Trigger Warnings Have A Purpose

It has become fashionable to bash trigger warnings and the people who use them. Some folks argue that it’s censorship to provide advance warning that difficult content may be ahead. Others just make fun of them, saying it’s silly. Trigger warnings actually neither suppress freedom of speech nor indicate an individual is stupid or a community is unwilling to join ‘the real world.’ They have a purpose. To illustrate further, I’m going to include a trigger warning of my own. After an italicized trigger warning and content you may choose to skip if you don’t wish to read a story that includes eating disorders and depression, I will resume offering my general thoughts on why trigger warnings can be helpful and where we go from here.

TW: eating disorders, depression

In late high school and early college, I struggled with eating disorders and depression. There was one summer, in particular, that was very bad. It was so bad that I accepted I was going to die. My phone would ring, and I would not answer it. I would walk through my parents home wordlessly, moving past them like a visible ghost. What did I have to say to anyone? Insomnia, self-hatred, and sadness. That is what I had.

During these dark days the precious little human contact I had was centered around a message board for people struggling with eating disorders. Though it seems silly to type now, it was, truly, my lifeline to the outside world. Therapy was not a safe place — during a group therapy session, one of the other patients attacked me for being ‘immoral.’ Eventually solo therapy became unsafe as well, and I was kicked out my entire treatment program for continuing to lose weight. I was told that I was a legal liability if I kept showing up, and if I did they would pursue a court order to put me in a state-run facility (by that time they had already hospitalized me three times). Between that and my inability to connect with friends and family, it was this message board that kept me going.

On this board I found other people struggling with the same obsessions and problems I had, and it wasn’t too tragic to speak openly about what I was experiencing. Primarily the board was a place for emotional support. Most of us wanted to get better, and so we used trigger warnings to discuss specifics that someone else might use a blueprint for self-harm. For instance, a trigger warning might set off specific information about restricting behaviors. My eating disorder was so strong at that time that I couldn’t simply read that someone had only eaten x, y, and z all week without using that information to harm myself. I used the trigger warnings like an adult, and I do think they helped me participate safely in the only form of human connection that worked for me during a hideous and dangerous period in my life.

So, it has been with interest that I’ve watched the current handwringing over trigger warnings. Simply put, if someone has chosen to offer a trigger warning before a topic that you have no problem openly discussing — perhaps eating disorders, sexual violence, or abusive relationships — you are not the intended recipient of that person’s additional consideration. There is no reason to bully the person for thinking you are “weak” (they don’t), or for “coddling” others (they’re not). Trigger warnings are good-faith, inter-community signals for people who have had a hard time with something you (thankfully) have not.

Not too long ago, Katy Waldman at Slate attacked Jessica Luther for using trigger warnings on Twitter. She did not bother to interview Jessica to ask why she had used a trigger warning in a tweet related to rape. Instead she dismissed her as ridiculous for not recognizing that Twitter is an open forum. Sure, Twitter is an open forum, but it is also very much a vibrant feminist organizing and awareness-raising space — and in this space, it’s indisputable that Jessica is a leader. I don’t doubt that many of Jessica’s followers appreciated the trigger warning, and I also don’t think Jessica’s wrong to use it. It’s her microphone. (This entire incident had an undertone of l’affaire Keller, in which former New York Times executive editor Bill Keller and his wife, journalist Emma Gilbey Keller each wrote columns attacking terminal cancer patient Lisa Bonchek Adams for tweeting the reality of her illness; among the many dynamics, you have those with media power attacking those with social media power for not following their conventional standards of editing.)

I’d also like to address this idea that trigger warnings are “censorship.” I have written before about the frequent charge that feminists attempt to “censor” others. As I wrote then, we need to take consideration of what censorship actually means, by definition, which is “changing or suppressing speech or writing that is considered subversive of the common good”:

In other words, censorship is practiced by governments or institutions for the purposes of control. It is associated most frequently with authoritarian states or religions. It is generally against freedom, which is, again, not where feminism and other civil and human rights movements calling for the emancipation, empowerment and inclusion of more people and more people’s perspectives in free public life are headed.

In the case of trigger warnings in specific, it’s censorship to bar someone from being able to offer a trigger warning. Of course, much of the hullabaloo revolves around various universities that are grappling with student requests that professors offer trigger warnings on their syllabi in order to identify material that may be triggering. Many professors don’t want to do that (Brittany Cooper has an excellent piece on that here) and I support them. I’d also like to be perfectly clear that I do not support banning books and have written before about one mother’s quest to ban Toni Morrison’s Beloved from the public school system after it made her son uncomfortable. Banning books and material is not the same thing as a trigger warning. I’d also like to distinguish between trigger warnings voluntarily adopted within a self-selected community of activists or likeminded people as fundamentally distinct from a top-down mandate within an institution of higher learning.

But I do think, in the case of these students, that we might be better served by asking why so many students continue to feel a need for trigger warnings. The underlying point is that the world remains a difficult, dangerous, and violent place for many, and especially on the basis of race, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, and ability. For example, we should look the overwhelming preponderance of sexual crimes in the eye, and especially on a policy level that addresses root causes. Are the students ridiculous for requesting trigger warnings? No. They will probably not get what they asked for, but the requests themselves present multiple opportunities for all of us to grow.


2 thoughts on “Trigger Warnings Have A Purpose

  1. onlinewithzoe

    I find trigger warnings my opportunity to give and to receive respect. It is how I feel when I see a ramp offering me access besides the 30 steep stairs with no railing. A healed wound on the outside still has a precious scar, inside and out.

  2. In my mind, “trigger warnings” primarily apply to PTSD, as in “triggering flashbacks.” This is a major problem with rape victims in particular. As you detail in your story, it can be very difficult to find your voice and your outlet when you are suffering, and stumbling across something unexpected can sabotage the recovery process. Society needs to talk about rape, and some people need to hear the graphic details so they understand it exists. Other people need to NOT hear the graphic details. Warning those people is only basic human compassion.

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