Thoughts on Trigger Warnings – Part 1, some definitions

A recent open thread at Alas included discussion of trigger warnings in college courses (and more generally). I’ve been meaning to write a post on trigger warnings and hadn’t yet, so now seems like a good time.  I have lots of thoughts, so this may be multiple posts.

First off, let’s start with a definition of terms. As is pretty widely understood, a trigger is something that results in either an adverse mental health event, such as a panic attack or a flashback, or that prompts a relapse of self-harming behaviors (e.g.,  a calorie count for someone with an eating disorder). It’s commonly misunderstood, whether deliberately or not, as anything upsetting or controversial.

Because I like divisions and categories, I want to break triggers down further into three types:  Practically Universal, Common, and Individual.

Practically Universal – Things so disturbing that they’re likely to be triggering by their very nature, even to people without relevant mental illnesses or traumatic life events.  Extremes of graphic violence and torture, for example.

Common – Not likely to be triggering to people without relevant mental illness or traumatic life events, but related to pretty common traumas. Things that many people will find disturbing, to a greater or lesser degree, and that a lot of people with mental health issues or traumatic life events would find traumatic. Violence, rape, abuse, etc.  These might vary between groups.  For example, diet talk is a much more common trigger in fat acceptance spaces than in the general public, because a larger percentage of the readership includes people with or recovering from eating disorders, or people with histories of trauma or even abuse related to dieting.

Individual – Pretty much anything else.  Highly specific triggers that affect one individual with, say, PTSD, but not another. Things that might seem completely innocuous to most people, and are only triggering because they’re linked to some trauma.

One of the ways discussions of trigger warnings get side-tracked is when people assume that if common or practically universal triggers are warned for, that’s a slippery slope to including not only the individual triggers of anyone with a mental illness who might come anywhere near the conversation, but also anything remotely controversial or upsetting. It’s not possible to warn for every possible trigger, the argument goes, so there’s no point warning for any of them.  To me, that’s extremely illogical.  Just because you can’t do something perfectly doesn’t mean it’s not worth bothering to do at all.  Also, it isn’t as if trigger warnings are some strange and onerous thing. We warn for triggers in all sorts of contexts, though we usually don’t call it that.  TV and movies come with ratings, and shows with content that’s likely to be disturbing are often preceded by a summary of the type of content and “Viewer Discretion Advised.”  Trigger warnings as such seem to come up primarily in contexts that don’t have the normal mechanisms of describing (and even warning about content). Like blogs, where one post might be about cute puppies and the next might be about rape or murder.  Or college courses, where potential topics are pretty much limitless.

Another common fallacy is the equation of trigger warnings with censorship.  For something to be censored implies that it can’t be shown or discussed at all, or that controversial parts are cut out.  Simply informing someone about the content of a reading assignment or blog entry isn’t censorship. Is it possible for trigger warnings to lead to censorship? Sure, if those warnings are used to ban content or require it to be altered.  But that’s a separate decision.