Please consider supporting my writing on Patreon.
It seems as though every day, another thinkpiece on trigger warnings flickers across my awareness. Some of these pieces are in favor of trigger warnings, (frequently called “content warnings,” as some people find the term “trigger warnings” to be, well, triggering) while others are adamantly opposed. Some espouse the belief that people have a right not to be exposed to content they might find offensive, while others argue that content warnings “coddle” people, turning them into over-sensitive weaklings who can’t handle the world.
The biggest problem with either of these arguments is that in both cases, they’re being made by people who do not actually have triggers. As a result, both arguments rather overwhelmingly miss the point: trigger warnings aren’t about content that might make us uncomfortable, and ultimately, content warnings aren’t even about avoidance. Instead, they are meant to be a tool to help those of us with post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health concerns. They’re meant to enable us to mentally and emotionally prepare before delving into content that might otherwise send us spiraling into flashbacks and anxiety attacks if we’re caught off guard.
In other words, trigger warnings (or content warnings, if you prefer), allow people like me who have experienced great trauma to prepare ourselves before diving into media that addresses scenarios similar to those we’ve experienced. They can be the difference between being sucked into a vortex of overwhelming feelings and memories, and being able to critically examine something that has caused us pain in the past and continues to impact us in the present. Content warnings can be the difference between whether triggering content is therapeutic, or just more traumatic.
It is absolutely true that in some cases, confronting triggering material may not actually be the best strategy for someone trying to overcome past trauma. In cases where the trauma is recent, for example, avoidance may in fact be the best way to proceed. Trauma is effectively a type of wound, and just like any other wound, sometimes it is necessary to allow it to heal a bit before beginning therapy to treat its lasting effects. It is also true that some wounds take longer to heal than others, based on a variety of factors including past damage, access to proper care and treatment, and the simple fact that we’re all built differently. As such, some people may be ready to confront triggering material before others are, and that is okay; we all heal at our own pace.
Critics of content warnings say that shielding people from content that might cause emotional discomfort is “harmful,” and that calling for trigger warnings focuses on shielding people from trauma, rather than helping them address it. The problem with these assertions is that they’re completely failing to grasp the point of trigger warnings. Trigger warnings are not meant to shield those of us suffering from PTSD, they’re meant to be one of the many weapons we use to face our demons. They’re one of the many tools in the kit we carry on the path to healing our mental health. Critics who cannot possibly fathom the road we walk tell us we simply need to be stronger and more resilient, with no concept of how much strength and resilience we display on a daily basis.
It is, of course, entirely true that trigger warnings, like any tool, may be used improperly. It is true that they can be used in ways that are harmful. This doesn’t negate their usefulness, it just means we need to think carefully about how and when we use them. Just as we don’t ban society from using hammers simply because some people use them to break things rather than to build them, we shouldn’t decry content warnings simply because some people use them without truly understanding their purpose. Instead, we should work with those who have real triggers to develop strategies for the use of these important tools. Academics express frustration over students bringing up triggers that may or may not be “real” throughout the course of the semester, when they could easily administer a survey at the beginning of the course to determine where students have triggers, and to help those students work through the material that may trigger them. This model not only allows professors to preempt students bringing up issues later in the semester in an effort to avoid content, but also preempts students speaking for hypothetical others by instead encouraging each student to bring up any issues they may have personally. This also opens the door for dialogue with students, so that all parties involved have reasonable expectations of what exactly a content warning means in context of completing the course.
There are a myriad ways in which trigger warnings may be either harmful or beneficial, but the truth of the matter is that unless we start working with people who actually have mental health issues that necessitate them, we’re not doing anyone any favors by writing essays on the matter. And we’re certainly not helping anything by redefining and dismissing a tool based on improper uses of it.