I've been on most sides of the discussion over trigger warnings. I've written pieces which need a trigger warning, I've added trigger warnings to other people's writing, and I've read things and wished that there had been some kind of warning about the distressing content ahead.
But as the debate rumbles on, fuelled by an occasional outraged editorial or misjudged quote, I can't help but wonder if we're all talking about the same thing. And if we are, why are so many people outraged about a sentence describing what the following piece of work contains?
Let's start by getting one thing clear. Adding a trigger warning to a blogpost, article or syllabus is not curtailing anyone's free speech. It isn't preventing people from reading it. It doesn't change the wording or meaning of the piece. All it means is adding a single line, to warn people who may be upset by harsh content that the following piece of writing contains disturbing, graphic or otherwise upsetting descriptions.
But it seems that the very phrase 'trigger warning' can be a problem for some critics. These same people probably don't object to a book having a blurb, a movie having an age-rating, or even a BBC news-reader saying 'the following report contains images some viewers may find upsetting'. But we are talking about the same thing.
'Trigger warning' is a phrase that has gained public recognition in the last ten years or so, as a way to make platforms accessible to victims of sexual assault and abuse, for whom descriptions and discussion of rape or other abuse can bring up a host of unspeakably awful memories. It has broadened out to include discussion of self-harm, suicide, physical and emotional abuse, homophobic, transphobic or racist abuse and more. Though the phrase may be new, the concept is not.
When I was younger, I struggled with very acute anxiety and panic attacks that left me severely physically ill, as well as deeply unhappy. As I recovered, it developed into a fear of anxiety itself; this thing had made me so sick before that I was terrified it would do so again. I would avoid things with detailed descriptions of panic attacks or anxiety, because I related to it so much. Someone would describe the rising tightness in their chest, the swirling sensations of a panic attack, and I could feel it in response. If I was reading on public transport or sitting in class listening, the feeling was almost unbearable.
An excellent therapist once told me that you don't cure someone's fear of drowning by taking them swimming in the sea straight away. Sure, exposure to things that we fear is part of recovery but these are steps to be taken in a safe environment at a comfortable pace. I needed to be comfortable with the simplest discussions and mentions of anxiety before I could read people's testimonies of mental illness. I can't even imagine how much harder this process must be for those coming to terms with trauma. A warning allows you to take exposure at your own pace, without preventing other people from consuming that same media.
A common argument is that you should be able to tell whether an article contains discussion of upsetting material from the headline. Well, yes and no. A headline can tell you what topics will be covered, but it won't necessarily give you any insight into the way those topics are presented.
Take court reports. Some papers like their reporters to pick out all the gory details: not just the what, the when and the who, but also great detail on the how and why. Others prefer a simple, bare report. See the difference between this Daily Mail report and this BBC news report. Both cover the same trial, an attempted murder case, yet they are completely different. Both are also in the top 3 google results when you search the defendant's name.
The BBC stick to the procedure and outcome of the trial. The charge and verdict are in there, along with two sentences about how the crime was committed. The Daily Mail, on the other hand, describe in detail all the ways in which the defendant harmed his victims and even quote what he said to them during their ordeal.
It would be great if we all had a sixth sense about these things, and could predict exactly how much detail a reporter has given from the headline. I imagine some or many journalists can do so, but we shouldn't presume that same ability of our readers. To presume that people can instantly judge the content of an article from its headline is to make journalism inaccessible to thousands if not millions of people.
Refusing to use trigger warnings can also completely undermine the value of writing. An article is not meant to give somebody a panic attack, bring up unwanted memories or leave someone feeling distressed. Should writing move people? Yes. Hurt people? No. And to hurt people with our words, when a simple single sentence at the top of the copy can prevent it is, is simply cruel. Saying that trigger warnings are unnecessary or an infringement on your freedom is implying that your opinions are more important than somebody else's emotional wellbeing.
Writers should always respect their readers. This can mean challenging people by writing about the most relevant and important stories, certainly, but it also means appreciating a reader's needs and struggles. When a single line can completely change someone's experience as a reader and prevent such great hurt, there is no real justification not to.