Trigger Warning: this article mentions PTSD, sexual assault, eating disorders, suicide, racism and lists film code categories of violence, sex, drug use and nudity.
If you’re a regular reader of the Rosie blog, or any other online feminist publications for that matter, you’ve most likely come across the term ‘trigger warning’. But what exactly does it mean?
A trigger warning is a statement at the start of a piece of writing, video, etc. alerting the reader or viewer to the fact that it contains potentially distressing material. The term first appeared back in the the early 1900s when psychologists were working with patients struggling with the trauma of serving in the war. That led to the discovery of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and what “triggers” those painful memories of war.
Then around ten years ago, the term was adopted by editors at feminist and progressive websites who realised that they needed a way of encouraging honest and open conversation about sexual assault without catching readers unaware. Many survivors of sexual assault experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress, and graphic depictions of assault or violent attacks can trigger flashbacks, nightmares, and crippling anxiety. The editors believed that a warning posted before disturbing content could allow readers to prepare for what might be a difficult but, ultimately, necessary conversation. (Like this article for example!)
Trigger warnings as we know them today have gained popularity with the rise of digital platforms and social media. They are commonly used as a way to forewarn readers of harmful content that may contribute to pre-existing mental health issues. This type of content includes not only sexual assault, but also violence, suicide, eating disorders, racism, abuse and other topics that can ‘trigger’ an extreme emotional or psychological response.
Despite their well-intentioned meaning, trigger warnings have sparked a controversial debate all over the globe, especially in the last few years. Unfortunately the overuse of the term (like having trigger warnings for the mention of spiders and other insects) has detracted from the seriousness of necessary warnings. Users of the term have been accused of ‘coddling millennials’, even though research shows that mental health issues among young people are on the rise. Matt Bai, a columnist for Yahoo News, stated “Maybe the entire Web should have ‘trigger warning’ so I never have to feel uncomfortable or challenged.” Thanks for the input Matt, but experiencing PTSD or other serious mental health issues as a result of unknowingly reading something triggering is more than a little uncomfortable or challenging. Making fun of that belittles the very real urgency of rising levels of mental health issues. It also ignores the fact that as a society we’ve come a very long way in recognising that mental health exists on a spectrum; it can’t be reduced to a few clinical labels. People like Matt are reinforcing the stigma around mental health, implying that anything less than a clinical mental illness should be disregarded.
The debate around the use of the term is particularly heated in universities circles in America. A few years ago students began requesting trigger warnings for certain texts or syllabi that included harmful content, but teachers and professors remain divided on the topic. In August 2016 the University of Chicago sent a ‘welcome letter’ to incoming students, stating “Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings’…we do not condone the creation of ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own…we expect members of our community to be engaged in rigorous debate, discussion and even disagreement. At times this may challenge you and even cause discomfort.”
Aside from sounding patronising and passive aggressive af, this statement completely misinterprets the reasoning behind trigger warnings. Just like Matt Bai’s statement, it reduces serious mental health issues to mere discomfort and suggests that people are selfishly avoiding certain content. Triggering texts can cause more than just discomfort, they can actually cause physical symptoms of distress, preventing people from being able to focus or contribute to a discussion, whether they want to or not.
The argument that trigger warnings are a form of censorship that prohibits academic freedom is also severely misguided. They do not act as a restriction on text or even an edit, they are simply an alert proceeding the text, therefore it is not censorship. It is not, as one Atlantic article suggested, an attempt to “scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense.” Surely when people are better prepared and able to manage their reactions to a text it can only strengthen discussion and their ability to engage with ideas? Kate Manne, an assistant professor of philosophy at Cornell University, put it best when she used the idea of academic freedom and personal growth as an argument for trigger warnings, as they allow students to manage their own mental health and reactions so that they CAN engage with texts and ideas:
“College is a time for intellectual growth and emotional development. In order for this to happen, students must be challenged. And they need to learn to engage rationally with ideas, arguments and views they find difficult, upsetting or even repulsive. On this count, I agree with the critics, and it is in fact the main reason that I do issue warnings…It’s not about coddling anyone. It’s about enabling everyone’s rational engagement.”
Interestingly, the idea of warning people in advance before showing graphic or upsetting images in TV shows and films through the use of classification codes (G, PG, M, MA and R), is not only widely accepted, but mandatory. The film code of conduct in Australia classifies films and TV shows in terms of themes, violence, sex, language, drug use and nudity. The reasoning behind this law was that “adults should be able to read, hear and see what they want” but that “everyone should be protected from exposure to unsolicited material that they find offensive”. Yet the suggestion that trigger warnings should apply to literary works that examine offensive or troubling content has been passionately rebutted. Why is this the case? Of course we can’t provide a warning for everything that could be triggering to anyone, as the nature of triggers is that they are often sensory and unique to each individual. However there are certain themes, such as the film code suggests, that are triggering for a wide range of people and therefore should be prefaced.
It strikes me that more often than not those who are opposed to the use of trigger warnings are coming from a place of privilege (white male College Deans for example). Trigger warnings are there to serve those who need them, those who want to ignore them can do so without a second thought. The idea that the annoyance they create for some people is more important than the mental pain they prevent for others, is ludicrous. It is also important to remember that it is not just a small minority who could benefit from these warnings. Research has shown that sexual assault can lead to PTSD, among other conditions, and with one in five women in Australia experiencing sexual assault at some time in their life, it is vital to acknowledge these lived experiences and how trigger warnings can empower survivors to look after themselves day to day.
It’s so important to reflect on the history of trigger warnings and why they are still so relevant today. The public conversation around mental health has come a long way since the discovery of PTSD, as people are becoming more aware of their own mental health and that of those around them. The increasing use of trigger warnings is another step forward in this conversation, and they should be celebrated for their ability to assist people to engage in much needed conversations around difficult topics, whilst also recognising their lived experiences. So be mindful when you are discussing sensitive subjects, and remember that mental health is so important, even in the world of academia and literacy.
Maddy regularly writes for Rosie, and is passionate about music, history, art and gender equality.