Warnings about content that may trigger the recall of a previous traumatic experience, known as ‘trigger warnings’, originated on feminist websites, before spreading to other areas, such as print media like books, and university courses. Consideration of trigger warnings in academia had only just begun when I left my position as a university lecturer, but it is a discussion I have followed with interest since.
It’s a debate sparked by intellectual and artistic considerations on one side, and emotional considerations on the other. But how can readers, writers and teachers navigate the field of trigger warnings, and make decisions that best support mental health, academic integrity, and creative freedom?
In a critical report, the American Association of University Professors described trigger warnings as ‘anti-intellectual’, characterising such warnings as protecting rather than challenging students. In 2016, the University of Chicago sent a welcome letter to students, which stated that the institution’s commitment to academic freedom meant they did not support trigger warnings (nor, for that matter, safe spaces, nor cancelling ‘controversial’ speakers).
However, as Wikipedia outlines, some universities have embraced trigger warnings. At UC Santa Barbara, students passed a resolution in support of mandatory trigger warnings. And it isn’t just students. Professors at institutions such as CUNY and Texas A&M have also voiced their support for such warnings.
The difference, it seems, lies in how trigger warnings are understood and used, by both teachers and students.
Angus Johnson argues that trigger warnings can be part of ‘sound pedagogy’, and that acknowledging ‘that the journey we’re going on together may at times be painful’ is not ‘coddling’ students, but in fact, the opposite. As Elanor Amaranth Lockhart points out, ‘the purpose of trigger warnings is not to cause students to avoid traumatic content, but to prepare them for it’.
It isn’t only university courses that have been subject to calls for trigger warnings. In 2017, The Age reported that high school students in my own state were calling for trigger warnings in English literature classes. Books such as Burial Rites, To Kill a Mockingbird and The Complete Maus were singled out for their ‘depressing’ content.
A number of online services have emerged to inform readers of potential triggers. There’s doesthedogdie.com, Lauren Hannah’s Book Trigger List, or Laura’s Trigger Warning Database. Yet, novelist Jay Caspian Kang has described trigger warnings as ‘reducing a work of literature to its ugliest plot points’. From the reader’s point of view, however, trigger warnings can sometimes function as spoilers. In fact, the tagline on doesthedogdie.com reads ‘crowdsourced emotional spoilers for movies, tv, books and more’.
As in academic settings, how readers and writers engage with trigger warnings can make all the difference.
As Laura explains, she finds trigger warnings useful (as an anxiety sufferer) not by utilising them to ‘avoid every book that deals with anything that makes me feel even a little bit anxious,’ but instead, by using them to help her ‘prepare for the moment where said things happen.’
As for the question of whether trigger warnings ‘spoil’ books (i.e. by revealing key plot points and ruining the surprise), Laura says ‘maybe’. This doesn’t however, take the fun out of reading: ‘Quite the opposite. Whenever I’m reading a book that I haven’t been able to find trigger warnings for, I’m on guard at all times.’
Clearly, there have been arguments against trigger warnings advanced in both educational and recreational spheres, for reasons of promoting intellectual and artistic freedom (on the part of the professor/writer) and broadening intellectual and artistic curiosity (on the part of the student/reader).
It makes sense that criticisms have come from these areas, since the reason trigger warnings were initially conceived of, and have been promoted since, is neither intellectual nor artistic, but emotional.
Who are trigger warnings for?
In Bad Feminist, Roxanne Gay argues that ‘Trigger warnings aren’t meant for those of us who don’t believe in them, just like the Bible wasn’t written for atheists. Trigger warnings are designed for the people who need and believe in that safety. Those of us who do not believe should have little say in the matter. We can neither presume nor judge what others might feel the need to be protected from.’
Yet, to fully weigh the benefits and drawbacks of trigger warnings, and to consider how they might best be used, it is crucial that we consider their emotional impact. That is, we must ask:
Do trigger warnings help those they are intended to?
While anecdotal accounts of how trigger warnings benefit readers abound online, Wikipedia summarises their mental health effects as ‘not well studied’. Richard McNally, psychology professor at Harvard, however, points out that, there is reason to believe that trigger warnings may be harmful. He states that the use of such warnings to avoid painful reminders may actually reinforce post-traumatic stress disorder.
In a study (Trigger Warning: Empirical Evidence Ahead) co-authored with Bellet and Jones, McNally found that among people not currently experiencing trauma, trigger warnings may actually increase the amount of anxiety readers report after reading a piece – but only among those who believe that words can cause psychological harm. In other words, for those who endorse the idea that words and ideas can be violent, having been told that a piece contains potentially triggering material increased their feelings of anxiety.
