by Patrick Appel
Here’s what has always annoyed me about trigger warnings—even when they’re being used for their original purpose, i.e. to warn rape victims about content that discusses rape and not to warn morons about Shylock: Someone who uses a trigger warning before writing about rape or sexual violence will probably write about rape and sexual violence with enough sensitivity that the trigger warning wasn’t necessary. And someone who writes about rape and sexual violence in an insensitive manner won’t be sensitive enough to use a trigger warning. So the kind of writing about rape and sexual violence that may actually trigger someone won’t have trigger warnings and the kind of writing about rape and sexual violence that’s unlikely to trigger someone will have trigger warnings.
So what purpose, then, do trigger warnings serve? It seems to me that they exist not to protect the reader, but to draw attention to the writer. You’ve heard of false consciousness? Well, trigger warnings are false conscientiousness. The writer who uses trigger warnings isn’t saying, “I care about you.” The writer is saying, “Look at meeeeee.” It’s narcissism masquerading as concern.
Alan Jacobs raises another fair point. He decries the “failure to realize that just as important as what you read is whom you read it with — the social and personal context in which you experience and discuss and reflect on a book”:
A list of troublesome “topics” — basically, tagging books with simplistic descriptions — is an utter trivialization of all these matters. Any teachers who think that they have met their moral responsibilities to students by loading their syllabuses with such tags — and any institutions who find such tags adequate — have grossly misunderstood what education is. And that would be true even if such tags could adequately capture the ways in which a given theme (sexual violence, say) is treated in a given work of art, which they can’t.
If you trust your teacher and your fellow students, then you can risk intellectual encounters that might be more daunting if you were wholly on your own. That trust, when it exists, is grounded in the awareness that your teacher desires your flourishing, and that that teacher and your fellow students share at least some general ideas about what that flourishing consists in.
Richard McNally adds that “these warnings may be counterproductive”:
Trigger warnings are designed to help survivors avoid reminders of their trauma, thereby preventing emotional discomfort. Yet avoidance reinforces PTSD. Conversely, systematic exposure to triggers and the memories they provoke is the most effective means of overcoming the disorder. According to a rigorous analysis by the Institute of Medicine, exposure therapy is the most efficacious treatment for PTSD, especially in civilians who have suffered trauma such as sexual assault. For example, prolonged exposure therapy, the cognitive behavioral treatment pioneered by clinical psychologists Edna B. Foa and Barbara O. Rothbaum, entails having clients close their eyes and recount their trauma in the first-person present tense. After repeated imaginal relivings, most clients experience significant reductions in PTSD symptoms, as traumatic memories lose their capacity to cause emotional distress. Working with their therapists, clients devise a hierarchy of progressively more challenging trigger situations that they may confront in everyday life. By practicing confronting these triggers, clients learn that fear subsides, enabling them to reclaim their lives and conquer PTSD.
But Kat Stoeffel, formerly a critic of trigger warnings, has changed her mind. She writes, “what now strikes me most about trigger warnings is how small a request they are, in proportion to the backlash they incite”:
There’s some debate about the legitimacy of trigger warnings, since the triggers of post-traumatic-stress disorder are often so personal and idiosyncratic (a smell, a song, an elevated heart rate) that no one could effectively “warn” everyone. But when it comes to what’s helpful for, say, survivors of sexual assault, shouldn’t we defer to survivors of sexual assault? Activists at U.C. Santa Barbara would simply like to have known ahead of time that an assigned film contained a rape scene, a neutral disclaimer that impinges on neither the filmmaker’s freedom of speech nor the other students’ intellectual development. At worst, it’s a plot spoiler.\
In a more mainstream context, the trigger-warning backlash feels like part of a larger reaction against the needs of marginalized groups — even when they’re perfectly easy to accommodate — simply because they are the minority.
Laurie Penny also defends trigger warnings:
Trigger warnings are fundamentally about empathy. They are a polite plea for more openness, not less; for more truth, not less. They allow taboo topics and the experience of hurt and pain, often by marginalised people, to be spoken of frankly. They are the opposite of censorship.
In the mainstream press, it is common for newscasters to warn viewers if they are about to see “potentially distressing” content, but it is more common still for reports and narratives to be censored for the benefit of the delicate. Instead of hearing what precisely a famous publicist did to an underage girl in his car, writers simply tell us that he “abused” her. Instead of hearing exactly what a famous comedian said about Asian people, or black people, we are told that he used “offensive language”.
And in all the coverage of the “trigger warning phenomenon”, what I can’t help but pick up on is bristling outrage at the very idea that alternative readings of culture might have to be taken into account. Outrage that there might be different ways of telling stories, different experiences that have hitherto been silenced but are now being voiced en masse, different outlooks that are being introduced to culture and literature by readers, writers and creators who have grown up expecting to suffer trauma but not to speak of it. Trigger warnings are not about censorship – they are about openness, and that’s what’s really threatening.