Why trigger warnings may hurt more than they help.
You’ve probably seen it: the “*TW” (Trigger Warning) preceding articles and news stories in social media feeds and news sites. This warning frequently accompanies stories about rape, abuse, sexual harassment, stalking, or domestic violence – topics that could potentially trigger a physiological or emotional reaction in readers who have experienced similar situations.
I follow a lot of feminist organizations and blogs, and since feminism exists because specific categories of people experience physical and organizational violence, that’s what people write about. Subsequently, I see this warning (*TW) multiple times per day. Systemic oppression and sexual violence are huge obstacles in women reaching social and economic parity, and these issues are compounded by preexisting social inequities for people who aren’t white, able-bodied, cisgendered, and straight. Feminist issues are inextricably linked with issues of violence and oppression, and therefore the subject matter is frequently distressing.
It’s vital that we continue to address these issues in any way possible – in blogs, news articles, art installations, videos, protests, auctions, film, poetry, fiction, memoirs, etc. – but the haphazard (or, worse, universal) application of the term “Trigger Warning” does little for those we desire to help, and can actually be harmful/hurtful to the most vulnerable among us.
How people process trauma varies as greatly as it is experienced. When more and more articles that address these forms of violence are preceded with “Trigger Warning” the cumulative effect becomes disheartening and useless. The very term “Trigger Warning” can make that resource suddenly undesirable to those who probably need it most. Why subject oneself to the possibility of reliving a trauma?
But here’s the thing: What about any particular article is a psychological, physiological, or emotional trigger – what specific phrase or paragraph in that story is “supposed” to cause a reaction?
My own triggers are mundane, everyday things: sirens, burning dust, slamming doors, unknown numbers on the caller ID, garbage in the road – almost all are unavoidable and very rarely do I get a heads-up before I encounter them. Driving on the interstate used to be a horrific experience for me, and because it was an unpleasant experience that I could prevent, I did go out of my way to avoid highway driving – to the detriment of my own mental health. Survivors of trauma often avoid situations that may cause them to relive traumatic experiences – it’s simply self-preservation.
When a person is sexually assaulted near a grocery store or robbed at gunpoint during a holiday, their triggers may include an Albertsons sign or Halloween decorations. Are we going to place trigger warnings everywhere? Who determines what content is ‘trigger-worthy’ and what is not? Placing “*TW” in the headline of an article creates the false belief that we can label all the potential triggers of trauma.
But in reality we can’t label everything, and the inability to do so invalidates those whose triggers/experiences aren’t identified. Individuals who experience physical or sexual violence may suffer further as they seek justice or reparations; the most significant trauma may not actually be the violent event itself but rather their experience with law enforcement or the criminal justice system in seeking that justice. Yet we still seek to limit recognition of the ways in which individuals suffer by attaching trigger warnings to very specific situations. By labeling some stories as “Trigger Warnings,” but not all of them, we diminish all potentially traumatic experiences that aren’t identified. Obviously, attaching universal trigger warnings would have a similarly nullifying effect – much the way labeling potentially carcinogenic substances in California has led to the labeling of almost everything in sight. Life is carcinogenic. Life is traumatic.
I recognize that the intention comes from a good place. I also recognize that for some, these warnings serve as a valuable indicator of content that should be avoided. But I would argue that those who have suffered some form of sexual or physical violence are intelligent enough to recognize a news article headline that may remind them of a past experience without needing to include a potentially invalidating or harmful “*TW” as well. And considering the innumerable ways in which people experience and process trauma, it’s quite possible that the term “Trigger warning” is itself becoming a trigger.