Why I don’t Use Trigger Warnings

Trigger warning: discussion of triggers…

Why don’t you typically see trigger warnings here? No, it’s not because I don’t care about others.

It’s because it’s overused.

The idea of a trigger warning, as far as I can tell, goes back to people who have very specific things that can trigger severe PTSD, possibly violence, flashbacks, and other ReallyBadThings. Those things are called triggers. For instance, a spouse of a war veteran might need to be careful about sneaking up behind their spouse, if their spouse could be triggered into a PTSD episode – and possibly, before realizing what is going on, attempt to defend themselves physically. That’s something both the person with PTSD and those around them will want to know about, and also take into consideration.

This got extended to other forms of abuse. For instance, a rape victim might not be able to actually think clearly for a bit after he is exposed to some graphic video that reminds him of his rape, even if he doesn’t have PTSD. He probably doesn’t like reading about something that is exactly like his rape. He’d probably appreciate a bit of warning that that video he’s about to watch contains graphic rape content.

There is of course many variations that make sense. It’s wise to warn your readers about exceptionally violent or harmful content. Absolutely. But it doesn’t need to be done with a trigger warning per se – it can be done any number of other ways (such as explaining in more neutral terms what is about to be shown before it is shown).

Unfortunately, the term trigger gets a bit overused. Rather than just used to represent something really significant and important to be warned about, often today they get overused. For instance, if someone links to an article where a Republican congressman is interviewed about cuts to social programs, there might be a trigger warning for classism. But is that really necessary? Perhaps just saying, “Listen to Senator … explain why the poor don’t need to eat” and then linking to the article would make it clear. A view that is unpopular with a community (even very strongly unpopular and considered evil) is not the same as a trigger.

I try to warn people when I include particularly graphic discussion in my writing, or if I link to something that I think is particularly graphic. But at the same time, if I write an article about abuse I suffered, it’s usually clear within the first paragraph that I’m going to write about abuse, and it’s usually not particularly graphic at that point. As an example, in my blog entry on Why Don’t Kids Report Bullying, I started the article by saying:

HRC posted a piece on why kids don’t report bullying to school employees.  The article’s a good read, based on fact, but it brought back why I didn’t report bullying.

It was simple: reporting the bullying didn’t help.

I was kicked, hit, sexually assaulted, burned, choked, manipulated, humiliated, insulted, excluded, scapegoated, and teased for 13 years of public school.  13 years.

Okay, this could be hard for someone to read. It would be hard for a survivor of abuse to read. It could be hard for a school administrator (who isn’t bullying) to read. It could be hard for a parent to read. Just because it’s sad and hard to read doesn’t mean it doesn’t need to be read by those groups.

I also think – as an abuse survivor – the the message of my posts, even when they include some horrible things is overall positive: I’ve been through hell and escaped it.

Now, if I was to suddenly spring into a vivid physical description of being sexually abused, in a context where it would be completely and totally unexpected, I probably would find a way to give some warning. But, in general, discussions of hard topics IMHO don’t need warnings. If it’s not a hard topic, and it’s not kittens and puppies, it’s probably not worth talking about in the first place. But, heck, I’ve never been one for sports (that said, our recent history with teams in, say, Mississippi universities clearly make it clear that even that isn’t always going to be a comfortable feel-good topic).

So, if my blog was about puppies and kittens, and the feel-good aspects of them, I would probably warn people before I put up a post where I describe step-by-step the acts my assailants did to me. I wouldn’t just stick a kitten picture up and then launch into the description. But I don’t think most people would do that (there are some very nasty people out there that might, but I hope I’m not one of them). I try to give an introduction to what I’m talking about in the very beginning of my topic, although, yes, good writing (or even “okay” writing, as I strive for!) doesn’t lay all the cards out on the table immediately. But generally there’s enough to know if you’re going to be triggered.

Heck, some lists of trigger warnings would include pretty much every post I write.  See this list for example (the linked site’s current home page has a flashing animated graphic in the first post – that’s something that people should be aware of ahead of time! That’s why I didn’t link to the homepage of the blog, and why I mention it here). Note I’m not saying it’s bad to think about these things when you write, and to try to not startle your reader – or far, far worse, actually trigger them without some warning.

I’m not sure that a reader of my blog could differentiate the stuff that was explicit or violent from the stuff talking in general terms if I labeled every post that fit that list. Now, I’m not saying I’m right on this – I’m not sure if I am or not to be honest, just that this is the view I currently hold based on research and my views of the world. My views of course aren’t always right, so I welcome other views to tell me I’m wrong.

Now, if you are triggered by my writing and find this style of writing to not provide the warning you need, I would like to have a dialog with you to figure out what I could do. I may even change my views, as I know that I don’t know everything there is to know about abuse or PTSD. But what I don’t want it is to be a label applied to anything that people might disagree with or be uncomfortable reading. Nor do I think it’s helpful to overly protect people from seeing things that make them uncomfortable (that said, it’s definitely not a bad thing to let people know that the extremely vivid descriptions are coming, but it doesn’t need to be a formal trigger warning).

Finally, I’m not saying that if someone uses trigger warnings, then they are a horrible writer or wasting their breath. I don’t find them particularly horrible to use either, just not particularly useful or necessary in some cases. But I do see the usefulness they have in some cases. They should be saved for those types of things that go beyond mere discomfort. They should be saved for things that aren’t already obvious by a title or (depending on context) introduction. In that context, they are fine. In other contexts, I’m not so sure they do much beyond dilute the word trigger to mean not “really, really serious bad thing could happen if this warning isn’t there” but instead “there’s something here I might not like.” That’s not cool or fair to people who have various triggers.

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