22 November 2016 - 6:25 pm


(Picture: not mine. Thanks, interwebs.)

(Picture: not mine. Thanks, interwebs.)

AKA: Trigger warnings

I started noticing trigger warnings on the internet a while ago (probably two or three years now). They’re usually pretty obvious, screaming from the top of posts or articles about depictions or discussions of rape or paedophilia or specific types of violence.

Since then, they have taken root in the subconscious of the interwebs and spawned in random, haphazard ways. They’re more numerous now, popping up at the top of vague posts that touch any potentially ‘touchy’ subject. Gay relationships. Transsexual issues. Harm to animals. Radical new diets. Swearing. If someone might be offended or made uncomfortable by a subject, people are slapping a trigger warning on it.

This usage annoys me. That’s not what they were intended for. It’s the nanny-state intruding on the interweb, treating us like we’re all delicate snowflakes who can’t behave like conscious, thinking, breathing adults. I find it insulting, unnecessary, and counter-productive.

In my opinion, the meaning of a trigger warning is being watered down and made meaningless. They’re actually becoming less useful and less protective for those who might need them. I think in most cases that the over-use is well-intentioned, but please, let’s think about why we’re warning people about upcoming content.


What trigger warnings are for

This is, I suspect, the root of the problem: a lot of people (yes, I’m generalising here) don’t know why or how to use these warnings. The warnings are being used because they’re trendy, they look informed and supportive and like the thing we should be doing, but little understanding is being given towards the actual reason for them. I’m all about encouraging and enabling understanding, so this is a good place to start.

So what is a trigger warning for? How is it different to a content statement or rating? Why should we use it?

The original intent behind trigger warnings was to go above and beyond the standard content statement or rating: it was to warn survivors of trauma that the content might trigger an anxiety or panic attack.

This is (was?) primarily aimed at those who suffer PTSD, who may suffer flashbacks or anxiety/panic attacks when triggered by sensory stimuli, including visual or worded imagery. When discussing trigger warnings, I most often see survivors of rape or assault mentioned, but I think the list is broader than that: it includes war veterans and those who have witnessed or been part of something mentally scarring (including abusive relationships and situations; the list of possibilities is too long to mention here but hopefully you get the idea: trauma).

The incidents or attacks that these warnings are intended to prevent can be physical as well as psychological. They are debilitating and upsetting, and can cause real harm. Helping survivors to avoid these attacks is key to their healing process, as warnings give them a way to manage their own feelings of safety.

This is not to say that trigger warnings are flags for ‘stuff PTSD sufferers shouldn’t expose themselves to’. This is a flag that says ‘some might find this content triggers their trauma’, and gives the person the opportunity to prepare themselves for it. It’s about preparation, not avoidance. (In fact, avoidance can worsen PTSD.)

I read an article recently (I can’t find the link, sadly 🙁 ) in which a PTSD sufferer said that the warning was enough for her to prepare herself for the content ahead. It meant that she wasn’t surprised by the content, and instead was able to marshall her internal defenses to deal with the reference without being triggered.

In this way, trigger warnings can help us to open up our content to those who might otherwise be triggered by it. It isn’t an exclusion or an excuse to avoid something; it’s the opposite: an opportunity for inclusion.


What trigger warnings are not for

Trigger warnings are not intended to warn users about something that might upset or offend them. A triggered reaction is so much worse than merely ‘upset’ or ‘miffed’ or ‘that offends my sensibilities’ or ‘ew, I’d rather not look at that, thanks’.

(I have seen all of these reactions in response to content posted on the internet, paired with ‘why didn’t you put a trigger warning on it’. The short answer is that trigger warnings aren’t intended to protect delicate sensibilities: if you’re on the internet regularly, you learn fairly quickly how to filter the information you do and don’t want to see. Accept that it’s a plethora of information, that some of it is not going to be to your liking, and move the hell on.)

Becoming angry or upset over the mention or advocacy of gay marriage (just one example I have seen) is not the same as suffering traumatic flashbacks because of a vivid depiction of a rape. Pretending that these things are the same makes me angry. It cheapens the struggle that PTSD and trauma sufferers have to go through, and it blurs understanding of an issue that deserves our empathy and consideration.

I don’t expect those who disagree with me to put trigger warnings on their opinions. Ultimately, I expect people to be mature when they encounter content of different kinds, even if it’s not for them.

However, I do believe that people should be able to make an informed decision about what they’re reading. I’m a big believer in setting appropriate reader/audience expectations (there’s likely to be a separate post about setting expectations; this subject is only one part of that).

Content statements, ratings, or warnings are intended to help the audience decide if the content is something that they want to expose themselves to. If something might upset or offend (like swearing, sexual content, violence, religious content, etc), then it deserves mention in a content statement.

(Content statements have existed for far longer than trigger warnings: they’re just less obtrusive and less trendy than the latter. We already had a system that was working, people!)

This is why I put content statements on all my fictional work, usually stating that I write about adult subjects (violence, sex, swearing, etc) and that readers should proceed under their own recognisance. I expect readers to decide for themselves if they are likely to enjoy that kind of content.

(TL:DR: stop whining and put your adults panties on.)


Why trigger warnings are tricky

Knowing the line between ‘discomfort’, ‘offense’, and ‘triggering an attack’ is not an easy thing for creators, particularly those of us who haven’t gone through a trauma on the scale of those we seek to help and support. (I suspect this is one of the main factors behind the blurring of trigger warnings and their use: people err on the side of caution.)

