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A trigger warning is a short warning, usually at the top of or leading an article, story, or discussion, which aims to reduce PTSD-related trauma that could possibly be activated by reading certain passages or descriptions, or from recalling traumatic events due to these.
Trigger warnings are effectively the same as content warnings, such as MPAA classification boxes on movie trailers/posters or ESRB ratings on video game cases, but primarily for written pieces. For some reason a new word had to be invented, which subsequently become uniquely vilified despite being more-or-less near-identical to those of other media. A trigger warning can of course in some cases encourage exposure to the topic.
The term was originally limited to the context of PTSD and/or emotional disorders, but has since evolved to describe an adverse reaction to something heard, read, or seen. Saying that someone got triggered by something is often used to belittle opponents' responses as silly emotional freak-outs.
“”Trigger warning: If you think this phrase needs to be posted before politically incorrect opinions, you don't belong on the internets.
|—pottskiller, Urban Dictionary|
Thanks to our hyperconnected society, memes proliferate at the speed of light. The idea of triggers and trigger warnings started off as one thing (clinical psychiatric theory for treatment of PTSD) and quickly came to represent a completely different thing (a punchline for online jokes and taunts). In internet culture and especially on social media today, the term "triggered" is a meme used to mock anyone who has a negative emotional reaction to something heard, read, or viewed. Usually the person or group being mocked is considered by the mocker to be variously silly, overreacting, weak minded or easily offended.
Since triggering negative reactions in people is the raison d'être of online trolls, troll culture has wholeheartedly embraced the term, mostly as a measure of how successful their efforts are at getting random strangers upset. As expected, 4chan and Reddit trolls have developed the practice to a fine art. The public triggering of SJW's online has been described as "the fulcrum of alt-right trolls", who believe that all SJWs are overly sensitive to certain thoughts, words, and behaviors.
Clinical psychiatry background
“”A trigger warning is a simple note in [in this context, a college syllabus] saying, "Hey, we're going to discuss something that may cause some of you to relive a traumatic life experience. Please prepare accordingly." Those last three words are important, because that combat veteran or that rape survivor will likely actually prepare accordingly. It's a pretty complex idea, I know. Some people just can't wrap their head around it. What it doesn't mean—but what most people think it means—is, "We might mention something that will hurt your feelings. Go hide in this special room so the bad words don't hurt your precious, fragile ears.
|—Isaac Cabe, This is What Safe Spaces & Trigger Warnings Actually Are, Cracked|
Multiple mental disorders (including PTSD) can become more activated by what psychological professionals frequently call "triggers". Trigger warnings were initially intended to be used in specially designated safe-spaces (such as feminist blogs) for victims of rape, sexual abuse, and domestic violence.
Note that these triggers may be unique to each individual and experience, deeply tied to specific sensory experiences. What triggers one particular person might appear inoffensive to an observer unfamiliar with their situation. For example, a person with autism may have his or her symptoms triggered by a loud noise. In fact many PTSD victims tend to respond much more strongly to things few people would associate with mental trauma than seemingly more direct depictions of violence. For instance a soldier who saw his comrades burn to death might have intense reactions to the smell of grilling, but can watch (and actually enjoy) a war movie just fine. This is by no means universal however, so each case should be approached individually and ultimately trigger warnings likely will not catch the vast majority of individual triggers each sufferer of PTSD has, as each case like each human is different. Furthermore, the reactions to audiovisual stimuli (which trigger warnings usually warn of) is not always as strong as the reaction to smells, tastes or other non audiovisual stimuli.
There is significant evidence that mention of suicide in the media can provoke suicides, although there is a high degree of variation, with e.g. reports of the suicide of real celebrities causing a much greater copycat effect than fictional depictions.
Much like the trigger warning, safe spaces are meant to provide a degree of shelter from emotional trauma. Safe spaces are public "spaces" for people to feel "safe" in, without needing to fear about being judged or subject to offensive persons and material. Safe spaces would include groups like LGBTQ meetings, student unions comprised of minority races, rape victim support clubs, and other activities that involve intimate personal knowledge, sharing and understanding, and where any comments formed out of prejudice and/or ignorance are called out. For instance, if someone has been a victim of rape, and they want the comfort of being in an area where they can share their experiences with other sympathetic people who have been through the same thing, it is not exactly unreasonable that they would not want to be subject to someone deliberately stirring up trouble by victim blaming them and insisting that rape culture does not exist. Similarly, it's not unreasonable for black students to have areas they can go to where they will not have to hear themselves being repeatedly referred to in blatantly racist terms.
Lack of scientific support
Some argue triggers from PTSD are conflated with other issues, making an unintended mockery of people who suffer from traumatic sexual abuse, rape, and domestic violence, which does not help address the root cause of the issue due to it being "wrongfully" attributed to an entirely separate problem.
Trigger warnings, as they exist now, no longer enjoy the support of (some of) feminism; what began as a tool to be used in safe-spaces specifically designed for female PTSD victims has now undergone feminist critique.
