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Trigger warnings: what should you be told before you read this piece?

I have an inexplicable fear of dead birds. Seeing that tell-tale raggedy bundle of feathers at the side of the road is enough to break me out in hives, and even being in a tea-shop with an ironic hipster stuffed owl can make me feel anxious. It’s a silly, harmless phobia – but to me it feels real. If I’m with a friend and they spot a dead bird further down the road, most of the time they will tell me, so I can cover my eyes as I walk past. This simple act of courtesy helps me to avoid discomfort.

Why then are our feathers so ruffled (sorry) by the idea of online trigger warnings? They serve the same purpose: help people avoid things that are personally uncomfortable to them. More than that, though, they can save people from the unbearable flashbacks and panic attacks that are associated with post-traumatic stress disorder. For survivors of rape, domestic violence or eating disorders, being warned to expect difficult content isn’t just useful – it can be crucial.

When the terrible story of Majella Lynch, who died as a result of a gruesome sexual assault, came to light last week, many publications (the Guardian included) did not include trigger warnings on their coverage. Many also included upsetting and grisly details of the assault in their headlines. Should survivors of sexual assault reading this have been given a chance to opt out?

It’s not as if we aren’t exposed to trigger warnings all the time – we’ve all heard the “scenes you may find distressing” disclaimer before an episode of EastEnders. In court cases, jury members are frequently warned that they will be exposed to upsetting material, as the judge did at the start of the trial of Lynch’s alleged murderer.

In Times columnist Mick Hume’s new book, Trigger Warning, he argues that trigger warnings hinder free speech and are indicative of a society that aims to wrap people up in cotton wool. In some cases, that could be true. Putting a trigger warning in front of an article about meat, Katie Hopkins or, indeed, dead birds, is helping nobody. On some feminist groups and Tumblrs, triggers are frequently used as a joke. On a feminist Facebook group I am part of, I’ve seen triggers for discussions about Katie Hopkins, YikYak and meat. We might find these things distasteful for reasons of our own, but it’s unlikely that anyone has suffered a panic attack because of picturing Hopkins’ face.

But being triggered – emotionally, psychologically – is not the same as simply not liking something. Those with post-traumatic stress disorder, once triggered, may experience panic attacks, tension, anxiety, insomnia and emotional numbness. No, they are not “delicate flowers”; they are battling an illness caused by something terrible happening to them. Demolishing the braveness that they have had to develop in order to cope and forcing them to confront memories that are unimaginably painful, all because we think that we shouldn’t “wrap people in cotton wool”, is not just insulting, it’s dangerous.

When the music video for Rihanna’s new single, Bitch Better Have My Money, was released this month, I wondered about women who have suffered domestic abuse and may have unwittingly watched the video. In it, a woman is depicted being beaten in graphic detail. The official video was uploaded on to YouTube without a warning before it begins. While critics have been divided as to whether the video is comical, arty or grossly offensive, should we also be asking if a trigger warning was worth considering?

There are some occasions when trigger warnings don’t work, or are unfeasible. AsKaty Waldman pointed out on Slate, putting a trigger warning in front of a tweet, for instance, might seem silly. And I’ve sat in feminist discussion groups where someone has actually called out “Trigger warning!” – akin to shouting “Bingo!” – the moment a difficult topic was broached (yes, you can hear the exclamation mark) and considered a touch daft. But adding a trigger warning when it makes sense to, on an article you are about to share on Facebook or Tumblr, for example, takes a matter of seconds, and could prevent someone you know from experiencing an unnecessary flashback.

In the end, yes, perhaps using trigger warnings is “wrapping people in cotton wool”. Perhaps more feminists should expose themselves to things they find uncomfortable – as our critics like to say, perhaps we should “get in the real world”.

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But if using trigger warnings helps someone recover from a debilitating illness, or protects them in the wake of a traumatic experience, then who am I to say that they’re wrong? We would do everything we can to help a friend who had experienced trauma in real life – online, using a trigger warning is a small gesture of solidarity that can make a huge difference. If people who need trigger warnings are wrapping themselves in cotton wool, I’ll let them pick it off for themselves.


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