I have an obligation to my students to raise those difficult subjects, but I also have an obligation to raise them in a way that provokes a productive reckoning with the material. And that reckoning can only take place if my students know that I understand that this material is not merely academic, that they are coming to it as whole people with a wide range of experiences, and that the journey we’re going on together may at times be painful.”
I would also argue that there is a way to acknowledge that no space is ever safe without giving up on the notion that we can always do better. Some spaces are safer than others and intellectual debate, emotional growth, and general openness may benefit from this ‘safer’ space. If someone feels willing to be vulnerable, safe enough to be, then it is likely that more frank discussions can be had. A trigger warning is guarantee, but perhaps it’s better than nothing. You can’t promise a safe space, but you do what you can.
Argument: Trauma Doesn’t Need to be Stigmatized
They way I heard this argument first was, essentially, “This is my life. I’m not going to put a trigger warning on my experiences.” That is to say, the speaker was not going to say that other people could not handle what she could handle — what she had been forced to handle. I think it might feel like stigma to provide a warning, and it perhaps didn’t make her experiences feel any easier to articulate or live with. In addition, at the time, she was about to speak to a group of people who had come to hear about her experiences.
Here’s what I think makes this argument against trigger warnings so much more compelling:
- Survivors (of war, of sexual violence, of abuse) don’t need any more stigma.
- Trigger warnings should support conversations about traumatic experiences.
- Your life story is your life story and you have the right to speak about your own experience as you see fit, prioritizing your own sense of self.
I can understand the desire to avoid labeling something as inherently triggering, as it will inevitably create a hierarchy of experience where some things are considered worthy or unworthy of a warning. As triggers depend on individuals, telling someone that their experience is or is not triggering (via warning for it or not) may communicate what they should/shouldn’t be feeling about that event or experience. This is not helpful because allowing people to self-define their experiences is important.
Something that might be helpful in this circumstance is the trigger warning’s lesser publicized cousin, the “content note,” which loses the alarm of “warning” and merely serves as a polite heads up. There’s a great piece separating out the terms “trigger warning” and “content note” here. A content note will likely look almost identical to a trigger warning, but it is simply stating the potentially upsetting topics covered by the material/talk/show. It is informative without presuming the usage of the information it is providing. Put another way, it is just saying “Here are the topics” rather than “These things might trigger you, alert!” A little more neutral. It may avoid the feeling of stigma and it’s a little more natural.
I think that we do these content notes all the time, but usually informally. It might come up when we say that we’re about to tell a sad story or ask, “Do you want the good news first, or the bad news?” The social cues might even be more subtle. When you say, “I have something important to tell you,” your tone may be a heads up about where this conversation is headed. We also do this with television and movies, every time we see a warning for “Mature subject matter” or “Rated PG-13 for sexuality and brief drug use.” It’s not new to warn people before you show graphic pictures. We’re just developing a language for it.
[Screenshot: Green background and white text that reads, “The following previous has been approved for appropriate audiences by the Motion Picture Association of America, Inc. The film advertised has been rated R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian. Sexual content, crude humour, persuasive language and some drug material.]
Argument: Trigger warnings insulate people from things they find uncomfortable
Catherine Baker does a good job summarizing this concern, and responding to it, so I’ll leave it in her capable hands:
“There is a risk that trigger warnings reinforce the common cultural perception that we should avoid the situations that trigger us. There is a pretty compelling consensus, amongst researchers and practitioners, that fear and anxiety are generally exacerbated by avoidance, and ameliorated by engaging with them in some way (the ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’ approach). There is certainly a real danger if we teach people that anything they find painful is to be avoided: this is a path to greater suffering, not less, as people’s worlds can end up constricting to smaller and smaller zones of perceived safety.
Advocates of trigger warnings, however, point out that the aim is not to avoid people confronting frightening or painful material, but rather to provide them with greater control over how and when they do this. No therapist I know would advocate randomly plunging a client into a situation they find highly traumatic without warning, rather most take a gradual approach, helping clients to learn to sit with their fear for brief periods at first (rather than trying to escape or avoid it) in a context where they can prepare themselves before it happens. Whilst obviously real life is sometimes going to confront us with unexpected triggers, it seems cruel to use that as justification to ignore the strong possibility of triggering somebody in the particularly exposing context of a lecture hall or other public venue if our material contains likely triggers.”
Again, I find this argument most compelling from the angle that we are trying to include people with traumatic experiences in as much of community conversation as possible, and if they are excluded by trigger warnings, we need another strategy. However, currently, giving someone a heads up that we’re about to talk about something rough is still better than letting someone stumble into that. In my opinion, this is something that the Internet has necessitated especially, because you can click a link and end up somewhere you’ve never been before and you don’t have the lead up or warning of tone. While you might be able to hear a more subtle warning if you’re able to pick up additional context, opening up a new blog might be walking into something extremely graphic. Giving someone a heads up before that happens—either as a trigger warning, a content note, or even a tag—seems like due diligence.
I think it’s clear that trigger warnings aren’t perfect. They don’t serve everyone, and they can be abused by those who might disregard their intended use. However, starting an important conversation about how we talk about trauma, online and off, is worthwhile. Meg Barker offers some great examples of where to go from here:
“Making clear that content/trigger warnings are about giving people the opportunity to consider when and how they engage with material, rather than encouraging them to avoid anything potentially painful or difficult.
Recognising that it is impossible to predict all possible triggers and perhaps engaging groups in also thinking about what individuals and communities can do when people are triggered.
Acknowledging both that everybody has triggers and traumas and that there are differences in experiences, particularly depending on how we are located within intersecting oppressions (not all trauma is equal)
Making trigger/content warnings part of a wider move towards cultures of consent, and acknowledgement of imperfection and vulnerability, rather than seeing them as any kind of singular quick fix solution.”
Dismissing trigger warnings is too easy. We have to keep doing the hard work of talking about trauma, the hurt that our culture doles out, and how to talk about it all. If you’re doing that work, then you’re probably doing it right.
*It may be worth noting that I may be aggrandizing what Jarvie was saying by drawing connections to Jack’s critique of trigger warnings via neoliberalism (see his work for more details), but I think the basic argument is similar. It comes down to the fact that trigger warnings are personal and distracting and Not Social Justice Activism.