Trigger warnings are not censorship: here’s why they matter

Trigger warnings are not censorship: here’s why they matter

Jenna Mahale responds to Lucia Gonzalez’ recent article questioning the place of trigger warnings in an academic context

Given that they are simply notifications, I can only understand the vitriol towards trigger warnings as either the consequence of a misunderstanding of mental wellbeing, or a bizarre apathy towards the mentally ill. Trigger warnings are not the same as censorship, nor are they the beginning of the end of free thought, as many slippery slope arguments would have you think. Conflating trigger warnings with censorship is a dangerous thing to do – trigger warnings only actually become dangerous when the need for them is used as justification to dismiss specific lines of discourse, areas of learning, and texts outright.

But should the misuse of trigger warnings utterly condemn their utility? Saying that something contains potentially distressing content is a courtesy we extend even to film trailers. The notion behind trigger warnings is one of preparation; ideally these prompts can help traumatised students engage with upsetting material by telling them to brace themselves beforehand. This gives them a better chance at managing unexpected reactions such as panic attacks, anxiety attacks, and dissociative episodes.

It is important to note that most trigger warnings are not global, meaning that they do not usually come as blanket statements from universities. In fact, many schools operate on a basis where students must take the initiative to talk to educators beforehand about specific warnings that would be beneficial to them. Triggering topics should not by any means have to leave the classroom — that is not what warnings serve to do — but students should be able to decide whether they themselves want to participate, especially if their mental state is such that they cannot engage with the content anyway.

We must remember that the validation of mental illness’ obstructiveness is a relatively new development. These conversations are only now becoming pervasive in the academic space, and as with all new regulations, there must first be a discussion that takes place to negotiate their breadth. Those who dismiss the whole concept of content warnings as ‘coddling’ at every misstep in the process help no one. Argumentation along the lines of ‘it is the individual’s responsibility to be able to handle exposure to triggering material’ shows a fundamental misunderstanding of mental health. Treatment for trauma can sometimes even necessitate trigger warnings.

For example, a person can only know when to practise grounding exercises if they have an awareness of the forthcoming material. And sometimes treatment is simply not an option. Mental health care resources are especially underfunded on university campuses, not to mention that their private alternatives are priced extortionately. (One hour of private counselling? That will be £70.00, please and thank you.) It is also important to note that treatment is not a synonym for cure; it does not guarantee the eventual and total vanquishment of trauma.

We must also account for the possibility that, even after all of this, a person just may not want to study something that reminds them of their past trauma. And why not? I am aware that choice narratives can be problematic, but in university, are we not the directors of our own learning? It’s not like every bit of information in a disciplinary field is vital to a student’s education.

Catastrophizing trigger warnings can only serve to validate the perspectives of those fortunate enough to have never had lasting mental trauma touch their lives. I always wonder whether people would continue to decry content warnings if it was their friend that broke down in a lecture theatre because they weren’t expecting to mentally relive their sexual assault, or had a suicidal relapse because of a bad day combined with the wrong assigned-reading choice.

The contempt that trigger warnings seem to have provoked is indicative of an even greater need for compassion towards those whom they exist to protect. A dialogue can and should take place in order to navigate these accommodations and, above all, it must not be one that silences or dismisses the experiences of the marginalised.

Jenna Mahale