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Warning: may contain warnings

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Trigger warnings! People are still talking about them.

Edit 2016: especially when the University of Chicago does this

As I think I’ve said before, I prefer terms like “content note” or just NB/ or similar, as I have read convincing arguments that the very use of the words “trigger warning” can be kind of self-defeating, so maybe it’s better to avoid that. Although whether “TW” may have the same effect, I’m not sure. Not my point.

What warning?

I’m talking about little notes at the start of something – a piece of writing or a talk, or a post in (for example) a facebook group – that gives people a heads-up about the content. It might be “Content note: disordered eating” or “TW: rape” or similar. The point is that if people aren’t in an appropriate state to deal with that or prefer it not creeping up on them unannounced, they don’t need to -just to let them know so they’re better prepared when it comes up.

What’s the problem?

The current hot topic seems to be around their use in learning environments; schools and universities, and whether adopting this is somehow “coddling” students and therefore restricting their intellectual/personal development somehow. Personally, I think that traumas they may have encountered in life that such warnings refer to are far more likely to be doing that – whether it’s physical/sexual or emotional abuse at home or anywhere, or something else.

The main angle presented tends to be that given the option of avoiding something because it might be upsetting, people will inevitably take it and therefore miss out on the definitely-enlightening content, which should be prevented at all costs.

People say “these students need to grow up, the real world isn’t like that and they need to learn” – well, maybe the point is, they already have and it is you who has not or fail to realise this?

I’m not sure why learning in a classroom would be somehow less real world than, for example, someone’s abusive home/relationship or close bereavement, just because it cares to take that into account.TW1

Some examples of warnings already in use

The other angle I rarely see people take is, if there is a note, does that ever put anyone off anything, when the note is not aimed at them or likely to be of use to them?
I doubt it. We just gloss over it like background noise.

  • As all of us non-epileptics do when the “this programme contains flashing lights/flash photography” warning happens.
  • Like we childfree and not-of-a-prudish-sensibility do when “this programme contains strong language and scenes of a sexual nature” is read before a programme.
  • As those of us who are not squeamish do when the news anchor says “contains scenes some may find disturbing” – for footage of e.g. war zones and dead bodies that people might not wish to view.
  • Like everyone over the age of x (and often under it) considers – or ignores – PEGI and BBFC (or regional equivalent) ratings when purchasing games or films.
  • “May contain nuts” – we laugh if it’s on a pack of nuts, but that’s collateral from a sensible system that saves lives, given fatal anaphylactic shock happens.

If you feel these are not also warnings, what do you consider them to be? Is it only when it’s aimed at people you consider childish for having certain feelings, who need to grow up? 

I think we would disapprove of someone who laughed at a person in visible distress due to blood and gore, or indeed proceeded to hold their eyes open and make them watch. I don’t think people mind potentially-fatal allergies being considered on packaging or in menus – no one is hurt by this extra information.

The people I see moaning about this because of some imagined censorship (often without understanding what that actually is), or disgust at the idea some people might like and benefit from a heads-up, are usually (not exclusively) of a certain kind.

They tend to direct their criticism at women and girls. They do so in an aggressive manner, as if the idea of someone excusing themselves for 2 minutes during a film of an abbatoir or operation is a personal insult to them. I do not understand this. They are inconsistent, at once accusing students of being spineless flowers, and simultaneously so powerful as to change entire educational systems for the worse.

Honestly, I don’t think all the unexpected and unpleasant rape scenes in films I’ve seen or books I’ve read have done me any good, I have not learned anything useful from them. If anything, they instilled a quiet, deep fear and idea that, as a woman, this would be my fate – is that really something we need children to be learning? I don’t think it has weakened me and I do not think anyone should apologise for finding these things disturbing.

“Rape in war is a reality” some insist – so, let’s teach that in the context of history and sociology with a critical eye, rather than presenting it as entertainment? Someone’s suffering may be an important plot device, but I think we could stand to view its overuse more critically.

