A few months ago I was a vehement defender of trigger warnings. The idea of preparing readers in advance for material that may be stressful or offensive seemed like common decency to me. While the world could be a harsh and uncompromising place, and life came with no such thoughtful forewarnings, there was no reason that writers couldn’t employ a bit of foresight and courtesy to make readers’ experiences better, right?
Then I came across a piece with a clearly defined trigger statement, and I read it anyway. I was profoundly affected by what I read. It certainly did what it said on the can.
Yet when I set off on that reader’s journey, slowly wading into that sad, sad tale, I was filled with dread from the first par. It was as if I’d been awoken by a strange noise, and I was creeping down the hallway phone in hand, 111 dialed and my finger hovering over the ‘call’ button. I knew something bad was coming, and the hair on the back of my neck stood on end just waiting for the inevitable terrible plot twist.
Would I have been upset by what I read without the trigger warning? Absolutely. Would it have been worse if I hadn’t known what was coming? I’m not sure.
What I realised when I reflected on the experience was that the trigger warning itself automatically brought my reference points to the fore. It was almost like the trigger warning made sure that all of my demons were in the audience before the show began. With my clan of traumatic memories summoned from their usual deep resting places, they were ready and waiting to reach out and whisper, “that sounds familiar… do you remember that time when…?”
To which the answer was always, obviously, affirmative. Yes, I remember. Even though I wish I didn’t. Now would you please shut up so I can watch the show?
The trigger warning spoke to me and reminded me of things I didn’t want to think about. It marked me as a victim even when I thought of myself in different terms.
The thing is, the title, the standfirst, the imagery and the tone gave the game up anyway. Most stories give their readers a basic idea of what they’re about very quickly. They build a narrative before they’ve even begun, from the moment we read the title. Unlike television or video, when affected viewers have to fumble for the remote or the stop button while traumatic scenes are flashing before their eyes, we can simply stop reading at any time.
The trigger warning, however, reinforces the seriousness of the content. For those who’ve never been traumatised, their eyes glide on to the opening line. For those who have, the trigger warning speaks to them personally.
And that’s the thing about those lived experiences – whether you conceptualise them in a framework of victimhood or survival, they’re profoundly personal and individual. In our modern climate of speaking out, it can sometimes seem that there’s a push for victims and survivors of various traumas to deal with their experiences in certain ‘right’ or ‘healthy’ ways. But it doesn’t work like that. Empowerment and healing mean entirely different things to different people. And that’s okay.
So for me, the jury is out on trigger warnings. Personally, I think I’d prefer to let sleeping dogs lie, rather than waking them up so they can salivate in anticipation. It was hard enough to get them to sleep in the first place.