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.
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.