Knowledge is power

In general, people seem to understand the concept of more information being useful to people, and of preparation.

On information, I think of abstinence-only sex education. We know this is an awful, harmful ideology to encourage, which directly hurts young people. By ignoring facts like young people’s physical attractions; developing sexualities; increasing independence and desire to experience things then refusing to provide information, people’s ability to make responsible, safe choices in life is diminished.

However, when it comes to personal mental health and dealing with trauma, apparently less is more..?

A friend-of-a-friend on a discussion thread said:

“I don’t call them content or trigger warnings, but I do warn students when we are about to see something graphic or upsetting. I had a student ask if she could be excused from lesson on cancer because her mother had recently passed away from it. I figured that was ok.”

I recall a teacher at my own school, who kept very brief notes in the register about each person in the class; if there was something about them they should bear in mind, just in case. The problem was, the class saw it and found some of it shocking (personal information can be) and some of it hilarious. But, years later, looking back – I think that’s a great thing for a teacher to do, in principle. To be mindful of people’s personal circumstances and the kinds of hidden troubles they might be dealing with every day. They just could’ve kept it a bit more safely to themselves.

Also Franklin:

Also Franklin: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”

Preparation means we are able to deal with more – take a greater strain, improve stamina, as it were. We train for sports and physical activities, eat a meal before drinking alcohol (if we’re sensible), plan in order to avoid being tripped up by the unexpected. But these notes of upcoming content are somehow restricting?

As it is, I’ve yet to see any evidence of this. For my part, my major interaction with such warnings is in groups where it’s likely almost everyone has a personal experience that is troubling, which they like to have considered where they are at that time – facebook groups primarily for women that frequently involve discussion of male violence, for example.

I have observed discussions between teaching professionals and the consensus is that while they might not use the particular ‘TW’ phrasing, they are accustomed to pointing out when and what challenging material will be in the course; often at the start and along the way as it comes up. A tool that’s part of a set of considerations for dealing with other humans.

I once had to add one myself to this post, still the most popular on this blog every week, because it contains descriptions of abusive relationships and actions. I was resistant – why? I’m not even sure. It hasn’t dented the popularity of the post, people clearly still read and share and comment, but maybe since the warning’s been there, fewer have been shocked by what’s in it.

There is some case for allowing the potential for unexpected shock, if this is necessary to a particular artist or for appreciation of that art – but again I see no evidence there’s an actual problem here, though I will welcome constructive, considered comments.

“Few of the media voices catastrophizing trigger warnings seem to understand that professors’ interactions with students in the classroom and during office hours are some of the most important ways of catching mental health (or time management, or substance abuse) issues in our students that may need further attention”

— Aaron R. Hanlon

I do not think the problem here is over-sensitive students or coddling people. The things we accept vs. what we don’t is generally a mess – censoring (happy/uneventful) nudity while glorifying violence for example.

If universities are taking to banning/censoring subjects rather than helping people – teachers and students alike – navigate common mental illness issues then yes, that should be addressed. But I cannot conclude that recognising the pervasiveness of abuse, trauma and mental health issues is going to be a bad thing overall. Quite the opposite.

Maybe in the long run, we’re going to save a lot of time, money and general pain in terms of mental health services provision if we can get more things like this right.

Edit: here’s the Idea Channel guy on it, and some of the comments on this video (on YouTube wtf!) are great:

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Author: noodlemaz

I prefer to think of myself as a realist rather than a pessimist, but perhaps that's just optimistic. Honest, atheist, scientist, feminist.

7 thoughts on “Warning: may contain warnings

  1. Addendum following conversation today:

    “I do think there is a subset of youth who expect not to face ideas that they don’t like — even if not actually traumatic. And I do not feel inclined to indulge them.” – comment

    Reply:
    You think there is – how many people have you heard actually say that? Personally I’ve never encountered someone who says ‘I shouldn’t be exposed to challenging things or different opinions’ – usually if you don’t want to hear someone speak, for example, you don’t go. I’ve not seen calls for not-teaching-something because someone doesn’t like it.

