I first heard about trigger warnings on tumblr. I was in the independent roleplaying community and wrote various characters from comic books, movies, and classic works of literature. Trigger warnings didn’t become something I noticed on a regular basis until last year. That was when everyone except the old geezers like myself started using them. Everyone had their triggers listed in their rules and you were supposed to include their triggers in the tags whenever you posted something. I never used trigger warnings for a long time, but then I started getting hateful anonymous messages to either use trigger warnings or else. I did that for a long time until I quit the community altogether, but that’s a story for another day.
So, what are trigger warnings? A trigger is something that can cause discomfort, a panic attack, or some other adverse feelings in someone who is a victim of a crime, a member of a minority community, or suffering from a mental illness. For example, a person who has epilepsy is triggered by flashing lights, a person who was sexually assaulted by a family member might be triggered by incest, and so on. A trigger warning basically says that this content can be found in the media that is being consumed. On tumblr, we always used the following tags: “incest tw” or “incest cw” (cw = content warning). If something was mentioned, then it would be a _________________ (insert your favorite triggering topic here) and mention.
I have nothing against content warnings, but there comes a point where they become ridiculous. For example, I remember people putting trigger warning tags on gifs because, apparently, someone out there was triggered by them. There were also people who put trigger warnings on other things that, in reality, couldn’t have triggered anyone. For example, I remember someone putting a trigger warning on their blog and including the word bees. I’m allergic to bees and I’m afraid of bees, but a picture does not send me into a full blown panic attack. If it did, then yes, I would be triggered, but I am not.
Recently, trigger warnings have made their way onto college campuses. At some institutions of higher learning, professors have to put trigger warnings on their syllabuses if a certain work of literature or art contains highly objectionable material. The same thing goes for history classes and psychology classes, I’m sure. However, how are students supposed to learn anything if they decide to abstain because a work of literature like Shakespeare’s Macbeth triggers them? How are they supposed to learn about vengeance and jealousy if they don’t read Shakespeare’s Othello? How are they supposed to have anything remotely resembling an education if all of it is censored by a professor who is deathly afraid of a backlash by the students or the university?
The reality is that they won’t. When I was in college, one of my favorite professors was an alcoholic who said nasty things about women. Many people in our class found his content objectionable. However, we had enough self-respect not to confront him directly in front of our classmates. We either went to the department chair and talked to him about it, we transferred to another Shakespeare class, or we just let it slide or skipped as many classes as we could without flunking. Of course, that wouldn’t happen today. This professor would be dragged through the mud, confronted in the classroom, videotaped making problematic statements, and then he would have to answer before the administration of the university for his opinions. And, no, he probably wouldn’t have put trigger warnings on his syllabus to warn little Suzy and Johnny that there would be all kinds of objectionable content in his class.
Trigger warnings exist because the younger generations want their college experience to be a safe space where they do not have to confront the realities of everyday life. The truth of the matter is that everyone is triggered by something every single day. We cannot censor all of the media that we consume. We cannot censor every newspaper or website because it contains materials that someone somewhere will find objectionable. That’s not how the system works, but that’s how these people would like it to work.
At the end of the day, trigger warnings are another method whereby our free speech can be controlled and censored. Instead of writing what we want, we are forced to cater to a few people far younger than ourselves. Instead of teaching the great works of literature as they are, we are told that we have to teach the Spark Notes version where all of the blood, guts, gore, and other evil behaviors are redacted. That’s not how it works and it never has. If we cannot have free discussions in our society, then we are living under a totalitarian regime pure and simple.