The idea behind trigger warnings is really simple. Some people have had experiences so bad that they’ve been traumatized. Maybe they’re refugees, maybe they’ve been sexually assaulted, maybe they’ve been the victims of terrorist attacks. Whatever the cause, being exposed to something that reminds them of that trauma can traumatize them even more. A trigger warning is just a little label that lets people know that they’re about to be exposed to something that might be traumatic — that way they can take themselves out of that situation if they need to.
So what’s the big deal? Showing some empathy towards people who’ve had a rough life should be pretty non-controversial. Well, let’s not mince words — part of the issue is that some folks just don’t give a fuck about people who’ve had a rough life. Their attitude is basically “I’ve never needed trigger warnings (because I’ve never had anything bad happen to me, and I’ve definitely never had PTSD), so you don’t need them either.”
Unfortunately, life is rarely that simple — the backlash against trigger warnings isn’t entirely, or even primarily, driven by reactionaries who reflexively hate modernity. That’s certainly not why the University of Chicago just announced that they wouldn’t be using trigger warnings or safe spaces. See, trigger warnings started as a fairly obscure concept, but they blew up fast. Their use has expanded far beyond what was intended. There is now a small but vocal minority that feels they have a right never to be upset or disturbed, and who use trigger warnings as a way to accomplish this.
On the surface, it’s hard to argue against this — after all, trigger warnings are used to stop people from getting upset. If you’re against them, then clearly you lack empathy. Dig a little deeper, and the picture gets murkier. Just as an example, one popular media review site (which I am otherwise a fan of) uses trigger warnings for damn near everything. I just read their review of a Star Trek episode, and it included a trigger warning for grief. Fucking grief. Let’s break down exactly why that is — the review doesn’t depict grief. It doesn’t cause grief. It mentions that grief exists. It briefly discusses, in dry terms, the way Star Trek used grief as a story element. That’s it.
Look, my life was damn near destroyed by grief. It still affects me on a daily basis. If anyone could be triggered by grief, it would be me, and even I think this is absurd. Reading an article that briefly mentions grief didn’t make me curl up under my housecoat and have a panic attack. It didn’t make me start drinking. It didn’t send me into a spiral of any kind.
This same website uses trigger warnings for things like classism and sexism. Not for article that are classist or sexist, mind you, or even just for articles that discuss things that are classist or sexist. No, they think that they need trigger warnings because they mentioned the fact that a TV show discussed classism and sexism.
Let’s just go ahead and lay out a rule of thumb for trigger warnings : if a given piece of media or topic of discussion could cause someone serious emotional harm, then it should have a trigger warning. A graphic retelling of rape requires a trigger warning. A graphic retelling of gentrification doesn’t.
“But why”, you ask, “can’t we just have trigger warnings for everything? Sure, some are more important than others, but they all help people feel more comfortable.” There are a number of reasons, but let’s start with simple practicality — if you can’t cope with a third-hand discussion of an issue in the classroom or on the internet, you sure as hell won’t be able to handle it in real life. Unfortunately, sexism, classism, and yes, even grief are part of life. You are going to encounter them. If they make you uncomfortable, then you need to get used to them fast, so you’ll be able to deal with them when something important is at stake.
From an academic perspective, you sure as hell aren’t doing someone a favour if you hand them a degree after they’ve spent four years floating around in a haze of unchallenged ideas, never once having been uncomfortable. One of the main purposes of a liberal education is to challenge worldviews and to force people to face uncomfortable truths. I entered university as an asshole, had a lot of my beliefs and ideas challenged, and left university as slightly less of an asshole. Trigger warnings, safe spaces, and the chance to avoid anything that made me uncomfortable would have made my education a lot less educational.
From a moral perspective, if you get to avoid anything that makes you vaguely uncomfortable, then you’ll never learn about it, and you’ll never be able to change it. The world can be a horribly unpleasant place, but burying your head in the sand doesn’t help anyone. The proper response to injustice is fighting it, not ignoring it. Learning about genocide, Ebola, or rape can be terribly uncomfortable, but they’ll still exist if you don’t learn about them. The only difference is that you won’t be equipped to oppose them.
As a society, we recognize that survivors of abuse, victims of serious oppression, and people with PTSD deserve special consideration. The rest of us don’t get a pass. Being able to deal with unpleasantness is part of being a mature and responsible adult.
Quite frankly, there’s another issue — trigger warnings represent an important tool for some of the most vulnerable people in society. For them to be co-opted by people who don’t need them is downright offensive. Your desire not to be a little bit upset isn’t the same as their desire to go through the day without being traumatized all over again.
Let’s go off on a bit of tangent and talk about censorship for a moment. Back in the golden age of Hollywood, movies had to deal with something called the Hays Code, which banned…well, pretty much everything. Bad language, sex, drugs, making fun of the clergy, none of it was permitted. Eventually the Hays Code fell into disuse, and Hollywood became free to deal with any issue they wanted. Instead of censorship, films entered a new era of “ratings” — a movie could depict pretty much anything, but it would be classified based on what sort of content it contained.
This worked out pretty well, at least for a while, but the rating system eventually became stricter (and less fair). For roughly 20 years, making an R-rated movie was damn near impossible — not because their content was banned, but because the rating system meant that the R-rated movies didn’t make money, and studios were reluctant to fund them. In order to get made at all, movies had to be safe for families. Consider the Die Hard series — in the first 3 movies, John McClane’s catchphrase is “Yippee-kay-yay, motherfucker.” The fourth Die Hard, however, had to censor that catchphrase just to get a PG-13 rating. I’m not claiming that Die Hard is a model of artistic integrity, but it does seem clear that rating and labeling can quickly turn into de facto censorship. Could the same thing happen with trigger warnings? It seems pretty certain that it will. No writer wants to limit their audience, and if that means ignoring issues that they should probably address, well, so be it.
By education and inclination, I’m a philosopher. My entire field was created by someone who was so good at making people uncomfortable and challenging their views that eventually they just killed him. Maybe that predisposes me to dislike trigger warnings. As it is, it seems to me that trigger warnings are a lot like antibiotics : a vital tool that becomes dangerous when overused.
If you enjoyed this story, you might also be interested in my other work -
Serious Stuff : The Plight of the Millennial, my thoughts on the White Poppy Campaign, a quick biographical sketch of a Canadian hero, thoughts on masculinity in the modern era, The Sad, Strange Story of the Taliban’s Canadian Hostage , Black Dogs & Blue Devils : 7 Years of Depression, America, Sit Down. We Need To Talk, Happiness Is A Warm Gun, Home & Native Land
Fiction : Birthday Present — A Fairy Tale
Pop Culture : Preachin’ ‘Bout Preacher, On the Moral Status of Vampires, My Harry Potter apologia, an essay about Heinlein’s influence on Harry Potter, my reviews of Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Supergirl, The Magicians, and Star Wars : The Force Awakens, another essay about The Magicians, my essay about Star Trek, and my thoughts after reading every Discworld book …plus a third essay about The Magicians
If you have a family member with autism, you might find these shirts that I made useful. They’re safety-oriented, and they’re also kind of over-priced, but take a look anyway.