On the Principled Opposition to Trigger Warnings
Content note: This post discusses trigger warnings and reasons for opposing them. (Hence the uber-creative title). It also references trauma, anxiety, flooding, war, and gaslighting.
It takes me 1.7 seconds to write the words “trigger warning.” I know, I timed it. And yet, people — people I know and respect, as well as the usual bevy of strangers and asshats — opt not to use them. They opt not to use them, despite the minimal effort such warnings require. They opt not to use them, actually, on principle.
For starters: if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.
There’s a general understanding that — if you can’t handle a conversation — you shouldn’t be in it. So, if we (as folks managing various kinds of trauma) are bothered by certain topics, images, or words, we should simply remove ourselves from the space where that topic, image, or word is present. And certainly, that is one tactic that people with triggers use to function. We can (and do) remove ourselves from spaces because they trigger traumatic memories, panic attacks, disassociation, etc. Opting-out is often a viable method when spaces are specific to certain content. (For example, if I have combat-related PTSD, it’s fairly simple for me to avoid playing war video games). But there are plenty of spaces — like this blog, for instance, or a Facebook mini-feed — where the range of topics is much broader. And when any topic can be brought into a space at any time, it’s very difficult to gauge whether triggering material will be present in a space.
Given this, the request by survivors* for content warnings is not a request that you be accountable in our place. (After all – my feels, my responsibility). On the contrary, it’s a request for the information we need to act responsibly, for the details that will allow each of us to make informed decisions about when, whether, and how we encounter certain content. Otherwise, what are our options? Are we to opt out of the entire Internet to avoid one potential image, phrase, or thread? (Because let’s be honest; that’s a little less “if you can’t stand the heat, get outta the kitchen” and a little more “get outta the kitchen, the house, and the whole damn neighborhood.”)
Principle #2: Hey, we can’t make the whole world safe. So, you need to face your problems.
This is another alluring argument After all, there’s truth in it. Until we create a world without trauma, a trigger-free experience is, essentially, about as likely as a gravity-free one. In some cases, learning to manage triggers or working through treatment to minimize their intensity has been very useful to me, and – I’m sure – to other trauma survivors. But suggesting that we should encounter triggers “wherever, whenever” in order to “face our fears” misunderstands both triggers and their treatment. Being “flooded” by triggers does not tend to toughen up trauma survivors or cure us of our “sensitivity.” Instead, flooding is linked to further trauma and to relapse, and — because of that — most treatment approaches are incredibly systemic, slow, and gradual.
Similarly, the idea that — if we wish to limit our exposure to certain triggering material in certain instances, we must be avoiding those materials at all times — seriously underestimates survivors. Many of us limit our exposure to triggering material as part of our healing process – because we have already seen enough of it on a particular day, because we have an especially low threshold in this moment, or because we are reserving our limited resources (stamina, energy, resilience) to face triggers in a therapeutic context. You do not do survivors any favors by suggesting we deal with triggers on your terms. This is not a matter of our lagging toughness in the face of the Internet’s tough love. It’s a matter of our autonomy, our ability to make informed decisions about how we continue to exist and interact with our world, while managing the psychological and neurological differences that go along with trauma.
Principle #3: Free speech! Censorship!
We have a whole lot of love, particularly here in the US, for the idea of free speech. Most of us can’t name the fifth or sixth amendment, but we will passionately invoke the first. The request that someone communicate differently triggers (ba dump bump swish) near-immediate “slippery slope” arguments about censorship and free discourse. It doesn’t much matter that the request (in this case) is for existing speech to follow a handful of extra words. It doesn’t much matter that free speech has yet to suffer any damage in spaces where trigger warnings are the norm. And it doesn’t much matter, apparently, that our dialogue suffers in their absence.
Yeah, you heard me. Dialogue suffers from the absence of these warnings.
It suffers because free speech — even in its simplest, least legal form – is not just about the right of any individual to say whatever they wish, whenever they wish to do so. Such a simplification ignores the structure of the discussion, the ways it is — from the get-go — rigged. People with certain kinds of privilege (white folks, dudes, cis peeps, and yes — non-survivors) are given more space to state their side of things. Their communication needs are also granted the seal of social approval; the language they’re comfortable with, the amount of prior information they need about a conversation, the extent or types of debate they’re able to endure, and the amount of time they need to process and formulate a response are all considered norms. Standard and acceptable. Meanwhile, the needs of the non-privileged — here, of survivors — are considered alternately overly-sensitive, delicate, fascist, or entitled.
The goal of the trigger warning is not to take away anyone else’s right to speak as they do. The goal is to expand those standard practices of conversations so that others are equally able to contribute.
I don’t think that’s a terrible thing to ask of each other. Conversations benefit when as many different people as possible can choose (safely) to participate in them.
In the end, we each have the right to decide whether or not we use trigger warnings. But we do not have the right to dismiss those who ask for them. Claims that trigger warnings are unnecessary function, however unintentionally, as gaslighting. They refuse the survivor’s own articulated experience of trauma — of what it means to be triggered and what we need to survive that — and replace it with a faulty image drawn by those who have not lived these realities.
Our experiences are not yours. They are not even each other’s. And if you will not respect our needs, you can respect — at least — our ability to know them.
*This post uses the term “survivor” and “person who experiences triggers” interchangeably. While “survivor” is often exclusively applied to survivors of sexual trauma, it’s intended – in this use – to include all experiences of trauma and related anxiety disorders.
Recommended reading: this post owes a significant debt to Melissa McEwan’s posts on trigger warnings, especially this one, which I’ve repeatedly linked while this post sat in my folder o’ drafts, and which I cannot recommend enough.