In our newly minted culture of political correctness, we now function in a society in which hypersensitivity and an over awareness of potentially offensive discourse threatens to turn down, or even off, the volume on our writing and dialogue. A current and controversial dial, which is presently adjusting the sound, is trigger warnings.
Trigger warnings are a statement identifying a piece of writing, video, etc. as potentially distressing to the viewer.
Trigger warnings appeared on the Internet as early as 2000 (no specific start time could be identified) on message boards and specific communities. The purpose was to alert readers to the potential disturbance that certain graphic material could cause in those with similar traumatic experiences. A forewarning considered useful, helpful and perhaps necessary.
So necessary, it seems, that this movement to protect the sensitivities of others has moved to the real world, specifically, college campuses. Students are requesting, often demanding, that any and all material that discusses race, sexual orientation, disability, colonialism, and torture include warnings.
It ranges from the somewhat reasonable—Rutgers University demanding trigger warnings for books that deal with mistreatment of women and suicide—to the completely ridiculous—Wellesley College students claiming that the sculpture of a man in his underwear could trigger thoughts of “sexual assault.”
So, why trigger warnings?
Trigger warnings are a method to help those who have felt victimized not feel further mistreated by having to relive a painful experience through a piece of writing or film. A rape survivor may have the trauma of their experience “triggered” by reading material that describes and/or discusses rape or the brutalization of a woman.
The function of a trigger warning is to stop the potential of re-traumatizing someone who suffers with PTSD. In essence, these warnings are a way to avoid psychological harm. But are they actually causing more damage?
I must first state that as a mother I understand the need to protect and safeguard another person from a potentially emotionally and/or psychologically damaging experience or even the knowledge of the possibility. On the many nights I have sat bedside reading to my children, I have had an internal debate.
Scanning the paragraphs of fairy tales, historical fiction and comics, I struggle to decide if I should read the words as written or change them slightly. Do I tell my four-year-old that the wolf eats little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother? Do I tell my third grader that Nazis killed millions of Jews?
Looking into their innocent, wide eyes, my heart wants to secret every scary, sad and threatening word from their knowing. Instead, after a deep breath and a big swallow, I read each word written. I know that what hurts them more is keeping the truth from them. Shielding them from the reality of pain they will surely, at some point, face. I choose to share these words and stories so that I can help guide them through the understanding of what they mean—to them and to the world.
I realize that trigger words are created to protect those who have suffered trauma. However, does stifling the dialogue lessen the pain of their experience? And more importantly, what happens when we stop the discourse—refuse to have the conversation?
As a writer, it is a disconcerting concept. Although my sensitivities for my readers are a consideration, I never want to be thwarted in writing because I fear the offense of others. Art—true art—is a medium in which to generate dialogue about a multitude of subjects and in those the controversial nuances buried in their layers. The sterilization even in the form of a caveat creates a slippery slope that threatens to roll both the writer and their work down a hill where at the bottom censorship lies in wait.
Book banning is not an archaic practice of the past. Even today, books are banned. As the American Library Association notes, books are usually banned “with the best intentions—to protect others, frequently children, from difficult ideas and information.” But in effort to protect, is our culture actually causing harm?
If we stifle the dialogue about controversial topics such as race, gender, and religious beliefs, do we not silence those who actually would benefit from speaking out, telling their truth? If we treat others as though they are weak, pandering to the protection of their perceived fragility, are we not ensuring that they don’t grow stronger? If we think of ourselves as powerless, do we not become so?
Narrowing to what we are exposed only heightens our vulnerability to the realities of the world. There are no trigger warnings in life. Car accidents, death of a loved one, disease—all comes without warning or a shield in which to protect us. What we do have, though, are stories to start dialogues, continue conversations and provide us with a means to try to understand, help and ultimately heal.
As a mother and a writer, I know that the world will not bend to accommodate the delicacy of our human nature. Therefore, I believe it is not only necessary but also imperative that in our effort to protect, we don’t lay waste to the very tool—literature—that will help us build stronger defenses emotionally and psychologically within ourselves and together.
Thank you for reading. I look forward to your comments.