Trigger warnings are nothing to do with censorship. They give people more choice, not less.

// 2 March 2012

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Louise McCudden discusses the importance of trigger warnings. Lou lives in London, and blogs at Left Eye Right Eye, where, depending on her mood, she either writes calm, balanced objective blogs about UK politics, or else rants about sexism, homophobia, mental health, welfare reform, and human rights.She tweets as @LouMcCudden.

Close up photo of a red warning flag on a beach

It’s a small but important win in terms of awareness for the causes of both feminism and mental health that “trigger warnings” are now reasonably common online. Yet they’re not used by the majority of bloggers, and show no real signs of moving beyond the blogosphere. Not only that, but they are often met with curious levels of resistance, even derision, from entirely sensible, compassionate people. It matters a great deal, and we should say so, because trigger warnings are invaluable. They allow a little bit of control over what you choose to look at; enough to make all the difference between participating in communities, discussions, blogs, and other life-changing support networks, or avoiding them. Support networks are lost to victims, and important voices of experience are lost to the support networks.

“Triggering”, of course, usually happens as a symptom of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Anyone suffering from PTSD – whether they’ve been officially diagnosed with it or not – will understand what “triggering” is immediately, but the more painful the trigger, the worse it is to explain, so we’re often left with a vague argument about “offensive topics” versus “freedom of speech” which is, although interesting, almost entirely irrelevant to trigger warnings.

A call for trigger warnings is not indicative of moral outrage, humour failure, or a plea for censorship. Triggering is more like a chemical reaction, or a phobia, than personal distaste. It’s not moral, or emotional. It’s medical.

Sometimes it’s explained like this. If there’s a trauma you’ve had trouble processing, vivid depictions of similar traumas can remind you of it. Well, yes, they can. But this, while horrible, isn’t quite what triggering is. When something triggers repressed memories, they stream into your consciousness without your consent. It doesn’t just remind of you what happened; it actually makes you re-live it. You feel like you’re experiencing the incident again, in real life – until it stops.

It’s nothing to do with being offended, or having hurt feelings. If you suffer from PTSD, you probably handle being extraordinarily “upset” most days without so much as a sneeze. But the impact of being hit with an unexpected trigger is much worse than being “upset.” You might feel sick. You might get a migraine. You might shut down emotionally, you not be able to stay in control of your temper, or your tears. You might black out momentarily, or even forget who, or where, you are. When that happens in a controlled environment or in a safe place with people you trust it’s bad enough but if it’s happening in the middle of the street, or in a meeting, or when you’re standing on the tube with strangers in your personal space, or on a date, or in a job interview, or when you’re babysitting, or when you’re driving, or…?

Identifying something as a potential likely trigger is not the same as passing a moral judgment, and nor is it a call for the item to be censored. Writers who handle an issue like rape sympathetically and intelligently still often choose to carry trigger warnings, because they know that acknowledging a potential trigger is not a value judgment on the content. You can absolutely love something, but still find it triggers for you.

And content warnings aren’t a radical concept. Films, video games, even music albums carry advisory labels; news readers tell you if the report coming up might distress you, so it’s not like we don’t already understand and accept the idea anyway.

All trigger warnings do is acknowledge that there are different sorts of horror, and they’re not all measurable by things like age. If a record label is going to warn me that Eminem will use a swear word, why not warn me that he’s going to depict a rape scene? If Facebook is going to protect people from breastfeeding images in case we find those offensive, surely they could warn us if we’re about to click on a page with vivid rape stories, in case that makes us unwell?

So trigger warnings are nothing to do with censorship. If anything, they’re the opposite of censorship. If you’re interested in free choice and free speech, then trigger warnings are a way to protect those principles. Giving people a trigger warning is simply giving them information. Not giving one because you didn’t think of it or didn’t know about them is different – I’ve done that myself. But knowing about them, and choosing not to use them, because you have an idea in your head about censorship and freedom? That’s just deliberately denying people information that might help them make an important choice. And there are loads of reasons why people might do that, of course. But none of them have anything to do with freedom.

