Trigger warnings! People are still talking about them.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- “The Trigger Warning Myth” – New Republic
- “Trigger warnings aren’t ‘coddling’ the traumatized, they’re showing basic human respect” – The Daily Dot
- “Trigger Warnings Will Destroy Us ALL! (or not)” – grounded parents
- “Trigger Warnings in the Classroom Should Be About Sensitivity, Not Censorship” – Vice