Between protecting from harmful images and refusing to face reality, the use of trigger warnings.

One of our students debates the use of trigger warnings.

Charlotte Stobart
20th November 2023
They say that this generation is going soft. In fact, older generations have been saying this about the young for centuries. Kids these days. Snowflakes who need to join the real world, who need to understand that facts don’t care about their feelings, and that they can’t stay wrapped in cotton wool forever.

For them, an indicator of the perpetual softness of the youth is the recent explosion of trigger warnings. These are statements which warn of potentially distressing stimuli, particularly associated with content known to cause trauma. Examples of topics include self-harm, suicide, and violence. Initially they tended to be found online, but recently they’ve spilled over into the real world, with some universities even instituting policies which require trigger warnings.

Trigger warnings intend to create autonomy for people, so that they can choose whether to engage in things which might negatively affect them, especially due to past traumas. In many ways, they are equitable to allergen warnings.

Central to considerations is the question of what exactly we owe to each other. Do we want to live in a world where we don’t feel that we owe each other a little concern, and comfort, and kindness? Why shouldn’t we do things that, at very little cost to us, less than a sentence worth of words in most cases, make other people’s lives easier? The world is a distressing place, so shouldn’t we seek to reduce the discomfort of others? Is that not what being compassionate and being human is about?

"They allow people to anticipate and manage their stresses"

So, trigger warnings are ‘nice’ thing to do, but do they work? In a number of studies surrounding their efficacy, they were found to be at best trivially helpful. They allow people to anticipate and manage their stresses, but some research suggests that this leads to an exaggeration in the anticipated response.

However current debates around trigger warnings have less to do with their actual efficacy and more to do with perceptions of them. They have become politicised. Some on the conservative rights wrongly equate trigger warnings to censorship. But the content is still there, distressing things are still said, just with a short preamble. Trigger warnings have become another hot-button issue in the culture wars, a shield for the woke, brandished by conservatives as an unnecessary invention of sensitive snowflakes. ‘Triggered’ has also become a buzzword for both the left and the right, with the right often using it to make fun of the left. This makes conservatives getting triggered by the concept of trigger warnings as ironic as it is unfortunate, indicative of their central, ubiquitous hypocrisy.  

"So, the issue is not with trigger warnings themselves, but rather with their (over)-use"

So, the issue is not with trigger warnings themselves, but rather with their (over)-use. For example, a recent trigger warning on the musical ‘The Sound of Music’ for distressing themes, especially as related to the rise of the Nazis, or before a play warning of the ‘death of a puppet’. It borders on patronising. In recent years, trigger warnings have become warped and disconnected from their original purpose, which undermines their legitimacy and validity. Sometimes, oftentimes, they are useful, but their current implementation seems to be out of control and is foundational to the hostility towards their usage.

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