We Americans love our freedom, and we want to preserve it. Sometimes, however that means taking anything and calling it “censorship,” even if the comparison doesn’t make sense at all. Did the Supreme Court just make a decision? Democracy is over. And if you want to raise taxes to pay for education? You might as well move to North Korea.
If you want to see this phenomenon in action, just walk into a room (or better yet, go on the Internet) and mention the term “trigger warning” and people are going to explode.
What is a trigger warning? Well, you know how movies come with ratings, like “R for graphic violence,” to let people know that maybe they shouldn’t watch it if they don’t like seeing graphic violence? That’s literally it. You’re just warning someone about potentially upsetting content in a movie or book.
It specifically helps people with post-traumatic stress disorder who may face flashbacks or panic attacks after being reminded of their trauma, as well as people with other mental illnesses. Even for those without mental illnesses, however, it’s just common courtesy. We already do it for movies, TV, and even in the news, when there are disturbing or violent images. It’s not a new concept.
However, it’s only recently that the concept has become more popular. On college campuses, in particular, students have requested that they be alerted to potentially triggering content in required study materials. They’re not asking to censor anything, just to be alerted as to what the material covers. Which is what many teachers do anyways.
These students have been met partly with respect, but largely with ridicule. A report by the American Association of University Professors has described trigger warnings as “a threat to academic freedom,” while Urban Dictionary claims they are “unnecessary 100% of the time due to the fact that people who are easily offended have no business randomly browsing the Internet anyways.” Trigger warnings have almost turned into a meme on certain sides of the Internet, with some even mocking the topic by yelling “Triggered!” at random points in a conversation.
Can the concept of trigger warnings be taken too far? Maybe. I’ve seen some Internet users tag things with “tw white people” and “tw communismkills”—the latter a somewhat infamous conservative blogger who has expressed racist, sexist, and transphobic sentiments. For a while, Oberlin College’s guidelines for staff included a mandate to avoid discussing “potentially triggering” subjects such as “heterosexism, cissexism, [and] ableism,” until the ensuing pushback encouraged them to change. And feminist writer Jill Filipovic warned that trigger warnings could pathologize marginalized groups as fragile, and alter students’ perception of certain texts by leading them to focus only on the aspects marked as triggering.
Also, PTSD can be triggered by anything. From a random smell, to a seemingly innocuous word, there’s no way to know who you’re going to trigger and why. It’s impossible—not to mention invasive—to try to figure out every little thing that is going to trigger anyone so you can avoid saying it.
While valid, these criticisms are less a reflection of trigger warnings as a concept and relate more to their implementation. It’s probably possible to present them in a way that doesn’t ruin the story or the way students interpret it; condescendingly and dramatically making a big deal over the content in question might have that effect, while mentioning it exists probably won’t. And trigger warnings shouldn’t be treated as a cure-all, in which every single subject that could possibly annoy anyone has to be censored.
In fact, they’re the opposite of censorship. By making college and other spaces more accessible to people who need them, they actually encourage the flow of information. Just like anything else, they can be misused, but they’re generally just a nice thing to do.
And if you’re going to flip out over someone just giving you a heads up about a certain scene in a book, ask yourself: who’s the one who’s really “too offended” here?