4 Reasons I Won’t Use Trigger Warnings

Richard P J Lambert
Richard P J Lambert

I’ve been writing online for years. There’s a lot of surprises in terms of what people love and what they hate, but nothing has been so puzzling to me as the response I got to an article I wrote this summer, The Pros And Cons Of Having An Eating Disorder. I thought it was a pretty innocuous, straight-forward recollection of the struggles of having an eating disorder along with the positive things I’d experienced as well. People HATED it. So many people were like “there are no pros” but I’ve never had a negative experience in my life I couldn’t pull a few positives out of, that’s how negative experiences work. There was also a slew of requests that I add a trigger warning to the beginning of the article, or in the title. I don’t like trigger warnings, though, here’s the most salient reasons why.

1. I don’t think readers are idiots

If there’s an article called “I Love My Eating Disorder” it doesn’t need to contain a trigger warning because by the time you’ve read the headline “I Love My Eating Disorder” the damage is done. You know what the article contains, and if it’s not something you can handle, don’t read it.

2. Personal responsibility

When I had to go to a treatment program for my ED the emphasis was about the internal work that I had to do, and to be responsible for continuing that work and being in charge of my recovery. I think this is the only way you can manage your recovery because if you try to police external circumstances instead of your internal reactions you will be fighting a losing battle. The world will never stop being triggering.

When an alcoholic goes to AA they teach a similar attitude. AA as a group doesn’t lobby for prohibition or the closing of all the bars because the alcoholic could be triggered into relapse by the existence of alcohol. They work with individuals to fix what needs fixing inside, so that they are stronger than temptation.

3. They reinforce a victim mentality

When you are in recovery and the people around you treat you like a delicate flower that might break at any moment, you start to view yourself this way too. When they say “I’m going to use a trigger warning so that you aren’t tempted to relapse” you hear “your recovery is so precarious that a simple word may cause it to break completely.” It takes power away from the person who is recovery, it is oppression by elevation.

4. I don’t want people to outsource thinking

You should read an article and draw your own conclusion. I don’t put disclaimers or trigger warnings at the beginning of posts because it poisons the well. It spoonfeeds you an idea that what I’m about to write about is “bad.”

For instance, there’s this idea among the eating disorder community that the only acceptable way to talk about EDs are in the lens of “I am recovered and here is my experience with a terrible illness.” When people talk about their experience in any other way than “I am all the way recovered” they are brow beaten for being pro-ana. This means that we’re labeling every non-recovered person suffering from an ED as pro-ED. That’s ridiculous. When someone writes about their depression, are they pro-depression? We’ve got to keep the doors open for every voice and every experience to contribute. This doesn’t happen when we label the conclusion you’re supposed to draw from the get go.

(Producer’s note: I am adding this fifth point after reflecting on the comments to this article and Fred McCoy’s response.)

5. Just because it’s easy, doesn’t mean it’s right

Most people who are pro trigger warnings have responded along the lines of “it only takes two seconds to do, just do it.” This is entirely the wrong way to make a decision about something. Just because it is easy does not mean that is the decision you can make.

I grew up in a conservative Christian family where we did a lot of things without reflecting on why. The answers were all along these lines, it only takes a little time to be nice to someone, that’s just the way it is, this is just the right thing to do, etc. So, today, having seen that evil and wrong opinions can be done in the name of being “nice” or doing things that have always been done a certain why, I dig deeper for a reason I should or should not do something. Decisions should be logical. Empathy, and being nice, are a part of logic (for me) but it is not temporal niceness. Is treating someone as if they are so delicate, they can not be a full member of the world nice? It may spare them temporary pain, but is that the best for their long-term feelings of self-efficacy? I can’t answer that, but neither can anyone else except for each individual person.

What I can, and did, do was think realistically about the situation and bring up problematic points for discussion. I think these five points are very compelling to me, as to forgoing trigger warnings. But, as always, I welcome reader and writer responses. TC mark

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