(A blog post for which no trigger warnings are required)
In some contexts people are really good at warning other people about content they may find problematic. When it comes to films, we have a decent and longstanding warning system, based on the age of the viewer. Not only does it tell you how old the viewer needs to be, but also what the issues are. As an adult you may well end up using those 12, 15 and 18 guidelines to help you figure out what you’re equal to. On television, timing is used to manage more challenging content. No one expects to find that at 3pm on a Sunday afternoon they could be watching a gory slasher movie on TV that they had no reason to expect would be seriously violent.
And yet, for some people the idea of giving trigger warnings about obviously problematic content seems weird and difficult. Why are people being so weak and fragile, they ask? Why can’t I make them face up to this thing I want them to look at, right now, on my terms?
Trigger warnings and content warnings help traumatised people decide how and when to deal with things that might be difficult. It makes it more possible for us to engage, not less so. There is evidence that those warnings increase anxiety for people who are not already traumatised, and that does raise some interesting issues. But we don’t fret over that so much when it comes to films. We also don’t expect people to watch films that have horrific content, if they don’t want to. So why is it different with novels, or non-fiction content?
I think it’s simply that there’s a long history of films and computer games coming with content warnings so we take this as normal, and we’re not used to it in other areas of activity so it makes us uncomfortable.
If you want people to engage with a difficult subject, the odds are you’ll get a better response if you tell them it’s going to be difficult and are prepared for that. One of the things that trigger warnings do is protect you, as an organiser, or presenter from having to deal with someone who is triggered – and trust me, a massive panic attack can be really disruptive. Traumatised people who are triggered can be highly unpredictable. Best for everyone not to go there.
There are of course people who feel that making people face their traumas is how to heal them – this can be true. However, it’s generally best handled by a professional who has the tools to deal with someone being triggered and to help them move on from that. Doing it unexpectedly while trying to teach a class, or somesuch isn’t going to work. Also it’s cruel.
Yes, it’s true that some people’s triggers are odd and obscure and you can’t warn people about everything. Those of us who have weird personal triggers know this and may deal with it by asking in advance if we think there’s a risk of troubling content. However, for most of us, the triggers are obvious – and they involve abuse and violence. The kind of things that make films 18s – child abuse, torture, rape, graphic violence. These are not hard things to spot and not unreasonable things for anyone to find problematic, that’s why we have 18 rated films. It’s the detail that tends to be the problem, not the mentioning of an area of concern which is why a post like this one doesn’t really need a content warning.
Not being able to deal with graphic or detailed content on a difficult subject does not make you weak, or lazy. It may mean you have a lot of empathy. It’s not necessary to get into the awful details to understand the issues – unless you’re going to be working as a therapist in that specific area, or in the police or some other front line job where it would be fair to assume you’ve decided you can deal with it. For the rest of us, content warnings are an act of care and respect.
And anyone who wants to inflict graphically unpleasant content on people who may be traumatised already, without even warning them first, is simply a problem and needs treating as such.