Why Trigger Warnings are Bad for Everybody

by | Dec 13, 2021 | Articles | 0 comments

Recently I almost got into a Twitter skirmish about trigger warnings, or TWs, as they say in the trade. One of my followers asked the Twitterverse their opinion on them, and I gave mine. In essence, I said I don’t believe in them. While trigger warnings originally seemed like a considerate idea, I wrote, no author should be required to include one. And, I added rather sardonically, if your mental health is so fragile that you need a trigger warning on a book, you should probably stick with children’s books.

I stand by my position.

When you choose to begin reading a book that is not clearly a children’s book, you should understand that anything is on the table. Period. But in our current age of entitlement and maximum sensitivity to people’s neuroses and psychoses, I immediately got pushback. I wanted to respond. I was dying to respond. (Oops. Does “dying” need a trigger warning?) Because I am an actual adult, however, I chose to ignore those who tweeted at me.

Interestingly, both individuals were rather combative, to say the least. In fact, I could have been triggered by the level of hostility, especially since this was the way they chose to engage with me for the first and only time. Ah, the irony.

Upon reflection, I decided to research trigger warnings more than I had previously, and was surprised by what I found: an article in The New Yorker, of all places, entitled What If Trigger Warnings Don’t Work? 

Turns out that “a dozen psychological studies, published between 2018 and 2021, are remarkably consistent, and they differ from conventional wisdom: they find that trigger warnings do not seem to lessen negative reactions to disturbing material in students, trauma survivors, or those diagnosed with P.T.S.D. Indeed, some studies suggest that the opposite may be true.”

  

Are There Exceptions?

Sure. Like anything, there can certainly be exceptions to the rule. I couldn’t care less if Netflix provides their list of warnings about such evils as smoking, language, or nudity. I do find it funny that their trigger warnings are so wildly inconsistent: they don’t necessarily even mention violence for movies where someone gets shot in the head, but if a guy is yelling at his girlfriend in a limited series, we have a “domestic violence” trigger warning. Ridiculous.

The idea that college students are demanding TW for books like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or Things Fall Apart is both pathetic and infuriating. These children going through a prolonged period of adolescence need to (language warning) grow the fuck up.

There are probably exceptions to the rule when it comes to TW. For Young Adult (YA) books and others that target a reader demographic under 18—a genre or category I’ve had neither the time nor inclination to review since I was an actual child—certain warnings may be recommended by authors and readers alike. Even in these limited cases, however, I still have reservations based on the data: if you’re warning a reader about abuse in the book, won’t they get all keyed up when reading it, and possibly more “triggered” when they encounter the relevant scene or scenes? 

The data would suggest so. But whatever the case, it should be up to the author and/or publisher whether or not to include a warning. If you’re a parent, and you’re concerned about your child’s entertainment intake, maybe you have to monitor it. You know, like a parent.

 

Trigger Discussion in My WIP

Unfortunately, the Netflix culture has gotten people used to being warned both equally and inconsistently about anything and everything, from graphic violence to all sorts of low level issues like profanity and scenes that depict characters (gasp) smoking cigarettes. Here’s how a character discusses it in my Work-in-Progress, Hot Scenes.

 

“You know how I knew we were fucked as a culture?  I started watching some movie on Netflix, and they always have the little warning about what the ‘adult’ content is, right? The movie I was watching listed ‘sex, nudity, language, smoking’…all this rinky-dink shit. No warning of violence whatsoever.

“As the movie went along, there was all sorts of violence: a guy getting shot in the face, someone else getting beaten to death with a shovel. Blood everywhere. And I thought, What the fuck? You’re going to warn me about bad words and freaking smoking, but not this?

“I realized we’re almost stuck in the Puritan era with sex, but with violence, Americans are like people who enjoy watching the carnage in a train wreck.”

 

Here’s the thing: no one has a basic right to trigger warnings. It’s not a basic right, anymore than Coca-Cola or ear plugs. It just isn’t. If you want them, if you feel you need them, and you can get them…good for you. But they are not a right.

And if I taught at a university that caved in to student demands for trigger warnings for books that have been around for a hundred years, I would hand in my resignation letter.

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