Trigger warnings have been widely scoffed at by everyone from Steven Fry and Theresa May, to that bloke online that gets all bent out of shape when you want to warn your audience that you’re about to talk about a sensitive topic. Nowadays, ‘triggered’ is often used negatively to dismiss someone’s anger or distress, many times in conjunction with calling them a ‘snowflake’. The meaning and use of the word ‘triggered’ has seen a shift from a discreet warning about content to an insult when people express a negative opinion on Twitter.
The true use of a trigger warning is a necessary act of compassion; it’s letting your audience know that you’ll be discussing a subject that has the potential to cause distress, allowing them to either prepare themselves or bow out. It is, at most, a single sentence at the start of an article, blog post or video that doesn’t take anything away from the following content. So why are certain people so against the use of trigger warnings?
“There seems to be a gross misunderstanding of what being ‘triggered’ actually means.”
First and foremost, there seems to be a gross misunderstanding of what being ‘triggered’ actually means. Many of those who are dismissive of trigger warnings believe that being ‘triggered’ just means being unhappy with something they have read or viewed. There’s the misconception that it’s just a frowny face and a slight discomfort, when in reality, being ‘triggered’ is a lot more complicated than that.
Speaking from my own experience (which may be similar to the experiences of others, but is in no means representative of everyone), being triggered is an almost violent experience that leaves me crying in the toilets, physically shaking, and generally unable to concentrate for the rest of the day. It comes over my body and mind all at once and forces me to relive some of the worst experiences of my life. I’m left physically and mentally drained–and I am often unable to truly describe to people why I have had such an extreme reaction to something that, more often than not, I would be fine with.
Arguably one of the best depictions of a trigger word in popular culture actually comes from Disney’s 2013 film, Wreck-It Ralph. In a conversation between characters Fix-It Felix Jr and Sergeant Calhoun, Felix uses the phrase ‘dynamite gal’ to describe Calhoun, and she experiences an intense and traumatic flashback. In this instance, Calhoun is forced to recall the violent death of her fiancée. In real life, when faced with triggering words or topics, people can experience similarly intense memories of rape, eating disorders, suicidal thoughts… the list goes on.
“Wanting to avoid triggering topics does not mean that you want to hide from your problems and hardships – it means that sometimes you need a break from dealing with them 24/7.”
One argument against trigger warnings is that they coddle people, and that ‘real life’ doesn’t come with trigger warnings (irrelevant and also, false… how many TV shows start with a content warning about violence or swearing? What about the ratings that come at the start of films?). But wanting to avoid triggering topics does not mean that you want to hide from your problems and hardships–it means that sometimes you need a break from dealing with them 24/7, a moment of respite where you can let down your barriers and breathe.
For me, trigger warnings aren’t even something that stop me viewing content–in fact, it’s the exact opposite. When I see a trigger warning on a piece, not only am I able to mentally prepare to face a potentially distressing topic, but it also gives me an indicator that the author has considered the fact that they are discussing something sensitive, and will therefore likely proceed with care. If I know beforehand the topics that will be discussed, I am less likely to have an adverse reaction to it when it comes up. But if I do happen to decide that I’m not in the right frame of mind to handle sensitive subjects at that time… that’s okay too.
“Trigger warnings are not a sign of a weaker society, they are a sign of a more compassionate one.”
Not all trigger words are avoidable (the fictional example above being one of them). It’s not always possible to know which unique word or phrase might trigger a negative reaction in someone, particularly someone you don’t know very well. However, topics such as sexual assault, eating disorders or mental health issues are known triggers for certain groups of people. To warn audiences that these or other potentially harming topics will be discussed is to give them the opportunity to decide if they are in the right frame of mind to deal with it, and avoid it if not.
Trigger warnings are not a sign of a weaker society, they are a sign of a more compassionate one.