Trigger Warning

Greta Christina

Spoiler alert: This column includes a spoiler for the movie Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back.

Was that sentence a problem for anyone?

Did anyone read that sentence and think, “What has our culture come to? Are we really this weak, this hypersensitive? In a free society, people should be willing to be exposed to ideas they find upsetting—including finding out that Darth Vader is Luke’s father. Do people need to be this pampered and protected from every possible negative experience?”

I highly doubt it. You might have thought it was silly to give a spoiler alert for a hugely popular, much-discussed movie released in 1980—but the basic idea of spoiler alerts is widely accepted. In fact, for more recent movies and books and television shows, we tend to think that not giving spoiler alerts is obnoxious.

So why is there controversy about trigger warnings?

For those who aren’t familiar with the concept, a trigger warning or content note is an alert that appears at the beginning of a piece of content (writing, movies, lectures, and the like) that lets the audience know that the piece talks about certain traumatic experiences—most commonly rape, domestic violence, suicide, hate crimes, or child abuse. Contrary to popular opinion, they are not meant to warn people that content might be offensive. They primarily exist for people with post-traumatic stress disorder (although other people find trigger warnings useful as well). For people with PTSD, being exposed to images or descriptions of similar traumas can trigger serious symptoms including flashbacks, panic attacks, and more. The alerts usually say something such as, “Content note: This piece includes references to rape and racist violence.”

Trigger warnings and content notes have become hugely controversial— whether they appear in academic settings, newspapers and magazines, or the rough-and-tumble world of social media. In fact, when I wanted to include a content note in my most recent Free Inquiry column (“Skepticism, and Emotional Responses to Terrible Ideas,” August/September 2015), I was told by Editor Tom Flynn that content notes are against Free Inquiry policy, because (quote included with Flynn’s permission) “we run edgy and controversial writing without regard for whom it might offend. In that context, appending a trigger warning or content note to a specific article would be redundant. If we didn’t put a warning on the Danish Muhammad cartoons back in 2006, we can probably trust readers to handle anything you throw at them!”

I don’t want to pick on Flynn here, though. I doubt that many of you are interested in the internal policies of Free Inquiry—and in any case, attitudes like this are quite common. Trigger warnings have been described as “swaddling” and a desire for “protections against unpleasant thoughts” (Kathleen Parker, Washington Post); a “desire for endless comfort” that’s inconsistent with “being challenged” (Brittney Cooper, Salon); and “self-indulgent victimhood” (Gad Saad, Huffington Post). In a singularly odd missing of the point, some people even treat requests for content notes as requests to not address traumatic topics at all. (Um . . . the whole point of content notes is that you are addressing traumatic topics. If you weren’t, you wouldn’t need a content note.)

So I want to ask the people who object to trigger warnings: Do you also object to spoiler alerts? And if not, what’s the difference?

A spoiler alert lets people know, “I’m talking here about The Empire Strikes Back, and I’m revealing important and surprising plot developments. You might want to wait to read this until you’ve seen the movie.” We know that many people who haven’t seen a particular movie are irritated when they find out spoilers: a spoiler alert helps them make informed decisions about which movie reviews they want to read when.

Similarly, a content note lets people know, “I’m talking here about a subject that can trigger a post-traumatic episode for many people. You might want to wait to see this until a place and time where you’re better able to handle that.” We know that many people’s PTSD symptoms are triggered when they see or read about certain kinds of trauma; a trigger warning or content note helps them make informed decisions about what content they want to see and when. If one sees a magazine article with a content note, one might decide not to read it on the bus to work; a college student with a reading assignment that has a content note might decide not to read it right before a big exam. A content note gives one the choice to read the material later, when it’s a better time—or not to read it at all, if it’s not actually all that important.

Spoiler alerts and content notes are pretty similar. They’re not identical—analogies never are—but they’re similar. And in fact, two of their chief differences make my case even stronger. One: there is a ton of research pointing to the conclusion that PTSD is a real thing, is depressingly common, and can be triggered by reading or viewing content about similar traumas—while the limited research done on movie spoilers suggests that they don’t, in fact, diminish our enjoyment of movies. Two: when writers don’t include content notes, readers with PTSD might have post-traumatic episodes triggered, including flashbacks, panic attacks, intrusive memories, and more. When writers don’t include spoiler alerts, on the other hand, readers who haven’t seen the movie might find out that Vader is Luke’s father. When it comes to how much harm is done, that’s a pretty significant difference.

