Tuesday, March 06, 2012

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? 
Good point if I say so myself. What else? 
It smells like a set up. Are you warning me or priming me? 
And It’s a directive? Trigger warning as a sneaky way to tell me how I should respond to your post. 
And if I ignore the hint? 
This is getting dark. It seems so very well-meaning. You should know about this trigger, dear, it’s attached to my gun. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” 
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:
  1. Superfluous Trigger Warnings, or the May Contain Nuts problem. The title of a piece is "Monster Attacks Continue To Terrorise Villagers" then it reads "Trigger Warning: Contains description of monster attacks". This is extremely common. 
  2. Over-specific Warnings/ Teasers. The Trigger Warning reads, "Trigger Warning: This piece describes a green scaly monster with blood dripping off its huge fangs and eyes like pineapples and talks about how the monster strode into the village, crushed houses with its fists and tore the village traffic warden limb from limb." when "Contains description of monster attacks" would do. Again, it's hard to tell whether the writer is over-eager to inform, or merely trying to draw the reader in.
  3. Extremely vague Trigger Warnings. I won't link to them because they were making (some sort of) an effort but I recently saw a post, whose difficult subject matter was evident from the title, whose warning used the exact words "Trigger warning for trauma."
  4. Warnings which use the word trigger which are all about offensive content.
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). 

  1. It isn't there at all if the subject matter is in the title, or in the first few sentences of the piece. Few news items would need Trigger Warnings because headline-writers tend to get to the point (or at least the most extreme point).
  2. It doesn't say "Trigger Warning".  It says "Disclaimer" or "Warning" or simply says "Contains discussion of..." at the top of the post or article.
  3. It sums up the potentially problematic material in as few words as possible, but makes it clear. 
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.


fridawrites said...

Great post; I wish more people would give a meta-discussion of trigger warnings. At first I was against them as well, though I definitely had PTSD. Then when the severity of my PTSD increased and I was easily triggered constantly, I wanted them to be there--which maybe was more of a reflection of what I was experiencing than what my readers were.

Definitely I never wanted to be cavalier about my approach and hurt someone. I don't think most people considering writing a warning would. But I have felt that the words "trigger warning" could actually in and of themselves trigger (and sometimes did for me) because it warns you that you're about to be in that space. I like the idea of cautioning better. Sometimes, if it's about something unusual, then it may be the first time someone is triggered, and that can be a horrific experience. You might react, while other times you might be fine with an intellectual discussion about the issue.

I don't know what the rape crisis or other crisis centers would recommend. As you say, people are as likely to be triggered by seemingly innocuous words and events. For me, most recently it was a movie that triggered memories--I didn't know where it was going.

Eric said...

Once I saw one that was just, in all capitals, "trigger warning!!!!!!!!!!!!". Made me facepalm - how is that useful?

starrlife said...

In the US I've never used the term trigger warning, interesting though.
I think some people overfocus on their sensitivities and that can start to serve like a trauma magnet of sorts (does that make sense?) and the over use of the word/concept trigger can reinforce that sense that we are just victims of events. If used sparingly, the idea is to help give a sense that there are strategies to avoid/moderate or manage trauma triggers and it sounds like "trigger warnings" are efforts in that direction. I think that they could backfire so that all one ends up doing is vigilantly scrutinizing the world for warnings.... hmmmmm- food for more thought.

grrr.... word veri's are starting to become triggers :) darn!

Aliquant said...

Tough one. I do agree with the idea that no-one has any idea what might "trigger" me [I dislike that term anyway] but also I respect people for trying to protect their audience if they're talking about something particularly graphic or gruesome.
For my part [and thanks for including me in your post] the only times I've used actual trigger warnings is when I've been instructed to do so e.g. on a moderated forum, or if I've felt under pressure to do it because everyone else does. No excuse, and in more recent times as you've noted I've tried to post warnings only in extreme circumstances in a non-sensationalist way and not including the "T word".
I once was a member of an online forum where trigger warnings got bandied about so often they became meaningless. It became a bit of a competition or status thing, who could use the most trigger warnings in a single post or putting a trigger warning on seemingly innocuous posts as if to say "this very mundane subject upsets me so much I expect you to be upset too, please notice my distress".
If they're genuine and relevant I have no problem that the writer has tried to protect their audience just like films are classified 15, 18 etc. Some younger people can easily handle watching an 18 film, whereas some 30 year olds would find it difficult viewing and it's the same with trigger warnings, we can't cater to everyone. But I have no time for those who use them manipulatively or to cause a certain reaction.

