When Trigger Warnings Become Problematic
By Gabrielle Hunt
Something I think about quite often is the trend towards presenting information more sensitively in U.S. society. What comes to mind most is the emergence of safe spaces and trigger warnings. I often think of trigger warnings in particular: if and to what extent they are useful, and whether they are truly contributing to a more knowledgeable and mindful society. In short, I think trigger warnings are often highly problematic and don’t enrich society as much as they are intended.
To begin, trigger warnings—particularly when used on the internet—seem to be indicative of the larger issue millennials (for lack of better terminology) are facing and will continue to face: meaningful interaction. When, for example, courses and articles alike have titles alluding to—or even explicitly naming—things like “rape” or “harassment,” it seems unnecessary and redundant to mediate them with a trigger warning of “sexual assault.” I remember a Facebook friend once reposting an article titled something like, “The Time I Was Sexually Assaulted,” and then captioning the post with “Trigger warning: rape,” to which I thought, well, duh.
Through context clues, it should be self-evident when content is potentially upsetting. I wonder, though, if this baseline-level of simple reading comprehension is becoming increasingly difficult in an age of instant gratification.
I don’t like to call situations like this “coddling”—mostly because it oversimplifies the matter, but also because it’s a favored accusation from crotchety baby boomers—but I do believe that in an era of sound bites and Tweets, our superficial interactions with content are leading us to lack the basic knowledge to decipher and process information without some type of mediation. Aren’t we the ultimate arbiters of whether content will be upsetting to us, and isn’t that something we should determine through appraising content and spaces as we would any other social situation?
In September 2015, the Atlantic released an article titled “The Coddling of the American Mind,” which poses similar questions about whether the use of safe spaces and trigger warnings curtails critical thinking. Though this article is focused more on universities, I still think it works to substitute “campus life” in the question of “Does campus life today foster critical thinking?” with “trigger warnings” more broadly.
Further, the article links critical thinking ability with mental health, which then contributes to another point important in considering whether trigger warnings are actually beneficial: do they sincerely help the people they are aimed towards?
Trigger warnings exist not only because there is certain content that is perhaps disturbing to all people, but also to specifically accommodate those with mental illness. What I find especially problematic about this use of trigger warnings is that in an effort to be more inclusive, trigger warnings, specifically for those with mental illness, perpetuate stigma surrounding mental illness itself. Mental health isn’t a binary state—there is no such thing as being cleanly “normal” or completely “abnormal”—but rather a spectrum. So in an effort to accommodate the possibility of panic attacks and other disruptive reactions to content, there seems to be an assumption that many people will respond in this specific way and with a high level of severity—which I don’t think is true.
Trigger warnings originated to accommodate people with post-traumatic stress disorder, particularly Iraqi war veterans. But when it comes to trigger warnings used as mediators for survivors of traumatic events that suffer from PTSD, I feel the use of them is a solution that misses the point of how we got to this place to begin with. In the case of war veterans, perhaps the use of trigger warnings is an important component of fostering assimilation into post-combat, “normal” civilian life, but it seems a measly solution in comparison to greater problems that need to be addressed: like preventing costly and damaging foreign policy decisions and working towards more accessible mental health services to those who need them most.
What bothers me exceedingly more—but also is especially hard for me to articulate because it’s so anecdotal—is my observation of trigger warnings as an effect of others’ poor handling of mental illness. There is a subculture of pre-teens and teens on the internet—something I’ve observed most prevalently on forums like Tumblr—that glamorize mental illness and appropriate various disorders as personality traits. In a strange, backwards adoption of embracing flaw and imperfection, I’ve noticed 13 year olds beginning their blog bios “anorexic, borderline personality disorder, major depressive disorder.” In an effort to erase stigma in admitting to suffering from mental illness, it seems that a fair amount of young people have reformulated their very identities to encompass a series of (at times self-diagnosed) afflictions.
Perhaps this connection is a stretch, but I often wonder if this subculture has adopted trigger warnings through their online interactions in an attempt to accommodate peers that, in real life, are not receiving adequate or professional help that would be more useful. An underlying message of the Atlantic is that safe spaces and trigger warnings are not substitutions for professional help. To me, trigger warnings, especially, also perpetuate that mental health is something that constantly needs to be mediated by outside forces, when in reality, mental wellness is an ongoing life process we mediate internally.
This then brings me to my last point: upsetting and disturbing content matters. Pain matters. It is what compels us to act, whether that be to become more knowledgeable or even to just be more empathetic. Some of the most upsetting, disturbing images – what comes to mind is the 1972 black and white image of children in Vietnam crying and running after an aerial napalm attack, or the 1963 photo of the burning monk – have become some of the most iconic and impactful. The disturbing nature of these images undoubtedly increased global awareness of international issues and became engrained in U.S.—and international—public memory; exposure to the horrific was ultimately unifying and enriching. Would we have as much of a sense of global issues if we had been sheltered from this content?
From the photo of the shocked boy sitting in an ambulance in Aleppo, we come to terms with our humanity and government capacity for indiscriminate violence. From the released images of Abu Ghraib torture victims at the hands of US agents, we became aware of our own moral transgressions—an awareness that has become integral to efforts dismantling the use of torture in U.S. penal systems. What is there to gain from shielding ourselves from this knowledge?
Ultimately, life is deeply triggering. We are constantly confronted by stimuli that jot our memories—for better and for worse. But this is a part of being human; feeling pain and happiness alike by the triggers of everyday reality. When we use trigger warnings, to a certain extent, we are minimizing instances of confronting the emotions that make us human. If we seek to minimize moments of pain, anxiety, stress, rage—components of the human condition since the beginning of humanity itself—what is it that we are seeking to become?