In My Day – Trigger Warnings

I’ve been writing these posts for a bit and they’ve been relatively innocuous. And, to me, this remains a relatively innocuous thing. That trigger warnings are something anyone sees as controversial is extraordinarily confusing to me.

It becomes doubly confusing when the people who call it out are the ones who support MPAA ratings or spoiler alerts. Because, really, that’s all a trigger warning is. It’s a note that an article, story, discussion, or whatever includes something that some people who have experienced trauma may prefer to opt out of.

The problem comes when people assume that the reason people want trigger warnings is because they’re “too sensitive” or “need to just deal”. Which shows a lack of understanding and empathy for the underlying problem.

The phrase “trigger warning” is a normalization of an issue that’s been well known since WWI. When the Doughboys came back from the front they suffered from “shell shock” where loud noises would bring back the trauma of the war and they’d behave (seemingly) erratically. To this day there’s an understanding that some veterans are sensitive to loud noises and explosions. A trigger warning for them would be the same as alerting them to the presence of fireworks.

It’s now expanded to include those who have gone through all sorts of trauma and that’s where the respect for the action breaks down some. I see very many calls to do away with trigger warnings and safe spaces because it restricts what an individual can say or do. I have no doubt there are some people that are using these terms to limit others speech, but the underlying issue should not be thrown out because of a few bad actions.

If someone has been through trauma there are things that make it so they cannot participate rationally or easily in a conversation. Allowing them the upfront knowledge gives them the opportunity to prepare themselves to face it or opt out entirely. Doing so means that the discussion will not be derailed by their personal reactions.

Including trigger warnings for common trauma like rape or violence allows a large subset of people to determine if the conversation/story/presentation is one that they’re able to constructively participate in.

It’s important to be aware that the call for common trigger warnings is not the same as being overly sensitive to the individual. I have triggers, but they don’t fall in the common trigger warnings. I am rendered unable to participate in a conversation or enjoy a story that includes electro-shock therapy without triggering at least an anxiety attack. I’m not comfortable in any room with Precious Moments figurines (of all freaking things) and being left alone with them may bring a full blown panic attack.

At no point have I personally ever demanded that someone disclose this level of information. This is mine to deal with and not theirs. But I have removed myself from many situations that include either and if I know ahead of time I simply opt out entirely.

And there it is, the point of the trigger warnings. We didn’t have these in the 80s or 90s because we understood and cared significantly less about trauma. We still don’t give it the respect it entirely deserves, but dismissing the calls for that respect without understanding the underlying need can hinder us as writers for youth who (many times) do have a better understanding and respect for this level of trauma.

As always, this post is not meant as an instructional guide, but more as a contextualization of something that people who write for young adults may not have faced during their own young adulthood. It’s difficult to write respectfully and in a way that connects if we don’t at least endeavour to understand why a thing exists.

And, as always, I’m missing a large amount of nuance in such a general overview, but I hope if you’re including topics in your writing that touch on common trigger warnings this provides a starting point for your own exploration of those topics.