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The Disempowerment of Trigger Warnings

Updated on November 14, 2015

A recent trend has emerged over the past few years; everything and anything that might make someone uncomfortable needs to have a trigger warning slapped over it. If the warning is absent, then the writer/artist can expect their inbox to clog up with abuse of people talking about how “offensive your content is, you’re disgusting, rabble rabble rabble blah.”

The response to this drivel will likely be one of two things: the content creator will tell them off, or apologize and possibly censor their own work. At the very least, they will add the trigger warning to let everyone know their squishy feelings can’t handle the intense content within.

It’s a shame too because trigger warnings aren’t completely bad in theory. If a person really did just experience something traumatic, then giving themselves time to heal before re-exposure is a good idea. For instance, if you’ve been in a car accident, maybe don’t watch Sons of Anarchy immediately after you get home from the emergency room. Give yourself a couple of days.

Why oh why would you do this to yourself?
Why oh why would you do this to yourself?

The problem is that people give themselves a lot more than a few days. The idea is if you’ve experienced something traumatic, then the topic is dead and you can’t handle any level of exposure ever again. And here is how trigger warning abuse is born.

A trigger warning should function as a kind of heads up to maybe come back later if you really don’t want, or can’t, deal with it now. They’re not supposed to be used to stay away forever. Exposing yourself to what you fear is how you take the power back. Hiding from things that freak you out might make you feel better in the short term, but in order to really conquer these fears and past traumas you need to (safely) expose yourself to them Otherwise, you are actively avoiding the thing or situation that traumatized you in the first place.

There’s actually a phobia that exemplifies the damage trigger warnings can do. It’s called agoraphobia. Often confused as being the fear of open spaces, or the opposite of claustrophobia, the more accurate definition is the fear of symptom attacks; be it panic attacks, fainting, migraines, etc. How it works is this: you experience some type of symptom attack, let’s say you faint in the grocery store. You were okay, but the experience freaked you out. The next time you go to that same store, you feel really anxious. Maybe you stop going to that store altogether. Congratulations, you now have agoraphobia.

Some sufferers become so bad they stop leaving the house except when they absolutely have to, if at all. Something bad happened to them, so now they actively avoid the place or situation where it happened. Sound familiar?

It’s easy to actively avoid a given place or situation when you have some kind of heads up before it happens. Trigger warnings function as that heads up. They make it easy to avoid situations that make us uncomfortable or anxious

But growth is impossible if all we do is hide from what frightens us. It’s normal to want to avoid something that makes us uncomfortable; it’s the fight or flight response. Discomfort or fear means something isn’t right. We either need to fight or run very far away. But a book or movie is not going to cause us any physical harm, no matter how edgy the subject matter. It just means we are allowing ourselves to be controlled by fear. A rape joke is not going to kill you.

Trigger warnings aren’t just for people who experienced the traumatic whatever either. If every piece of media or event that contains edgy or dark content had a trigger warning, a lot of people who never even experienced the thing would probably avoid it. For instance, I read a book recently called Friendswood by Rene Steinke. I didn’t really know what it was about, but the description on the back of the book sounded interesting, so I decided to read it. MASSIVE SPOILER INCOMING: one of the lead characters gets gang raped. END SPOILER.

If there had been a trigger warning on the book, I probably would have put the thing back on the shelf saying “no thank you.” Even though the book involves things I never personally experienced, I’m not going to jump at the chance to read about it because it’s a depressing subject. And that would have been a shame considering how good of a book it is. The author handles the subject matter accurately while also being delicate. Everything is shown to us without being shoved in our face. This kind of subtle but powerful writing style is hard to do and worth checking out.

But would you really read a book with a hefty trigger warning slapped over it? Or would you avoid it in favor of something less challenging?

What if trigger warnings graced the covers of classic literature? Would they still be so widely read? Would students be able to request exemption on the grounds of not being able to handle it? Just look at how dumb these look:

Only the greatest novel ever written.
Only the greatest novel ever written.
It's called satire.
It's called satire.
Classic dystopian novel has nothing on the power of trigger warnings!
Classic dystopian novel has nothing on the power of trigger warnings!
Trigger warning doesn't care about your Nobel Prize.
Trigger warning doesn't care about your Nobel Prize.
My humble pick for greatest novel ever written, but what do I know?
My humble pick for greatest novel ever written, but what do I know?

Trigger warnings ignore context. It doesn’t matter what point is being made. It doesn’t matter if the author/artist is showing history the way it actually happened, or if they are trying to warn us about the future. Trigger warnings would have us avoid anything that “might” make us uncomfortable. That includes the books listed above. Notice anything about them? These books, and countless like them, tell powerful, timeless stories that help shape cultures. Dark subject matter helps us make sense of the world around us. It is a reflection of the parts of life we would rather ignore but can't. Trigger warnings and the people who champion them would have us live in a cushy world where our precious selves are kept safe from scary ideas. Hold up, I need to add something to the above list:


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