Trigger warning: trigger warnings (towards a different approach)

The main point of trigger warnings is to open up the possibility for people to determine what they engage with, when and how.

Meg Barker
15 July 2014
Who gets to decide what counts as trauma or trigger? Credit: Shutterstock.

Who gets to decide what counts as trauma or trigger? Credit: Shutterstock.

There has been a great deal of discussion lately on the topic of trigger warnings. First a spate of articles appeared in the press describing situations in which students had asked teachers to provide warnings about the content of materials on their courses. These warnings aimed to provide people with information about any topics that they might find personally difficult, due to connections with events that had occurred in their own lives. Many of the newspaper articles ridiculed the idea of putting warnings on great literature, for example, and portrayed such requests as entitled, over-sensitive censorship.

Following this, a number of online authors wrote defences of trigger warnings, portraying them instead as a means for people to have some control over what they are exposed to, often in the context of wider discriminations.

Most of the articles and blog posts that I have seen on this topic have taken a stance for or against trigger warnings, often presenting an impassioned argument in favour of providing trigger warnings or virulent opposition to the practice. To me this binary either/or approach seems unhelpful. Instead I think it is more useful to adopt an approach where we first clarify what we are talking about when we speak of trigger warnings; we then ask what they have the potential to open up and to close down; and we finally consider how we might engage with them in order to maximise this potential (instead of whether we should engage with them).

What are triggers?

First let’s think about what we mean by triggers. Some of the concern about trigger warnings stems from the different ways in which this term is being used. The word ‘trigger’ can be employed in a narrow sense to mean something which sparks a flashback in a person who is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or it can be used in a much wider sense to mean anything that anyone finds uncomfortable in any way. Some writers have criticised those requesting trigger warnings for claiming trauma for minor stressors in way that insults those with genuine experiences of trauma.

As with many debates around mental health diagnoses this gets us into tricky territory. What counts as ‘real’ trauma and what doesn’t? Where do we draw the line on the continuum from everyday stress to traumatic experience? And who gets to decide what counts as trauma or trigger? This line-drawing gets even more complex when we remember how dependent such things are on personal meaning: what traumatises one person is not what traumatises another. 

One friend is triggered by a classroom activity involving blindfolds, decades after their experience of imprisonment as a refugee. Another is triggered when jokingly called a word that was used repeatedly against them in school to let them know that they weren’t accepted or acceptable. A third is triggered by watching a scene of conflict only a week after a painful breakup. A final friend feels triggered when told (in a debate about trigger warnings) that they don’t understand trauma, despite having undergone a life-threatening situation some months ago which is not something they feel comfortable speaking about publicly.

One of these people responds angrily, using all their power to cut the offending person down to size. Another immediately leaves the situation to go home, curl up in a ball and rock themselves until the bad memories stop racing through their head. Another becomes very quiet and focuses intently on other things. The last bursts into tears and then berates themselves for getting so upset over something so trivial compared to other peoples’ struggles. 

As with other such debates, those on the ‘pro’ side often focus on what seem to be incontrovertibly traumatic triggers such as sexual assault, child abuse, and violent discrimination, whilst those on the ‘anti’ side often mention seemingly trifling things like name-calling, unusual phobias, or personal slights. Perhaps it would be useful if all authors on the topic applied their argument to the entire spectrum of potential traumas to consider whether what they’re saying works across the range or is limited to a certain section. As with the wider use of terms like ‘depression’ and ‘anxiety’, those who are pro trigger warnings might consider what it is like for somebody who struggles daily with flashbacks and panic attacks to hear others claiming trauma, whilst those who are anti trigger warnings might reflect on what they are doing when they make claims about what counts as trauma and what doesn’t. 

Some have suggested the phrase ‘content warnings’ as being less loaded than ‘trigger warnings’. This might well be a helpful move. However, the idea of being triggered is something that we can all relate to and is, I think, a useful broad concept. One of my favourite authors, Pema Chödrön, uses the term to refer to those times when something happens, or somebody says something, and – due to resonances with things that have happened in our past – we find ourselves quickly responding in old habitual ways: perhaps trying to escape, or lashing out at whoever triggered us. 

