A lot has been said about trigger warnings in the past few months. Much of it is derisive “What’s that going to do to help?” or “But where does the line stop, when are we just labeling everything a trigger?”
Yes. Sometimes trigger warnings get out of hand. Sure, when there’s ten of them on a single post, that’s probably a lot for most people who don’t understand why we need them.
But let’s think of a trigger warning this way: You stop at a stop sign because you might get hit by a car that can’t see you.
A trigger warning is an emotional stop sign for those of us who need a moment. It is a chance for us to decide if we need to step away so we don’t get hit by the truck of our past, or if we choose to interact with it with full knowledge.
On Sunday Night I was grateful for what I’ve begun to term “The Game of Thrones Emergency Broadcast System” – a friend of mine texts me if there’s something that might be extra triggering for me (since GoT is already a really triggery show), and that way I can make the choice of whether or not I want to watch it.
On Sunday I’m glad I went into the kitchen and poured myself a glass of wine, and didn’t pay attention to the sounds coming from the screen. On Sunday I saved myself what I understand was a totally unnecessary change in the story – and a rape scene between previously consensual partners.
I hear a lot of people say that trigger warnings don’t belong in classrooms, or that they don’t belong online.
I think what we need is to define what trigger warnings need to be used for. I think there’s four basic ones: sexual violence (this covers rape, domestic violence, etc), graphic violence (war, stabbings, etc) addiction (alcohol, drugs) and gunfire.
Does this cover everything? No, it does not. But it can help. It also gives people with traumatic pasts a chance to decide if they can participate. I’ve been able to participate in dialogue under the sexual violence trigger because I was able to take a moment, and decide if I was in the right place to do so. Being able to choose to deal with trauma is healing, being forced into trauma is not. Trigger warnings enable dialogue in a way that not having them hinders it.
In classroom settings it’s as easy as marking your syllabus and stating that any triggering material is marked for content. On the internet it’s as simple as saying “Trigger Warning for _____ content”. It’s not hurting you to do it. But your words could hurt someone else.
I do not think that trigger warnings should be thrown out the window, but I do think we should streamline them – we should make them easier for everyone to interact with the world.
Television doesn’t have trigger warnings, there is, to this point no way to tell what’s the content unless if your friends warn you. So warn your friends. Be kind to one another. Trigger warnings are about kindness. You don’t have to make it a big thing, you don’t have to be grandiose about it, you don’t have to worry about “am I leaving something else” you can just label triggering material as what it is.
Trigger warnings give us a chance to talk to each other about our experiences. Trigger warnings let us heal through trauma, and even enable us the space to talk about our traumas. Trigger warnings are not the enemy.
Trauma is the enemy. Using trigger warnings doesn’t just help those of us with traumatic pasts, but it can help those without them critically understand the media they consume. What parts of the culture are we supporting with our media consumption? Are we saying we enjoy rape culture because we watch television which uses it as a plot device? Are we saying we appreciate domestic violence or incest because of the same?
I don’t necessarily think that’s true, but I think being able to be critical about the media we look at and share is an important part of parsing culture and can help those who don’t live with trauma understand what’s so frustrating about rape culture, or other forms of cultural re-traumatization.
So use the emotional stop sign. Use it and don’t be ashamed, you might learn something for yourself, or maybe you’ll help someone confront their past with a clear head.