Today’s blog contains subject matter that may be distressing to some readers.

Trigger warnings first appeared a few decades ago. They initially existed largely in the academic world and social media and were intended to let students/readers know that the topic to be covered in the class or article might be disturbing to some. Most often, the topic was related to gender-based violence — in particular sexual violence — but other potentially distressing topics included violence more generally, self-harm, eating disorders, child abuse, gender identity and, increasingly, racism and race-based violence.

In the academic setting, those who support trigger warnings make the argument that some content “can impact the wellbeing and academic performance of students who have experienced corresponding traumas in their own lives” who “might not yet be ready to confront a personal trauma in an academic context.” Similar arguments can be made to support trigger warnings more generally – on social and other media, prefacing a public address, and so on.

Not everyone supports these warnings. Critics point out that such warnings “unnecessarily insulate students from the often harsh realities of the world” or that they  create a legal responsibility for the institution, whether the media or the academy, to protect students/readers/watchers/listeners from emotional harm.

Do they work?

In a New Yorker article last fall, Harvard law professor Jeannie Suk Gersen examined whether or not trigger warnings work, coming to the conclusion that they don’t. The results of a dozen psychological studies conducted between 2018 and 2021 are consistent: trigger warnings generally do not lessen negative reactions in students, trauma survivors and those experiencing PSTD. In fact, for some, the trigger warning increases their distress:

“The perverse consequence of trigger warnings, then, may be to harm the people they are intended to protect.”

Making the important ridiculous

My position about trigger warnings, which will no doubt distress some, is that we have gone too far.

Someone teaching a course on the history of sex, who sets out in the written course syllabus that there will be a class on sexual assault and when that class will be, should not be berated by students for not also providing an in-the-moment trigger warning.

When I talk about intimate partner violence in a course on intimate partner violence, I don’t think I need to warn people that some of the content may be disturbing.

Is the warning “This article contains graphic content that may affect those who have experienced sexual violence or those who know someone affected by it”  really necessary at the beginning of a news article with a headline that states it is about a “violent sexual assault”?

Doc Martin’s fear of blood aside, medical students should expect to see, talk about and deal with blood and other messy things.

When I watch a documentary about raptor birds, I don’t find the warning that there will be fear and gore particularly helpful. (As it turned out, there was remarkably little of either.)

“Twister,” a fictional movie about a tornado, was prefaced with the warning “intense depictions of very bad weather.” Really? I need that advance notice?

At least one of the many disaster movies I have watched during the pandemic offered the warning that the film contained “intense disaster sequences.” Uh, yes, why else would I be watching it?

Apparently, we have become so sensitive about smoking that TV shows and movies in which a character smokes need to start with a warning about that fact.

Do those attending a performance of Romeo and Juliet, perhaps the play with the best known plot in the western world, really need a pre-show announcement that there are upsetting themes, including suicide and drug use?

Being realistic

Of course, the topics that first led to the development of trigger warnings, unlike the subjects of these movies, TV shows and plays, are serious. Many people have been badly harmed by sexual and racial violence, child abuse, suicide and so on, and some of those many people continue to be triggered long after the events themselves.

But, the research seems to show that warning people either makes no difference or makes it worse. Coupled with this, increasingly these warnings have broadened to cover material that might merely offend, disgust or be emotionally distressing. This is a far cry from the original intention of such warnings — to alert traumatized people to material that might further traumatize them — and renders appropriate warnings almost meaningless.

I like the approach of Gersen, as described in her New Yorker article:

“As a law professor teaching criminal, constitutional and family law – subjects that involve topics such as homicide, sexual assault, racial discrimination, guns, domestic violence, abortion, divorce, and child abuse – I know from experience that many students have endured challenging life and family experiences that may not be apparent to others. As a result, my introduction to any course includes a statement that it will delve into many of the most controversial and difficult issues in our society, ones that may personally affect the lives of people in the class, and that all discussions must be conducted with respect for one another. I don’t frame my statements as addressing triggers, and I don’t flag particular readings or discussions. . . .”

The truth is this: we live in a world that is deeply disturbing, and there’s just no trigger warning for that.

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