Photo by Bob AuBuchon, shared under a Creative Commons Licence.

Comments From You

JessLeeds // Posted 2 March 2012 at 9:11 am

Fantastic post-thank you! I shall now be forwarding this to the large number of people who have taken the piss out of my repeated requests for trigger warnings. xx

Jessie // Posted 2 March 2012 at 9:39 am

This is a very important issue to me – thanks for the great post! I have ended up becoming quite unwell in the past because people haven’t used trigger warnings and I have been taken back to a very dark place. How anybody can compare trigger warnings to censorship is beyond me.

Lisa // Posted 2 March 2012 at 10:44 am

Every time someone mentions this subject I want to link Kwerey’s writing, where she:

1. Talks about the history of the term “trigger” and how present-day usage is to some extent appropriative from its original use in disabled people’s communities

2. Suggests that we restore it to its original use, i.e. for triggers of PTSD and similar issues

3. Suggests an idea of “content warnings” for all those subjects that, you know, we just don’t want to have to *deal with* right now

In the end… not a huge amount changes, but we act more respectfully to the originators of this really important idea, people get a better sense of the level of the content in the pieces they’re about to read, and maybe some folks feel comfortable warning for more things – things we’d really like to be warned about – because they don’t need to elevate them to the level of “triggers”.

Here’s the post:

Gappy // Posted 2 March 2012 at 12:18 pm

Yes, trigger warnings are a must I think. When I see them I often decide not to read the post as I know it will probably be upsetting.

I don’t know whether Jezebel use trigger warnings or not as I have unsubscribed as a result of seeing a still picture on their site of a journalist being raped. Apparently a video of this outrage had been posted online, and Jezebel felt it was necessary in order to illustrate their article about it to show stills from the video.

Now I never asked to see that picture. I certainly did not want to see it. I clicked away as soon as I realised what it was but it was too late. That still has been branded into my brain and I felt sick and close to tears for days after seeing it.

Which illustrates perfectly why trigger warnings are essential. They give us the option to skip over material we’d rather not see or read. I know what rape is. I do not need to see pictures or read harrowing first person accounts to feel the necessary anger to want to change things for women.

anywavewilldo // Posted 2 March 2012 at 10:44 pm

I cannot stand the phrase ‘trigger warning’ . I will not go so far as to say I find it triggering however I do find it very distressing – for me it makes the content heightened and I feel less in control of my own emotions.

I agree with Lisa that the word is appropriated – also I think it shows little grasp of actual PTSD triggers which can include things such as a kids tricycle, car exhausts backfiring or a specific shade of blue [real examples].

I would very much like a more neutral term such as ‘content notice’ or ‘content tags/flag’.

I strongly think we need to stop medicalizing the experience of mental distress in the context of emotions arrising from oppression and discrimination struggles.

Feeling sickness, fear, bewilderment, rage etc. when reading/viewing about rape, torture, hate-attacks etc. is congruent and appropriate – people *should* feel these things and not be numbed out.

PTSD triggers are not congruent – they are about being timejumped back into a trauma reaction by something which is often is a non-trauma to others.

I think it’s wise for feminists to take personal responsibility for our emotions by limiting chances of being overcome by floods of trauma [esp. online]- however I also think we are often not angry enough: a paradox perhaps.

So I’d appraciate it if we changed the nomenclature for letting people have a summary of content so as to enable choice. we could have a symbol like a hashtag >p0rn [pictoral] >racism >misogyny or >contains discussion of torture [no images] etc.

Alasdair // Posted 3 March 2012 at 5:49 pm

The fact that anyone could consider the use of trigger warnings to be ‘censorship’ (?) just proves to me that nobody understands what censorship is any more. That word has lost all meaning, and now just means ‘Stop criticising me!’.

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