As an English student, I often encounter difficult subject matter due to the nature of thoroughly engaging with literature. Whether it be colonialism, racism, sexual assault, or any number of other topics, it is essential to engage with these complexities. It is important to approach them not just individually, as many novels we study embrace these head on, such as Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl Woman Other, or Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (both of which are included in modules with blanket trigger warnings), but also holistically, as any work must be considered within the context of its society. This is unfortunately necessary, as such gridlocks are cornerstones of the world we live in. Part of the understanding of these delicate topics also comes with the understanding that they do not just exist theoretically, and that real people are affected by them. Thus, trigger warnings.
Trigger warnings have become a hot topic in the media in recent years. Conservatives have moved on from the days of Mary Whitehouse, when they wished to ban “video nasties,” leading to the creation of the Video Recordings Act of 1984 in the UK, resulting in all video releases now being age-rated. Age-ratings are warnings for content that may be upsetting to certain audiences, in this case children. They were championed by the precursors to the modern-day anti-trigger warning crowd. This irony seems to be lost on them.
“Trigger warnings are even less restrictive than this, simply informing people who may be unaware of topics they will encounter that may be upsetting”
While age restriction has been used as a form of censorship in the past (for example, Midnight Cowboy, a movie that was given an X rating by the MPAA in 1969 for its “homosexual frame of reference”), no one would argue that disallowing children to watch Kill Bill: Vol. 1 constitutes meaningful censorship. Trigger warnings are even less restrictive than this, simply informing people who may be unaware of topics they will encounter that may be upsetting.
To my mind, there are three groups of people affected (or not) by trigger warnings. The first group are the people to whom the knowledge of potentially upsetting or triggering content within the work will not change whether they were going to read or watch it, and their approach to the text is unchanged. So, this group is not affected by trigger warnings, as whether they are present or not does not affect their engagement with the text. The second group are those who may have had negative experiences that have led them to be wary of certain topics. For this demographic of readers, knowing that they might encounter these topics beforehand could allow them to adequately prepare themselves. Perhaps though, without the warning, they would have gotten to the triggering subject matter and been unable to finish watching or reading, due to being triggered by the upsetting content. A trigger warning has meant that someone who otherwise could not have engaged fully with a text is now able to. This is the ideal scenario.
“A lot of the backlash… comes from a belief that these people are refusing to engage with these works due to a moral opposition… rather than choosing to avoid certain content as a self-preservation measure…”
The last group of people are often straw-manned by reactionaries, with the opposition to trigger warnings either implying or explicitly saying that these people are cowardly or weak. The people in this group are the people who, due to the objectionable nature of the content, would not be able to safely engage with the media. People who, when they see a trigger warning for police brutality before a movie will not watch it, or forced outing of LGBT+ people at the start of a book will not read it. A lot of the backlash this group faces, from what I have seen, comes from a belief that these people are refusing to engage with these works due to a moral opposition to the content, rather than choosing to avoid certain content as a self-preservation measure. This is a fundamental misunderstanding. For example, many LGBT+ people may want stories that explore homophobia and transphobia to be told, stories that regrettably are a reality for many in the community. However, this being the reality for many people, it may be traumatic to watch. Surely it is a good thing that a trans person who has experienced transphobic violence in the past would be saved from having to relive their experience, by simply knowing beforehand that a book deals with related subject matter?
One thing that makes it difficult to talk about this issue is the way the meaning of the word “triggered” has been twisted recently to mean “unreasonable rage that one may find in a Social Justice Warrior cringe compilation.” This ties into the point of trigger warnings coming from a place of moral condemnation – and thus censorship – as opposed to making the work more accessible to people affected by the issues it explores. The fact that “a trigger” is a psychological term to refer to triggering stimulus for those who suffer from PTSD, eating disorders, phobias, and other mental health conditions is completely lost on the most stringent opponents of trigger warnings.
“Trigger warnings are now part of the side of the culture war that includes manufactured controversy around censorship, especially in a university setting”
Trigger warnings are now part of the side of the culture war that includes manufactured controversy around censorship, especially in a university setting. Watch Fox News’ poster boy, Tucker Carlson, and you’re likely to encounter his “Campus Craziness” segment where he decries the apparent prevalent left-wing authoritarianism on college campuses. Of course, this war against alleged censorship is not unique to America. On August 9, The Times UK published an article entitled “Censorship on campus: Universities scrap ‘challenging’ books to protect students.” While this claim of censorship has been debunked, most prominently by journalist Thomas Colson (@tpgcolson) on twitter, who showed that after making 300 FOI requests to universities only two books had been removed, one of which was replaced with a better fitting text. This obviously is not substantial enough for an article, so they padded it out with the claim that universities “have applied trigger warnings to more than 1,000 texts.” This, paired with the purported claim of book banning, is obviously supposed to create an association between trigger warnings and censorship. The fact that they are actively being studied in those very universities is surely enough to dismiss that claim.
Trigger warnings are not censorship, but an act of a functioning society that cares about its people. They allow people to prepare themselves for uncomfortable situations in the best cases, or to stop themselves from being hurt in more extreme scenarios, in the same way flashing light warnings protect photosensitive people, peanut warnings protect people with nut allergies, and age ratings protect children. Any backlash towards them is manufactured by grifters to further a divide that, ultimately, is meaningless.