What's Wrong - and Right - About Trigger Warnings?
|The idea of Trigger Warnings is to provide a heads-up to readers who may experience dramatic mental health symptoms (e.g. flash-backs, panic attacks or the inclination to self-harm) in response to imagery or the discussion of traumatic events, usually intimate violence and self-injury. The word trigger is typically used to describe stimuli which may set off the more dramatic effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (whether diagnosed or not), but is also used to describe things which, for some people, increase the temptation towards self-injurious behaviour (e.g. purging, cutting or even suicide).|
There are a lot of problems with Trigger Warnings. Over the years, I have been all for them, dead against them and now I believe that they are a good idea only if they are done properly. For me, that means not using the term Trigger Warning at the top of a post.
The first problem with Trigger Warnings is that they can seem deeply patronising and sometimes even manipulative. Even if you know what happened to them, you don't necessarily have a clue about the triggers of someone with PTSD, although they are likely to include seemingly random and frequently benign things; an innocent turn of phrase, a smell, a harmless noise etc.. Meanwhile, reading about traumatic events similar to their experience can be helpful to recovery, at the right time and in the right circumstances.
Similarly, someone inclined towards self-harm or unhealthy behaviour around food, is likely to receive challenging messages from all over the place which make it difficult to cope. There are no safe places. Folk are able to make choices about the relative risks they take reading any new material, but no writer can protect their readers. You could write a light-hearted piece about your pet rabbit which, for all kinds of complex reasons, tips a reader over the edge.
This is not to say so throw your readers to the lions. Writers do have responsibilities.
In an old but memorable post in which she rails against the concept of “Safe Spaces”, Robyn asks
“What makes you qualified to inform me I can’t handle the subject matter?Sometimes you can feel that Trigger Warnings are there to advertise a post, in the style of old horror movies: "Viewers of a nervous disposition, look away now!" or "My words are so powerful, they just might make you sick." Other times, it can seem to provide an excuse for unnecessary, sometimes even titillating detail of other people's trauma, as if the author believes that a Trigger Warning relieves them of the responsibility to ask, “Is this really necessary? Am I enjoying this too much? Am I using other people's gruesome experiences as a rhetorical device?"*
The second problem is that Trigger Warnings are often done very badly. Examples of bad Trigger Warnings include:
This leads to our third problem. The language of mental health is frequently absorbed into the language of everyday emotional experience; "Traffic was manic today." ; "I was feeling depressed until I heard Jedward will be back in Eurovision this year." etc.. Perhaps inevitably, people have begun to use the word trigger for things that deeply upset and offend them.
There's nothing wrong with objecting to and avoiding things which upset and offend you - in fact, it's very important to do so at least some of the time, or you'll make yourself miserable. And in a way, Trigger Warnings have come about because of an inconsistency between what the media considers potentially upsetting, like swearing, blasphemy, nudity or comic book violence involving lots of blood and gore, and what can be, for some people, so very upsetting it makes them ill. As Louise puts it in n excellent post which explains the benefits of Trigger Warnings at greater length than I have:
All trigger warnings do is acknowledge that there are different sorts of horror, and they're not all measurable by things like age. If a record label is going to warn me that Eminem will use a swear word, why not warn me that he's going to depict a rape scene? If Facebook is going to protect people from breastfeeding images in case we find those offensive, surely they could warn us if we're about to click on a page with vivid rape stories, in case that makes us unwell?
And for this very reason, I'm inclined to drop the Trigger Warning and just warn people of all potentially upsetting subject matter in one go. It's not like people vulnerable to triggers are inclined to skip disclaimers if it isn't labelled with a mental health term. Meanwhile, who isn't upset by reading about child abuse, domestic violence, eating disorders, self harm or suicide? What kind of person doesn't feel at least deeply uncomfortable when they hear a rape joke?
You don't have to belong to the unhappy club of experience to find that stuff far more challenging than two men kissing or whatever's the latest thing to attract the attention of actual censors. We should be working towards a point where intimate violence is assumed to be a sensitive subject for everyone, not just survivors. If it was, maybe there'd be less of it about.
Otherwise, the word trigger offers power, and inevitably people will abuse that. One recent example was during a discussion I was reading where a straight cis woman stated that she found homophobic slurs "really triggering" and so it was impossible that any of those words could be reclaimed. It may be that she had experienced trauma involving that language (almost all victims of playground bullying are subject to those slurs), but I suspect she meant she found them discomforting and couldn't imagine a time when she wouldn't cringe to hear words like queer or dyke or whatever. However, the problem with homophobic slurs isn't that, for some people, they are associated with massive trauma (which they certainly are). The problem is that homophobic slurs are part of, and help to uphold, a massive social injustice.
Yet the minute someone effectively tells you that language is making them ill, you've kind of got to stop talking about it. Which is fine if you're talking with your friends and you can move swiftly on to this year's Eurovision line-up, but not so much in a public debate.
So, by now, you'll be wanting my person criteria for the perfect Trigger Warning (You're not? Oh well).
I don't think many writers I read regularly gets this too far wrong - the bad examples, or the ones that feel patronising or manipulative tend to be found in places I visit once and don't return to. However, I think Aliquant sets a particularly good example, because she writes a lot about mental illness, self-harm and the medical abuse of people with self-inflicted injury. Yet you always know where she's heading from the title or the first few lines. She occasionally uses warnings, but in the two examples I can remember, she pitched them just right.
* I don't think anyone is capable of crossing the line when talking about their own trauma.