And while people with PTSD are the primary reason for content notes, they’re not the only ones. I’ll speak for myself here: I don’t have PTSD, but I do have chronic episodic depression with some post-traumatic elements. And as a regular target of misogynist hate, harassment, and graphic threats of rape and death, there are times when I have it in me to read about misogynist hatred—and times when I really don’t. If I’m having a good day and I see an article or commentary about misogynist hate campaigns, I will often want to check it out so I can stay informed. If I’m having a bad day though and I read a graphic description of misogynist harassment and threats, the images will often stay in my head all day, returning again and again at the worst possible times and making it much more difficult to function. So if I see an important piece of writing about misogynist hate and it’s a bad day, I’ll set it aside and read it later.

This does not make me weak. It does not make me unwilling to be offended. It does not make me unwilling to hear ideas that are disturbing or controversial, or that might make me uncomfortable or hurt my feelings. It does not make me self-indulgent. It does not make me a baby. It makes me someone who’s dealt with a lot of misogynist hatred, has some scars from it, and doesn’t necessarily want to read graphic descriptions of it on a crowded bus at the end of a long, crummy day.

But even if people aren’t simply postponing their “trigger warning” content—even if they decide not to read something at all because of a content note—so what? That “so what” obviously isn’t apt in an academic setting, if a piece of reading is a key part of the course materials. (This actually suggests that in academia, content notes are even more important: wanting a heads-up about a possible PTSD trigger is even more reasonable if you’re literally required to read it.) But outside of academia . . . I probably read less than a tenth of a percent of the reading matter that floats in front of my eyes every day, and I make decisions all the time about what to read and what not to read. If I already don’t read writing that’s boring, stodgy, not on a topic I find interesting, ineptly written, shallow, longer than I have time for, written by an author I don’t like, or that gives away the endings of movies I haven’t seen—what possible harm could it do if I add “I don’t feel like reading yet another essay about misogynist violence” to that list? And if there are a whole lot of people who don’t want to read about certain kinds of traumatic experiences—just as there are a whole lot of people who don’t want to read movie spoilers—what possible harm could it do to give them a heads-up?

It’s true that there’s no way to avoid every possible trigger. Human beings go through a wide variety of traumatic experiences, and, even for common forms of trauma, not everyone is triggered by the same thing. Trigger warnings and content notes are never going to be perfect.

So what? If we can’t fix a problem perfectly, is that really a reason not to minimize it? If we can’t warn people about completely unexpected and impossible-to-predict flying squirrel attacks, does that mean we shouldn’t warn them about railroad crossings? There are a handful of depressingly common traumas that many, many people—far too many people—have experienced. What’s the harm in providing trigger warnings for some of the most common ones? Or, to bring it back to the main analogy: Do we not bother giving spoiler alerts for Game of Thrones just because it’s too late for The Empire Strikes Back and you probably found out about Vader and Luke by the time you were twelve?

And finally, here’s the somewhat harsh question I want to ask: Are we really more concerned about movie spoilers than we are about PTSD?

I’m going to quote (well, paraphrase) from the excellent piece on Every­day Feminism by Sam Dylan Finch, “When You Oppose Trigger Warnings, You’re Really Saying These 8 Things.” When you oppose trigger warnings, what you’re really saying is, “Who cares about PTSD? Sure, life with PTSD can be hard—and I’m fine with making it harder, because it really doesn’t matter to me. I think I know what people with PTSD need—better than they do, and better than their mental health-care providers. Besides, people with PTSD are just whiny, oversensitive crybabies who can’t handle the real world. Sure, we label foods with allergens, and we label the deep ends of swimming pools—but labeling content with common trauma triggers is just ridiculous, because . . .reasons. And I don’t 
care if the one thing you remember about my essay or my class is the panic attack you had in the middle of it. The mild inconvenience of adding a few words to the beginning of my content is way more important to me than your PTSD.

“But making sure you don’t find out how The Empire Strikes Back ends? Now, that’s important.”

Is that really what you want to say?


From the Editors: Free Inquiry’s author guidelines include the following instruction on content warnings: “Since Free Inquiry encourages authors to engage in free and untrammeled inquiry, it is understood that any article may contain material some readers or members of the public may find offensive or disturbing. Content warnings (so-called ‘trigger warnings’) for individual articles (‘This article discusses rape,’ ‘This article presumes that the Apostle Paul engaged in conscious fraud when writing his scriptures’) are not permitted, as they would be redundant.”

Greta Christina

Greta Christina is an author, blogger at The Orbit, and speaker. Her latest book is The Way of the Heathen: Practicing Atheism in Everyday Life (Pitchstone Publishing, 2016).


The case for “trigger warnings” and similar content notes.

This article is available to subscribers only.
Subscribe now or log in to read this article.