A Critical Response to “It’s Time to Talk About…the Excessive Use of ‘Trigger Warnings’”

‘Everyday Politics’ Editor Note:

The following body of work has been submitted to me privately, as a response to the previously published “Opinion: It’s time to talk about…the excessive use of ‘trigger warnings’” article. As the author of the original piece that will be commented on in this article, I want to make a few points. Firstly, thank you to the person who submitted their response (below). I created the ‘Everyday Politics’ section specifically as a forum for discussion, as a platform through which difficult conversations are had openly across the student community. To see the articles published being challenged, criticized and commented upon, shows me that this has been achieved. As always, I welcome alternative viewpoints in regard to any article I publish, be it from myself or a contributor. Secondly, I appreciate many of the comments made in the following piece and intend to explore these viewpoints even further. One thing I certainly won’t do is shy away or ignore any criticism – to do so would go against everything that ‘Everyday Politics’ stands for. And finally, I want to make it clear that both the following article, and the article it refers to, are opinion pieces. In no way are they the ‘right’, or ‘wrong’ answer – instead, they represent a viewpoint of an individual (which you may, or may not agree with).

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A fundamental misunderstanding is presented in the earlier article. Despite the claim that the previous article does not criticise the intention to protect vulnerable people from triggering content, the argument appears to fall by the wayside throughout. Trigger warnings allow people who have experienced trauma, or who have certain mental health issues, to pre-empt what may be in a piece of media. This does not mean we will all not read it: it could mean we read it at a different time when we feel safer, or sometimes we will skip it all together. This extends to discussions or debates in any form as well.

The singling out of medical procedures seemingly as something odd to trigger warning, ignores that a significant proportion of people who have long-term conditions, suffer from medical PTSD. Research at the University of Pennsylvania suggests 12-20% of adult survivors of childhood cancers have medical PTSD and figures are often higher for long term chronic illness and disability. If posting graphic pictures, many people post them in the comments of a social media post, because some people are squeamish or whatever their reason, seeing that this might upset people. Why is that so different for trigger warnings?

Trigger warnings are exactly that- a warning. Personally, without a trigger warning, I could be scrolling my social media on a more difficult day and come across a mention of suicide which would cause me to spiral into psychosis, intrusive thoughts and potentially my own suicidal thoughts or actions. On a better day, I might barely react but that simple warning allows me to check in with myself before reading something which causes me difficulties. It does not mean that I, or anyone else, chooses to live in “blissful ignorance.” Many of us struggle exactly because we have too much awareness. If I have to view content before I am able to remove myself, or I have to be in a room full of people which I then have to leave, it creates more problems for me and for everyone else. Sometimes I revel in conversations challenging my thoughts and discussing such diverse ideas, even changing my viewpoint in one conversation, but other times this could trigger me into a whole lot of problems. I speak only of my personal experience, because it is not up to me to share anyone else’s story, but this is written with thought to other people’s views and experiences too.

The final paragraph of the previous article suggests that “avoiding emotive content fails to facilitate effective recovery” – which I believe could be true. However, my effective recovery will never come from discussions which make me unsafe in an environment where I experience discrimination. The only people who take control of how I make a recovery are me and my mental health team. Someone who speaks from a privilege of not requiring trigger warnings themselves, may believe university is a safe environment to discuss these things but for some of us, we do not feel safe enough on our campus to have these discussions, without appropriate support or understanding.  

I agree with some parts of the previous article, simply including the words does not always warrant a trigger warning. A proper trigger warning (sometimes called a content warning) describes what the triggers are, for instance CW: frank discussion of depression and suicide. It doesn’t take long, it barely affects the rest of your audience, but it allows people to cultivate their own spaces and decide what they are able to deal with at that moment. I believe the prior article fundamentally misunderstands the reasons for trigger warnings and how they help people to ensure their own safety. Yes, sometimes the term might be overused – but I would much rather it be overused, than that discussions or media trigger someone. The effects of that can be far-reaching and devastating.

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