The term trauma triggers became mainstream in the wake of the Vietnam War, as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) became recognized as a very real and widespread problem among veterans. Coinciding with the widened cultural understanding of those difficulties was President Ronald Reagan’s lack of understanding (or perhaps care for) mental health issues, which led him to cut federal funds for mental health institutions as soon as he was elected in 1980. While those cuts to federal expenditures affect the United States today in regard to homelessness and arguably, mass shooting events, they also popularized self-help and self-diagnoses practices.
Today, the expense of mental health care affects most people I know in some way- it impedes the ability of people in my community to receive the psychological assistance that they need for various reasons. Those of us who can afford care are often forced to rely upon pharmaceuticals for assistance as opposed to more personalized strategies that can help people with temporary mental illnesses exorcise them. The point is, the system has deeply failed the majority of us, and we are often left to care for ourselves without any kind of professional understanding of precisely what ails us.
Something that has become popularized in recent years, particularly among the more social-justice and liberal-oriented minds, is the concept of the trigger warning. The first misunderstanding of the trigger warning is that it is a new practice: it’s far from new. In the post-Vietnam War era, the idea of trauma triggers became widely recognized as a problem for vets, and awareness was raised about the mental health issues that soldiers can suffer from. And of course, PTSD is not just for war veterans. There are multitudes of traumas that the average person might experience that could cause PTSD. In recognition of this, films and television shows have had content warnings to warn their audiences about gore, language, sexual assault, etcetera, since the 1960’s (of course, commercial ratings systems are different than trigger warnings and have deeply conservative roots that I’d like to discuss in another post someday) . News programs warn their audiences before they show particularly disturbing footage or photographs. CDs and video games have their own ratings systems and content warnings. Warning an audience about intense/adult/violent content is not new.
The perceived difference today is in the rise of “politically correct” culture. However, P.C. isn’t new either. In the early nineties, P.C. culture experienced a similar wave of popularity on the left, and we are experiencing a stronger resurgence now, probably at least partially because of social media. I have almost no beef with political correctness, and I plan a future post on my personal issues with it, so I will leave it at this: I believe that political correctness can often, as a side effect, stifle development and understanding. But I’m talking about trigger warnings.
The increased (and highly policed) usage of trigger warnings encourages intellectual laziness– or at the very least, makes problematic allowances for it. For one, it’s dangerous to reduce a piece of writing to a few nouns or verbs contained within it– it’s a kind of censorship. Trigger warnings do not tell you how the content is being treated, they only tell you that it exists. That’s not enough information. Imagine if that had been done to To Kill A Mockingbird, which is a valuable novel for teens to read concerning racial issues in the United States. The n-word occurs in that book quite purposefully, to hammer home Harper Lee’s point about the culture of the time. Were we to censor it, or not read the novel at all, we would be erasing an experience that is valuable and important. I don’t want to live in a world where Huck Finn and To Kill A Mockingbird have been purged of that awful word, precisely because all people in the United States need to learn that word in its original context, understand the depth of its meaning.
I spend an admittedly frightening amount of time on the internet, and I have seen individuals call for trigger warnings on all sorts of things. I have experiences in my personal history that have caused me massive amounts of anxiety– perhaps even legitimate PTSD. I have had trauma triggers, which have typically been certain movements by people close in proximity to me, certain smells, certain noises, certain unavoidable things that I can do nothing about. I suffered through them, not without many a panic attack and (to be honest) some puke. I wish I hadn’t had to. I wish no one had to. But I definitely don’t think that the secret to making the world a place where women like me don’t have to be triggered by kitchen utensils (that was legitimately one of mine) is not talking about it, not facing it. Studies have shown that the best way to treat PTSD, the best way to treat trauma triggers, is to limit (but not totally do away with) your interaction with them– to wean yourself back onto them. That doesn’t mean that it wouldn’t be beneficial to have the option of when and where you are faced with those kinds of triggers, but the world is such that you will be faced with them, and it will often be nonconsensual.
Encouraging extensive use of trigger warnings infantilizes people. Anyone can put down a newspaper, turn off a film, or hide a post on facebook. And while being confronted with uncomfortable things can make us, well, uncomfortable, it is a privilege to ignore (for example) the atrocities in Syria or Yemen so that we can sleep well at night. It is intellectual laziness to demand that your content come in easily chewable pieces, that you be warned about every possible discomfort you may experience. It robs you of agency while fooling you into thinking that you’ve been given a choice.
Self care is legitimate. I practice self care. But I practice self care with the knowledge that it is a privilege. With the knowledge that protecting myself can easily turn into coddling myself, that some things hurt because they have to. I practice self care because I know that if I don’t nurture myself, I become useless to anyone else.
When it comes to trigger warnings, I think we’re getting carried away, and I think that in many instances, we end up throwing out the baby with the bathwater. I would never argue for the eradication of all trigger warnings, because there is something to be said for being able to prepare yourself for what comes next. But I’d argue that overusage is actually harmful to efforts to be socially conscious because it discourages actually becoming conscious. If I had not been confronted with things that I was unprepared for and shocked by, I would be in a very different and much less useful place today.