In this sense, the joke that some authors have made about the trigger warning debate potentially triggering people is not far off the mark. For many on the ‘pro’ side, the ‘anti’ articles remind them of all the other times when their pain has been dismissed. Often those articles feel like yet another occasion when the particular oppressions that their group experiences are being erased or ignored by those in more privileged positions. For many on the ‘anti’ side, the ‘pro’ articles read like yet more whining from people who seem to think they deserve special treatment. Perhaps it feels like a dismissal of their own pain, which nobody has ever taken that seriously.

Or, through their lens on the situation, they see a bunch of relatively privileged people asking for others to take responsibility for their emotions in an individualistic way which leaves the structural features of oppression unchallenged. 

What do trigger warnings open up and close down? 

Perhaps the main point of trigger warnings is to open up the possibility for people to determine what they engage with, when and how. The idea is that, if we provide people with a brief overview of the kinds of topics and issues they are going to be confronted with (in a novel, a movie, a lecture, or a workshop, for example), then they can make an informed decision about whether they wish to engage with it or not.

Advocates of trigger warnings regard this as a form of consensual practice, and a good way of modelling, and enabling, a more consensual culture than we currently have. It is also a potential way of recognising the structural constraints around agency. Not all people are as free as others, and one key limit on our freedom are the scars left by experiences of discrimination and oppression.

Trigger warnings are one way of giving people greater agency within the structural limits on this. Perhaps they also have the potential to somewhat flatten the hierarchy between those in a position of power (giving the message) and those in a less powerful position (receiving it). For example, a teacher providing trigger warnings to their class is potentially recognising the less privileged positions of many students (who may have experienced the kinds of things the lecture covers in ways that the teacher has not), and also flattening the hierarchy between teacher and student so that students can make choices about whether and how they engage with the materials.

However, there is also the potential – of course – for this approach to close down possibilities as well as opening them up. One risk is that, if taken too rigidly, we start to divide the world in binary ways between the powerful people who get to give trigger warnings, and the powerless victims who require them. This ‘us and them’ scenario serves nobody. The ‘powerless’ can become further disempowered by the assumption that they require looking after and can’t take responsibility for their own experience. The ‘powerful’ can find that their own vulnerabilities are dismissed or ignored by others – and by themselves if they invest in this position. This potential alerts us again to the risks in line-drawing between traumatised and non-traumatised, oppressed and non-oppressed. Perhaps instead it points us towards recognising the inevitability of traumatic experience during a person’s life, and the complex net of intersecting oppressions in which each person is located.

Critics of trigger warnings have pointed out another way in which trigger warnings can close things down for individuals. There is a risk that trigger warnings reinforce the common cultural perception that we should avoid the situations that trigger us. There is a pretty compelling consensus, amongst researchers and practitioners, that fear and anxiety are generally exacerbated by avoidance, and ameliorated by engaging with them in some way (the ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’ approach). There is certainly a real danger if we teach people that anything they find painful is to be avoided: this is a path to greater suffering, not less, as people’s worlds can end up constricting to smaller and smaller zones of perceived safety.

Advocates of trigger warnings, however, point out that the aim is not to avoid people confronting frightening or painful material, but rather to provide them with greater control over how and when they do this. No therapist I know would advocate randomly plunging a client into a situation they find highly traumatic without warning, rather most take a gradual approach, helping clients to learn to sit with their fear for brief periods at first (rather than trying to escape or avoid it) in a context where they can prepare themselves before it happens.

Whilst obviously real life is sometimes going to confront us with unexpected triggers, it seems cruel to use that as justification to ignore the strong possibility of triggering somebody in the particularly exposing context of a lecture hall or other public venue if our material contains likely triggers.

Turning from the individual to wider communities, an important set of criticisms of trigger warnings in social justice movements is that they feed into a culture which is prevalent at the moment. In this there is a focus on ‘calling out’ bad behaviour within communities, often with many people jumping on the bandwagon when this happens and criticising the perceived ‘bad’ person in order to shore up their own position as a great activist or ally. Things disintegrate into a kind of ‘oppression olympics’ or ‘tragedy top-trumps’ to determine who is most marginalised and therefore has most right to call out anybody else. This often results in newer members of communities feeling unable to speak up and in people withdrawing from movements from fear of this happening to them.

