Triggering Warnings

Caution Tape_viaEugeneZemlyanskiyTrigger Warning: this is a post about content notes and trigger warnings. People who become irrationally angry when they encounter content notes or trigger warnings may want to stop reading now and spare themselves the emotional distress.

I have noticed that there is a subset of the internet who reject both the idea that anyone could be emotionally distressed by content, and the idea that anyone else should ever dare to accommodate them. But, strangely enough, these same people find themselves emotionally distressed and unable to control their actions when they encounter warnings to others about emotional distress.

I confess I don’t understand the position—it seems like a caricature of the worst sort of condescending assholery. “What’s that? You experienced trauma, like fighting in a war zone, being physically or emotionally assaulted, or having some aspect of your life turned upside down in some way, and now you want to avoid things that remind you of that? What are you, weak? Here, let me slap you in the face for daring to ask anyone else to care about your emotional state.”

Like I said, I don’t understand the position. I really try not to be essentialist, and not to commit the Fundamental Attribution Error. So, that means I need to think carefully about why people who think this way might, and what circumstances might lead them to do it. I have to think carefully, instead of just dismissing these people as assholes. And maybe it’s a failure of my imagination, but I have trouble coming up with any generous motives for this behavior; all I can come up with is that some people enjoy being bullies.

When I read through the arguments against content notes or trigger warnings, I don’t fare any better. All I find are straw men (“Millennials want to be CODDLED”) and hand-waving allusions to babies, weakness, and other irrelevant ad hominems.

There is an argument to be made against overuse of trigger warnings, and that argument has some merit—but even if some people scatter eggshells wherever they go, that doesn’t reflect on the use of trigger warnings as a matter of respect. There is also an argument to be made that we shouldn’t avoid difficult material, but again, the role of a trigger warning isn’t to eliminate the discussion, its to give people who need it the ability the opt out.

Yet neither of those explains the rage inspired by the idea of caring about other people and warning them about potentially disturbing content. The best, the most generous, the least offensive reason I can come up with to explain it is that, to some people, the idea of protection itself is anathema. The concept that we should be thinking about other people’s needs in day to day life and taking those needs into account may be “the golden rule,” but it is also the opposite of American individualism—“every man for himself (never mind the women and children and non-white people).” If you really hang your ideology on the idea that everyone’s societal duty is an Ayn Randian ideal of selfishness, the trigger warning is a poke in the eye. It shows not just that you care about other people, but that you will go out of your way to act on that concern.

Maybe. But that’s just a story I’m telling myself to try not to think of these people as total assholes. And maybe there’s no generous motive to be found.


Image Credit: Eugene Zemlyanskiy

5 comments on “Triggering Warnings

  1. Jon Awbrey says:

    ⚠ Trigger Warning ⚠


  2. JD says:

    Shortly after posting this entry, I read the following, which seemed related to me:


  3. venice967 says:

    I confess I haven’t thought much about this except when my kids point out certain things that are not acceptable anymore. Now we say ‘people of color’ or ‘non-white’. Okay, I can handle that. But I grew up with ‘Black is beautiful’. So occasionally I still slip and say ‘black’. In truth, most ‘blacks’ are really brown so it was never accurate to begin with. I guess people just want things to be more accurate. So I welcome those kind of ‘trigger warnings’. It’s harder to think about triggers that were usually passed over as a child. When children hurt, they are usually dismissed and not believed. So as adults, we learn to toughen up and as a result tend to dismiss others when they are hurting and miss crucial trigger warnings that might save their lives. This is a sad fact of human nature. We tend to dish out what was dished out to us. And it’s even harder to think about ‘trigger warnings’ that bring up bad feelings and memories because we are so fervently trying to forget. Are these people assholes? I’d say some are and some are just trying to keep their private Pandora boxes slammed shut. I admire your ability to try and find valid reasons for that behavior. It takes a lot of work to stay open and compassionate when other people are invalidating pain that’s very real and hurtful. I’ve been on both sides of this issue. I’ve been an ‘asshole’ and I’ve been on the receiving end of hurtful things being said thoughtlessly. So the best thing to be said about that is that I need to remember always how it feels on both sides and thus gain empathy for the people in question.


  4. […] struggled before with understanding the deeper currents in this debate. I don’t claim to have finished. I hope, […]


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