By Mia Hyde
TW. Two letters. Trigger alerts bombard social media. Rarely does one stumble upon an Instagram post, Twitter thread, news article, or even university lecture that isn’t prefaced with this cheeky, angry stamp. Born out of an effort to make the Internet a safer community for trauma victims, Trigger Warnings alert audiences that the specific content may evoke serious fearful reactions. But are trigger warnings innate?
By issuing TWs, authors allow readers self-regulation of their emotional response. Individuals are able to regain control of their emotions and can choose to proceed with caution or avoid the material entirely. Far from the 19th century dismissal of mental illness as spiritual or even fabricated, TWs speak to a culture that is more empathetic and no longer stigmatizing mental illness. Instead, PTSD and related anxiety disorders are now rightly labeled as colossally destructive, with trauma survivors and others affected being supported in recovery through initiatives like TWs. Crucially, TWs embody a recognition of the power that words have over us – proving that the archaic maxim “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” is deadly wrong. Personally, TWs may have aided my approach to some of the most emotionally devastating and harrowing literature I’ve ever read (I look at you, The bell jug and The colour purple). So maybe TWs bring more help than harm. But how can anticipating and trying to moderate an extreme response do harm? Let’s look at the possible consequences of encountering a TW…
Scenario A: Avoidance. Put simply, TW’s fearmongers and deterrent readers. Yes, individuals are shielded from the potentially anxiety-provoking content, but that’s more of a crutch than a solution. The result? Denial and imprisonment in a bubble of avoidance and fear. Exposure therapy is critical to CBT and rehabilitation, and is based on the theory that avoidance reinforces the premise of negative beliefs—although exposure should be undertaken according to the well-being of the individual. However, this is compromised by TWs. Taboo culture can be encouraged by capitalizing on the need to talk about troubling situations and issues, such as survivor testimonies. Is that censorship? TWs can convince readers that the content is inappropriate, thereby bypassing free will in controlling reading choices. This is reminiscent of the past days of prohibition lolita and Lady Chatterley’s lover; Social media dictates what we see.
Scenario B: Access. They are informed by the TW about a danger that is inside the piece. Maybe you’re fine, you’ve prepared for it. But fear acts irrationally and often depends on expectations and imagination rather than the raw material. In practice, even people who might not otherwise experience abnormal anxiety are unconsciously questioning whether they should be afraid—all because of the trigger warning. Paradoxically, TWs could thus undermine the mental health of society.
Admittedly, it’s not quite that binary. Let’s consider this scenario C: abused TWs. I’ll admit I’m no psychologist, but neither are the vast majority of TW exhibitors. What most misunderstand is that fear disregards logic. Triggers are very idiosyncratic: not just situations and words, but also smell, touch, audio – it all depends on the individual. Things that may seem dormant provoke acute suffering in others; It is impossible for a publisher to predict what will be triggered across audiences. This generalization of triggers and fear devalues trauma victims who do not experience reactions to TW-ed content, or, conversely, those who experience reactions to non-TW-ed material. I therefore find it irresponsible for lay people to take responsibility to treat others – and this raises further concerns of legal guilt. If an article contains a TW but causes psychological harm to a reader, is the publisher liable for damages resulting from insufficient TWs? A trigger warning is a sizeable claim, so it’s reckless for them to be whimsically tossed about.
So, TW: trigger warning or a trigger phrase per se? Undoubtedly, TW culture points to a society where we are more invested in the well-being of our peers. Nonetheless, it’s hardly fair to try to mind-read the audience and manage their emotions (essentially what TWs develop). Content notes offer an alternative: brief, fine-print outlines of the subject matter covered with no specific allegation of emotional triggers. Still, it is imperative that we as a society stop making assumptions about mental disorders as linear and therefore easily fixable. What relieves stress and anxiety is individually individual and should be developed through therapy under the guidance of a professional psychiatrist – not by media moguls about rampant TW-ings.
Image: Elliar Cheung