Here’s the problem with trigger warnings: they assume a lot. They lack foresight, because not everyone is triggered by the same thing. So applying and identifying them isn’t as seamless as you might think.
Triggers are widespread and specific to each individual. It may not be a disturbing article reporting rape statistics that triggers someone – it could be the scent of a distinct cologne, white tiles, the name of a street. So where do you even begin with trigger warnings? To assume that you understand someone’s trauma enough to know what could trigger them is dangerous. In fact, any assumption about someone else’s trauma is dangerous. Educators, writers and broadcasters can’t possibly provide a heads-up for everything that could potentially be a trigger. And should they even be trying to?
Many of us will experience trauma or psychological disruption in our lifetime. About 10% of those who do will also experience post-traumatic stress disorder. Managing this isn’t about providing trigger warnings – it requires constant work with medical professionals to move towards healing.
It’s sometimes argued that trigger warnings encourage us to avoid trauma rather than confront it. Many psychologists encourage victims of trauma to confront triggers – via Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, for example.
Using trigger warnings can also risk disengaging people from challenging, unsettling or uncomfortable content. Just because something is upsetting doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be confronted with it.
I really love this quote: ‘Don’t teach students what to think; teach them how to think.’ Instead of trigger warnings presuming to tell you what to think, perhaps the focus should be more on the how: how you interpret the content, and how
you respond to it (without anyone presuming to tell you how it should make you feel beforehand).
Being overprotective – which trigger warnings often are – doesn’t prepare you for reality. Engaging with tough content is key for growth, education and progress. While we presume trigger warnings to be empathetic, this doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re helpful.