The purpose of trigger warnings may have largely been lost amid a growing number of seemingly random and foolish usages, thus rendering the warnings far less useful.
More importantly, there's extremely little scientific research on the efficacy of trigger warnings. Some studies suggest that avoidance prevents the development of a more accurate assessment of threat levels or of new mental coping strategies, resulting in high levels of anxiety when triggers are encountered. According to social psychology 101 trigger warnings can be unhealthy to someone's psychology, as it can cause someone with anxiety to avoid exposure therapy in everyday situations in spaces where they are most often most safe to being exposed to it (such as in universities) before they head out on their own in the world. Furthermore due to group learning others can subconsciously "learn" to become increasingly anxious or afraid about a subject if trigger warnings are repeatedly given about a subject, causing the exact opposite effect of what trigger warnings were originally intended for.
Coddling of adults
Some proponents of safe spaces, however, can seem to infantilize young adults on university campuses. For instance, when Brown scheduled a debate that would likely include criticism of the term “rape culture,” a competing talk was held and announced as a "'safe space' [that] would be available for anyone who found the debate too upsetting." For some, the underlying conviction supporting safe spaces in universities seems to be that they "should keep [students] from being 'bombarded' by discomfiting or distressing viewpoints", particularly viewpoints that originate from, and contribute to, an existing system of oppression against the individuals, and thus are neither new ideas nor original.
A frequent criticism of trigger warnings is that they constitute censorship. Censorship is defined by suppression or prohibition. Trigger warnings often suppress the content, hiding all of the content behind a prompt, splash, or login screen.
Trigger warnings invite prohibition of content as well, sometimes inadvertently. New prompts to view content referring to non-sexual triggers often use the same existing technology used to prevent those under a certain age from viewing sexual content. Also, at Oberlin college a "task force" made up of students and administrators released a document listing possible triggers (which included classism and privilege in and of themselves) and recommended that this material be avoided completely unless they contribute "directly" to student learning. It was eventually retracted when faculty members pushed back on it.
Humanities professors have complained that it has a "chilling effect" on their teaching as there is no way to know what can trigger a student and it is not uncommon for students to complain to administrators due to expecting trigger warnings or that once the trigger warning is given nothing should come up that makes the student uncomfortable and if something does then the professor has committed some wrong. This can cause professors to be more reluctant to talk about controversial subjects.
In the late 2010s, entire careers were built off a populist negative reaction to a campus culture of trigger warnings and "safe spaces", that is thought to invite a broader suppression of speech. Right-wingers like Jordan Peterson and left-liberals like columnist Lindsey Shepard and vlogger Ethan Klein of H3H3 have built celebrity careers off of this negative reaction.
Trigger, or spoiler?
Trigger warnings are in conflict with another trend of modern society, the spoiler warning. The rise in instant media news which obsessively dissects every aspect of every popular cultural thing means that people are more concerned than ever about spoilers: information about a film's or other artwork's plot which may harm enjoyment. The problem over trigger warnings is that they can sometimes be seen as spoilers, but the hysteria over spoilers is itself a recent product of a changed media culture. Today even serious discussions of literary criticism or film studies feel obliged to display spoiler warnings (e.g. the British Film Institute's very worthy and intellectual magazine Sight And Sound, which publishes complete synopses giving away the ending of every film it reviews, began including spoiler warnings a couple of years ago). Because people are incapable of looking away when an article discusses a plot development or of enjoying a work of art when they already know something about the plot. For some reason, the anguish of people unable to avoid spoilers is considered far more socially acceptable than that of people complaining of triggers, and publishers seem far more willing to provide spoiler warnings than trigger warnings.
- "Guide to Ratings," Classification and Rating Administration at the MPAA
- "ESRB Ratings Guide," ESRB
- If you don’t have PTSD, it’s not a “trigger” AgonyBooth.com
- ANGRY MOB! Liberals Triggered Over Mere Fact Trump Appeared on Jimmy Fallon Show
- Conservatives Triggered by Footballer
- I Identify As Trigger-Kin, And Triggers Are My Trigger MemeCenter.com
- Ralph Benko Trigger Warning, How The Trolls Occupied Politics And What To Do About It Forbes.com
- "Public health policy and practice: Media coverage as a risk factor in suicide", S Stack, J Epidemiol Community Health 2003;57:4 238-240 doi:10.1136/jech.57.4.238
- 9 Feminist Arguments Against Using Trigger Warnings in Academia
- Fleurkens P, Rinck M, van Minnen A. Implicit and explicit avoidance in sexual trauma victims suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder: a pilot study. European Journal of Psychotraumatology. 2014;5:10.3402/ejpt.v5.21359. doi:10.3402/ejpt.v5.21359.
- Trigger Warnings vs. Spoiler Warnings: Which Are Destroying Society?, Skep Chick, 2015
- Spoiler Warnings, Trigger Warnings, and the Media Experience, Victoria Rose, Medium, Dec 17, 2015