Critics have pointed out the risk of movements imploding or fragmenting in ways that render them impotent and which allow the systems and structures that they were attempting to change to continue. There is a danger that a focus on blaming individuals for causing personal trauma takes our attention away from social and cultural dynamics of oppression, and that our movements may be ridiculed by outsiders who observe this ‘infighting’ occurring. 

There is certainly a risk that trigger warnings play into this culture if the onus is on everyone to avoid triggering anybody else, and if great shame and guilt are attached to having triggered somebody. The phrase ‘hurt people hurt people’ is a useful one for capturing the ways in which we so often bump up against each other when we ourselves are struggling, in ways that bruise others and leave them more defensive and prone to bumping into others too. Perhaps an answer here is to weave together a culture of trigger warnings with a culture of recognising the inevitability of making mistakes. We are surrounded by wider cultures in which it is not deemed acceptable to own up to having been wrong. That is a message that our communities could helpfully resist by helping people to admit to mistakes, and to acknowledge when they have hurt others, without being berated or excluded for it.

Finally it is important to think carefully about this risk of ‘fragmentation’ in communities. At the same time that there are important dialogues to be had about how to avoid communities collapsing into in-fighting, the fear of ‘fragmentation’ has historically been used to erase difference within movements in ways which privilege those who already have the most power. For example, black feminists were shouted down for ‘fragmenting’ communities when they pointed out the emphasis on issues that only impacted white women. Bisexual and trans activists are often shouted down for ‘fragmenting’ LGBT movements when pointing out their relative invisibility, or questioning whether issues like same-sex marriage should be the priority.

Moving from what we do to how we do it

I have only covered some of the many, many issues that are relevant when we start to think about trigger warnings. This is likely why it has become such a hot topic of late, as it enables people to start talking about a whole load of issues that have been bubbling under the surface in many communities for a long time now, and which people have felt scared to speak out about for fear of being called-out and piled-upon for doing so.

Perhaps some of the rage in the anti trigger warning articles comes from a sense of having been silent for too long about something that has caused great distress. Trigger warnings are something that people can somehow legitimately target, in a similar way to the way in which it is easier to call-out an individual than it is to address the wider problematic cultures in which they are embedded. However there is a risk here that collapsing several different things together under ‘trigger warnings’ results in muddled messages, which only add fuel to the fire as people polarise into ‘us and them’ positions.

An alternative approach involves not trying to determine which side you are on, or whether trigger warnings are a good or bad thing. Rather we could consider how we engage with the possibility of trigger/content warnings in ways which most enable their potential to open things up, whilst also being mindful of their potential to close things down. We can also recognise that whatever we do will not be perfect. Some closing down is probably inevitable – it is an ongoing process, not a once-and-for-all choice.

Suggestions that I would make here include the following:

  • Making clear that content/trigger warnings are about giving people the opportunity to consider when and how they engage with material, rather than encouraging them to avoid anything potentially painful or difficult. 

  • Recognising that it is impossible to predict all possible triggers and perhaps engaging groups in also thinking about what individuals and communities can do when people are triggered.

  • Acknowledging both that everybody has triggers and traumas and that there are differences in experiences, particularly depending on how we are located within intersecting oppressions (not all trauma is equal).

  • Making trigger/content warnings part of a wider move towards cultures of consent, and acknowledgement of imperfection and vulnerability, rather than seeing them as any kind of singular quick fix solution.

As with many such debates there is a good deal to be gained from listening with empathy to the other ‘side’ rather than looking for more reasons to dismiss them. As I’ve said elsewhere, in our communities we have generally all had times when we’ve been abused or oppressed by others, as well as times when we – ourselves – have been accused of abuse or oppression. It can be incredibly useful, before we engage, to remember the times we were on the other side of those dynamics, how that felt, and how we responded.

Further Reading

Julia Serano’s latest book, Excluded, is a very interesting reflection on these kinds of issues in social justice movements, particularly feminist and LGBT communities. 

A couple of thought-provoking and useful blog posts about trigger warnings, which I drew upon here, are:

Jack Halberstam: You are triggering me! The neo-Liberal rhetoric of harm, danger and trauma

Scott Alexander: The wonderful thing about triggers


This article was originally published on Meg Barker's blog, Rewriting the Rules.

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