(tw) Trigger warnings

As Libby Nelson recently observed, “There are probably more articles on the internet arguing about trigger warnings on college syllabuses than there are actual trigger warnings on college syllabuses”.

Even if their prevalence at universities is often overstated, they are frequently encountered on blogs, Facebook and other social media as a device for warning people that the ensuing discussion might contain distressing content.

fears-and-phobiasAs I’ve argued previously, trigger warnings can serve as a way to infantilise an audience, especially at universities where part of the point is to be exposed to challenging ideas. But they can equally serve a similar role to advisories on films, where an audience is forewarned that they might be exposed to violence, profanity, and so forth.

We’ve become accustomed to these warnings for films, and I’ve never heard of anyone finding them problematic. In fact, I suspect many more of us would be bemused – whether or not offended – to unwittingly purchase tickets for a movie featuring extreme violence without having been forewarned of this.

So one response to the issue of trigger warnings might be to say, why not include a simple (tw: violence) or somesuch before a discussion or link to an article describing the potentially “triggering” thing?

First, because there’s no consensus among psychologists* that this is the best way to handle the issue, even for people who might potentially be “triggered”. In fact, because “trigger warnings emphasize a victim rather than survivor role for the potential reader”, they “potentially increasing distress in the long-term via reinforcement of avoidance behaviors.”

And second, which is my focus here, they can treat us all as unable or unwilling to deal with stumbling upon content that might be distressing, and I worry that over-sensitivity of this sort might dampen expression of and debate on controversial topics.

Anything is potentially distressing for someone, so it’s difficult to see a logical (as in, necessary) end-point for trigger warnings, where there is some content that would never need a warning. And if everything gets a warning, that’s one less thing we need to think about – we don’t need to try and make certain judgments about who the speaker is and the context of the discussion, because that work has been done for us in advance.

The problems are at least two: what if that work has been done poorly, and we’re warned against things we don’t need protecting from? And second, making those judgements might well be a skill worth exercising and preserving.

Of course I’m aware that it’s easier for me to question the value of trigger warnings (to restate, given that I do think they have value: for me to question whether they are sometimes or often overused). And I’m well aware that much questioning of the value of trigger warnings comes from folk who have a profound insensitivity to the distress suffered by the people who often argue for trigger warnings.

But speaking from a position of relative sympathy for selective and thoughtful use of trigger warnings doesn’t mean I’m not concerned at what appears to be thoughtless use of them. To return to threat of over-sensitivity, mentioned above, we have to be able to tolerate occasional, accidental and/or marginal threats to our comfort, because any other world is practically impossible to arrange.

It would be impossible to arrange for even one person, never mind all of us. So the trigger warning conversation, and sensitivity to it, is a bi-directional negotiation: people who are speaking might need to try and avoid certain surprises (what? when? etc. are questions I’ll leave aside), but people who are listening also need to be as fair as possible in not placing undue responsibility or blame on a speaker.

As I say, I don’t know what we need to be sensitive of, or when. Well, that’s not quite true – I know as well as you do that we socially negotiate rules of conduct with the people we encounter, in a dynamic way. And the trigger warning debate does highlight that the game in question isn’t equitable, in that it privileges those of us who find little, if anything, sufficiently distressing to want to be forewarned of it.

But an equal and opposite overreaction isn’t desirable either. Here’s an example of what I mean, to finish this off. Last night, a friend Tweeted a link to an article in the guardian, headlined “Sudan’s security forces killed, raped and burned civilians alive, says rights group”.

He was criticised for not including a trigger warning, and his protestation that this was a headline that served as its own trigger warning for the article that followed didn’t satisfy the critic.

This is an overreaction first because, if the word rape appearing in a headline is triggering to you, it’s difficult to understand how you can survive on the Internet at all – there seems no way to arrange for an Internet that isn’t triggering in this way, and the requirement that we do so seems unduly onerous.

Second, and on another practical note, a Tweet is limited to 140 characters and at that sort of length, most of us would take in the Tweet at once, rather than parsing each word. In other words, there’s little or no time for a (tw) to do any substantive work in a headline like that – I don’t think it’s reasonable to think that anyone can see (tw) and then the word “rape” a few characters later, where that (tw) has had a chance to cause you to stop reading, or prepare yourself for that word in any way.

At this point, the trigger warning becomes less a thoughtful application of sensitivity to the interests of others, and more a thoughtless application of a disputed protocol. If we want our social justice concerns and interventions to be meaningful, I don’t think it sensible for us to turn them into clichés.

*Disclosure of potential bias, and a little shameless promo: the author of that post is a friend and my co-author of the forthcoming book Critical Thinking, Science, and Pseudoscience: Why We Can’t Trust Our Brains.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.