The provision of trigger warnings was also found to reduce readers’ evaluations of their own, and others’ psychological resilience (that is, the idea that the person will be okay in the end). This is important, because a low belief in psychological resilience is considered a risk factor for PTSD.
It is important to note, however, that while the study’s findings have been widely reported, one of its key limitations has not. That is, the research only included non-traumatised participants. As the authors state, the effects of trigger warnings on an audience classed as traumatised might be quite different. We don’t know whether they might help those they are designed to – or cause even more harm.
Trigger warnings for everyone?
When trigger warnings are mandated in course curricula, or are added to the beginning of novels (as opposed to being sought out on websites like those mentioned previously), it is not only those who have experienced that (specific) trauma who see them.
More broadly, in The Coddling of the American Mind, Lukianoff and Haidt argue that trigger warnings and safe spaces on campuses have had the unintended affects of making us weaker. Rather than becoming stronger after experiencing a traumatic event, avoiding potentially ‘triggering’ words and ideas destroys our resilience and makes us even more fragile.
The problem of trauma
Let’s return to the definition of a trigger warning: something that warns of content that may trigger recall of a past trauma.
The controversial part of this statement, in my opinion, is the word ‘trauma’.
What is trauma?
The DSM-IV-TR defines trauma as ‘direct personal experience of an event that involves actual or threatened death or serious injury; threat to one’s physical integrity, witnessing an event that involves the above experience, learning about unexpected or violent death, serious harm, or threat of death, or injury experienced by a family member or close associate’
The causes of trauma vary greatly. Experiences that traumatise one person may have little or no effect on another, and vice-versa. Even the existence of trauma is debated by some academics. (That is, the nature of trauma as it is commonly understood – something more or less inevitable following certain experiences, and more or less permanent.)
It is precisely because triggers can vary so widely that no trigger warning directory can ever capture every possible trigger. Even seemingly universal ‘good things’ like rainbows or candy floss or daisies can be potential triggers of intense negative feelings for someone who has had a terrible experience related to these things. As Gay points out, it is not our place, as writers or publishers or even fellow readers, to judge what does and doesn’t count as a trigger.
Words can’t injure – but they are incredibly powerful
As a linguist, I have been intrigued by the notion that words can be ‘violent’.
Also as a linguist, I view the issue I have with trigger warnings through the lens of language.
Perhaps that isn’t all that unusual. After all, trigger warnings on books are words designed to warn readers about words they are about to encounter.
And herein lies the crux of the matter: if words can trigger – or even cause injury – then trigger warnings can, too.
I’m not going to list any trigger warnings here, because I don’t want to cause anyone unnecessary discomfort. So I’ll use a purposely made up word instead:
Trigger warning for volpeterm.
Now, if you had experienced some volpeterm-related trauma, and were hoping to avoid it, too bad. You’ve seen it already. And you’ll be thinking about it for the whole novel, now.
In fact, if you’re anything like me, you might be expecting the worst, or catastrophising. Imagining that the book will contain more, or more graphic volpeterm-related themes than it actually does.
For some, the anxiety of what is to come may even be worse than being taken by surprise by a brief, subtle reference to volpeterm in the latter half of the book. And that could help to explain why trigger warnings in Bellet, Jones and McNally’s research appeared to exacerbate feelings of anxiety for some readers.
As may the concept of ‘pre-suasion’.
In his influential book, Pre-suasion, Robert Cialdini explains the frontloading of attention, or how whatever our attention has been drawn to in a key moment may exert enormous influence. Whatever our attention has been drawn to is what we focus on.
In one example, researchers Bolkan and Anderson found that it was possible to dramatically increase consumers’ willingness to try a new product by utilising a pre-suasive opener – asking if they considered themselves ‘adventurous’. While on average, only 33% of consumers approached provided their contact details to get the free sample, when asked first if they were adventurous and liked to try new things, more than 75% did.
The power of pre-suasion
Something as seemingly innocuous as asking people whether they consider themselves adventurous made a considerable difference in focusing their attention on being open to new things. This elevated this aspect of their perceived selves to primary importance in their decision making.
Imagine if, instead, the researchers had asked ‘Are you concerned about cyber security?’ It’s not hard to imagine that, by highlighting personal privacy and safety in consumers’ minds, they might have gotten far fewer volunteers venturing their details.
