Quick start, what is a trigger warning? It’s a little post at the beginning of a piece, warning readers about possibly emotionally charged content (rape, violence, abduction, abuse, incest, you-name-it), much like the “Viewer discretion advised” warnings on TV. The idea of an emotional “trigger” started in psychology and psychiatry, mostly in dealing with PTSD, and is now broadly used to describe anything that puts a reader/viewer in an emotional or unstable state of mind.
The subject of trigger warnings is a messy one. There are people who think it’s all censorship or plot-ruining, those who think it’s enabling or infantilizing, and those who will defend the idea of trigger warnings to the death and will insist that anyone who won’t is a terribly insensitive privileged dick.
The first is obviously the easiest to debunk. Censorship is the request/demand is to edit the writing and take out the offending (scary, triggering, anything disliked/disapproved of) bits, or to tone it down, or to remove the piece completely (politics and legality notwithstanding). Posting a trigger warning is adding onto the piece, not erasing something that’s already there. As for the idea that trigger warnings ruin the plot? Book jackets. Synopses. Blurbs. I’m pretty sure this has been done before. Most people find a way to get the idea across without baring it all.
The idea that trigger warnings, and the culture that adores them, are promoting ignorance and a perpetual state of victimhood is a little harder to dismiss. There are a lot of people who go to great pains to avoid things that make them feel honestly uncomfortable, which means that some traumas never get addressed and some people never learn to deal with their shit. They hobble themselves by avoiding the pain of growth or realization, and, at worst, end up negatively impacting the world with their self-protective stupidity – i.e.: All the bigots who refuse to acknowledge any counter argument as valid BECAUSE REASONS. (“Because I’m avoiding looking at this with an open-mind and facing whatever trauma has me believing this horrible shit, and the consequences of healing that.”) The thing is, if they’re already that determined to stay ignorant, they’re probably avoiding things just fine even without the handy trigger warning labels.
On the flipside, for those already working through their hurts, moving too quickly (by stumbling into something without having a heads up about the content) can actually be damaging. It’s like being ready to learn to swim, and then getting thrown in the deep end and told to “just cope.” If that were me, I’d be pissed – fuck you, and fuck swimming; I’m never trying this again. And even if I decided to give it another go, it would take loads more time and loads more effort. Being given a choice about how much a person is willing to face can be really beneficial in terms of moving forward without tripping over the feels. Trigger warnings let people who are struggling with recovery face things when they’re ready to face them.
Because of this, there are those who fervently advocate the use of trigger warnings on everything, explicitly. The problem encountered here is two-fold. First, it’s highly unrealistic to try to cover everything that anyone fears or isn’t ready to face. People are varied, diverse, individual creatures with equally varied traumas and hurts. A person who tried to list everything would probably fail.
The second part is tied to the idea that triggers absolve everyone, and anyone, from any sort of personal responsibility. The group of people who most strongly argue for trigger warnings as mandatory are, as I’ve noticed, also those who buy into certain other aspects of victim culture – namely, the idea that triggers are absolutely terrible and impossible to deal with. Triggers become an excuse to act out, not something to work around and overcome. The idea being that trigger warnings must be posted everywhere because there is no way to deal with a trigger other than avoidance.
And so where have I settled in this mish-mash of arguments?
I think some description, whether that’s a trigger warning or a blurb or a foreboding color scheme on your blog or whatever else, is a really good idea. It’s packaging, or basic marketing, and lets the consumer know what they’re getting (and lets them decide if they want it or not). I wouldn’t want trigger warnings, specifically, to be compulsory. That’s limiting and limited. Use them if you’d like (sometimes I do!), but it’d be hell to regulate and impossible to account for.