Trigger warnings don’t protect, they patronise
Warnings on articles about traumatic subjects, although well-intentioned, only infantilise adults
More and more, trigger warnings are self-aggrandising hype, an author claiming a narrative power so sharp it might cut you. Photograph: Thinkstock
Reader beware: this article will offend you. Or maybe it won’t. But imagine if I tried to warn you anyway, with a spoiler alert? In recent years an idea has emerged online that articles should carry warnings that their content could be “triggering” to readers recovering from mental or physical trauma. Issues such as body shaming, domestic violence, poverty, racism, colonialism and sexual abuse are commonly listed as “triggers”.
Earlier this year the idea spilled into mainstream media, culminating in a call for warnings on fiction taught in American universities. Staff at Oberlin, Ohio, are being urged to drop novels that might aggravate post-traumatic stress disorder, while at Rutgers University in New Jersey, The Great Gatsby has been flagged for its “gory, abusive and misogynistic violence”.
The trigger warning was born in feminist circles out of good intentions, but its new popularity poses a threat to writers and readers.
As an online phenomenon it bites the hand that feeds it: blogs and social media democratise the written word, only to turn around and patronise readers by reducing their personal experience to a series of on and off switches. Even if it relates to a single traumatic event rather than a history of disorder, to identify universal “triggers” is reductive because no two experiences are alike.
I know because I’ve been there. For 13 years – over half my life so far – I was anorexic, and I’d never blame my problem on an article or book. I learned to starve myself before I even knew what an eating disorder was. It crept up on me, caused by a collection of factors rather than any single reason.
And just as there was no on switch for anorexia, there was no instant cure. It took years of relapsing and retrying before things began to fit into place.
Happiness is something you build up like a muscle: it needs to be broken a few times, then repaired. These days I try to use literature to confront everything that scares me, by reading and writing about body horror, gender identity and body politics. Which is why I find trigger warnings so offensive: they infantilise the reader and try to keep them in the dark.
More and more they crop up as self-aggrandising hype, an author claiming a narrative power so sharp that it might cut you. They tell you what to be offended by, imagining a coterie readership where only those judged mentally stable are allowed to read. The trigger warning echoes that same hysteria that blames video games for school shootings: the belief that the bookshelf is full of horrors, waiting to overpower “damaged” readers and their critical faculties.
Challenging the reader
I’m not saying that to be moved by writing or art is a personal failing. My final year in school was spent studying Macbeth, An Triail, Sylvia Plath poems, Death of a Salesman, My Left Foot, Medea and How Many Miles to Babylon? Five of these feature suicide, two infanticide and one alcoholism. Perhaps we do need to re-evaluate school and university texts. But are those calling for blanket trigger warnings under the illusion that those who teach, publish and write those texts are not triggerable themselves? Surely the test of writing is its ability to challenge a reader.
At my university interview, I was asked why I wanted to study English literature. I responded that I loved how the subject was as broad as life itself, something I stand by still.
Why else is tragedy among our oldest literary traditions, if not to interrogate the extremes of human nature, and to offer what Aristotle called catharsis? Would you rather we didn’t talk about these issues?
And now the trigger warning threatens to leap into academia. Given the cost of an American university education, it is shocking that students would call to narrow the worldview they pay so much to expand. Part of recovery, and of growing up, is developing an ability to filter dangerous influences. For me this has meant reordering my life, leaving a job and a city that gave me panic attacks. It has meant relearning what the “good” and “bad” foods are and giving away a 7ft stack of magazines I had amassed. It doesn’t mean hiding from potential “triggers”.
Let us read responsibly but read bravely too, because we become stronger by confronting the very things that threaten to break us.
Róisín Kiberd is on Twitter @RoisinTheMirror