    A friend recently polled all their educator (teachers/lecturers) friends, and not one of them said anyone had ever asked for the course content to be changed.

    I really think it’s a bogeyman invented by people who don’t like being asked to be more considerate of other people, or expand their worldview. I see little evidence of it being a real problem (which the video does address)

    And it’s not about not surviving – people aren’t dying because of course content. It’s about making things *more accessible* to people, including the huge number of human beings who have dealt with horrible things and need a bit of preparation before going into something challenging – much like you need a warm-up before some exercise. It’s really not that much of an ask.

    Plus if “unresolved real world trauma” is a widespread problem, actually making people feel like it’s OK to make it known might mean they get more help, services more widely are improved, and in a feedback loop the problems themselves are lessened and fewer people end up in the situation in the first place. It could lead to some really positive changes.

    Comment by person who posted the PBS video:
    “someone who has war-time PTSD and is taking a course on modern geopolitics might very much want to talk about the rise of ISIS, and may be one of the best students in the room to comment in the rise of ISIS.

    But if, without warning, there is a video of an artillery exchange…. well, that might not go so well.

    If you warn them first, they can be like “Ok. I am in a safe place. It is just a video. Shut up fight or flight response….. Ok. My Body is Ready” and they’ll be fine.”

    – Definitely, victims of certain forms of violence are often very well qualified to speak on what led to the incident, how it transpired, how they have recovered etc. Equally if you just launch into something and are poorly informed, they may feel unable to contribute for various reasons.

    There is so much most of us know nothing about and have no direct experience of. Excluding the people who have it due to insensitivity and refusal to make changes to our own behaviour means we all miss out on learning potentially important and useful things – and those very causes of trauma are even less likely to ever be effectively addressed.

    People who insist it’s all about over-sensitivity, offense-taking, censorship and other stuff – generally just have no idea what they’re talking about, are arrogant and inconsiderate. I don’t think those are things worth standing up for at all.

    Like the famous ‘if I’m afraid of spiders and want to overcome it, slow introduction and sensible small steps are the way to go. Don’t shout SURPRISE and throw a bucket of spiders on me. That won’t go well.’

  2. Sorry the following text turned out to be quite long. I would appreciate it, if you read it anyhow:

    I think that the difference between my and your view is mainly that you are more pro trigger warning than I am if I understood you correctly.

    I see for most of those circumstances for which trigger warnings are discussed no reason to include them: however where not already given content information would be useful, so that people can prepare in which way ever (learn more about the subject, prepare psychologically, whatever).

    But I don’t think that the phrase trigger warning adds something to a video called my eating disorder, a textbook chapter about abortions a statistic about rape or a poem called suicide – other than that the author / presenter thinks it’s really bad.

    Instead trigger warnings are judgments in two ways: they say to the student you might feel really bad about this, prepare yourself. And they says you should feel bad about the subject that is discussed in this piece because it makes others feel bad and shows something really bad, something you should judge.

    I don‘t think this is necessary. In my opinion this is most likely not appropriate in a college context. The students can judge by themselves.

    Typically a warning highlights a real danger – or should do so at least. In the case of trigger warnings this is not necessarily the case because it is a subjective judgment.

    Content information gives a potentially triggered student the same or more information than trigger warnings (depending on how trigger warnings would be designed and how much content information they contain). On the other hand content information is useful for everybody and does not contain value judgments (if it is really just information about the content and nothing more).

    Another point is that I don’t think that trigger warnings work. For healthy students content information might be useful to read some introductory texts in advance or to prepare in another way and for students with PTSD (or similar disorders) they might be useful to avoid the subject all together, if they think that it is something that affects them negatively / they can’t handle it.