Could it be the case that providing a trigger warning at the beginning of a text might inadvertently heighten readers’ sensitivity to the potentially triggering content?
After all, very brief exposure to information can dramatically influence our thinking. People who are asked to give the last couple of digits of their phone or social security number before estimating the cost of something (a bottle of wine, for example) are more likely to guess high if the number they recited was high – even though it’s completely irrelevant.
When asked to spin a roulette wheel before answering history questions, we tend to guess later years the higher the number the wheel lands on. And when told that those who do well at a certain pattern-finding test tend to be those who are good at architecture and engineering, boys tend to get higher scores than when they are told that those who do well at it tend to be good at interior design and creative pursuits (which tends to increase girls’ scores).
Asking students to write their names – many of which are gendered – at the beginning or at the end of a test can also affect how many questions students get right on their exams in highly gendered subjects, like maths or English. Because boys are generally thought to be good at maths, drawing their attention to their gender by having them write their name or tick a box before starting the test may boost their confidence – and conversely, reduce that of girls (and vice-versa when it comes to English). When students’ attention is not drawn to their gender until after the test, the differences are much smaller.
The importance of challenging our views
As a (fiction and non-fiction) writer and an academic, and as a reader, I strongly believe in the importance of challenging my views. (The reason I read The Coddling of the American Mind in the first place was because I suspected I might disagree with it).
In our ‘filter bubble’ world, increasingly we consume only media that will reinforce the ideas we already hold. This is why indie publishing, and independent book stores, are so important, in an age of algorithm-dictated tastes.
But is that really what people use trigger warnings for? To avoid merely ‘uncomfortable’ topics? And is this really something new?
Are books late to the party?
Rather than being surprised that publishers, authors and readers are now warning readers about potentially upsetting content, when I discovered trigger warnings, I was surprised it’s taken so long.
When I was in high school, I couldn’t understand why albums had warnings for ‘language’ and content, and movies and video games had ratings or even age restrictions attached to them, but books were freely available to all, with no warnings whatsoever. Nowadays, apps have ratings too. Yet despite books’ entry into the digital realm, trigger warnings are still far from universal – or even common.
Books are powerful, too
For some reason, we have seemed to believe that books are less affecting than other forms of media. Compare the levels controversy and wealth of debate, discussion, (and resources like 13reasonswhy.info) that surrounded the Netflix series to the book.
So why all the fuss with warnings for books? Are trigger warnings on written materials really any different from these guidelines we’ve accepted and appreciated for years?
Ratings vs. Warnings
I believe there’s a big difference between the warnings on movies or games, and trigger warnings.
For starters, the official warnings on those media are generally in the form of age guidelines. They provide only vague rationales for the ratings, such as ‘strong themes’ or ‘contains language’ (!).
Secondly, the target audience of those ratings tends to be some form of guardian. Parents selecting a game for their kid’s birthday. Teachers or camp leaders deciding what movie to show a group. Television executives deciding what programs to air at what times.
By contrast, trigger warnings tend to be highly specific (to the point they may ‘spoil’ plot). And, they often provide limited indication of severity or gradation. The target audience is the individual media consumer themself.
Let’s examine why this might be problematic by looking at the case of movies.
As I mentioned, the reasons given for the categorisations of movies often tend to be quite vague. This is necessary, not only for convenience, but because this type of categorisation can only ever take a broad-strokes approach. Every child is different. Every family is different. And every parent will have different morals they are seeking to instill in their child. Different beliefs about what their child should be exposed to.
Using warnings to shield
For this reason, parents who consider their child particularly sensitive might make use of services like IMDB’s Parents Guide. They might read an in-depth analysis of a film, like Harry Potter, before permitting their child to watch the movie. (I doubt that many parents would do the same before letting their child read the book, however). Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was given a PG rating by the MPAA. It contains ‘some scary moments and mild language’.
That doesn’t tell us much.
The Parents Guide, on the other hand, gives specific examples of what counts as scary (ranging from the risk of falling off a broom through to bloody legs and troll attacks). It contains a list of every profanity (and frequency of its use) in the film. (‘Bloody hell’ is the most used, at two tokens). There are also ratings for the various countries of release, demonstrating how much such judgements can vary. Additionally, hundreds of voters have indicated how much sex, nudity, violence, gore, profanity, alcohol, drugs, smoking, and frightening and intense scenes appears in the film, providing a nuanced glimpse at the film’s potentially problematic areas for young minds at a glance.
