You may have noticed that a lot of Book Twitter was posting wearily about trigger warnings today. (That’s 4/5/19. If you’re reading this from the far future, hello! Do you have jetpacks yet?) To my best understanding, the conversation was sparked by this set of tweets from Erika L. Sánchez, author of YA bestseller I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter:
Usually when I see stuff like that, I quietly seethe and keep scrolling. But for some reason, I really woke up on the right side of the bed today (also, I’ve had a lot of caffeine) and I decided to assume good intentions and actually engage. After firing off and deleting a sassy quote-tweet, I replied in an effort to point out the huge problems in those tweets. This post will be an extension of those ideas.
(As always, I have many reservations about “cancel culture” and other badness that sometimes happens on Twitter under the guise of “educating” or “protecting,” but I am grateful to and in awe of people who sink a lot of energy into engaging in good faith with ignorance and hostility. This goes double for marginalized tweeters that have to make themselves particularly vulnerable when they talk about controversial issues.)
I’m going to start with the biggest myth present in that original tweet:
You shouldn’t complain about “triggers” because books [any other art] are SUPPOSED to be challenging!
The problem here is the equation of two completely unlike things. When we talk about “triggers,” we aren’t talking about material that’s simply uncomfortable or emotional or serious.
I’ll admit, I have a hard time being sympathetic to this one when coming from adult humans, because this falsehood is very easy to clear up with a modicum of research. But today, I’m doing my best to assume ignorance, so let’s imaging the person speaking truly doesn’t see the difference between art that’s discomforting and content that is triggering.
The comparison I like is to talk about a haunted house. (Feel free to steal for your own use in championing the vulnerable. While I came up with these specific examples, I am, of course, drawing from the work of many others here.)
I’m personally not into haunted houses, but lots of people love them. When you buy admission, you know what you’re getting into. You won’t know the specific locations of the scares (they have to be a surprise to work) but you do know they’ll be coming. And that doesn’t stop it from being scary at all! You’ll still scream when the axe murderer jumps out.
Now, being scared is technically a negative emotion, right? It isn’t good to be afraid for your life. But in a deliberate, controlled environment, a jolt of fright can be cathartic and exciting and fun. That’s why lots of people choose to go to haunted houses.
When people scream at a haunted house, that piece of entertainment is working as intended. It might give people a good fright or even a nightmare, but it is not meant to cause psychological damage.
So if haunted houses are good, then it must be even better to jump out of bushes and run at people with a knife on any random Tuesday! …said no one, because that makes no sense.
That’s a very bad idea for a ton of reasons.
To begin with, if someone was once actually attacked with a knife, you’ll likely send them into full-on fight-or-flight, and it’s possible someone will really get hurt. Even if there is no immediate physical harm, you could send that person into a PTSD relapse that leads to missed work, therapy bills, hospitalization, self-harm, or even just weeks of distress. Events like that can cause lasting damage.
But even if that person doesn’t have related trauma in their past, you still have no idea the problems you could cause. Maybe the scare will make them late for an appointment or make them jittery during a big presentation. Maybe they’ll spill something down their shirt or just be annoyed. Whatever the case, you won’t get the haunted house effect. Why? Because the person didn’t opt into being scared that day. It won’t be fun-cathartic-scary, it’ll just be frightening-infuriating-scary. Very different outcomes.
Here’s a better comparison: Imagine a combat veteran going to an outdoor concert. They’re fine with loud music and chose to go… but the venue didn’t announce there would be a surprise fireworks display. When the vet hears the gunshot-like sounds, they go into a state of panic that leads to a major PTSD relapse.
This is obviously not the intention of the music venue! They just wanted the fireworks to be fun! But they withheld the information from the audience, robbing them of the chance to make an informed choice. The venue basically said, we know best. If you’re fine with loud music, you should be fine with fireworks. That’s an example of entertainment not working as intended and damaging someone in the process.
Surprises are fun, but not as important as giving the vet a chance to look up the event and check if there will be fireworks. There’s nothing cathartic or helpful about having a trigger sprung on you.
I think a lot of artists and creators want their work to be a haunted house. They want to invoke technically negative emotions (discomfort, frustration, sadness) in order to achieve a positive outcome (education, growth, catharsis). That’s fine–but an informed audience is essential to that mission. Prior warning doesn’t ruin the experience of a haunted house, and it won’t ruin your book either.