    But I don’t think, if they have the disorder, a little preparation will truly help them. If you want I can explain further why I think so.

    Of course in most cases content information is already given,(you roughly know what a book you will be reading will be about, what a movie will be on or what the topic of the next history lesson will be). Only the degree of precision varies.

    But it can‘t be said what the right degree is because what might be too little information for one student with PTSD might be already detailed enough to be triggering for another.

    What might help these persons would be when they can ask (or ask a fried to ask) in more detail if something is e. g. part of a lecture. For that mental disorders have to be taken more seriously by society and less stigmatized.

    That is long way to go and my worry is that huge parts of feminism are not going to help.

    P.S.: Yes, my comment is against explicit “trigger warnings” and not against information about the contents of lectures. I mean, who could argue about information? That would be ridicules, wouldn’t it? I don’t know if I want to be warned by a lecturer that it is getting really though emotionally now, though. Really don’t think so!

    • Yes, and I did say I didn’t really agree with the words ‘trigger warning’ themselves, nor do most educators I have spoken to.

      • “It might be “Content note: disordered eating” or “TW: rape” or similar.” –> So I’m speaking about such notes. I don’t think this is useful for the reasons I gave above. (Whether it is “Trigger warning” or “TW” which means the same. Also a content note in this format would be still a warning, with all the problems I see with that. If it would say: In the lecture eating disorders, their prevalence, potential causes (behavioral model, psychosocial model, …) and therapeutic approaches are discussed. Or something of that sort (chart that says October 27th: eating disorders) I had no problem, because it would simply describe the content of the lecture. Everybody could prepare, maybe read something on the models etc. Of course that is “special” for “eating disorder” lectures because I don’t see who would decide on when and when not to warn people. The warning (explicit or implicit) has some implications and that is the bad thing in my opinion.

      • Perhaps… read it a bit slower?
        I also said, those notes are typically found in places like groups specifically aimed at women, with frequent discussion of violence and other issues many in the group are likely to have dealt with or be dealing with. The educators I spoke to said they do not use the specific phrasing ‘trigger warning’ but a more generalised content heads-up whenever appropriate (at the start of a course, and maybe the start of the relevant day).

        The point of these short warnings is: if you are scrolling through a feed and there’s a particular subject you don’t want to read about in detail at that point, the note allows you to bookmark for later, skip over it, etc. – instead of opening it, reading through, and finding yourself in the midst of an in-depth description that you are not well prepared to deal with at that time. Sometimes headlines are descriptive, often they really aren’t. In groups that set out to be useful, informative and supportive, it is standard to list the topics a particular article gets into, so that people can have control over the content they consume. People who haven’t experienced being in such a group might not understand that, but it’s very useful.

        I feel you are conflating several of the issues, which is something very common with these discussions. People decide they are uncomfortable with this phenomenon, despite already being used to it in various contexts (as I tried to point out) and then insist all instances of warning people about content are the same. They’re not, and some people do it some way, and others differently – depending on the audience.

  3. Sorry for my late response; I would have replied a lot earlier, if I would be able to read (and write) faster.

    “I also said, those notes are typically found in places like groups specifically aimed at women, with frequent discussion of violence and other issues many in the group are likely to have dealt with or be dealing with.”

    I (honestly) thought we were talking about trigger warnings (however called) in colleges/universities. At least I was speaking about those kinds of trigger warnings (content head-ups, content notes, etc.). I’m sorry if that was not clear. To me it makes a difference were the warnings are placed, because imo the rights and responsibilities between private persons and the state (or persons (partly) representing the state) aren’t and shouldn’t be the same.

    And while it might be true that the majority of trigger warnings in the internet have a positive effect (I’m not sure, but I don’t want to exclude the possibility), I don’t think that this is the case for trigger warnings in colleges and universities. Moreover if it WERE the case, I think that something were seriously wrong with the college/university system that would need to be fixed instead of “simply” putting some warnings in place.

