Hello, everyone! Today, I thought I’d talk to you about something that’s been under discussion for the past few days, and because it’s a topic involving mental health – something I’m very passionate about, I’d thought I’d write a post discussing my feelings.
Background & Disclaimer
A certain popular and well-known author (who will remain unknown in my writing) recently wrote a blog post about trigger warnings. Now, I’ll admit that this post is not about the author because I did not read the blog post thoroughly enough to articulate a response, but this post is about the reaction to said post. It is about the comments underneath Author’s Facebook post, and about the drama that has taken place around social media regarding this topic.
Now, some people may be wondering why I’m talking about trigger warnings. Do I suffer from mental illness? No, I do not. Has something traumatic happened to me in the past that I can’t read about? No, fortunately not. So why am I opening the lid? Because too often are ‘unglamorous’ and ‘controversial’ issues ignored and left alone because people are afraid of the drama. I’m a Psychology student- by no means am I a professional, and the stuff that I am saying is stuff that I have been exposed to, or have researched in my life as someone who is passionate about mental health. I’m not going to stop talking about controversies, even though it gets people riled up. It’s okay if you have differing opinions- as long as you express them with words rather than hatred, I will listen to you. As for drama: bring it on.
Triggers: What are They?
In an article on Psych Central, the Sexual Assault Center at University of Alabama writes that a trigger is something that “sets off a memory tape or flashback transporting [someone] back to the event of [their] emotional trauma” (Source). Unfortunately, this world is a fucked up place, so there are countless types of trauma someone may suffer from, and because human beings are highly diverse individuals, traumas are highly personal. Something that triggers one person’s trauma may not trigger another person who has gone through the same thing. Triggers and traumas are not definitive concepts; they are abstract, but even though they are not set-in-stone, I can tell you this: they exist.
Trigger warnings are statements that let someone who is going to be experiencing something know that it contains sensitive materials that may trigger a trauma. The trigger warning serves as a caution to help people who are emotionally vulnerable, or people who have gone through something traumatic in their lives be 1) either be prepared for what is coming so it doesn’t completely catch them off-guard, or 2) help them make an informed decision to avoid potentially triggering material.
This is where I can insert myself into the story. In my second semester of university, I took a class on Abnormal Psychology. Our professor was a hands-on type of person; he would show us episodes of TV shows and movies that depict mental health, and ask his students to diagnose characters or offer treatments. Movies depicting mental health are usually difficult to watch; understandably so. And our professor would send out an e-mail before every movie-viewing, simply stating that, “the movie we will watch in class today contains rape and/or suicide. If this is triggering for you, I will request you to put your mental health first and please not show up. You will not be penalized for your absence.”
If trigger warnings play a role in psychology classrooms where highly trained mental health professionals proceed with caution, why are they controversial? Triggers are obviously real things, otherwise professionals trained with the DSM and the mental health discipline would not be throwing around the word. It is their job to equip students to have an up-to-date, modern education about psychology- and triggers are a part of this. Why are they controversial?!
Are trigger warnings ‘censorship’?
A New York Times article notes that after a movement was started at Rutgers University that asked professors to apply trigger warnings to the reading materials they presented in class, many academics were left “fuming.” It writes, “professors should be trusted to use common sense and that being provocative is part of their mandate. Trigger warnings, they say, suggest a certain fragility of mind that higher learning is meant to challenge, not embrace” (Source). This is a valid criticism, and it’s worthy of acknowledgment- much like any opinion is worthy of acknowledgment in controversial situations. Education is sometimes meant to be provocative; it is meant to question your existing notions of comfort. It is meant to challenge your opinions…
But at what expense? I’m not going to spend my time talking about trigger warnings in classrooms, because I’ve already seen that they work. They work in classrooms that are meant to be about mental health, and the opinions of mental health professionals matter more to me than the opinions of professors who feel like their intellectual freedom is being challenged. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution grants people the right to speak freely, but it also grants people the right to not listen if they do not want to.
As far as censorship is concerned, people have compared trigger warnings to banning books, to which I – very eloquently – say: what in the actual fuck? Book bans are blanket. They prevent people from reading certain books about certain topics; books that are banned are taken out of school and public libraries. Adding trigger warnings to content is not censorship: it does not prevent the general masses from reading the material. It does not prevent the circulation of content. It is not blanket; it is a simple statement that alerts people who are sensitive to certain topics. It prepares them, or it tells them to avoid the material. Your freedom of speech is not being challenged.
