In theory, I have no trouble with trigger warnings. If labeling a movie or blog article will make life easier for the traumatized, it would be callous to oppose the practice. The only trouble is, in practice, I am skeptical about their usefulness. Before trigger warnings appear on art and on every university course’s syllabus, as some are suggesting, I think that a few questions that nobody is asking need to answered.
- Aren’t trigger warnings redundant? After all, the title of a work often tells you what to expect; you should not, for example, be surprised that Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart deals with upsetting subjects. In cases in which the title is less descriptive, cover blurbs and introductions should let readers know what to expect. Moreover, readers who prefer to avoid upsetting subjects can often find plot summaries and study guides online.
- Do the traumatized want trigger warnings? Here and there, I have seem approving comments from people who describe themselves as traumatized. However, I have also seen comments from trauma victims denouncing the whole idea. “We’re not all trying to avoid recovery,” one poster responded to the idea of trigger warnings on a mailing list for people with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. On the same list, another poster commented, “If someone can identify a trigger, I sort of expect them to be working on coping skills to deal with it.” Assuming that all comments are legitimate, opinion seems divided, and the risk of making patronizing decisions in the name of others seems very real.
- Are trigger warnings the best way to assist the traumatized? Or would efforts be better spent helping to make the traumatized understand and practice coping mechanisms?
- Are trigger warnings too simplistic to do any good? Sue’s murder of her children in Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure has far more potential to upset readers than the deaths at the end of The Great Gatsby (In fact, I have noticed that large numbers of students miss the deaths in The Great Gatsby until a teacher mentions them). In general, too, a verbal description is usually far less disturbing than a visual scene. Yet I have seen too many trigger warnings that simply observe that rape or violence is forthcoming, with no effort to take context into account. Perhaps triggers need a rating system if they are to be any use.
- Are trigger warnings trigger warnings in themselves? The very idea that something needs a warning can, in itself, trigger a traumatic reaction. This reaction could be worse than the one the warning is meant to help trauma victims avoid, because what is imagined is often more powerful than what is actually encountered – which is why horror writers often delay the appearance of the monster until near the end of a story.
- Do trigger warnings have any potentially harmful effects? Supporters of trigger warnings assume that they are empowering the traumatized. But in the absence of evidence, it seems equally probable that trigger warnings could encourage trauma victims to develop a pattern of avoidance when they need be learning coping mechanisms. In steering the traumatized away from anything that reminds them of what they have experienced, we risk steering them away from material that might help desensitize them to the triggers.
- Is there any scientific evidence that trigger warnings work? Over the last few months, I have been unable to find any scientific study that either confirms their effectiveness or debunks them. The only evidence I have found appears to be entirely anecdotal or rationalization based on wishful thinking.
All these questions come down to a concern that trigger warnings are being advocated without sufficient thought or expertise. I have serious doubts that amateurs should be involving themselves in matters of such complexity, but if anybody is going to play psychiatrist, they should remember one of the fundamental aphorisms of medicine for over two thousand years: “First, do no harm.”