On The Difference Between Trigger Warnings And Content Notes, And How Harm Reduction Is Getting Lost In The Confusion

Nuance often seems to be a disappearing feature on the Internet, and this is yet another case where it has extremely harmful consequences.
Publish date:
May 27, 2014
triggers, trigger warnings, ptsd

It seems like you can't swing a ball of yarn these days without encountering a trigger warning -- they've become common on feminist and social justice sites, on media sites that overlap with these communities, on Tumblr, and on numerous other online media. Now, the discussion about trigger warnings, which has been going on for years, is spilling over into the offline world, hitting academia, where students are asking for trigger warnings on syllabi.

Cue huge and vigorous debate about what trigger warnings are, whether "political correctness" is taking over the universe, and where to draw the line when it comes to putting warnings on media, from classic fiction to ancient art to that news article you saw last week. And cue, too, a failure to understand the importance of nuance, and the fact that many of the ostensible objections to trigger warnings could be resolved by distinguishing between them and another critically important tool: content notes.

Trigger warnings were originally implemented with a very specific and very clear function: to tag content that contained traumatic material for the benefit of people who experience panic attacks, PTSD flashbacks, and other responses to such material. Some rape victims, for example, would have difficulty watching a scene in a movie where a rape was depicted, or encountering a rape scene in a book.

Trigger warnings would provide people who know they experience intense physiological and psychological responses to certain known stimuli -- triggers -- with a, well, warning. Which would allow them to decide whether they wanted to consume a given piece of media, or would allow them to prepare for something that might be traumatic.

Even in their earliest iterations, it was understood that trigger warnings are imperfect. Not all victims and survivors of trauma experience intense responses like this. Of those who do, triggers can be highly unpredictable and, to outsiders, sometimes seemingly idiosyncratic. It might be a certain perfume, the blades of a fan, a logo. It might be an autopsy report, or detailed discussions of child abuse.

Trauma survivors and victims are accustomed to navigating the world with the understanding that they will encounter things that could be retraumatizing. Trigger warnings were originally intended as a form of harm reduction -- not as a final solution, or an isolating bubble for people to hide inside so they wouldn't have to deal with the world. And while some people found trigger warnings useful, others did not: and all knew that even if society completely accepted and implemented them, that didn't mean that they'd be 100% safe from triggering experiences.

This is what trauma does to you. It retraumatizes you, over and over and over again.

Content notes, however, are something different. They were implemented as a theoretically value-neutral way to provide information about the contents of something to allow people to decide if they wanted to engage with it. While they can also serve as trigger warnings, they don't necessarily have to be, and they're not always about trauma, though they may be about larger societal issues that cause individual harm.

For example, content warnings might discuss the fact that a book is about racism, or includes violence against animals. People of colour who are exhausted by racism might decide not to read that book, not necessarily because it would cause a physiological response, but because they get enough of that in the real world. People who would prefer not to read about violence against animals, likewise, could choose not to read a book that warns them about that kind of content -- or might skip the content they find unsettling if it's not central to the plot.

Trigger warnings are about attempting to identify common triggers for panic attacks and related experiences and tagging media for the benefit of people who find it helpful to be warned when media contains this material. Content notes are simply flags with information about content, to be used at the discretion of the person who encounters them.

Trigger warnings aren't designed to protect people from content they don't want to see because it would harm their delicate little snowflake sensibilities. They are designed to help people manage their interactions with the world so they can function. Content notes, on the other hand, provide a mix of elements; they do provide a space for people to isolate themselves from content they find uncomfortable, but they also offer a chance for people to make an informed choice about media, for whatever reason.

I like challenging media. I like making media that makes people uncomfortable, and I like encouraging people to think. I wish that people wouldn't try to shield themselves by keeping their worldviews as closed as possible, but that's not what trigger warnings are about, and it's fundamentally not even what content notes are about, although sometimes they are used that way -- as for example when someone decides not to watch a movie because it contains homosexuality.

The shades of meanings and distinctions between these terms, and how they are used, has become muddied, which is a disservice to all sides of this discussion. People advocating for content notes who mistakenly call them trigger warnings (I'd argue that this is what students are really asking for with notes on syllabi) are undermining the importance and the value of the trigger warning. That same muddiness allows people on the opposing side to zero in and declare that trigger warnings are used as tools of censorship or perpetuation of wrong-headed ideas and beliefs.

Nuance often seems to be a disappearing feature on the Internet, and this is yet another case where it has extremely harmful consequences. The confusion over what people are actually talking about creates an unnecessary layer of complexity in what should be a serious, reasoned discussion about harm reduction.

I suspect that many people agree that people who have experienced trauma deserve a duty of care from society, because they are part of our society too. While it's not possible to meet all the needs of all trauma victims and survivors, it's possible to meet some, and the implementation of trigger warnings doesn't cost anything. Likewise, adding content notes to media doesn't necessarily cause harm, and does allow people to make a decision about whether they want to engage with it.

People who have experienced trauma have a complex and very individual relationship with the world around them. The world can be scary to navigate as it is when it's filled with things that could bring your trauma back, and it's even worse when it's filled with people who don't think your concerns about potentially traumatizing media are important.

Creators who insist that trigger warnings compromise their freedoms might want to consider the distinctions between trigger warnings and content notes, and ask themselves why it's so important for them to maintain the "purity" of their art over their potential audiences. An artist can choose to make a statement by not using such warnings, but the artist may want to reflect on the fact that statements can be interpreted in a wide variety of ways by the viewer, reader, or listener. So you want to make people uncomfortable with your work -- but do you want to actively harm people with it?

I can understand and respect the argument for not using trigger warnings on content that sort of trigger warns itself: If the headline is "This Horrible Rapey McRape Thing Is Horrible" and the article summary is about rape, it's probably safe to assume that the article is about rape. Likewise, if the back cover copy on a book discusses the fact that it's about racism in Chicago, it hardly needs a content warning for racism -- just like a photography book on lynchings doesn't exactly need a trigger warning because you know what to expect (that said, it's an intensely painful, important, amazing book, and I highly recommend it -- if you're up for looking at photographs of lynching photography). Likewise, the opening titles on "Game of Thrones" might as well be a trigger warning. But when media contains sudden and unexpected content -- like a rape that comes out of nowhere, or severe medical trauma -- that's when it becomes appropriate to issue a warning to the consumer.

We can have a larger conversation about how content warnings are abused by people who want to shelter themselves from opposing worldviews and content they find personally challenging, but that doesn't invalidate the utility of content warnings. And it definitely doesn't invalidate the importance of trigger warnings.