Trigger warnings: a broken system with good intentions

This is an interesting thing: a New Review post that looks at the history and present of trigger warnings, and how they’ve moved out of communities online and into public life and spaces. If you don’t know what a trigger warning is, it’s essentially a note indicating that you might be about to encounter something upsetting, something that could negatively affect your psychological wellbeing; they’ve grown out of supportive communities in which people needed to carefully negotiate conversations about subjects that need to be spoken about, but that also could prove detrimental to readers’ health. The roots, however, aren’t quite as simple as the New Review piece paints it them:

Initially, trigger warnings were used in self-help and feminist forums to help readers who might have post traumatic stress disorder to avoid graphic content that might cause painful memories, flashbacks, or panic attacks. Some websites, like Bodies Under Siege, a self-injury support message board, developed systems of adding abbreviated topic tags—from SI (self injury) to ED (eating disorders)—to particularly explicit posts. As the Internet grew, warnings became more popular, and critics began to question their use.

It’s rare to see an article on trigger warnings mentioning Bodies Under Siege, despite its early adoption of warnings as a way for its users to safeguard themselves. It’s a shame, then, that the piece skips over the ways trigger warnings were used there in the late 90s, when I was an active user. They were not a way for users with PTSD specifically to avoid harm; they were for all users – including those without mental health issues – to avoid subjects that could trigger them into unsafe behaviour, or that they didn’t have the mental energy to tackle. They were carefully considered and carefully enforced alongside a list of verboten things that mods would delete on sight: discussions of weights, calorie counts, numbers of self-inflicted wounds, images. Those things were not done lightly. Bodies Under Siege was a community of vulnerable people struggling with mental illnesses of various degrees, and it was built entirely around recovery and support. Trigger warnings and removal of things that could prompt ‘competitive’ behaviour were not courtesies. They were absolutely integral to the community’s existence.

I used a couple of other forums for people who self-harmed, in my teens. BUS was the one that did not make me worse. There’s a direct analogy between one of those forums and pro-anorexia communities; at its worst, it provided encouragement to hurt yourself, and at best it was simply reinforcing the behaviour, a reassurance that self-injury was an OK thing to do. It was not a healthy space. The second, though, tried to be about recovery, but allowed images and discussions of self-injury particulars. It was a deeply conflicted space, as a result: if you were feeling OK, you could quite easily end up feeling worse after a visit. If you were already feeling bad, you went there knowing it would most likely spiral downwards, playing Russian roulette with your feelings. You would, almost without doubt, stumble across something that would likely tip you from ‘maybe I could hurt myself’ into the act.

Trigger warnings on BUS made it safe from that concern. It was a place you could go while feeling awful to try to be strong. It had thread after thread of distraction games, little time-wasting things you could do to stave off the need to self-injure. It had questionnaires to fill in before you did it, drawn up by users and psych professionals, and questionnaires to fill in afterwards. It had resources for asking for treatment, for dealing with emergency care, for supporting others. It had safe spaces for parents, partners, carers to socialise. It had diary threads you could post in and read, if you were well enough, and those diaries came by convention with warnings about the content. If you didn’t want to engage with the illnesses of others, for fear of worsening your own, you did not have to.

Words cannot express how valuable trigger warnings were to me, or to many of the other users on BUS. Not just those with PTSD, or anxiety disorders, or specific trauma-related illnesses; not even just those who self-harmed or those with eating disorders; all of us who used that space benefitted from its policies on keeping us safe.

Trigger warnings on the web were born in communities trying to balance the need to speak with the need not to hear. Those communities were closed, or at least only partially open; LiveJournal communities where membership rules could be enforced, forums and BBs where mods had control over members’ posts. Trigger warnings do not translate well to public spaces – Tumblr tags, Twitter, even Facebook groups, or some of the real-life scenarios mentioned in the New Review article – because those needs are different for the wider community. Interestingly, some Tumblr tags do take content warnings well – conventions have grown up around those tags, and those who transgress those conventions are essentially moderated out by the existing users. But there’s no system to support that, nothing to stop a sustained invasion, no way to organise that space to support that use.

But just as it is inadvisable to add trigger warnings to everything based on the possibility of harm, it’s just as inadvisable to remove them from everything based on disbelief in their effectiveness. In communities focussed on mental health and recovery, trigger warnings are absolutely necessary for users. Whether college classes, campuses or the Huffington Post need the same level of consideration is a valid question, for sure, but it’s one worth asking. If you want people with disabilities to be able to participate fully in your spaces, you’d better be thinking about accessibility in terms of triggers and mental wellbeing as well as wheelchair ramps and sign language. And that doesn’t always need to be in formal language: sometimes it’s as simple as editing a tweeted headline to include the word ‘distressing’, to give your followers the choice about what they click on.

The New Review piece concludes:

Trigger warnings are presented as a gesture of empathy, but the irony is they lead only to more solipsism, an over-preoccupation with one’s own feelings—much to the detriment of society as a whole. Structuring public life around the most fragile personal sensitivities will only restrict all of our horizons. Engaging with ideas involves risk, and slapping warnings on them only undermines the principle of intellectual exploration. We cannot anticipate every potential trigger—the world, like the Internet, is too large and unwieldy. But even if we could, why would we want to? Bending the world to accommodate our personal frailties does not help us overcome them.

There is no way to stop every vulnerable person from coming across things that will make them more vulnerable. There is, however, courtesy and consideration, and a need for equal access for those with mental health issues. Those are not small things. There is a valuable, important baby being thrown out with this bathwater.

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Mary Hamilton

I’m a journalist-type tech-ish geek person, working in that interesting ambiguous place where reporting the news meets all sorts of peripheral skills. In my spare time I herd zombies, design games and write stuff.

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