On Trigger Warnings, Trauma, and Community Obligations

A while ago, I was trading memories about Christian Contemporary Music with a friend online. We were having a good fun time, laughing at all the silly things we thought were “cool” back then when I brought up a certain band I’d been a huge fan of. They shut down immediately and explained to me that said band was one her abusive family listened to all the time and so now they can’t help but associate the band with a lot of pain and trauma. Since then, I’ve taken precautions not to mention said band when this friend is involved in a discussion, because I care about their ability to go through life without being reminded of pain and trauma.

This example would be something Jenny Jarvie over at the New Republic would probably roll her eyes at and say was a restriction of the artistic community and freedom. And perhaps it would be a little extreme…if my friend was going around demanding that the band should not be performing and no one should listen to them. But this dystopian fascist state that Jarvie paints, in which “structuring public life around the most fragile personal sensitivities will only restrict all our horizons," doesn't exist. Taking care not to trigger people in our audiences “only undermines the principal of intellectual exploration.” What’s more, Jarvie intones, “bending the world to accommodate our personal frailties does not help us overcome them.”

Jarvie’s argument is not new and not even particularly well-stated. It takes examples of the extremes to define the middle, and argues from a logical fallacy of slippery slope that trigger warnings threaten our very freedom to speak as we want. But Jarvie makes her largest mistake when she proposes that trigger warnings are meant as a method to control content and therefore restrict freedom of speech. 

This description of trigger warnings as a method of control is an odd approach – a confusion between the descriptive and prescriptive work that trigger warnings and content notes perform.

Within smaller communities and friend groups, taking care to modify one’s speech so it is not offensive or triggering to one’s fellows in the community is normal practice. Friends of mine, for example, know that I will not tolerate the use of “retarded” as a descriptor, and it is part of the price of admission into a mutual relationship with me. Similarly, if I have a friend who gets triggered by certain things and has informed me of those, and I continue to flout those basic considerations, I should rightly expect that distance would form between us.

In smaller groups and audiences, trigger warnings can be prescriptive. The care for being safe people within a safe space may create the need to curtail some discussion of content due to the sensitivity of other members of the group. This care, however, does not restrict the content of the speech wholesale, as members of the group are able to move elsewhere and discuss triggering content in other venues and forums. Within the private sphere, triggers do have the ability to restrict the types of content and ways in which we discuss them, as part of an obligation for participation within certain communities – a price of admission, if you will. This is a prescriptive use of trigger warnings – content of discussion becomes restricted within smaller communities because triggered members of the community are seen as too valuable to drive away through continued panic attacks.

But Jarvie takes this smaller, communal dynamic and applies it at a large scale to a public sphere, proposes that the descriptive function of trigger warnings in the public sphere actually functions like the prescriptive form of trigger warnings in small, private spheres. The conflation of private and public here lends confusion and dismay to the concept of trigger warnings altogether.

In the public sphere, trigger warnings and content notes and advisories function as primarily descriptive tools. They tell an unknown and unnamed reader that the article, artwork, movie, or film may be hard to handle if they have pre-existing problems with certain content.* These descriptors allow people to assess, before reading, whether or not they are in a position to read such content on that particular day. If not, they bookmark it to come back to later.

That is what trigger warnings are for – they allow people who are vulnerable to PTSD, anxiety, and other environmentally triggered conditions to prepare themselves mentally and physically for what they are going to experience. It may be something as simple as giving themselves enough space to quietly take some anti-anxiety medication, as it is in my case. It may mean, in a classroom situation, working with a professor to find a way to approach the topic in a more delicate manner. And, it means, in journalism, taking more care with headlines so as not to be unnecessarily graphic (even if it means losing a few clicks).

The bargain that content-creators must strike with triggers is being aware, statistically, if they are going to reach the widest possible audience, they are also going to reach people who have PTSD and will be triggered. This doesn’t mean that content need be changed or that we can never, ever discuss certain topics. All this means is that we need to have greater empathy and care for how we approach certain topics, especially if we seek to include a more diverse set of peoples’ within the discussion.

In addition to the conflation of descriptive and prescriptive elements of triggers and trigger warnings, Jarvie also argues that “issuing caution on the basis of potential harm or insult doesn't help us negotiate our reactions; it makes our dealings with others more fraught.” On this, she is simply wrong. PTSD is a hard illness to recover from and it is a long, extended journey, one that is hampered by flashbacks, panic attacks, and anxieties triggered by various encounters throughout life. While Jarvie is correct that many triggers are often things that cannot be guarded against wholesale – a song, a smell, a sound – trigger warnings exist for those things that we can control. Words, images, descriptions of violence are all triggers that can be actively prepared for by those who have the warning to do so. 

Notice that I said “prepared for” and not “avoided.” While each person responds to triggers in different ways, and some do so by avoiding any type of triggering topic, many (in my experience as a blogger) use trigger warnings as an opportunity to continually check in on their mental state. Instead of catering to weakness, trigger warnings act as a tool to recognize and create strength. It allows people the space and room to work through their feelings of panic in a mentally prepared and emotionally steady space, creating a pattern in which they can assess their own strengths for themselves. Far from allowing the “weak” to control the discourse, trigger warnings and content notes make the community writ large a participant in the healing process.

Perhaps Jarvie feels it’s unfair for the larger community to aid people in their healing processes by providing them opportunities to take breaks and do mental and emotional self-assessments. After all, we are not their therapists. But I consider taking 10 seconds to care for my readers an adequate price to pay to make them feel part of the discourse, instead of weak-willed pariahs.

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*This descriptive function, you may note, is why I’ve switched to using “content note” instead of trigger warning throughout this blog, as I feel it’s a more accurate representation of its function.