Warning: Rape is mentioned in this article very briefly.
I’ve had panic attacks.
Only a few, but that was enough. They’re not nice. To be more precise, they’re pretty horrifying. Even though the ones I suffered with were pretty mild in comparison to many others, and I haven’t had one in about 7 months or so, there’s always this niggling little voice in the back of my head warning me that it could happen again one day. It’s a strange sensation, to be honest. I’m lucky enough to not be triggered by anything outside of very stressful situations (and the job centre, but that’s a story for another day), but my experience does leave me hyper-aware of others and what they go through on a daily basis.
I like trigger warnings. They’re just a few words that can make the world of difference. If I write an article about a particularly sexist book I read and put a quick “Trigger Warning: This piece discusses misogyny/rape/abuse/etc; proceed with caution” before it, it allows a potential reader to make a conscious choice as to whether they wish to continue reading.
That’s what this is all about – it’s about choice. It’s about giving someone back the power they thought they had had taken away from them, and to do so at their own pace in a self-controlled manner.
I’ve seen a lot of misinformation spread about trigger warnings lately, and most of it seems to be coming from people or outlets that should really know better. Jen Doll, writing for the Guardian, complains that trigger warnings in literature are a step closer towards censorship, and that real life doesn’t come with a warning so neither should the media we consume. Oddly, she seems to equate evoking emotions through reading a book to being triggered. It’s a disingenuous and sloppy argument at best, one that doesn’t understand what it means to be triggered – when something triggers a traumatic memory in someone who has experienced that trauma. Being shocked by a rape scene in Speak is not the same as having a horrific flashback of being raped. It’s also nowhere near comparable to censorship since the act of removing or deleting a particular text is pretty much directly contradictory to a warning pointing out that said content exists.
Author Patrick Ness argued against trigger warnings on his Twitter account, drawing similar comparisons to censorship (in less words) and claiming adding such warnings would lead to more removals of books with challenging content from schools. He also claims that adding warnings would put off young people who have experienced trauma from reading books with such content, with the implication being that said readers should be “surprised” by depictions or rape, abuse, suicide, etc. One tweet in particular seemed especially cold and misunderstanding of the issues:
“I understand the concern about trauma to readers, but I’m sorry, I’m more concerned about a gay teen not getting a chance to read at all.” (Source)
By positioning this issue as an either/or situation, Ness does more harm than good, the exact thing he claims trigger warnings do. The implication here is that some teenagers are more worthy of respect than others. Every reader deserves respect.
First of all, people who ban or challenge books have been doing it for literally centuries without the justification of trigger warnings. They seldom use logic to back up their decisions, so claiming that trigger warnings will lead to a rise in the banning of books is faulty logic at best. By that train of thought, one may as well argue that books shouldn’t contain the kind of content that gets them censored. Books have been banned for the most ludicrous of reasons, and each and every one of those reasons is stupid because book banning is stupid. Trigger warnings aren’t a tool for people like that, but if they choose to use it as justification for their very explicit brand of censorship then that doesn’t render the entire concept null and void.
Second, the idea that traumatised readers should have the choice removed from them as to whether or not to proceed with a book is dangerous. They may decide not to read the book if they know what’s in it, but they may also decide to go ahead, once they’ve prepared themselves accordingly for what could be a difficult experience. Once again, this is about choice. Trigger warnings don’t say “This book contains rape so you can’t read it”. They don’t force books out of hands. They just make things a bit easier for those who need a bit of help now and then. This isn’t a slippery slope to any kind of totalitarianism or censorship, and claims that it is aren’t just stupid, they’re creating a mountain from a molehill.
I don’t see any of these people, like Doll or Ness, complaining about content notes on the news before disturbing or upsetting segments, or the notes on the back of food packaging warning that the product contains nuts or milk. Trigger warnings aren’t limiting; for many, they are liberating. They open up the world in a big way because they give readers or viewers or players access in a way they would have been worried about before. Readers shouldn’t have to approach every book with fear that there might be something in it that will leave them traumatised. Survivors of trauma work so hard day to day to make sure they can live regular lives. Is it so big an issue to lend a helping hand now and then?
Giving a heads up now and then can change so much for some people. It’s not infantilising them or tip-toeing around them. It’s simply being a responsible adult, it’s giving informed consent. There’s a lot of terrible stuff in this world, and it’s right that our art and culture can reflect that to give us a chance to tackle it, but that shouldn’t be forced on anyone, especially those who have suffered enough as it is.