Late-night musings on trigger warnings

They’re a good thing, as far as I’m concerned.

I dunno, there’s some people complaining about the idea that trigger warnings being added to university curricula or works of art, and that art “should be challenging” or whatever, and call me crazy but I thought art and academia were about more than fucking shock-value.

The article above uses “Lolita” as an example, and the writer’s disappointment that, after being effectively spoiled by a “trigger warning” in that the lecturer told everybody to remember that the book was about the systematic rape of a young girl, they found themselves unable to read the book. This seems to serve as the backbone of their entire argument, which is that trigger warnings ruing art by reducing them to a list of details, rather than allowing the reader/audience/whatever to find their own way through the text and make up their own mind.

Which is fine, if you don’t have PSTD and have no need of trigger warnings for your basic mental health. If you do, however? Slightly different story.

I really can’t feel too guilty for not siding with people who seem to think that their appreciation of art being disrupted by somebody telling them – and anybody else who might need to be warned – that said art contains themes that may literally cause somebody to have a panic attack is more important than the possibility that somebody will, y’know, have a panic attack. I believe the phrase “check your privilege” works quite well here. In fact I kinda have to think that that if your ability to enjoy a work of art relies on it not being “spoiled” for you, if you are unable to work around the label that somebody else puts on it for whatever reason they applied that label, then your appreciation of art is pretty shallow to begin with. Novelty is a wonderful thing – I certainly remembering being really anxious about having The Deathly Hallows spoiled for me, back in the day – but thinking of other people’s personal safety is just a teensy bit higher up in terms of moral priorities.

Or it should be anyway. I unfollowed somebody today because that didn’t seem to be their MO and, as somebody with a history of depression and social anxiety who does not deal well with confrontation, I figured I could stand to take myself out of that situation rather than sticking around to duke it out with someone who probably won’t read my comment anyway.

We already have “trigger warnings” on art. If you’ve ever bought/hired a movie, TV show, music album or videogame, you’ve seen them yourself. It’s just that they’re called “ratings” rather than “trigger warnings”, and nobody who complains about those is taken particularly seriously, because the rationale is clearly there. And it’s the same thing here. The only difference is that we’re talking about “trigger warnings” rather than “ratings”. When we see the red R (or black R in a red circle) on a DVD, even if it doesn’t specify what the R is there for, there’s a list that pops up anyway – violence, obscenities, rape. It’s because it’s so ubiquitous. If the same censorship rules already applied to paintings and books – and, yes, university papers – there would be no argument.

It seems that the people complaining about putting trigger warnings on everything don’t even know what a trigger warning actually is. It’s not there to take a black marker and blot out all the triggering content; it’s there to warn you that the triggering content is there, so that you have a choice about whether you’re exposed to it or not. Trigger warnings, when used as intended, only serve to empower people to act, not prevent them from doing anything. Trigger warnings are informative. If you can’t stand to read Lolita not because it has the systematic rape of a young girl in it, but because the surprise was ruined for you, then you may want to consider what your actual problem is.

Because trigger warnings are there for the people who need them. I mean what’s next? Are people going to complain about access ramps for those who use wheelchairs? Captions for those who are hearing-impaired? The existence of braille? Counseling and therapy? Fuck it, why even have doctors? Just don’t get hurt in the first place!

Trigger warnings are there for people who will get hurt. If your appreciation of art is the price that has to be paid to prevent that, get used to not appreciating a hell of a lot of art, I say – or, better yet, cultivate better criteria upon which you base your appreciation of art.

Because to be honest, needing to have everything non-spoiled for you in order for you to appreciate it sound a bit like … what’s the phrase? Ah yes: hand-holding.


Being over-sensitive.

Only instead of being “over-sensitive” about reliving your past trauma, you’re over-sensitive about a plot point.

And if that’s what you’re upset about, if you know what trigger warnings are, you need to grow the fuck up.

As for whether alternative texts should be provided in university papers for students who are triggered by these proposed trigger-warning-labeled texts? I think two things:

  1. Art is about self-expression, and academia is about engaging critically with the world (or the Arts/Humanities/Science are, anyway). In either case, it is disingenuous to leave out the ugly side of the truth. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t inform people of what, specifically, we are going to discuss before we discuss it, and there is no excuse for not giving warnings if we know there are people out there who will not just be upset by certain topics and/or stimuli, but may have a mental fucking breakdown because of them. At least not in a moral society that actually cares about the people who live in it.
  2. As a culture, we are working with a long and distinguished history of not giving a fuck about people with trauma, whether physical or emotional, and that this may just have affected the way universities select their material for students, assuming that they can “handle it” because “there’s nothing wrong with them”. It is a fairly recent phenomenon that social media has become the political platform for a whole host of disenfranchised demographics of our society to not just make themselves heard, but make their voices widely heard. That doesn’t mean they just suddenly popped up: it means they’re suddenly able to participate in the public sphere. If you can’t handle that, again, you’re the one being over-sensitive. Or just human. I mean hearing people talk, sometimes angrily, about all the messed-up shit in their lives that you’ve never considered before should make you upset, right? If you’re not a sociopath? Or an asshole?

Some people argue that trigger warnings are bad because “the world is unpredictable”, and therefore it’s unreasonable to “shelter” people. Well that’s just blatantly wrong. The world is incredibly predictable, actually. Of course some things catch all of us off-guard, but our world is structured around minimising that as much as possible, for basic reasons of, y’know, safety, and making sure that everything that needs to happen in order for society to continue functioning does in fact happen. Also: art, such as writing a book, is really predictable, because you choose what you do or don’t include in it. The same with organising a university paper. We don’t live in the wild west, and if we did, that wouldn’t be a good thing. So the “unpredictable” excuse does not hold up.

TL;DR: trigger warnings are there for people who need them. If you don’t need them, actually try to understand why some people do, and appreciate what a privilege it is to not be one of them, instead of throwing a hissy-fit over somebody spoiling the Red Wedding for you.

And now it’s 2:06 a.m. and I need to write 5 assignments in the next two weeks while also spending the next three days moving house. I will say one thing about packing: it helps you sleep. Here’s hoping that holds true tonight.


One thought on “Late-night musings on trigger warnings

  1. Pingback: Trigger Warnings in Academia: What’s Really at Issue? : Life of the Law

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