Warnings: Of Triggers And Spoilers

Content Advisory

It’s taken me a while to accept that we live in a world where Trigger Warnings are a needful thing.

From the perspective of narrative and argument making I find Trigger Warnings abhorrent: they function as spoilers, robbing stories of their impact and rhetorical devices of their power. The same is true for MPAA and ESA content advisories: if we know what’s coming it’s instantly possible to start piecing together the story, or start picking apart the case. That’s what makes trailers that give away the whole movie so terrible. Sure, there’s still the how of the telling, but the what is right off the table.

Paradoxically the need for Trigger Warnings is living proof of the power of narrative. That words, images and dramatizations are capable of activating traumatic memories is evidence that humans are wired to respond to ideas with great emotional force. If we weren’t so wired then culture wouldn’t matter much at all.

The stories we tell act as mirror and focusing lens alike: showing us the world as we suspect it to be.

(Whether it’s possible to put too much emphasis on the power of cultural artifacts is a whole ‘other issue.)

So the question of whether or not Trigger Warnings should exist—and mind you I think we’re past the point where reasonable people would argue sincerely that they don’t—comes down to whether or not you believe that people have the right to navigate the world without being punched in the face by their past. Without being made to grapple with their demons around every blind corner.

I happen to believe that everyone deserves to have the choice about what they deal with when it comes to the amorphous mass we call “content.” That covers the choice about whether or not a person is spoiled by a trigger warning, content advisory, or whatever else you want to call it.

These two things would seem to be at odds, but we could establish some social norms around Trigger Warnings that would make it easier for people to navigate away from their traumas while at the same time preserving the narrative experience. Because the thing is this: there are some people in the world who can benefit from being confronted with difficult material in a way that shocks them, and others who can only be harmed by that practice.

There’s got to be a way to allow for both of those needs to co-exist without either re-traumatizing the afflicted or never afflicting the comfortable.

Put an advisory on everything—anything of substance whether it tackles difficult material or not—and have that advisory link to the list of triggers, or the lack thereof. For essays put an advisory at the top and link it, or give it the old “invisotext” treatment. For books and movies park those advisories on websites, and make sure that those websites are just a QR-code or similarly simple action away. In a theatre? Have a book in the lobby detail what’s going to be difficult, including those spoiler-tastic “gunshot” warnings.

Because nothing is worse—theatre going-wise—than knowing that a gun is going to go off in the third act when you haven’t even seen the first.

The end result of formalizing Trigger Warnings/content advisories: it becomes every individual’s choice as to whether or not they seek out the advisory. If somebody doesn’t think they have triggers they won’t engage with the advisory. Those who know they have issues will know exactly where to look.

Could you skip the “no warnings” advisory? Probably: but there might be actual benefit to opening up the advisory and seeing that there’s nothing traumatic to be engaged with. I can think of a few people who could benefit from “clean content” bills of health.

Look: Trigger Warnings have themselves become kind of content, and if someone wants to use them as a rhetorical device that is fine. Just be aware that they are a rhetorical device when you use them. They are often wind up as thesis statements that frame an entire work. This can be a good thing when deployed in a conscious manner.

To a certain degree that’s what I’m ultimately concerned with: that people are a little more aware that the what they are communicating is all but indivisible from the the how.