But what if you actually want to be the surprise fireworks? Here’s another objection I see:
It’s not good to hide from your fears or triggers. You only grow by facing them!
To that, I kindly say… who asked you?
It’s pretty clear that having triggers randomly sprung on you isn’t a good thing, but let’s put that aside for a minute. Let’s agree that some form of exposure therapy can be a good thing for trauma survivors, who need to confront triggers to move on.
That is not my business. Unless I am that specific person’s care provider, I have no say in their treatment. If I’m not trained as a mental health professional, I have no business offering my opinion anyway. If that person wants to try exposure therapy, they will–in a controlled, deliberate environment. They don’t need you to force them.
I think people should eat more vegetables, but that doesn’t give me the right to blend them into people’s smoothies without telling them. It’s for them to decide.
The “real world” isn’t a controlled environment, I know that. So what about this:
But the real world is full of triggering things! As Sánchez said, “the world we live in is one giant-ass trigger.”
So… two responses to this.
1 – Again, the nobody asked you problem. You aren’t being asked to purge the world of triggers, you’re being asked to label your work. Don’t worry about what you can’t control.
2 – Yes, there are bad things in the world… your point? People are killed all the time; that doesn’t make it okay for me to punch you. We are responsible for our own actions.
But almost anything could be a trigger! How do we decide what counts? How would it be standardized or controlled?
This is another objection that Sánchez took refuge under as she backtracked, and I respond to it the same way. Are these really problems that prevent you from using warnings?
Yes, some people will have triggers that can’t be anticipated. Ordinary words and images can become distressing if they’re connected to trauma.
But no-one is expecting you to account for that. What we can do is include notices of common triggers. If you’ve written a book, you know what scenes touch on images you can forsee as being distressing because they’re attached to major categories of common trauma, like death, violence, sexual assault, mental illness, and the like.
Will the best methods be immediately obvious? Of course not. There will be differences in usage and variances by individual. That’s true for everything about writing and publishing, and it is in no way an argument against trying at all. This is a very flimsy excuse.
You shouldn’t be reading my book if you can’t handle the subject matter!
How will a reader know if they can/want to “handle” the content if there’s no way to find out the content?
Trigger warnings are spoilers! The emotional impact will be ruined if readers have warning.
1 – Not every reader has to read warnings. If readers who know they want to be informed of a trigger know how to find warnings, they can seek them out (on a website, in the back of the book, etc.) but there’s no reasons others would be forced into seeing them.
2 – We already give readers lots of information before they get to page one. We let them know the genre, the page count, the target age, and even a plot description so that they can decide if a book looks like something they want to read at that moment. Content warnings are no different.
Books must have graphic and distressing material to be TRUE ART! Down with censorship!
Trigger warnings have nothing to do with what is allowed to go to print. No. Thing.
This is like saying we’re banning hot coffee because you’re required to label hot beverages on the cup. Nobody’s saying you can’t write it, just don’t hide that you’re writing it.
I don’t ever read trigger warnings, and I read serious and violent stuff all the time!
That’s fine for you, but doesn’t make you morally superior. It just means this conversation isn’t about you.
Trigger warnings will put off readers from picking up my book!
First of all, this isn’t a reason not to use them. If your book might damage a reader, would you seriously want them to be tricked into reading it anyway?
Secondly, it’s not even true. Warnings actually improve accessibility. If a reader who wants to avoid a trigger isn’t sure if your book will be a problem, they aren’t going to say well, guess I’ll read it anyway! They’ll move on to another one.
Trigger warnings are just for people with PTSD.
While most of this post is focused on readers recovering from trauma, they aren’t the only ones who benefit from warnings.
When I flag material in my book reviews, I use the term “content warnings,” which I think is a wider umbrella term for possible uses. Content warnings can be valueble for readers who want to check for age-appropriateness or just want to know when/where to read a title. Would they be ok reading it on the train next to their grandmother? Should they read it alone at night, or wait until they have some company?
I am cool and edgy for being dismissive of trigger warnings and people who want them.
No, you’re not.
(This goes double for anyone that writes for/makes content for children or teens.)