Trigger Warnings Aren’t Censorship; They’re A Sign of Empathy

The other day, Thought Catalog producer Chrissy Stockton wrote the brief article 4 Reasons I Won’t Use Trigger Warnings in response to criticism she faced over a previous article about her experience with an eating-disorder. She spends the article criticizing not only the use of trigger warnings but also the people who find trigger warnings useful. Frighteningly, but not surprisingly, the majority of commenters celebrated her coming out against trigger warnings. I’m not here to write an article in response to each of her points about being against trigger warnings, Thought Catalog reader MDR already wrote a great response in the comments of Chrissy’s article:

“As a writer with a past that sounds like you could have gone through various triggers yourself, I would think you would understand the value of a trigger warning. Obviously, it’s your right to write whatever you want. But it’s not your call on whether or not someone should be exposed to something they could find harmful. You aren’t an exposure therapist – your job is to educate but when talking about real, everyday issues that will effect a large percentage of your readers (is the eating disorder statistic 1 out of 4, or 1 out of 6? I can’t remember), there is some responsibility in keeping your readers safe. If not responsibility, I would think and hope moral would encourage this.”

– I recommend reading the rest of the response here.

This isn’t some sort of scathing open letter to Chrissy about why I think she may or may not be misguided/privileged/whatever, there are enough white women being torn apart on the internet just because they’re easy targets and that’s pretty fucked up in its own right. I have nothing against her as a person and if she ever wants to have a chat with me about things I’d be happy to indulge her. I want to use this opportunity to have a discussion about the importance of trigger warnings and empathy. To give you a brief background, I have no triggers. I’m a cis straight male and life is pretty awesome! However, just because something doesn’t affect me personally doesn’t give me an excuse to ignore how it affects other people. Let me take you through the Who, What, Why, When, and How behind the oddly controversial use of the innocuous words “trigger warning”.

What the hell is a trigger and who does it affect anyway?

Judging by the responses in the comments section to Chrissy’s article, I can see that there is clearly a misunderstanding about what triggers are and why people get upset when certain writing, imagery or media do not contain trigger warnings. Those in support of abolishing trigger warnings were people either not suffering from PTSD or people who had risen above their traumatic experience and lack empathy for people currently trying to do the same. So let’s talk about the basics, here is a general and digestible definition of a trigger:

“A trauma trigger is an experience that triggers a traumatic memory in someone who has experienced trauma. A trigger is thus a troubling reminder of a traumatic event, although the trigger itself need not be frightening or traumatic…Triggers can be subtle and difficult to anticipate, and can sometimes exacerbate post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition in which sufferers cannot control the recurrence of emotional or physical symptoms, or of repressed memory” – From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Triggers affect a wide range of people from survivors of child abuse, war veterans, rape victims, people with eating disorders, etc.

Why should I care? I’m not going to censor myself for other people!

That’s a good question! Before I explain why they matter, I want to share a general sampling of comments from people who support abolishing or are against the use of trigger warnings:

  • “Beautiful. As Ricky Gervais once said, “Just because you’re offended, doesn’t mean you’re in the right.” People threatening to report articles that make them feel uncomfortable is ridiculous. Grow a pair.”
  • “So what exactly do people come to the internet for? If it’s for pretty flowers and political correctness and unphotoshopped vaginas, they should really consider looking elsewhere. If you know yourself to be triggered by references to eating disorders, avoid that content. You can’t expect the internet to censor itself, ever”
  • “TRIGGER WARNING: Sorry. I’m not going to construct my writing around your needs.”
  • “The ancient philosopher once said trigger warnings are for he who would prefer to cover the world in leather to avoid stepping on a sharp stone, when it is much simpler to just wear shoes.”

If I didn’t know any better, the people above all think that empathy is the mind killer. But guess what? I’ve come to let you know that adding a trigger warning to an article title or description isn’t a form of censorship. You’re simply indicating that the content you are creating may trigger or exacerbate someone’s PTSD. You don’t have to water down your article or make it less graphic. By taking the few seconds involved with writing a trigger warning you have not only given yourself the ability to write whatever you want, but you’ve made the world a slightly better place by expressing a minimum amount of empathy for the people around you.

There is also a weird sentiment going around that trigger-warnings give people a sense of being a special snowflake because they are “asking” the world to treat them preferentially. I’d like to point out that by adding a trigger warning, you are in fact giving a person who has suffered a traumatic experience a level of power and control that you as someone without triggers have already. You’re not treating them like they are special; you’re in fact empowering them to be on the same emotional and trauma-less level as you.

*If you can’t find a shred of empathy, at least support trigger-warnings because you support our troops and its veterans suffering from PTSD.

When should I use one?

I’m not an expert on the matter of using trigger warnings, but there are a lot of really great resources on the internet about how to use them. It took me about ten seconds to google the information so you don’t have to spend your valuable time doing the same.

Resources provided by FuckYeahTriggerWarnings:

Q: “When do you need a trigger warning for violence/rape/abuse?”
A: Whenever you’re including an explicit description of the motivation for, events during, or immediate impact on the survivor after an attack.
Q: “At what point does a ‘mention’ of violence/abuse need a trigger?”
A: When it becomes a description, either through the context or the details included about the violence/abuse itself.
Q: “Should I use trigger warnings for common phobias”
A: Yes
Q: “What are some other things that need trigger warnings?”
A: Self injury, suicide, threats of death or violence (this goes along with abuse), fat-shaming, thinspo, mentions of how much someone weighs or how many calories are in a particular food item.

How does a trigger warning help anyway? It’s just two words lol.

Oh man! I could go on and on about how trigger warnings help but I’ll keep it short. Just think, by writing two words you are giving a person the power to say “no” to certain types of content. You’re giving them power they otherwise might not have and you’re indirectly aiding in their personal journey to recovery from whatever traumatic event they went through. The use of a trigger warning is a sign of empathy and respect and there’s nothing but positive things that can come out of it. That’s a lot of power in two simple words.

A general message to Thought Catalog about its staff of writers

I don’t expect the people who do not work for you to use trigger warnings in their submissions; your motto is “All Thinking is Relevant” after all. I do however expect better from your actual staff. Having internal writing guidelines about the use of trigger warnings wouldn’t detract from your motto, but it would show a level of empathy, respect, and responsibility to your readers. As Though Catalog continues to grow and evolve, I would expect that your guidelines and vetting process would also evolve over time. Chrissy was well within her rights to write an article about why she won’t use trigger warnings, but the fact that this is coming from a staff member sets a bad precedent for the rest of your team and casts your company in a bad PR light. It would take all of a day to update your writing guidelines to include the use of trigger warnings as well as train the team on what they are and are not. It would add about twenty-seconds to the writing process and it would show that not only does Thought Catalog care about its readers; it’s a company willing to change with the times. There is also the added bonus in that it makes millennials everywhere look a little less self-centered than how the media portrays us.

But then again, maybe mainstream media is right about how self-absorbed we millennials are and expecting the bare minimum of empathy from your company is my jaded mistake. TC mark

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