The thing with triggers is that they’re not always obvious. Yes, a vivid depiction of a rape scene might be an easy one to pick as needing a trigger warning, but there are other, subtler triggers as well.

It could be a single detail in the scene that does it: a particular scent, or the shade of orange that a streetlight makes through rain, or a specific turn of phrase. Any little detail that the brain might latch onto could throw someone back to that moment of trauma, because brains are weird like that and a traumatic event stamps itself on us in unexpected ways.

The really tricky part is that these details may not be part of an easy-to-spot triggering scene at all. They might crop up anywhere in a piece and catch a reader unawares.

These, sadly, are the ones that are difficult – impossible? – to predict and warn against. They are entirely circumstantial and unique to each person, and the person themselves may find it difficult to predict or understand their own triggers.

I do believe that trigger warnings have value, though, and we should try to make them useful. Sadly, we have to put aside the stray detail triggers as too unpredictable to try to account for, but the big, obvious stuff can be warned about appropriately. I think there is another danger here of making the trigger warnings too common or too vague to be useful.

I haven’t yet put trigger warnings on my work because I don’t believe that any of it is particularly triggering. Any rape that occurred in The Apocalypse Blog happened off-screen, and I can only think of one particular torture scene in Starwalker that came close to getting a trigger warning.

(If anyone has found any of my work triggering, please let me know!)

I imagine that, one day, I’ll write something visceral enough to warrant a trigger warning, and I’ll do my best to spot and tag it appropriately. Until then – or until I get notification of someone being triggered by my work – the content statements that expect readers to be mature enough to deal with my content or turn away, will have to be enough.


Recent controversy

In recent months, there has been some discussion about ‘coddling students’ with trigger warnings, because some universities started to put trigger warnings all over their syllabus material. The anti-trigger-warning campaigners think that it is scrubbing the colleges of uncomfortable subjects and giving students permission to avoid ideas that make them uncomfortable. Mental health supporters counter that it’s important to support the students’ mental health by warning them about potentially upsetting content.

This is an interesting area, particularly because this is a time in a students’ life where they are exposed to adult/mature ideas and subjects, but are still learning how to handle them. Hiding them away is not helpful and not teaching the students how to deal with them at all, but at the same time, students need to be brought to these subjects and ideas in a way that’s accessible and not damaging to them.

I can see both sides of this coin, but from the reports I’ve seen, this is another case of trigger warnings being applied to content that might upset people (’cause a strong emotional response’), rather than something that might trigger a traumatic flashback or anxiety attack. Again, the scale of the negative response to the content is quite different.

Also, I think the base misunderstanding about the purpose of a trigger warning is at work here. Complainants are assuming that students will use these warnings as an excuse to avoid content, when, as stated above, they’re intended to allow those who might be triggered to take part safely.

Worse, some parties seem to equate trigger warnings to censorship. This is ridiculous, but only if one understands (and accepts) that they’re intended to do the opposite.

Some colleges have made clear statements about the type of content in their courses to allow students to prepare themselves accordingly, and these seem to work well. These are content statements; they don’t feel the need to staple ‘TRIGGER WARNING’ on the front. I appreciate this approach, though even these content statements seem to be clumped under ‘trigger warnings’ in some reports, despite them not being actually labelled that way and having a different purpose.

Here’s hoping that more people and institutions embrace the simpler and less evocative content statement, rather than overusing the trendier trigger warning.


Are trigger warnings still useful?

After some recent conversations with friends, I found myself asking the question. Sadly, I suspect they’re not – at least, not to those who were originally supposed to benefit from them (for those paying attention, by that I mean trauma survivors / PTSD sufferers).

Unfortunately, the compassionate intent of trigger warnings has been latched onto by the whinier SJW types, applied everywhere, and pretty much ruined. By expanding their use to elements that might cause any kind of offence to anyone, their purpose and usefulness has been watered down so much that I can’t see how they would be much use to anyone who actually needs them.

I’ve seen trigger warnings put on posts that discuss gay marriage. I’ve seen trigger warnings on posts that contain some swearing. I wish I was kidding. A simple tactic here is to start your post with ‘hey, I have a question/thing about gay marriage I want to share with you all’ or ‘excuse the language, but fuck me sideways’.

(On the flip side, I’ve seen requests for trigger warnings on things that discuss suicide when suicide is mentioned in the first sentence and can safely be assumed to be the topic of the post. Have people lost the ability to comprehend anything but their own twitchy ‘I have been offended!’ sense?)

I’ve seen so many trigger warnings on so many inconsequential things that they make me roll my eyes now. Seeing them misused so ubiquitously is essentially devaluing them. I’m offended by how many types of content that they’re inappropriately put onto, because it associates those topics with trauma and that is bad for many, many reasons. (See some of the examples above.)

How do we make trigger warnings useful again? Is it possible to pull them back to where they’re supposed to be? Are trauma survivors supposed to come up with a new way to identify the type of content they need to prepare themselves for?

I don’t know the answers to those; I ask these questions in the hopes of prompting thought and consideration, because I think those are valuable things. I’d love to hear from anyone who uses or needs trigger warnings, and their thoughts on the subject. I’d also love to know if there’s anything that I, as a creator, can do to improve the situation, on my own work if nowhere else!

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