Opinion: It’s time to talk about…the excessive use of ‘trigger warnings’

Do excessive trigger warnings do more harm than good?

A trigger warning is a statement provided in advance to the reception of what is deemed to be potentially harmful or distressing visual, textual or recorded content. Such warnings are designed to caution the consumer of potentially disturbing content and prevent them encountering material that may cause them severe emotional distress. For example, an article detailing an incident of rape may be presented with a trigger warning due to the psychologically debilitating reactions it may incite for particular audiences. Thus, by nature, trigger warnings are intended to protect potentially vulnerable consumers from stumbling across “triggering” content. However, this is not what I intend to address.

With the explosion of instant media sharing applications, the use of ‘trigger warnings’ has proliferated. Whilst once applied to content that had the potential to cause distress, due to their graphic or emotionally intense nature, trigger warnings now have become obscure, nuanced and more intricate. In some cases, trigger warnings are being used and justified based solely on the inclusion of “triggering” words such as rape and suicide. Elsewhere, the category of triggering content has begun to encompass description of medical procedures, childbirth and even images of skulls and skeletons.

Here it is important to note that what is deemed “triggering” is in fact subjective, making this debate a particularly difficult one to have. However, using trigger warnings to tip-toe around the possibility of offence or distress being caused in ways that encourages selective viewing of material, isn’t productive. It instead embodies a logic of censorship and at times, a blissful ignorance that idealises a world in which the the potential for discomfort is miraculously removed. This isn’t the world in which we live. 

Photo: Rebecca Winstanley

Perhaps where the use of trigger warnings is most prolific, is within university establishments. This I argue is particularly dangerous. Firstly, using ‘trigger warnings’ allow the shutdown of often challenging conversations based on the assumption that something is “triggering.” Often, it is such dialogue that is most needed and is the hard-hitting conversation that is required for effective change to occur. Colleges and universities are not a place where students should be protected and comforted within a bubble of their worldviews. Instead, they should be challenged, encouraged to think beyond their own experiences and at times feel discomfort when faced with new concepts, ideas or sensitive scenarios. It is of course essential that students have the free will to request exclusion from viewing distressing content and universities should accommodate this. However, the ‘trigger’ tag presumes discomfort. It also automatically directs thinking towards particular topics in ways that skew perceptions and constructs a hierarchy of trauma.

In a 2016 article from The Atlantic, Lukianoff and Haidt suggest that avoiding emotive content fails to facilitate effective recovery and thus ‘trigger warnings’ have the potential to “foster unhealthy mental habits.” It’s also important to note that the university is one of the safest environments for discussions on potentially traumatic themes to occur in. Confronting challenging and potentially debilitating subjects within such a space, provides the capacity to question why certain associations trigger discomfort and help overcome them. In this way, the ignorance sometimes induced by a ‘trigger warning’ is most certainly NOT bliss.

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