The Goldfish said...

Thanks everyone.

I think the comparison - and problems - with film classification is quite interesting. Since I was a young teenager, there were 18 certificate films I had no problem with, and 12 or 15 certfiicate films which had content I found problematic. These days, even more so.

Some DVD cases list the kind of contents, things like, "Comic Violence" or "Occasional Violence" and so on, and I find that helpful. Unfortunately, certain triggering content, like sexual coercion, isn't always recognised as such by all viewers, so might be missed by censors. I've often read reviews or had conversations where people refer to a sex scene which is really a rape scene (most recently I saw a reference to "intense sado-masochistic sex" in Girl with A Dragon Tattoo).

Fridawrites raises an important point about her recent trigger, which is in films and books, sometimes anticipation can be the trigger. If you think, "Oh no, is it going to go there?" your imagination can head in that direction even if the plot doesn't.

As a writer of fiction, part of me feels like letting people know whether or not there's certain kinds of content is a spoiler. But then I think, fiction is like a roller-coaster - you can know the roller-coaster is physically safe and you're not going to fall out but still enjoy the ride. In fact it's a necessary condition for the ride to be fun and not truly horrifying.

In the same way, I think you can perhaps enjoy the thrilling elements of fiction more, a sense of dread, suspense and so on, if you know that the monster on the page or screen isn't going to wake up a monster in your room.

Anonymous said...

I've taken to reading wikipedia or IMDB before going to see a movie or reading a novel after I watched *Girl With A Dragon Tattoo* with no idea what it was about and got pretty hurt by it. I've just started reading Catch 22 but thanks to wikipedia I know that there'll be violence and rape and I can be prepared for that to come up.

dom said...

The words "trigger warning" are more likely to trigger feelings of unease than the content of any article they precede...any warning immediately changes the way in which the reader views what he/she is about to read, it's like a doctor saying "this might hurt a little" before he injects you...it preempts the response. There is a case for SUBTLY ( so as not to trigger any feelings of unease...duh! ) advising a reader at the top of an article as to its content, but I'm afraid that the constant use of the emphatic phrase "trigger warning" is blase ( because it has become a "given" on certain types of site ), thereby defeating its pupose as a "warning" ( warnings are meant to be heeded, not taken as read ) and fashionable...it has become a "must have". It also supposes that it is possible to KNOW what is likely to trigger feelings of unease...it isn't possible to know, therefore by that logic the phrase "trigger warning" should precede EVERY article.

Ettina said...

"Meanwhile, who isn't upset by reading about child abuse, domestic violence, eating disorders, self harm or suicide?"


My intense interest is psychology, and reading those words, rather than bringing up negative associations, gives me a happy little thought of 'data to look at!'

It's been an ongoing thing for me to convince myself that my reaction to these things does *not* mean I'm a bad person, or unempathetic. (In fact, I'm probably more empathetic than many people, when it really matters.) But I don't see why simply talking about these subjects would be upsetting - living through them, or watching a loved one live through them, certainly is, but just hearing about them? Really? My idea of a fun time often includes reading research articles on subjects like these, or personal accounts of them.

And this is even though I was a victim of child abuse and I self-injure.

The Goldfish said...


I'm sorry if my post came across as suggesting that you might be a bad person for not finding this stuff upsetting. Obviously, different people have different ways of coping with material which *many* people (if not all) find disturbing, including a professional or academic distance or naturally low sensitivity. Everyone is different. Personally, I have a very strong stomach for medical things, and can cope with images and descriptions that other people would find upsetting or even revolting.

However, I think it is far to assume that very many readers are likely to find this subject matter upsetting, and to take their interests into account where possible.