Trigger Warnings: An Plea for Freedom of Speech

There is a trend afoot that threatens the free discourse that is integral to honest and truthful exchanges of ideas both online and off. From columnists at The Wall Street Journal to self-described liberal professors writing anonymously on Vox to reposts of well-known atheosphere luminaries on The New Republic to writers on feminism at the New York Times to fiction writers who speak against it yet use it to publicize their work, there is a growing swell of voices speaking up and out regarding freedom of speech. These voices clamor against trigger warnings, which they point out protect students from things that they have personally found to help them grow as people. They worry that students will never learn about anything unpleasant (or anything at all) if they are warned about it beforehand.

It seems that their problem is that they think that a warning is a firm deterrent, if not a total block, against anyone reading anything ever, rather than a method by which to include even more readers. Such confusion is understandable; once upon a time, I briefly shared in it. As a much more experienced writer than I was back then, however, I now personally refuse to submit to their assaults on free speech that rely so heavily on their confusion as a cudgel. However much they insist that their outrage should affect me, I will continue to add content notices to my writings as is my right under the First Amendment.

Begin Content Notice for Fatphobia, Body Image, & Eating Disorders

My first experience with a request for a trigger warning on my writing was back when I wrote at Skepchick. Then, as now, I wrote about the personal-as-political with regard to my body type and size, tackling fatphobia from several angles. I was asked by friend and fellow Skepchick writer Olivia James to add a trigger warning to one such piece. At first, I did recoil — and hard — from the suggestion (though I had the good sense to keep it private). It seemed to me, at the time, that there were hoards of thin white women urging my fat brown self to stop talking about my struggles with my body, as if their eating disorders were more important than my ability to express myself about societal fat-hatred. It felt like yet another way that slender, attractive women were winning over me at life: a mere mention of the term “eating disorder” from them and I was no longer allowed to speak on the very issues about which I felt it most important that they hear me.

As the initial snap of defensiveness faded, however, I realized that I was conflating all kinds of people with each other. The women who told me that fatphobia wasn’t real, that it was just me not “working it” and not having enough confidence rather than a bias built into society, were coming from a very different place than Olivia, who not only has eating disorders but also writes in favor of the fight against fat hatred. She isn’t yet another smug, denialist skinny girl shushing me, she is a person who wants to read my writings when she is able.

End Content Notice for Fatphobia, Body Image, & Eating Disorders

Someone asking for a trigger warning on a particular issue isn’t saying “Stop writing and shut up forever, you hateful jerk!”, they’re saying “I like and want to follow your work, but am adversely affected by reading discussion on certain topics. Could you please let me know so that I can be ready for it, avoid reading it on bad days, or totally avoid just my triggers so that I can continue to enjoy the rest of your writing?”

Once I asked myself how could I be so furious at someone who had the audacity to want to read my writings, my perspective shifted. I wasn’t going to lose readers I cared about through content notices, I was going to maintain my readership, if not expand it. Those who have triggers can read my posts rather than avoid my body of work entirely lest they stumble across a trigger — and as a political atheist feminist, I sure as heck write about potentially triggering subjects all the time.

Thankfully, those who fear warnings and notices are not the only ones speaking up about them. Joining me in our love of compassion and inclusivity for those who have seen too much ugliness in life are a different liberal professor on Vox (this one named rather than anonymous), a professor on The New Republic, and another academic on Slate.

As for the free-speech-hating, ableist people who remain at the irrational knee-jerk “how dare they silence me?!” phase, the ones who think that trigger warnings and content notices are somehow hurting their ability to communicate, I’m glad to see them go. That they object so vehemently to a bit of text that they have every ability to ignore as readers is a sign that they aren’t my ideal or target audience in the first place. Indeed, they should ignore content notices and trigger warnings if they are so detached from the world that they lack the ability to be affected by words and yet are somehow apparently affected so adversely by a short preceding blurb that they feel the urge to rail against it.

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Trigger Warnings: An Plea for Freedom of Speech
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9 thoughts on “Trigger Warnings: An Plea for Freedom of Speech

  1. 1

    Do we need the phrase ‘trigger warning?’ Various media have warned viewers that their material may be disturbing for a long time, coining a new term for a practice which has existed for ages makes it seem like a newfangled concept and therefore alien and threatening to some.

  2. 3

    They worry that students will never learn about anything unpleasant (or anything at all) if they are warned about it beforehand.

    If trigger warnings work for me as they do for other people then this really is not the case. I was very grateful to have trigger warnings for illness related discussions when I was suffering very badly from hypochondria. When I was really bad it wouldn’t take very much for me to be sparked into a lengthy online trawl of symptoms by the mildest of references to people being ill. I didn’t learn anything from being exposed to such things, they just caused extreme anxiety and distress.

    I can learn and read about things when I feel well enough to cope with them but it should be a choice made with eyes pen and trigger warnings help to filter these things out when I feel bad.

  3. 4

    You would think all these people would be raging at the FCC, CRTC, or whoever is responsible for broadcast television content in their country about content warnings at the beginning of television shows. But no, they’re not.

  4. 5

    Is anyone trying to prevent you from using trigger warnings in your writing? The way I understand it, the people who speak out against trigger warnings generally speak out against them not in the sense that people should not be allowed to use them, but in the sense that they themselves do not want to be forced to do so.

    How would your free speech rights suffer from other people not using trigger warnings in their writing?

  5. 7

    It puzzles me that people like Heina can explain it so clearly and still some people will refuse to get it.
    So disappointed in Neil Gaiman. Expected better of him of all people.

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