Free Speech

Yes to trigger warnings, no to censorship

Warnings should be reserved for content that can harm, not just offend
Photo: Wendy

I’ve seen more than a few negative opinion pieces recently on the subject of trigger warnings — some written by people I respect and with whom I normally find myself in agreement.

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It would appear that many are now reaching the breaking point with trigger warnings. They’ve had enough of over-the-top coddling aimed at protecting readers from pretty much everything and everyone.

Let’s make something clear: trigger warnings are not meant for content that is contrary to one’s point of view or deemed offensive. Someone’s religious or political views may upset you, but that’s different from triggering content that could send someone spiralling into depression or a panic attack.

Safe spaces and free speech

Excessive demands to include trigger warnings on university course books and even class debates seem counterintuitive in the context of the uncomfortable and messy conversations one must have in a learning space in order to evolve and grow. There isn’t a “safe space” big enough to protect us from being offended, and that’s okay.

Free speech is too important to be tampered with, and censorship is never the solution to anything. People need to understand the difference between a desire not to be confronted with anything contrary to their opinions and a desire to warn people that something they’re about to read or see may be harmful to their emotional well-being.

Let’s start with the definition of this much-utilized and much-maligned expression. A trigger (or content) warning (sometimes abbreviated as TW or CW) is simply a statement at the start of a news article, opinion piece, or video alerting the reader or viewer to the fact that it contains potentially distressing (triggering) material.

How we define and use words matters, because they’re often hijacked by those with a different agenda.

Those who abhor trigger warnings often seem to think only weak-minded, easily offended individuals use them and that these whiners really have no business browsing the Internet anyways. They claim it infantilizes people, creates the illusion of safety, and prevents young adults from developing the kind of thick skin needed to navigate the real world where no one notifies us when we’re about to come face-to-face with a sexist, a racist, or just an all-around nasty human being.

Words ultimately have the meaning we ascribe to them. How we define and use words matters, because they’re often hijacked (and occasionally combined with other words) by those with a different agenda. Think of how so-called “men’s rights advocates” throw around the term “feminazi” to discredit feminism (as though no one was as closely linked with the struggle for gender equality as the Nazis).

Gamergate and SJWs

I’ve seen similar attempts to dismiss “social justice warriors,” as if caring about the world and how to improve it should be cause for derision and the kind of uppity moral fervour one reserves for damaging tropes.

When someone spits out “social justice warrior” with contempt, they are conveniently forgetting (or perhaps completely unaware) that the term became highly popularized during the online backlash against women in gaming known as Gamergate, when it was deployed as an insult of the worst kind. SJWs are whiny, self-important, constantly-looking to-be-offended individuals, right? Wrong.

What the term really means is a person who expresses or promotes socially progressive views. Unfortunately, those who want to dismiss, mock, or denigrate social justice advocates will always maliciously call them SJWs. Anyone who cares about an issue immediately gets called an SJW on the Internet, rendering the insult utterly meaningless.

As with trigger warnings, too many people are dismissing something without necessarily understanding why it’s valid and necessary.

Trigger warnings aren’t for everyone

Saying “I don’t need trigger warnings to read something offensive and neither should you” is ultimately meaningless and self-absorbed. Trigger warnings aren’t about the person who doesn’t need them — they’re for the person who does.

A simple, short advisory note at the beginning of an article doesn’t in any way prevent someone from reading it if they want to. What it does, however, is prevent someone from reading it if they feel emotionally unable to, or help them psychologically prepare to read it, knowing there is something that may upset them.

Are we so devoid of empathy that we are unable (or unwilling) to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes — to “climb inside of his skin and walk around in it” as the recently deceased author of To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee, so beautifully put it? What are those who mock trigger warnings arguing for, exactly? The right not to be considerate of someone else’s pain and discomfort?

Trigger warnings aren’t there to protect people from being offended. They’re there to protect people from being harmed.

If you’re one of the lucky ones fortunate enough not to have experienced violence of any kind — such as rape, domestic abuse, incest, war crimes — count your blessings. But you can’t speak for those who have. Past trauma continues to re-victimize its victims. It resurfaces when you least expect it, often in strange and unpredictable ways. Survivors are all around us, most of the time dealing with their wounds in silence and trying to lead a normal life.

People who don’t shy away from facing their demons have my admiration, but that doesn’t mean that the ones who prefer to be warned are weak.

Trigger warnings aren’t there to protect people from being offended. They’re there to protect people from being harmed. Just because you don’t need them in any way, shape, or form doesn’t mean you can’t, or shouldn’t, understand their value.

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