Trigger Warning: Fantasy vs Reality

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I hate the dark. As in full-on shaking, bones trembling, sweat-breaking-out-along-the-nape-of-my-neck fear. It’s a strange thing to admit to people because being afraid of the dark is something children fear. Being afraid of the dark is something people associate with weakness and immaturity. So no one thinks twice when they turn the lights out on me and laugh when I scream. To them, it’s just a silly little fear like being afraid of spiders or jumping at the sight of lizards or snakes. My fear is not real to them, therefore it’s not something worth respecting.

This is the thought process that people — such as the American Association of University Professors – went through when the topic of trigger warnings came up. This lack of understanding breeds an air of ignorance which leads to false pretenses about the purpose of trigger warnings.

The use of trigger warnings isn’t detrimental to education or our ability to dissect the media around us. Trigger warnings are meant to — in the simplest of terms — warn people of potentially upsetting content.

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The MMPA uses warnings for movies. Ratings prepare people for what they will be viewing so they can make a conscious decision on whether or not to view it. This also applies to whether they wish to bring their children along as well. A movie like Hostel (which is rated R) features extremly graphic violence; the trailer is flagged on YouTube. Flagging on YouTube is another way for people to warn others about potentially graphic content that could upset them.

Triggering — on a more complicated level — is more than just upsetting people though. Triggering typically covers more extreme content such as: rape, assault, graphic violence, bigotry, slurs, etc. See people based on their own individual experiences and traumas react to things very differently. Small things that don’t bother others – like the dark – can trigger or negatively affect others to the point of full-on anxiety or panic attacks. Seemingly meaningless things in life, or even hugely graphic content that doesn’t affect others or the apparent majority of people, can cause someone to lose their breath and cast them back to a time when they were traumatically affected.

Jonah Goldburg of the LA Times wrote a piece called, “The Peculiar Madness of ‘Trigger Warnings,’” wherein he stated, “the cancer has spread to college campus.”  The “cancer,” of course, being that more student governments are now pushing for trigger warnings in the classroom.

This newfound practice has people in a bustle of irritation that has them muttering bitterly over the continued horror of this new overly tech dependent and politically correct generation. What these people don’t understand is that trigger warnings are not about them. They are about the people who could be triggered.

Triggers are meant for those who have experienced trauma and have PTSD, anxiety, or mental illness. If those stipulations don’t apply to your individual person, then the triggers don’t apply to you, and as such, do not affect you positively or negatively in any way.

The purpose of warnings isn’t to silence conversation with a classroom on important subjects like racism or sexism. Nor is their purpose to ban material with graphic content. Rather they serve as a warning, a precursor for people who were perhaps molested as children so that when they read Lolita for the first time, they can mentally prepare themselves.

People who suffer from some sort of mental illness, or anxiety, know the world isn’t going to cater to them 24/7.  They know that they could be stepping on a mental landmine when they open a new book, watch a new TV show, or listen to a new song. The assumption that people who demand trigger warnings are all overly sensitive social justice warriors who need to rejoin the real world reeks of pretension.

mangaarticleFor people who raise their noses at others who would simply like that their classrooms be safe places for them to learn without being triggered back to a traumatic experience or suddenly be sent spiraling into a full blow panic attack, it must be nice. Nice to be able to read a book like The Lovely Bones, watch Boys Don’t Cry, or read Watchmen and not be triggered by the rape and sexual violence that occurs in both.

For those who claim the use of trigger warnings hinders discussion in the classroom, how is blindsiding a student or students with graphic images they weren’t able to mentally prepare for and thus possibly sending them into a panic attack not hindering their educational experience?

Warnings are just that, warnings. They are meant to give someone a heads up so they can prepare themselves so they can sit down, do their work to the best of their ability, and continue to heal and live happily and anxiety free. They are already paying for their college education, they should be allotted an education that includes consideration for their mental and physical welfare.

mangaarticleIt’s not about introducing people to a privileged persons view of the “real world.” Those who have experienced mental illness in whatever form have already experienced some sort of horrifying reality about the world. I find it deplorable that people who have never been victims tell victims to simply “get over” their trauma as if many victims aren’t trying to already.

