Apparently people are yet again taking a bold and righteous stand against trigger warnings. As usual, the arguments against them show that people opposing them have no idea what a trigger warning actually is, or why they are useful.
So just so we’re on the same page: a trigger warning is a note that a piece of media or discussion contains content that may trigger an episode or lapse in persons with certain mental or neurological illness, or in those likely to develop such an illness such as those who have recently experienced trauma.
The conversation revolves mostly around PTSD, as does my experience, but trigger warnings can also be used to warn people with seizure disorders about strobing lights, people with major depression about discussion of suicide or self harm, people with substance use or eating disorders about drugs, alcohol, or disordered eating.
And apparently this is Awful Censorship and also Coddling and also Bad For People and also an Undue Burden, according to people who do not understand what trigger warnings are.
Trigger warnings are not censorship. They do not alter the content of media or discussion, they simply note what that content is. They are only censorship in the sense that a “warning: contains peanuts” on a package is a ban on the sale and consumption of peanuts. In other words, not at all. I am told that a warning still counts as censorship because people may choose not to engage in media or discussion that might trigger them. If this is true, it is still not censorship. Peanut sales are not banned because some people do not purchase or consume peanut products. Trigger warnings are really the opposite of censorship, in that they provide more information up front, allowing people to make more informed decisions about the things they will be exposed to.
Ah, but that’s coddling, isn’t it.Bad for discussion. After all, if we just let people say they’re triggered every time they get upset–Well. That’s funny, isn’t it? I don’t recall anyone mentioning getting upset. It’s almost like this is an attempt to minimize and trivialize what a trigger is, and its impact. Being triggered is not being offended. It is not being upset. Yes, obviously, it is upsetting to be triggered and offensive when it is done deliberately, those are not the core of the experience. Triggers set off different things for different people. It can be a panic attack. A seizure. A month in a depressive episode. Fugue states. Suicide attempts. Lapses and setbacks to recovery and self-management. The warning might mean choosing not to engage, but not always. Someone may choose to leave rather than risk it. Someone may take a deep breath and mentally prepare. They may make sure to have medication or a coping mechanism available, much like I make sure to bring an Epi-pen to restaurants. This does not stop a discussion. It makes discussion more possible, by giving people the tools needed to participate, or, if they can’t, letting them leave. I promise, someone having vivid flashbacks and hyperventilating in a classroom is far more disruptive than their walking outside would be. (I’ve been there. Not fun for anyone in the room.)
But triggers are Bad For People. Letting people decide what they do or do not want to be exposed to. That’s not how the Real World works. We should expose people to triggers for their own good. If they can’t take it, they can’t take the Real World. I’m going to take a deep breath here for a moment. Because they’re right about one thing: the Real World doesn’t let us escape the things that cause these triggers. That’s a huge part of why many of us have triggers in the first place–if trauma were avoidable, we probably wouldn’t have PTSD. If we have triggers, we are going to have to face them. Similarly we’re all going to experience physical pain over the course of our lives. Shockingly, that doesn’t make it ethical, compassionate, or in any sense of the word right to smash people with a baseball bat at the site of their most recent injury. Seriously. “We all get hurt” should not lead to “therefore it is acceptable to hurt you without your consent in this way that you’ve specifically told me to avoid.” The fact that the harm is psychological does not exempt it from being harm. Exposure therapy is usually mentioned here, and yeah, that’s a thing, but two funny things about exposure therapy: 1) it’s not for all people with trauma and 2) exposure therapy always includes clear, detailed trigger warnings and a controlled, easy to stop environment.
Of course trigger warnings are an Undue Burden. Anything could potentially be a trigger, so what, are people just supposed to warn about every component of content? That’s impossible! Except actually it’s pretty easy. Sure, someone might be triggered by a specific song or sunflowers, and that’s probably unforeseeable, but turns out the most common triggers are really quite obvious and pretty easy to mention briefly beforehand.
Warnings for physical violence, sexual violence, death, serious illness or injury, weapons, themes of abuse or suffering, and natural disaster will effectively help most people with PTSD. Add warnings for suicide and self harm, drug and alcohol use, and disordered eating. And flashing lights that could cause seizures. It’s really not a long list. Most people don’t need it. But for those who do, it makes all the difference in the world.
I know people aren’t going to stop lashing out at the idea of trigger warnings. Which means I’m going to have to have this conversation again, and again, and again. And honestly I’m just tired. I’m tired of being told to face the world by people who have not seen its teeth bared. I am tired of being told that I am weak because I ask for a warning before I dive in to fight monsters by people who have only seen them taxidermied and behind glass. I am tired of hearing “I don’t need this so neither do you,” as though the two have any relation to each other at all. If your reaction to trigger warnings is anger and you think they must be stopped, maybe ask yourself why. What makes you so certain that you, and not the person affected, are such an expert in what that person needs. Why you think you know what’s good for them, better than they know themselves. I promise, you don’t.