Today I received a great set of questions about trigger warnings:
1. Why can’t someone simply stop reading or viewing content if they suspect that it will make them uncomfortable (i.e. if halfway through a video or reading, a painful topic arises)?
2. How do we, as a society, balance trigger warnings with “preparing” people for the real world, in which evil things can occur unpredictably at any point in time?
3. When are trigger warnings warranted?
These are great questions, and if we examine how trigger warnings were designed, we will understand why they are so important and why embracing trigger warnings is the equivalent of respecting and showing sympathy for those of us who need them.
So why trigger warnings?
The most important takeaway here is that trigger warnings are not created for everyone. That is why trigger warnings do not make sense to most of us. Trigger warnings are consciously designed for the people who have already experienced the trauma that will be depicted or described in the contents following the trigger warning. These are the people who already understand, through personal experience or tragedy, that we live in a world “in which evil things can occur unpredictably” (quoted from Question 2).
Let me backtrack a little here.
In fact, using a little more distinction, these people can also be said to be the people who do not understand, who continue to struggle with the trauma of grasping to understand why these things happened to us. We continue to struggle as we watch the world turn and as those around us remain seemingly unaffected (or even actively oppose our experiences). We do not understand the ignorance. Neither do we understand why us, and this is the fact which nobody can effectively explain. This is the trauma.
To be able to ignore a trigger warning ― or to ask for it to be removed ― is a privilege we would all like to have. To be able to read triggering content without being traumatized is a privilege. This ability does not make you any more prepared for “the real world.” I doubt you can prepare yourself for a rape by reading about it. In fact, if I may respectfully disagree, it is those of us who ask for the trigger warnings who are more than prepared for “the real world.” We are not ignorant of the fact that “evil things can occur unpredictably at any point in time”; we have already personally experienced it. In fact, this is what Post-traumatic Stress Disorder is - it leaves us abnormally alert and extremely sensitive; any sign of another “evil thing” brings the memories alive. We are always prepared to address the “evil thing,” and thus, we are constantly reliving the “evil thing.” Hence, the word “trigger.”
To be able to ignore a trigger warning -- or to ask for it to be removed -- is a privilege we would all like to have.
By the time we reach triggering materials in an article, it is too late. Stopping at that point does not help. It makes no sense to have to read halfway and encounter a particularly traumatic passage before stopping, when a simple trigger warning at the top of the article would suffice and prevent unnecessary pain and memories. A trigger warning gives us the tool to regulate our emotions and for us to set the content aside, until we are ready to process the content and can engage with it in beneficial ways.
So when are trigger warnings warranted?
This is a great question, and the answer is that the needs for trigger warnings are defined by society. When society deems something unacceptable or tragic (e.g., nudity, mangled body parts), we put a content warning before it. The fact that society continues to devour sexual assault accounts with curious thirst rather than aversion, and the fact that most of us will not see a need to attach trigger warnings on such content, are quite telling and show how much farther we have to go in recognizing and empathizing with the experiences of those who have undergone trauma.
I hope now that you have a better understanding of why we need trigger warnings. Though they appear small and insignificant in the larger scope of issues, trigger warnings serve a much greater purpose than most of us can appreciate. The active push to remove them reveals a complex issue and deep ignorance toward the experiences of those who have suffered.
In short, if I could ask for a warning, I would have asked for one before I was sexually assaulted. Now all I am asking for is a trigger warning, so that I don’t have to relive my assault.
Thank you for asking good questions.
Bio: I make art to explore human antics and to get important messages across. In my free time, I code and fight the patriarchy. As a survivor of sexual assault, my mission is to make this world safer and more empathetic to survivors.