Posts Tagged ‘trigger warnings’

I have always had misgivings about trigger warnings, the labels for movies and books that are supposed to allow the traumatized to avoid any unpleasantness. To my way of thinking, they are a presumption, a judgment on an artist’s work that is all too likely to be based on an out-of-context summary or an arrogance like that of an American complaining about being unable to get a hamburger on a gluten-free bun in Paris. I have started to explain my reaction once or twice, but never got around to finishing the explanation – which is a good thing, because recently I discovered that A. E. Housman had made a much more graceful explanation than anything I had drafted.

These days, A. E. Housman is not a fashionable poet. He wrote largely in ballad-like quatrains, often affecting a kind of pastoralism, neither of which fits into modern poetic conventions, and he is usually discredited as not being a profound thinker. Yet, despite this reputation, he retains a certain popularity, and school anthologies often include his poems “To an Athlete Dying Young” or “With rue my heart is laden.”

Housman’s tone is often melancholy, if not world-weary. Apparently, he was well-aware of the fact, since he wrote explaining his own defense of his tone. His defense appears in the poem known by its first line as, “Terence, this is stupid stuff” – Terence being the imaginary shepherd who wrote Housman’s poems.

The poem opens with Terence’s friends comically complaining about his music, and pleading with him to play something happier. Terence replies that he enjoys a drunken carouse himself, when “the world seemed none so bad, / And I myself a sterling lad.” But the trouble is, when he wakes in the morning, he realizes that “the tale was all a lie” and all that is left was to return to the daily routine.

Under the circumstances, although:

the world has still
Much good, but much less good than ill,
And while the sun and moon endure
Luck’s a chance, but trouble’s sure,
I’d face it as a wise man would.

Hearing his melancholy, Terence goes on to say, his friends might find something to sustain them when the inevitable time comes when they are troubled in their own lives.

To reinforce his point, Terence makes a comparison with Mithridates, the great enemy of Rome in Caesar’s day. According to legend, to avoid assassination, Mithridates gradually accustomed himself to various poisons, until he had developed an immunity to them, confounding his enemies as he swallowed the arsenic and strychnine they slipped him without any effect.

Houseman does not belabor the point, ending simply with, “I tell the tale that I heard told, / Mithridates, he died old.” However, the implication is clear enough: Just as Mithridates developed an immunity to poison by taking small doses, by first facing the gloomy parts of life second-hand through art, people better prepare themselves for the inevitable time when they face similar experiences in their lives.

In other words, unlike those who favor trigger warnings, Housman does not believe that art is simply for enjoyment, or – I might add – to please members of the audience by reinforcing their viewpoint. In fact, to do so is to present a false view of the world. Instead, the purpose of art in Housman’s view is to prepare people for life, and that means dealing with subjects that are sometimes distasteful and uncomfortable.

Housman does not mention catharsis, the purging of emotion and the sense of renewal that comes from tragedy. However, the concept fits well with what he does say, suggesting yet again that what matters is the interaction between the audience and art.

Reading Housman, I realized that those who favor trigger warnings are like the people for whom music is what Frank Zappa called “aural wallpaper” – something in the background of their lives that reinforced their existing conceptions and left them unchallenged. But for me (and, I suspect, Housman), the point of art is not to reinforce prejudice, but to experience life from the artist’s perspective. The perspective may be troubling, and in the end you may reject it as false or offensive, but, even then, your experience does you more good than simply hearing what you prefer to hear.

Not that there is anything wrong with light entertainment. Most of us, if we are being honest, prefer light entertainment at least some of the time. But the limitation of trigger warnings is that they imply that is all there is to art, and that is an over-simplification, and as much a lie as Terence’s joys of drinking.

Yes, experiencing art that is challenging can be unpleasant, and sometimes more than you can endure. Yet I can’t help remembering that, more than any other generation of soldiers, those who fought in World War I resorted to poems and fiction as a way to endure the realities of war. In the same way, I recall a man in a lifeboat in the middle of the Atlantic who survived a storm by singing Stan Rogers’ “The Mary Ellen Carter,” with its refrain of “Rise Again!” over and over. I did much the same in the first days after being widowed. And when I think of such examples, I suspect that advocating trigger warnings, far from sparing people pain, in the long run deprives the traumatized and risks doing them serious damage, like parents who refuse to have their children vaccinated.

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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? The suicides of the title character’s 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.”

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Some years ago, the Vancouver Folk Festival included an activist for the disabled. When an announcer on one of the afternoon stages called him “differently abled,” he immediately took over the microphone.

“Differently abled?” he said. “Hell, I’m a bloody crip!”

I think of his reply sometimes when I see articles prefaced with a trigger warning that they discuss potentially disturbing topics. Then I wonder if the warnings really do anything for the people they are supposed to help.

To start with, isn’t a title supposed to make clear what you are talking about? With any halfway conscientious writer, most trigger warnings are redundant.

More importantly, I question whether the average traumatized person wants to be sheltered from potential upset. Possibly, just after their trauma they would prefer not to dwell on what happened. But, more than anything else, the people I know who suffer from long-term trauma have a tremendous desire to cope. They want to appear normal, even if that appearance is an illusion. They don’t want to stand out, or to talk about their problems, or to be given more special treatment than is absolutely necessary.

From this perspective, a trigger warning is not a kindness or a piece of politeness. It’s an implication that they can’t manage – that all their carefully constructed defenses aren’t enough, and that, although they are survivors, their survival tactics aren’t enough.

In their minds, I am told, such implications are, if not actually an insult, then a dismissal of their ability to survive. The truly traumatized (by which I mean the raped and assaulted, and the people with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, not the upper middle class professional feeling thwarted at work) often take great pride in their ability to cope, so they are not going to appreciate any suggestion that they can’t.

In fact, their obsession with passing for normal is so great that a surprising number of those suffering from long-term trauma have said that, if a treatment could make them forget what happened or somehow remove its effects upon them, they would refuse it. A magic removal of their trauma would be a denial of the pride they take in having survived.

Yes, a trigger warning might spare them. But many of the traumatized don’t want to be spared. They want to prove, if only to themselves, that they can survive to some degree, even when faced with topics related to their conditions. This desire exists even when they encounter a trigger warning when browsing the Internet by themselves, and independent of how well they actually can rise above everything.

In effect, a trigger warning is an invitation for the traumatized to relax and spare themselves pain. Yet that is something that the traumatized cannot do with most people or in most situations. If they are lucky, they might be able to relax with a lover or a close friend, and resist the temptation to read past the trigger warning. But in most cases and with most people, the trigger is likely to be a challenge. If anything, some of the traumatized whom I know would be all the more tempted to click a link with a trigger warning, just to test themselves.

Those who provide trigger warnings mean well. The warnings are not just runaway political correctness, as conservatives have been known to suggest. But in their effort to pass for normal, few of the traumatized appreciate the effort to give them special consideration. From what I’ve seen, most of them would be more grateful if you let them face whatever happened along without any illusions and didn’t single them out for special treatment.

A trigger warning might seem to be a kindness. But from a traumatic perspective, it may be a subtler cruelty than a direct insult.

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