Trigger Warnings

There has been some debate lately in the press about trigger warnings (TWs) – especially the demand from some activists that warnings be added to classic literature.

As someone who has overcome PTSD, I have mixed feelings about “trigger” warnings. Some traumatic events, notably sexual assaults, are so common and so traumatic that it is a good idea to warn people up-front, but the word “trigger” is the wrong word, because triggers for true panic attacks or flashbacks can be almost anything.

For example, I once had an acute stress reaction to a flatmate attempting suicide. I have never had any triggered reaction since when viewing media portraying suicide, but I did have intense visual flashbacks the first time I returned to the place where it happened.

TWs were introduced to warn of discussion of sexual assault on feminist blogs. That seems like a really good idea, and you can see why the word trigger was applied. Since then, they have first evolved to be used for less and less traumatic things, eg “TW: homophobia” – it is upsetting to read a homophobic statement, but it isn’t likely to be “triggering” in the same way as an explicit description of a sexual assault is. More recently, they have been employed sarcastically, to denigrate a political opponent. For example linking to a Suzanne Moore article and saying “TW: transphobia”. Following the dilution, some blogs are now calling them “content warnings” instead.

It is a good idea to give people fair warning of content that is similar to common traumas such as sexual assault and abuse. I’m against against it being mandatory for rarer traumatic events, such as school shootings – it upsets me when I see shooting-related items in the news, but I can’t expect the world to tiptoe around my rare trauma.

There would be real danger in applying the broad content warning model to literature. It flags up to the reader that they ought to be traumatised by the content, an action which can cause rather than prevent trauma. It suggests, somehow, that we should not be made to feel uncomfortable. Surely it is the job of literature to make us uncomfortable, exposing us to cultures, world-views and ways of being that are different from our own, unpleasant or not.

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