Using warnings to challenge
Equally, parents who consider their child especially mature might make use of the same service to consider whether a film with, say, an M-rating (generally advised for those over 15 years of age, but not restricted) might be appropriate for a resilient thirteen or fourteen year old who might have older sibling(s) watching the film.
The emotional, artistic, and intellectual concerns regarding trigger warnings outlined above do not apply to these kinds of ratings and content warnings.
From an emotional perspective, since the person reading the warnings is not the person the warnings are intended to shield, they cannot accidentally trigger. The child isn’t reading the description of a troll attacking Hermione, or reading the words ‘bloody hell’. Nor, from an artistic perspective, can they accidentally spoil the plot for the same reason.
And because the guidelines are graded and age-related, they aren’t permanent (thus not censoring), nor do they restrict artistic or intellectual freedom.
Perhaps most importantly, the graded nature of content ratings – and the fact that kids tend to celebrate ‘graduating’ to the next level of mature content – may be seen as development of resilience.
I believe this is part of the problem with how trigger warnings are currently (mis)characterised, (mis)used, and finally (and partly fueled by these two), demonised.
‘Trigger warning’ has become a dirty word. A shorthand way of referring to supposedly over-sensitive young people (often mischaracterised as ‘millenials’, but most of us are too old and no longer college students).
As Jeff Sparrow’s book Trigger Warnings: Political Correctness and the Rise of the Right points out, reports of the left wing’s calls for trigger warnings have been overblown by the media. Coverage (and outrage) about trigger warnings has been disproportionate to their actual prevalence. Importantly, trigger warnings – like safe spaces and the cancellation of ‘controversial’ speakers – have become fodder for right-wing cries of ‘political correctness’ gone mad.
‘Triggered’ as an insult
Brittney the Book Guru analyses some of the disparaging definitions for ‘trigger warning’ made available via urbandictionary.com. The word ‘triggered’, defined by the Cambridge English Dictionary as ‘experiencing a strong emotional reaction of fear, shock, anger, or worry, especially because you are made to remember something bad that has happened in the past’ is similarly used as a slur.
Search for ‘triggered snowflake’ (a ‘snowflake’ being a fragile person who believes themselves to be ‘unique’ and ‘special’, as many victims of traumatic events are often accused of thinking) and you’ll find YouTube videos such as ‘Triggered snowflake screams like a baby at Trump rally,’ safe-space Hitler memes, and articles such as ‘Do you feel triggered, snowflake?’.
(This final item decries the ‘Orwellian’ political correctness at Australian universities. How efforts to promote a sense of psychological comfort and inclusivity, no matter how ill-refined, can be compared to Orwell’s Airstrip One, where citizens are forced to take part in regular ‘Two Minute Hate’ sessions, and where language is used to conceal horrible things rather than draw attention to and warn about them, evades me.)
Truth and justice
In The Coddling of the American Mind, the authors conclude that professors and universities (and, we might extend this to writers) should place truth above justice. But I do not see truth and justice as incompatible in any sense.
Freedom of speech, freedom of creativity, and intellectual integrity are superbly important.
But in order to have true freedom of speech – where everyone feels able to participate, true freedom of creativity – where people exchange ideas freely, and true intellectual integrity – where people with first-hand experience of challenges are heard, we must strive towards an environment in which everyone feels welcome, valued, and safe.
A way forward
I am not saying the best way to promote a sense of psychological wellbeing is necessarily to provide trigger warnings. In fact, as some early research suggests, they may actually exacerbate feelings of anxiety in those at risk of PTSD.
But attacking those who desire warnings is certainly not the best way to ensure freedom. And after all, none of us are truly free until all of us are free.
An alternative to *mandatory* trigger warnings placed on literature
In my view, mandatory trigger warnings at the front of reading materials shouldn’t be necessary in classes. I see the teacher’s role as one of facilitating learning. That includes helping students engage with texts and prepare for discussions.
In the classroom
In my classes, that meant giving students a brief overview of the context of the research paper they were to read a week in advance. Explaining why it had been chosen for the course, and providing a set of questions to guide their reading. Students would then read the text, and discuss it in small groups, before working on problem-solving tasks implementing the theories and methods discussed. Potentially triggering issues were made clear through the text’s title, keywords, abstract, and the context provided in class, as well as the theme of that week.
If students are likely to be shocked by sensitive material in a text, rather than simply issuing a trigger warning, perhaps the lecturer should evaluate the text’s relevance, or how it is currently framed. Students, too, should make use of the support materials provided. After all, context is king.
