Why We Switched From Trigger Warnings to Content Warnings

The modern world thrives on labels, categories, and vast organizational structures that reduce friction between the billions and billions of us crowding this tiny rock (I blame Aristotle and an assortment of other historic labellers). But more often than not, we humans love labels: introvert, extrovert, endomorph, exomorph, side chick, ride or die chick, and wife material. Food labels, safety labels, Netflix movie labels, Tumblr post labels. All of it fantastic, except in the face of hindbrain rebelliondon’t label me, don’t hold me back, or I’m going off the grid, because this is political correctness gone too far.

Picture an MFA dudebro holed up in a shack in some New England wood, ranting about Apple products and trigger warnings. We live in, he might say, a bubble-wrapped panopticon, searching for total safety through total surveillance. And trigger warnings? How do you even function in real life? Implicit: he is living real life; we are hiding from it. But meanwhile, don’t spoil me and don’t mislead me—my content preferences must be respected. 

A label is not a label is not a label. They differ in purpose and type. And yet, they all exist to communicate information. Where we draw the line between trigger warnings and content warnings is purely a matter of perception and intent. Content warnings have the appearance of neutrality, while trigger warnings carry specific meaning that, these days, sounds a klaxon in rebel hearts. Trigger warnings intend to prevent harm, to aid those suffering from trauma in better managing their mental health. Content warnings are just neutral-natural-normal labels … that prevent harm to children … that keep us feeling comfy … through advice for parents and all viewers alike.

What is the actual content of trigger and content warnings? It varies only in specificity.

“This program contains scenes that some viewers may find disturbing. Viewer discretion is advised.” — VAGUE

“Trigger warning: this article contains discussion of rape.” — SPECIFIC

Last August, I wrote about how strange I found the widespread resistance to trigger warnings. I thought then that naysayers just needed to better understand what trigger warnings were for and then they, aside from the total assholes, would happily take them up. But intent and specificity, not the trouble of labeling or a lack of good information, is the difference in content and trigger warnings.

A short survey of objections to trigger warnings: bubble-wrap; “those people;” who cares; why should I; political correctness; special treatment; what if we’re just making them worse. That’s all intent. These objections aren’t to the presence of warnings or their specific meaning, but to what trigger warnings mean to do: help people who may dearly need that help.

When we quietly switched from trigger warnings to content warnings, changed the label without the content, objecting comments melted away. Our warnings are as specific and detailed as before, but now they are “neutral.” It was a snap decision; not planned out. We, the WWAC team, were observing another ruckus of a think piece on trigger warnings and triggers and bubble wrap correctness gone too far, and I asked, “Would this piece exist if they were just called warnings?” To speak of triggers is to make visible our traumas. Asking for consideration is one part common decency, one part call to social change. What if we lived in a world that prioritized care before convenience and destigmatized trauma and its aftermath? What if trauma was harder to ignore? It chafes. Trauma isn’t normal.

Well, we continue to warn. I don’t know if something was lost in the name change—stridency, perhaps—but we can warn without interruption. “But actually.” And part of me can’t help but feel that, well, trigger warning objectors, we tricked you.

Megan Purdy

Megan Purdy

Publisher of all this. Megan was born in Toronto. She's still there. Philosopher, space vampire, heart of a killer.