Are trigger warnings really that necessary?

Last year, there was a certain amount of panic over the fact that, in the US, there’s a movement to place trigger warnings on a great deal of classic literature.

To illustrate my meaning, I Googled "trigger warnings on literature". Some of the first articles I saw had titles like "Trigger warnings on classic literature are one small step from book banning", "Trigger warnings: more harm than good?" and "Trigger warnings: A gun to the head of literature".

As someone who has never needed, or personally experienced the desire for a trigger warning, I have to still ask, are they really as bad and dangerous as all that?

I do understand where the discomfort with trigger warnings comes from. The requirement to warn adults that whatever they’re reading may not be all sunshine and daisies, especially if that thing is classic literature and therefore very likely to cover serious and even uncomfortable topics, may feel a little patronising and babying.

It might be natural, if you don’t need trigger warnings, to think that people who do need to realise not everything is Disney, and to stop being so childishly sensitive, and to grow up.

The thing is, is there anything more childish than dismissing the serious symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or indeed, any other mental or physical illness, simply because you yourself haven’t experienced it?

Would you tell someone with a dairy intolerance that they must just "buck up" and get over the reactions their bodies have to milk? So why is it OK to tell people with PSTD that they must just "buck up" and get over the often horrific things they can experience at being triggered?

Perhaps you really are just genuinely concerned that trigger warnings are a step away from censorship. I think this worry is born out of an, admittedly understandable, misinterpretation of what trigger warnings actually are.

A trigger warning is a warning that an item, whether that item is a fictional novel, a movie, or even a news story, contains content or references to things or events that may "trigger" a strong and extremely damaging emotional response, such as post-traumatic flashbacks, in those who have PSTD or similar.

A trigger warning on an item does not make a moral judgement about that item. It does not claim that there’s something wrong with the item. A trigger warning is not advising anyone not to read or look at the item, not even people with PTSD.

All a trigger warning does is offer accurate information about an item. It is then your choice, as an adult with free will, to decide whether you want to read or look at that item or not.

A trigger warning for suicide on Romeo and Juliet is no more damaging or threatening to that play than categorizing it in the genre of Romance. Less so, really, because at least the trigger warning is accurate.

Another objection to trigger warnings is the idea that they may be ultimately harmful to those who need them.

Exposure therapy is a technique that helps treat phobias. For example, if you’re terrified of spiders, you may be exposed to spiders on a semi-regular basis until you are so used to seeing them, you are able to overcome that fear.

Exposure therapy can be extremely beneficial, and, importantly, it can be tremendously effective in treating PSTD. For this reason, shouldn't we remove trigger warnings so that people with PSTD can be exposed more often to the things that are upsetting them so that they can “get over” it?

Well, exercise is extremely beneficial and can help fix all sorts of things. You should be exercising. It’s good for you.

Imagine being dragged out of your bed at 3am after a heavy night of drinking by a stranger, and forced to do 500 sit-ups without stopping. Imagine being interrupted at work when you’re on a deadline, dragged away from your desk, and forced to climb Table Mountain before you’re permitted to get back to work.

Imagine having exercise constantly thrust upon you, often exercise you’re not quite ready for because you haven’t really built up to it yet, without any warnings or even an indication of when you can expect it.

Now imagine someone telling you that you can’t at least ask for a warning and a chance to say "yes" or "no" or even "maybe later, when I'm ready" to these exercises, just because "exercise is good for you".

The thing that confuses me most about the objection to trigger warnings is we have always had them. If I look at the back of my copy of Terminator 2, it tells me it contains violence. When I watch an old documentary my parents have about World War 2, it’ lets me know that the documentary is not for sensitive viewers.

These descriptive warnings are not preventing any adult who wants to watch these things from watching them. They’re not preventing more violent movies and depressing documentaries being made.

They, like trigger warnings, are just performing the simple task of sharing accurate information, so that informed decisions can be made.

Honestly, if I had to point out the childish people trying to silence information because they’re hysterically terrified that information will somehow destroy the fabric of humanity, I’d point at the people who would like, very much, to ban trigger warnings.

Follow Laura on Twitter or visit her blog.

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