In the bookstore
Likewise, trigger warnings shouldn’t be necessary at the beginning of properly-marketed fiction. Potential readers should be able to tell from the book’s title, author, cover, blurb, advertising spiel, shelving, catalogue listings, keywords and reviews what kind of a book it is. They should be able to tell whether it might contain themes that they may wish to seek further guidance about – and for whatever reason.
The right to be choosy when it comes to matters of taste
While I do not support the misuse of trigger warnings in order to avoid uncomfortable truths that do not gel with one’s own established ideas (though I am yet to see evidence of this actually happening), I do believe readers absolutely have the right to read what they want in their own leisure time. For this reason, and in recognition of the potentially pre-suasive influence of the term ‘trigger’, the impossibility of judging and listing all potential triggers, and the ways in which the term ‘triggered’ has been used to harass already vulnerable people, I suggest the term ‘content advisory‘ instead.
The (legitimate) desire to choose or avoid
If I am allergic to peanuts, it’s exceedingly important to me that products are honest in their disclosure of ingredients. But, say I don’t have any allergies. I just don’t like peanut butter. Or, even though I do like peanut butter, I just don’t feel like eating it today and would prefer cheese instead. In that case, I’d still have every right to be annoyed if the sandwich I purchased was labelled ‘cheese’ and in fact contained peanut butter.
Genre choice… why not trigger choice?
I have seen nobody seriously argue that readers should be forced to read westerns, or romance, or space dramas if those are not their preferred genres. Yet, some seem to think that it is okay to tell readers – including the victims of some very traumatic experiences – that they ‘should’ read books that contain themes that may be seriously distressing to them, particularly in the direct aftermath of such an experience.
Facilitating readers’ choices isn’t a form of censorship or an infringement on intellectual or creative freedom. On the contrary, it is a form of recognition of the power of our words.
Another way to use warnings
For readers, this is where content advisory sites can be useful.
Yes, they can be used to avoid certain topics. But they can also be used to select for certain topics, in much the same way that parents can use the guides on IMDB to find movies that might be appropriate for their kids even though they aren’t old enough yet. With nuanced enough content advice (the type that typically won’t fit inside a book cover, but can be easily crowdsourced online) readers who have experienced traumatic events might find the information they need to select a book that deals with a topic they may find emotionally charged.
Hide and seek
It’s important to remember, though, that individuals can use content advice in less healthy ways, too. Such databases can be used as a catalogue of abusive, depressing materials. As with anything in life, balance is important. Ideally, I believe we all need a balanced bookshelf as well as a balanced plate to have a healthy mental as well as physical diet.
Of course, the most common use of trigger warnings is to avoid – at least temporarily. If you’re feeling particularly vulnerable. If you have had a recent, acutely traumatic experience. Or, if you simply don’t feel like reading about some particular topic, for whatever reason, you can use one of these sites to check the book you’re about to read. But do so with caution, and keep in mind the findings discussed above.
The problem is most publishers and big box book chains are only interested in getting books to sell. At present, we can’t rely on book covers to give us accurate guidance. I’ll say this once more: we cannot rely on (especially big, profit-first) publishers to act as gatekeepers of quality literature. Nor do they reliably package the books entrusted to them.
For writers, content advisory sites can once again be useful here. Consider clicking through some of the categories, and applying them to analyse your own work. What potentially triggering material does your book contain? Does the cover and the marketing material you or your publisher have prepared accurately reflect the kind of content the book contains? Or will your readers be shocked – in a potentially upsetting way?
A nuanced approach
The kinds of warnings that fit in a tag or start of a book are often enough to provide spoilers, but not enough to always enable informed consumption. Consider our hypothetical book with the trigger warning for the fictitious trigger ‘volpeterm’. There’s a big difference between a book which depicts the perils of volpeterm, versus one which celebrates volpeterm. A big difference between a book written by a volpeterm survivor who, through their fiction, is empowering others, versus one in which volpeterm abuse is used for the reader’s titillation.
Certainly, some readers will want to avoid the topic of volpetrm altogether, especially in the immediate aftermath of their experience. But others who may be open to the former kinds of books mentioned above may miss them through their efforts to avoid the latter.
Market responsibly, provide supplementary guidance for those who seek it
Perhaps, instead, we can work towards properly framing texts, and providing detailed, useful content warnings that those who want to can seek out.
When books are properly marketed, readers better know what to expect and are more likely to enjoy their reading experience. Writers have better chances of connecting with readers who will appreciate their work. And publishers have better chances of developing long-term fans.
And when everyone has the information they desire to feel prepared and comfortable engaging in discussion, we all benefit.