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Trigger warnings are a modern writer’s duty

Steadfast Feminist. Natalie Dulka
Steadfast Feminist. Natalie Dulka

As the token outspoken feminist in many of the classes and groups I’ve been a part of, I’ve been asked about trigger warnings a lot. A “Trigger Warning,” for those that do not know, is a disclaimer at the beginning of a video or piece of literature designed to prevent unaware encountering of subjects that could cause a damaging emotional response in audience members. A huge debate these days in the realm of social activist and feminist blogging revolves around such content warnings. Should we put them on everything? Should we be specific or vague? Who decides what a “trigger” is? Who decides what needs a warning? Why do we even need them? Do we even need them?

I err on the side of “better safe than sorry” when it comes to trigger warnings. As a writer, I put trigger warnings on my pieces whenever I can. As a writer and a student of writing, I have also heard a lot of arguments against them. One teacher asked me if a piece we read needed a trigger warning. It was a personal essay telling the story (in graphic detail, I might add) of the author’s sexual assault. And it contained no warning. I was adamant that it should have.

My teacher asked the class if it would have taken away from the piece had we been warned that it talked about sexual assault. And a general consensus was that it would have been a lesser piece without the “shock and awe” of the assault. The piece, my class concluded, was better because it took the reader off guard.

I’ve heard this argument before: The writing will be better if it doesn’t have a trigger warning. But if a piece isn’t good without its “shock and awe” factor, is it a good piece at all? If it needs to be jarring to be fascinating, is it a worthwhile piece?

I would argue that, regardless of how beautiful and moving a piece is, if it alienates a reader because they weren’t prepared for the content, the author has failed. As authors, our goal should be to make people feel things and question things – not to ruin someone’s day because we were too involved in the pacing of our writing to consider the feelings of a victim. When we disregard trigger warnings, writing them off as “overly sensitive,” we disregard the mental health and stability of people who have deep emotional experiences with the content we discuss. When we disregard trigger warnings, we disregard our readers.

President Obama spoke out on Monday against trigger warnings saying “I don’t agree that you, when you become students at colleges, have to be coddled and protected from different points of view. I think you should be able to — anybody who comes to speak to you and you disagree with, you should have an argument with ‘em. But you shouldn’t silence them by saying, ‘You can’t come because I’m too sensitive to hear what you have to say.’” But the thing is, when it comes to trigger warnings, we’re not talking about “different points of view.” We’re talking about insensitivity to what can be a hugely damaging experience for people who have been sexually assaulted.

We, as authors, do not know our audiences and their lived experiences. We also don’t get to decide what triggers an emotional response in them. Of course, saying that an article discussing something like box fans or the environmental effects of Camelbak water bottles should have a trigger warning is a little bit overzealous. But, then again, we don’t know what can trigger someone.

There is a contingency of writers who think that trigger warnings have gone too far and are too sensitive. And, in part, they are correct. There is a very big difference between the physiological stress response that occurs with PTSD and having a bad feeling when something you read reminds you of a bad experience. There is also a difference between being practical and being insensitive when it comes to this discussion. There is no need for trigger warnings on Buzzfeed lists about puppies or dorm life. However, there is no need to tell someone that their feelings are invalid when it comes to triggers.

I don’t add trigger warnings to everything I write. Nobody does. But I urge authors to be generous with their trigger warnings when they write about things like sexual assault, domestic abuse, and experiences that could have given another survivor post traumatic issues. Good writing should be consumed by all. Good writing with triggering content should be consumed by all who are comfortable engaging in it. It should not be forced upon the unknowing few who will be negatively affected. If your piece can’t be good with a trigger warning, don’t write it.

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