The Debate of Trigger Warnings in Books
But where I can understand concerns about trigger warnings in academic material, I am genuinely bewildered by the people “against” trigger warnings when it comes to mainstream fiction. What are their reasonings for trigger warnings? That they have the potential to spoil books. The original author’s blog post (the little that I read) expressed concern about authors who do not want their readers to know what triggers a book contains, simply because it will “spoil” the suspense.
It’s unfortunate that we, as a human race, have become so apathetic. It’s unfortunate that we care more about entertainment and the suspense and thrill of our stories than we do about people’s well-being. I have several things to say in response. First of all, trigger warnings in books would not require booksellers to tell every single reader that this book contains sensitive material. If books do contain trigger warnings, I assume they would be on a page in the back or near the front- a page clearly distinguishable, a page that you will not have to read if you do not want to. You can very well avoid this trigger-warning page if your enjoyment of the story is at risk.
When a movie or TV show starts to play, a jumble of words appears on the screen before the first scene rolls:
Sidenote: the hilarious fucking thing is that this screen is displayed to everyone, regardless of their health. Even if you don’t want to know, this shows up everywhere.
This screen is important. Why? Because it allows parents to make decisions for their children who may be exposed to sensitive material. If I had a child who was extremely sensitive to any type of violence, I probably wouldn’t want him/her watching a movie with violence. But perhaps this warning contains a spoiler: perhaps this story is about a bunch of children, and the fact that it contains violence and drug-use is a spoiler for what will happen at the 60% mark. By your argument, we should remove this. But we don’t, because it’s important for us to make an informed decision going into a certain movie.
So, why is the same comfort so fucking controversial when it comes to books? Why can’t a page be added in the beginning – a page that can be very easily avoided if you do not want to be spoiled – that lets potentially vulnerable readers know that this book will contain sexual assault, or suicide? We make decisions for our children for them, but why can’t people make informed decisions for themselves when it comes to their own mental health?! Trigger warnings do not exist for people who can take potentially sensitive material. They do not exist for people who can separate themselves from what they read/see. Trigger warnings do not exist for someone like me, who can digest depictions of violence and assault. Trigger warnings exist for people who are potentially emotionally vulnerable, whose livelihood and well-being can be put in danger because they are forced to re-live a trauma that they have tried their level-best to forget or get around. If you are willing to put their well-being – and even lives – in danger because you risk SPOILING YOUR FUCKING BOOK, here’s what I have to say:
If They Are Triggered, They Can Just Stop Reading
Can they? If someone who was a victim of abuse in the past stumbles across abuse in a book, can they really close the book and get over it? What’s the point? They’ve already been triggered. They’ve already had to re-live their abuse; they have already been reminded of something traumatic that happened in their past. If you think that they can simply close the book and read something else, my friend, you are so completely out-of-touch with how mental health and psychology works. And if you genuinely believe this, this blog post is not going to convince you otherwise. This is a great textbook that can help you get in tune with how mental health and abnormal psychology works. I highly recommend it- you are in dire need of some education.
We avoid taking alcoholics recovering from their addictions to the bar or a club. We avoid smoking a joint around someone who is recovering from their drug addiction. We avoid talking about cancer around someone who lost someone to the disease. We avoid talking about things around the people we love that have the potential to harm them. We do not ask them to get up and leave the fucking room if they cannot take it.
If you do not do it to your loved ones, why are you so adamant on doing it to others?
- Triggers are professionally and academically recognized, and warnings are implemented by professionally trained mental health officials- which means they are important.
- Trigger warnings are not the same as censorship, because they are not blanket blockades that do not let the masses access material. Trigger warnings are simply cautionary statements that exist for the well-being of those who many need them.
- We implement warnings and ratings in movies because it’s important to make informed decisions for people who do not know better re: children. So why can’t the same comfort be granted to people who might need to make a decision on their own about their own mental well-being?
- You need to educate yourself if you think someone can close a book and get over it. Check post for recommended textbook.
- If spoilers and enjoyment matter more to you than someone’s well-being, livelihood and sanity: fuck you.
P.S: this post is dedicated to Taryn whose thought-provoking rants on Twitter made me aware of the issue at hand, and basically prompted this discussion post.