    As I’ve tried to say previously the problem with trigger warnings in classrooms is – in my opinion – that they, whether intentionally or not, make judgments for another adult person that the person could just as well make on his/her own when informed well enough.

    Furthermore I think that college-trigger-warnings are associated with a lot of questionable things (like false rape accusations*, false/misrepresented rape statistics, censoring (e.g. of public debates/speakers), complaints about minor inconveniences). Because of that association they (at the minimum) make the impression of falling in the same category, irrespective of whether that is actually the case. And that is doing harm, in my opinion, those people who are supposedly supported by trigger-warnings, because those ppl are portrait as a lot weaker, less able to decide and live on their own than it is actually the case.

    One might say that the positive effects outweigh the negative effects. But I don’t think so, because I don’t think that the positive effects could not be achieved by other, better, means.

    Moreover one might say that the association with those questionable things is false and that one should demonstrate that trigger warnings are not associated with such things instead of arguing against trigger warnings. That would be reasonable, if trigger warnings (in classrooms) had overall positive effects and were just unjustly placed in bad light. I don’t think this is the case. It’s obviously difficult to judge but it seems that at least in public trigger warnings *in/for classrooms* are most often supported by the same groups that are also responsible for the above points. (And that matters, because it has an influence on how people view mental illness.)

    “The educators I spoke to said they do not use the specific phrasing ‘trigger warning’ but a more generalised content heads-up whenever appropriate (at the start of a course, and maybe the start of the relevant day).”

    What I’m trying to say is, that the “whenever appropriate” part and the (potential) obligation to warn (“whenever appropriate”) is a problem, because it makes judgments for people who are capable of making judgments themselves (when gives sufficient information) and belittles them thereby.

    “People who haven’t experienced being in such a group might not understand that, but it’s very useful.”

    If you are saying/assuming with this, that I’ve never been in such a group, you are false.

    But I also know what it is like not to be taken seriously (and not to be believed).

    And I don’t think that large parts of feminism help in getting crime victims or mental health problems treated more seriously. That is because what gets in the press are false allegations**, attempts on silencing opposing views, complaints about non-issues & things that obviously seem “strange” to other people.***. And trigger warnings are associated with and part of that. It might help a bit, when the trigger warning is not called trigger-warning (especially for the later part) but it would basically remain the same.

    “I feel you are conflating several of the issues, which is something very common with these discussions. People decide they are uncomfortable with this phenomenon, despite already being used to it in various contexts (as I tried to point out) and then insist all instances of warning people about content are the same.”

    No, my point is, that they are NOT all the same. A warning about peanuts in a product is different from a warning of violence in an internet post and a warning of violence in an internet post is different from such a warning in a classroom and that is different from a non-warning that simply declares what the content of all lectures (whether about violence or peace, etc.) is.

    * I know that almost all allegations are not false but true. But that doesn’t change the fact that every false allegation will but a really bad light on those who’s allegations are true.
    ** And no “explanation” or anything afterwards but (kind of) defending of the false allegation even if it turns out to be false.
    *** I don’t want to say, that no one should behave “strange”, some ppl can’t behave otherwise (others can) – and it is not generally a bad thing. What I’m referring to is for example the tweet about “jazz-hands” instead of clapping. I obviously don’t know the person who was affected by the clapping and how bad it was for her. It might be that she’s really scared of loud noises. But I’m not sure if it is so useful to ask for Jazz-Hands instead anyways. Maybe they didn’t see the attention coming or they wanted to show her support (I would have checked if there are other possibilities), because that way it is not taken seriously.

    P.S.: Sorry if thinks I’ve written are ambiguous.

  4. things.

    And maybe I take that ***comment “back”, but maybe you understand what I was trying to say. What they did was (I think) not very effective (of course ultimatly I can’t judge but noone can). It is another question if effectiveness should be a criterion.

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