In Defence of Trigger Warnings

[This is an archived post from my old blog or Medium that I was particularly proud of originally published in 2017. All info was correct at time of publishing]

This week I appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour in a debate about trigger warnings and whether they protect people or create a bubble, you can listen to the episode here. On the panel were psychologist Terri Apter who thinks they stifle debate and Sorana Vieru from the National Union of Students who spoke about their usage in education. I was there defending the use of trigger warnings in the online world because they allow me to actually use the internet without fear.

A Trigger warning is a brief sentence at the beginning of a piece or post that simply informs the reader that there will be sensitive topics discussed that may affect them. For example:

“Trigger Warning: Suicide, brief description of suicide methods.”

A trigger warning is not for every single subject and thing that may upset a reader, but for things that could bring back a painful memory of something that had a deep affect on someones life such as abuse or self harm that could trigger a flash back, PTSD symptoms or even cause the reader to hurt themselves or others.

I primarily write from personal experience, so tend to write about the worst parts of my life that have affected me the most. I do this to tell others they’re not alone, to give hope to others in similar situations and as a form of therapy- it’s very cathartic after all. But just because I write about things such as infertility, abuse, suicide and rape threats doesn’t mean that I have to force others to read it. The last thing I want to do is trigger someone who is going through a tough time, so yes it might mean that person doesn’t read what I write but I want to give them the choice.

I probably use trigger warnings mostly in my daily life within groups on Facebook. As a part of the chronic illness community I’m part of many groups which discuss sensitive subjects on a regular basis. These are groups that include women who cant have children, abuse survivors, trans people and those with mental health problems. Trigger warnings help us all to navigate these spaces and interact safely. There’s an argument that trigger warnings within spaces like that stop people from being active members of communities, but for the most part we’re happy to help members navigate trigger warnings and ask if possible. More than anything it just makes it easier for the person to scroll past something that could harm them mentally. For example if I see that something has a rape trigger WARNING I wont read or view it and it keeps me safe.

Those against trigger warnings argue that it stifles debate, but more than anything they’re there to help prepare and aid the user going into a situation so that if this subject does arose they can either choose to remove themselves or debate safely. It’s knowing that something particularly harmful could be discussed and having the tools at hand to put us on an equal footing with people who may not have had these bad experiences.

Think back to the last show you watched with a particularly traumatic story line, what did the announcer say before?

“The following show features scenes of a difficult nature that some viewers may find upsetting”

Trigger warnings have been around on TV and in films for decades but for some reason its attributed to generation snowflake as another excuse for how we’re “too sensitive”.

Whilst triggers warnings before TV shows are deemed okay, discussing them online is often fought back against, as some class them as “spoilers”. This was something I experienced when I tweeted about “TW Rape in this weeks Game of Thrones”. I did so from a place of wanting to prepare others who could have been affected by it, but what I received in response was about 70 book reading bros telling me who died at the end of the season “spoilering bitch”. I understand that Game of Thrones is an exciting show and you don’t want to have a second ruined, but if I “spoiled” rape for you then we really have deeper issues to discuss.

The introduction of trigger and content warnings in education is in my opinion only a good thing. Whilst it is par of the course whilst studying History that you’ll cover war or that English Literature students may have to read books featuring abuse, it doesn’t mean that every student shouldn’t be prepared for this. By quickly noting at the top of assigned reading or an assignment that the module covers triggering subjects you put survivors on an equal footing to debate or achieve the marks they’re capable. Students should’t be forced to jeopardise their learning for fear of PTSD coming back.

In arguing that we’re creating a bubble by using trigger warnings people forget that we already do that in real life anyway. We cultivate friendships with people who we trust that wont make potentially harmful jokes. We distance ourselves from people who aim to attack us and push this subject on us and we walk away from situations if an argument becomes too much.

By refusing to acknowledge or use trigger warnings we alienate people with PTSD and mental health problems; and could potenially cause them more harm.

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