The Importance of Trigger Warnings

Let’s start with the basics:

A trigger

  • Gives you flashbacks to traumatic events

  • Sends you into panic attacks

  • Is often debilitating

 

It does not

  • Mildly offend you

  • Make you feel uncomfortable

  • Gross you out

  • Make you angry

Being mildly offended by something is not being “Triggered.” This is really important. Trigger warnings are usually for people who have been through traumatic events, have conditions such as PTSD, etc. Now, my bullet points are only a preliminary attempt to make you understand the very tricky ordeal of being triggered. They might come across as obvious, but the fact remains that it’s important to remember these points.

Just as TV shows such as Geordie Shore (I know, don’t judge) offer a few cursory words on their “Explicit” content, mostly with the intention to allow parents to prevent their children from hearing foul language, trigger warnings act in much the same way - and yet they are faced with contempt and often ridicule.

Why?

The idea and argument that many have against this to “Get over it and grow some balls” illustrates the crass and often hindering problem of people not capable of understanding a person’s ordeal. Adding a trigger warning is not a sign of weakness; a trigger warning is a few simple words at the beginning of an article, a blog post or a lecture that allows people to make a decision. A decision of whether or not they are comfortable being in that environment and subject to that content.

Again the argument is struck up that people cannot “choose” in real life situations, nor should they be - it’s not real life if they do. But surely in a life where we have little or no control over what we are subjected to - especially in the cases of survivors of rape or other severe and traumatic ordeals, isn’t it showing a measure of understanding to allow someone a little bit of that control? A moment in their lives where they are not subjected to the harsh reality of life? A respite of sorts? This is not to say that they are avoiding facing life head on, but in a world where these horrible events occur without anybody’s consent I find it hard to understand why people are so quick to suggest that trigger warnings are hindering and why we shouldn’t give people a choice.

The argument for and against trigger warnings is a vast and messy mindfield, with the space between comfort and freedom a topic of much heated debate. This source of tension comes from the idea that the line that “That’s triggering” often shuts down uncomfortable, unpopular or offensive arguments which students have the right to challenge and explore. By shutting down particular lines of discussion such as rape, people argue that we are not allowing intellectual growth nor allowing people to openly discuss topics.This seems to be the argument against many feminist blogs.

And perhaps there is something to be said about this, that we are also reinforcing the idea that women are inherently vulnerable. I can understand the violent backlash, the need to justify that we are in fact NOT weak or vulnerable, that we can handle whatever is thrown at us. But this again, reinforces another generalisation, that mental health doesn’t affect people and that it is ridiculous to ask for sensitivity.

Of course, this article still leaves the question as to how and when to give trigger warnings and how to prevent their overuse, but there is something to be said about common sense. If a discussion seems particularly explicit it is important to bear in mind when discussing it. The idea that trigger warnings should be used if someone squirms or feels uncomfortable does detract away from when trigger warnings are in fact most vital. Trigger warnings are trying to prevent serious and traumatic reactions occurring, they are trying to help people with serious mental health conditions and this is not something to be sneered at.  

But this is the problem, (TW) has become a dirty word. I am not advocating that we put trigger warnings on literature (my heart sinks a little at the prospect) but I am advocating that we operate with empathy, I don’t think we should dismiss the very human (and understandable) need to avoid pain. The argument against freedom of speech is never going to be resolved but I think it’s ridiculous to assume that trigger warnings constitute censorship. In the heat of many arguments people seem to have forgotten that trigger warnings are not there to advocate people to not discuss difficult topics, nor are they advocating a total dismissal of whatever the lecture/article/blog has to say, they are there mainly to provide students with the information they need to make an informed decision, a decision of whether or not they wish to deal with that topic on that particular day.

I know we cannot trigger warning our way out of life or foresee what will in fact trigger a person - but we can at least try and show some consideration for the ordeals people have gone through, a sensitivity to their mental health and a recognition of their pain.