Warning: Contents May... (Trigger)
by Megan Ryland
[Image: Yellow triangular sign with black lettering. It reads “! TW,” a common shortened form of the term “trigger warning.”]
Trigger warnings are becoming part of modern conversation. You’ve probably seen them around at the beginning of articles or in tags on Tumblr, sometimes shortened to “tw.” They seem to be having a ‘moment’ right now—something that reportedly started gathering steam in anti-violence and social justice spheres online has moved into general internet spaces and is now entering offline content and conversation. This trend is bringing renewed attention and scrutiny to the use of trigger warnings as a conversational alert system for content that people might find triggering.
You may be intimately familiar with the idea of trigger warnings, but this week I want to take a step back and take a second look at trigger warnings. Starting from the basics, moving to arguments against them, and then looking at the big picture, I hope that by the end of the week, it’s clear why writers at The Body is Not An Apology use trigger warnings, and why you might want to start using them too (if you don’t already).
The first important question to answer is, “What is a trigger?” Well, a trigger can theoretically be anything and people often have triggers that are unique to them. Some people are triggered by smells, or a familiar feature, or a certain phrase, all of which may be difficult to control or avoid. That fact may make trigger warnings seem useless, as you cannot possibly warn for everything that could act as a trigger. But instead of throwing our hands up in the air, we can warn for certain items.
Kyriarchy and Privilege, a tumblr with a lot of social justice resources, has a pretty comprehensive list of common trigger warnings, to be found here. If you’re familiar with tumblr, you’re probably familiar with trigger warnings like those for rape, abuse, self-harm, eating disorders, suicide, drug use and many others. The Body is Not An Apology frequently makes use of them.
If you’ve never been triggered by something, you may not quite understand the purpose of the warnings. Being triggered isn’t something that people have come up with to force others to be politically correct or tiptoe around conversations. The term describes an actual, powerful experience for many people and is used by those who have experienced trauma, sexual assault, bigotry, child abuse, PTSD or other events. According to 1 in 6, being triggered brings your past trauma rapidly to the present, potentially causing intense stress, anxiety, flashbacks, sudden fear or anger. Shakesville features a more extensive definition:
“A trigger is something that evokes survived trauma or ongoing disorder. For example, a person who was raped may be “triggered,” i.e. reminded of hir rape, by a graphic description of sexual assault, and that reminder may, especially if the survivor has post-traumatic stress disorder, be accompanied by anxiety, manifesting as anything ranging from mild agitation to self-mutilation to a serious panic attack.
Those of us who write about triggering topics (sexual assault, violence, detainee torture, war crimes, disordered eating, suicide, etc.) provide trigger warnings with such content because we don’t want to inadvertently cause someone who’s, say, sitting at her desk at work, a full-blown panic attack because she happened to read a triggering post the content of which she was unprepared for.”
As mentioned, you cannot always anticipate what might trigger someone. In my opinion, that’s not an excuse to dismiss the idea of anticipating the experiences of your listener or audience. We actually do this all the time in other ways, whether that’s gauging someone’s sense of humour or whether right now is the best time to ask for a favour. The reality is that in a room of ten people, someone has likely experienced violence first hand. Accepting that we are collectively responsible for caring for our community, even and especially those who might need support or accommodation to feel comfortable, is part of practicing social justice.
I cannot claim to have been triggered in the way that some people experience it, but I still appreciate trigger warnings, as they allow me to make an informed choice about the content I’m ready to dive into. It’s rare that a trigger warning dissuades me from reading a piece, but it does prepare me for what I’m about to read in a way that I appreciate. On days where I’m tired or I’m already down, I might bookmark the page and read it later.
This is the informed consent aspect of the trigger warning. The warning arguably offers readers, listeners or watchers an opportunity to opt into the material. Instead of demanding that someone participate in a conversation where you set the terms and catch them unawares, you are asking them to participate in a conversation of shared interest. With a trigger warning you’re putting a few more cards on the table so that someone knows a little more about what they’re getting into. It’s not asking a speaker to tiptoe or stay silent. It’s asking them to allow others to enter as informed participants, ready to engage with the material.
Words and images are not as harmless as some people would like to believe. New research suggests that some journalists exposed continually to violent images and stories may develop symptoms of PTSD without exposure to the violent events themselves. We all know from experience that some things can bring us back vividly to an intense memory—maybe that’s a smell reminding you of your grandma or a song bringing you back to prom night. Now imagine that this vivid memory was attached to something that you’d rather not re-live at the drop of a hat. It only seems considerate to give someone a heads up if that might happen.
For me, a trigger warning is a small gesture for those who may not understand what it’s like to be triggered but care about those who do. We are all a part of a culture that incorporates violence, and this violence has an impact on members of this culture; therefore, we are all implicated in that. Trigger warnings ask us to remember that we approach content differently and to care for one another. Used as an alert for content, trigger warnings don’t censor or shut down conversation; they open up conversation to those who need support to feel safe to engage, and they allow informed participation in topics that can be rough to discuss. By taking responsibility for your own content through trigger warnings, you don’t ask people to apologize for their experiences or their triggers. You anticipate what’s required to open the space to as many people as possible and do what little you can.