Warning: May contain triggers

When does sensitivity turn into censorship?

Apparently you know you’re on a feminist blog when an article is prefaced with a warning for ‘triggers’. This usually means that the piece contains mention of topics that might upset the reader. The warning suggesting that reading about particular topics (such as abuse or mental illness) might provoke a distressing emotional response (such as flashbacks of a traumatic event, urges to self-harm or binge-eat).

Whilst I do have respect for individuals who wish to avoid coming into contact with material they find difficult, I think this attitude can be taken too far. I saw a ‘feminist blogger’ post that she thought that there were some topics that you can’t make jokes about, such as rape, murder or eating disorders. Her rational was that the joke might be triggering to someone, even if they as not involved and only overhear it. While I think jokes like that are pretty bad taste, I was interested in her point that we must at all lengths avoid saying things that might trigger others.

Many people enjoy quite dark comedy. Have you ever heard a dead baby joke? Been on Sickipedia? Or seen pretty much any of Frankie Boyle’s stand-up material? Controversial, morbid and often down-right offensive humour is pretty popular. People seem to enjoy laughing at the topics they feel they really shouldn’t! Maybe it’s a bit of a survival mechanism, there are many awful things in the world, and maybe it’s better to laugh about them then to dwell and cry. Should we censor comedians from from making these kind of jokes? There’s been considerable research into how depictions of beauty in the media can contribute to low self-esteem and poor body image. Should diet and beauty magazines be on the newsagent’s top shelf, where they won’t be seen by impressionable young people?

It’s a sad fact that to someone who has mental health difficulties or has experienced a particular trauma, there are many situations that could trigger difficult feelings. But should we wrap that person in cotton wool and try and try to prevent them coming into contact with any potentially triggering instances?

I’m not sure I agree with that. I attended an eating disorders clinic where there were no fashion or gossip magazines in the waiting room. The only publications they had were on topics such as interior design and animal welfare. The toilet doors could only be locked with permission from the staff and there were no mirrors within. I do appreciate that their intention was probably to create a safe space away from elements that sufferers may find difficult, but it did feel rather patronising. Did they really think I was so fragile that I couldn’t look at my own reflection? What if I caught sight of myself in the glass of one of the windows? Should eating disorder sufferers be prevented be prevented from coming into contact with any reflective surface for fear of triggering them?

Once you left the clinic, you were back in the world of billboards advertising beauty products, diet books, weight-watchers and Heat magazine. That is, the real world. A world that does contain a number of things which can be difficult to come into contact with for various people for various reasons. But that’s life. I have worked with survivors of trauma who have gone to great lengths to avoid coming into contact with situations that remind them of their trauma. It doesn’t work. The avoidance only served the prolong their distress, whilst imposing great restrictions on their lives.

Part of recovery and coming to terms with your experiences usually does involve coming into contact things that might remind you of them, or trigger related thoughts. Even if you have very sensitive friends who never mention said triggering thing, there will be films, events, television programs, that you might not be expecting and ready to avoid. You can’t go hide on the moon from these things. While I’m not advocating that a someone struggling surround themselves with things they find challenging, coming into contact with it in small doses may be part of the process of learning to live with it and react to it in a healthy way. This kind of ‘positive risk-taking’, where someone accepts a bit of uncertainty, can be very empowering. To tolerate coming into contact with a trigger, to feel the difficult feelings, but to live through it, to survive. We can’t always be afraid of feeling bad and these experiences can help a person to grow stronger. Feeling sad, distressed, remembering difficult times in the past, these are normal experiences. We cannot completely control the triggering elements that are out there and I think they’ll be all the harder to deal with if you spend the rest of your life entirely shielded from them. Individuals may feel they need to avoid certain things until they are in a stronger position to come into contact with them, bur this is their own responsibility to look after themselves. Being sensitive to their needs needn’t mean overly censoring their world.


3 thoughts on “Warning: May contain triggers

  1. A very good post. It reminds me of the whole idea that people’s immune systems are getting weaker because of all the anti-bacterial stuff we use these days. Shielding yourself from the real world might work some of the time, but you can’t just blame everyone else when something slips through a crack in your little bubble and you can’t handle it.

  2. I don’t think people with the potential to be triggered (and I am one of them) necessarily expect to be able to control all aspects of life. What I do like, though, is having some control over when I read something that might trigger me. So when I see trigger warnings that apply to me I think ‘cool, ok, maybe don’t read this blog on the bus’.

    As for the humour thing…was there more context to that assertion than triggering I wonder? There is a discussion to be had about power within comedy – are the people making the joke kicking up or down? I have a pretty dark sense of humour but I don’t always enjoy it in other people, particularly when the people making the jokes aren’t likely to ever experience what they’re joking about.

    It’s also about context. I know my friends believe certain things and act in certain ways, so when they say something that could be seen as denigrating I know they don’t mean it. If someone I don’t know says that stuff then I’m far less likely to tolerate it because I can’t reliably tell whether it’s really a joke or a ‘joke’.

    All of this said, I think you’re right that challenging yourself can be healthy and useful in the long term. I’m just not sure about the power structures that allow the ‘challenging’ things (magazines, some types of comedy etc) to go unchallenged.

  3. I think it is reasonable to introduce or summarise any article on whatever topic, so the reader has some idea what to expect. On TV in the UK we frequently have warnings about content of a programme, which is now repeated so often it tends to ‘water down’ the effect, but still basically sound. Whether people are willing to read on and challenge their phobias is their choice.
    However I agree that the ‘real world’ can be more shocking at times. The fundamental issue we have in our society is that mental health is often a topic people don’t want to talk about; often more challenging than physical disability. And yet 1 in 5 (I think, not sure?) will suffer from some from of mental health issues during their lifetime. Good post.

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