Trigger Warnings

There’s been a lot of talk on Twitter about trigger warnings again. Most of the time I  stay out of this discussion because I can see both sides of the argument and I’m well aware of the fact that all the combatants are deeply entrenched, so it’s a fight that will rage on for a long time to come. However, there was a statement that came up today that has prompted me to talk about the issue in today’s blog post.

Posting a warning about content that “could trigger PTSD, etc” is a trigger warning, I think we can all agree on that. Many of us don’t need a trigger warning but for those who would benefit from one, it’s a courtesy to them – I don’t think most people would disagree with that as a statement. It takes “0 effort”? Even the most hardened of supporters for trigger warnings should have something to say about that statement.

For a situation you are aware could cause panic attacks, flashbacks, etc the simple act of saying “hey everyone, this may not be a subject you want to get involved with” isn’t a big deal. It’s common courtesy, in fact – I don’t see it being any more effort than offering a guest a cup of tea instead of coffee if I know they don’t like coffee; in my head it takes the same amount of mental energy. (And no, before any of you decide to feign anger, I’m not equating “being triggered” with “not liking coffee”). Is it “zero effort”? No, obviously not – but it’s very low effort; arguably a negligible amount.

In that regard I could write off the idea of “zero effort” as mere puff; an over-exageration for the sake of effect. The problem I have with the statement is that it doesn’t deal with all the situations that could “trigger” someone. What about the situations that aren’t the usual? What about situations such as references to cancer; which is one of the subjects being discussed today. I’ve seen a lot of people arguing over trigger warnings for cancer today because even proponents of warnings were taken aback by that one. Does putting out a trigger warning for discussions of cancer require “zero effort” if you didn’t already know you were expected to do it? No.

I know someone who is triggered rather badly by their annual tax return, since one once came at a very bad point in their life and now they have flashbacks and panic attacks whenever they need to deal with their annual taxes. Will we be getting a trigger warning for financial dramas? Surely this person isn’t the only one with that problem? Would you have even thought about whether financial matters could necessitate a trigger warning before I brought that up? Accountants and other financial workers have one of the highest rates of suicide in the United States, according to a CDC study in 2016 as reported by CBS. Perhaps it’s time to reconsider whether that warning is needed?

Until certain things are pointed out as potentially troubling subjects for people, the average person wouldn’t even think about it being a problem; that’s just how we are as a society. In that case, how can anyone legitimately claim it takes “zero effort” to put out a trigger warning? I would go so far as to say comments like that actively undermine the case for trigger warnings, as they imply a level of innate knowledge and awareness that is clearly not shared by the opposing side.

You can’t make an appeal to cultural evidence if the culture is not a shared one. There are people who have never experienced PTSD, flashbacks and so forth. There are people who don’t know anyone who has experienced those things. They genuinely don’t understand why a warning might be necessary. It takes effort to educate yourself on all the different ways a person could be triggered, and to weigh up each one on its likelihood of happening. If you haven’t done that, you can’t berate others for not knowing to put a warning on their work for a subject you happen to know can be problematic.

So if you’re trying to tell those people “it takes zero effort”, you’re wrong. They are in the same position you would be in with the accounts person I mentioned earlier. You’re asking them to learn and change, then telling them it’s effortless when you should know it’s not. That’s no way to win people over to your side of the argument.

One thought on “Trigger Warnings

  1. On the whole, I am against trigger-warnings, but part of me wonders if they come from the erosion of social boundaries, which reappear in a new form. Thus, not too long ago, any listener would expect potentially difficult content, say, in a university lecture on sexual offences, or on gothic literature, or on warfare, etc. We seem to have lost that sense of boundary, i.e. that certain things will be brought up in certain contexts and that it is appropriate to do so (and, by implication, it is not appropriate to do so elsewhere). There may be a parallel with the increasingly common experience of even mere acquaintances baring their soul to relative strangers. I have been in commonplace situations and, with some people, I now avoid asking, “How are you?” to avoid becoming their psychologist for that part of the day.

    If that is true, trigger-warnings are unhelpful for all concerned. It would be better to re-establish the boundaries within which we encounter certain themes, or express them. Trigger-warnings puts the onus on someone else to deal with my internal life, whereas, in such circumstances, the onus should be on me. Manners, courtesy and a dose of common sense used to be enough – they still should be.

    Oh well – those are my thoughts!

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