The trouble with trigger warnings

Caitlin Still is not without her demons

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I’ll begin by saying this: trauma is real. It has a serious, complex and often devastating effect on the mind. Particularly for those suffering from PTSD, even the smallest reminder of a traumatic experience can trigger an intense and uncontrollable emotional response, which may involve intense anxiety, crying, panic attacks, and even the urge to self-harm.

To be triggered in such a way can be enough to ruin a day, a week, or even a month for those suffering in the wake of a traumatic experience. Thus, the advent of trigger warnings.

A practice originating on feminist websites and online communities designed to be ‘safe spaces’ for survivors of trauma, the use of trigger warnings – or TWs for short – has spread throughout blogging and social media as a way to help trauma survivors avoid content that may lead to the distress that comes of being triggered.

It seems reasonable. And to a degree, it is. Part of the appeal of trigger warnings is that they allow those still processing traumatic experiences to choose when they are ready expose themselves to stimuli that may trigger an extreme and involuntary emotional response.

I applaud the sensitivity and awareness demonstrated by those who take the time to put a trigger warning, for example, on a link posted on Facebook dealing with issues such as sexual abuse or violence.

Ultimately, however, I am in doubt as to the effectiveness of trigger warnings, as their use becomes less of a thoughtful gesture than an expectation for those au fait with political correctness, who want to find themselves on the right side of compassion.  I believe we are running the risk of wandering into dangerous territory when we demand their use, which requires the knowledge of a certain protocol, and whose helpfulness is ultimately limited.

It is due to the nature of trauma, and the nature of the world we live in, that triggers are impossible to avoid. While a survivor of sexual violence can spare themselves a painful evening by avoiding an article disclaimed with an according trigger warning, the reality is that everyone is triggered by different things, and apt to be things that cannot be avoided or censored: a certain smell, a certain look in the eyes of a stranger, a particular surname. When it comes to more obvious triggers, I take issue with the prevailing assumption among TW supporters that people have a right to be protected from triggers, for which other people are responsible.

As Melissa McEwan writes on the feminist blog ‘Shakesville’, “We provide trigger warnings because it’s polite, because we don’t want to be the asshole who triggered a survivor of sexual assault because of carelessness or laziness or ignorance.”

In a society that still baulks at the prospect of open and serious dialogue about rape, violence and anything pertaining to mental health, we do ourselves a disservice by discouraging sorely-needed discussion about these issues by making an ‘asshole’ out of someone who simply wants to raise awareness of an issue, though it may be triggering for some. If an article or video is appropriately titled, however, there should be no need for a warning. Particularly in light of the contention involved in determining what does and does not warrant a TW, to place blame on someone for linking to an article without a trigger warning for ruining your day, particularly given the contention as to when they are warranted, seems somewhat immature.  After all, the poster isn’t the ‘asshole’ for indirectly triggering someone, it’s the perpetrator of the initial trauma.

While being triggered can be a distressing and all-round awful experience, I take issue with the assumption that exposure to triggers is inherently damaging.  Although there is a time and place for unpacking, confronting the cause of trauma is part of the process of recovery.

Ultimately, though, the best way to empower ourselves is to take responsibility for our own pain, not to expect others to protect us in a world that does not come with trigger warnings. It means knowing ourselves, what we can and can’t handle for the time being, and seeking out the help we really need. It was never going to be easy.

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