Trauma isn’t cured through being blindsided or forcibly having your trauma recounted to you or shoved down your throat. There already exists a stigma against victims and those with mental illness, this backlash against trigger warnings is simply another example of ignorance that has bred scorn for these individuals when we should be expressing compassion.

In a safe environment with a professional having people confront their trauma head-on may work, but the internet or a classroom is obviously not such a place. Many people don’t even know how to react when someone has a panic attack. They’re left helpless and useless in the face of someone having a negative reaction to being exposed to triggering material. So now we have a number of people suffering all because some guys don’t want to be bothered with social justice warriors being overly sensitive because they read Loltia, and they weren’t bothered and really people just need to get over their problems anyway.

When instead, if a warning is in place, an individual can prepare themselves, take the proper precautions, and know if they need to employ any sort of methods to prevent an anxiety attack. Because they were warned, they can take these steps and have a better overall experience in the classroom and continue to improve their own mental health. I’ve dealt with my anxiety over the dark, with time, effort, help, and support I’m miles better now than I was. However, never has being suddenly shoved into a room shrouded by darkness and the laughter of my siblings helped my anxiety, but instead only further worsened my fear.

Proper help, and support is what people need, not scorn, or pretentious platitudes by privileged individuals about them not living in the “real world.” As if they haven’t already experienced some of the worst horrors the real world has to offer. Really those who pearl clutch over and continue to promote uncredited knowledge on the usage and purpose of trigger warnings are the ones not living in the real world. A world where people can just get over their mental illness or didn’t suffer serious traumas in their lives. A world where they can get a little bit of compassion for their mental health in a classroom they paid to sit in.

It must be nice, to live in such a fantasy world.

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About Author

Desiree Rodriguez is currently majoring in Converged Communications. She's a writer, geek girl, and proud queer mestiza woman. Desiree is an entertainment writer for The Tempest, and contributor for Nerds of Color. Desiree has written for The Young Folks, The Feminist Wire, and Geeked Out Nation.

3 Comments

  1. This is great and raises a lot of important questions. Thank you for bringing more to this discussion, I wish the professors speaking out against trigger warnings were more willing to dialogue.

  2. Terrific article. The backlash towards trigger warnings from people in positions of privilege is rather reminiscent of the kind of knee-jerk pushback against legitimate discussions of sexism/racism/etc.

    On a side note, it has to be said that a lot of works of fiction rely on the element of surprise (like introducing a traumatic event) and often some of the most memorable moments- the ones we talk about for years with friends and fellow fans- in our favorite books, movies and video games are the ones we had no prior warning of. To what extent does a work of fiction have to forewarn its audience, and to what specificity? (The kind of warnings from the MPAA can be kind of vague, though thankfully they include things like depictions sexual assault). At what point is using surprises in fiction a stroke of genius vs. abusing people’s fears and anxieties?

    • This is an interesting part of the conversation, I suppose what I would ask in counter is the surprise warranted and earned, or is it done for shock value.

      Example, the twist at the end of The Sixth Sense felt earned. I didn’t feel tricked, therefore as a viewer I felt satisfied by being genuinely surprised. The twist of Rachel dying in The Dark Knight didn’t felt much more like shock value, same with the twisted reveal of Taila and her relationship with Bane in The Dark Knight Rises.

      These aren’t extreme examples, but I still think they hold up true in line with the overall conversation. If a surprise is earned within the narrative of the story, I think that’s fine and welcomed. If it is done for shock value than I tend to find it disingenuous to both the story and the audience.

      I think in terms of trigger warnings and potentially triggering content, if a writer is using rape, or torture as a shock/plot device than that’s crossing the line. But I’ve always found the warnings the MPAA use to be good enough without giving away huge details of the movies plot so the audience can still be properly warned but also surprised if need be. Though the MPAA aren’t always correct in their ratings but that’s another story for another time.