Using a Trigger Warning — what of it???

We’re back! Abysmal, relentless winter, work commitments, personal challenges to overcome, and relationships to nurture: these things have occupied us these many weeks. While our fingers may not have been flying and we haven’t pushed the “publish” button, the thoughts have been swirling and there is much to say.

Recently, Trigger Warnings have been under discussion again, with all the predictable vitriol about what it means to use one, need one, or ask for one. It started with this post by a 20-year police officer who wanted to tell us what “real” trauma is like.  It extended into international Facebook discussions about the meaning of trigger, the need for trigger warnings, and why people are so upset by their use. I can tell you that our FB discussions were far more civil than the comments on Hernandez’s original post, which I don’t suggest you read unless you wish to fuel your anger and despair at humanity. Not here, though. As hard as it can be sometimes, we’re going to invite discussion and attempt not to fall into the binary logic trap of “I’m right, you’re wrong.” So here are some thoughts about trigger warnings, something Maury thinks about far too much.

Trigger warnings — short descriptive phrases that give advance notice about content and themes —  seek to recognize the lived experience of community members and offer these members the individual agency to determine when, how, and if they wish to read, view, or engage with content. Many people find their use to be insipid, and they have no qualms about telling others that TWs are evidence of everything that is wrong with contemporary society, challenged as it is by social justice and feminist activism that seeks to give voice to others. But it is patronizing and problematic to assume that someone is weak or inferior because they have been traumatized by their lived experience, and oppressive to assume that they should be able to handle a situation or content simply because you (an author, designer, or fellow audience member) think they should be able to, or should be “over” their situation/symptoms by now. These attitudes also assume that the reactions are completely controllable, which is a fiction. Biologically, trauma intrusions are enacted through the autonomic nervous system and are outside of a person’s control. A person who has been triggered can begin to enact a measure of control over how they handle the reaction after it occurs, but they cannot control whether they will get a reaction at all. Trigger Warnings are one way to give some measure of control back to the reader, viewer, player, audience.

Of course, one of the things someone can do is avoid a situation or content that may be triggering or that they simply don’t want to engage with; and of course, they can only do that with clear descriptions of content, transparency from designers/content creators, such as what might be found in a trigger warning. However, all-too-often trigger warnings become derided as being “unhealthy enablers or avoidance strategies” which almost immediately slides down the slippery slope to “and people are babies who need coddling and obviously can’t handle reality if they need to avoid something.” By giving someone a hard time for asking for a trigger warning or for choosing not to engage with something, these armchair psychiatrists have taken away the agency of an individual by demeaning him/her for making a choice; according to them, to make that choice was an admission of being “inferior” or “needy” or “weak.” Many people, it seems to me, have this one-sided view of trigger warnings as a marker that someone can’t handle life/themselves/their trauma and not as the more nuanced notion of allowing people to make their own informed choices about how they live their life and cope with their prior experiences.

Sometimes content creators use the phrase “trigger warning” or “TW” on purpose to demonstrate that they are thinking about others. To show that they care. To show that this author is considering the potential discomfort or intrusions of viewers or readers. They may get it “wrong” in that their TW is not specific enough or as a result of their concern they begin to overuse the term. This overuse of words such as “trauma” or “trigger” or “phobia” or “PTSD” can lead to trivialization, but those that voluntarily use trigger warnings are trying to show empathy. Tumblr actually has a few blogs that are dedicated to standardizing common trigger warnings so that people can use common language that facilitates content filtering and mutual understanding.

You don’t get to choose what traumatizes you. It is a neurological inscription that can be coped with over time using strategies, but neither trauma, nor subsequent triggering reactions, can be prevented or completely eliminated, despite your diligent efforts. That is not to say that there aren’t those who attempt to weaponize triggering as a way to silence others; however we have no way of knowing whether they are trying to legitimately protect their mental health and we should, with empathy, give them the benefit of the doubt and recognize that their discomfort is real.

Trigger warnings, like any content warning, are informational, rather neutral and boring. The outrage such an innocuous statement provokes speaks volumes about our culture and empathy. People have a right to know whether to engage with content or not. Providing a trigger warning does generally lead to refusal to engage with the material, but its presence affords viewers or players with the means to ready themselves for triggering content. That in this way, being at least mentally prepared for triggering content is far better than being blindsided by triggering content. The solution is not to deny everybody a trigger warning, nor is it to give everyone who wants a warning grief over wanting it. And most certainly we should not get into any attempts to try to divide “legitimate” triggering from “false” triggering from the comfort of one’s armchair. People’s experiences are their own. Respecting those experiences is ours to own. Trigger warnings are an invitational attempt at offering that respect.