The idea behind “trigger warnings” is straightforward. Usually placed at the start of a piece of digital media, trigger warnings warn consumers that the upcoming content may be distressing to people who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A trigger warning can also be broader than this, effectively acting as a quick blurb that braces consumers for delicate issues that may lie ahead.
Trigger warnings are a divisive topic on the internet. Critics, particularly from right-wing corners, decry trigger warnings as a sign of “political correctness gone mad”. A quick Google search for the term leads to numerous articles criticising the practice and arguing that the internet is only for those with “strong stomachs”. On the other hand, advocates for trigger warnings argue that they act as a crucial filtering process so that people won’t be unexpectedly exposed to traumatic content. The debate naturally gives rise to the question: why is the inclusion of two or three words at the start of content on the internet causing so much controversy?
Censorship is nothing new. Ireland was arguably one of the most censored countries in the western world until the 1980s, with everything from Brave New World to The Catcher in the Rye censored or banned by the government. The eighth amendment banned the distribution of information on how to access abortion services abroad, something was later changed by the 14th amendment. Ireland has very strong defamation laws, constitutional provisions against sedition and until recently, laws against blasphemy. Television broadcasts often warn viewers that the “following content may be distressing”.
Supposed bastions of free speech such as the US are also guilty in this regard. American films have been regulated since 1966 by the standards of the Motion Picture Association of America. The association had replaced the existing Hays code, which limited on-screen depictions of sex and violence and even limited the ways in which films could end (the villain could never triumph). In 1985, Tipper Gore founded the Parents Music Resource Centre, a lobby group that put pressure on America’s record companies to place warnings on albums depicting explicit content. This move was heavily criticised in the music industry, most noticeably by Frank Zappa, who testified in the US senate against a warning system’s deleterious effect on free speech. The centre ultimately prevailed and record companies voluntarily agreed to place warning stickers on albums.
Ireland was one of the most censored countries in the western world until the 1980s, with everything from Brave New World to The Catcher in the Rye banned by the government
So what is the difference between trigger warnings and the examples above? The examples of real censorship above are all either enforced by the law or by powerful groups in societies. They limit what content can and cannot be seen. A content warning system is much more analogous to having good manners and understanding social cues of what is and isn’t appropriate conversation. Far from the hyperbole surrounding the topic, trigger warnings serve to define the parameters of a conversation and warn people in advance of what will be said. They aren’t compulsory, but if you create content on extremely sensitive issues without warning consumers, you are similar to a person who blurts out inappropriate words at a debate in order to showcase your incredible dedication to “free speech”.
So why is a trigger warning so divisive in this day and age? The internet is leading us into a post-civil society. As internet culture increasingly permeates our daily lives, the boundaries of where anonymous forums end and polite conversation begins are blurred, if not erased. People are increasingly challenging orthodox views, and this is to be commended. But do we really feel the need to test the waters and say controversial things just to exercise our right to do so? Traditionally, it was conservative elements of society that promoted censorship and it appears that many of the same voices who are happy with blasphemy laws and tight government censorship are opposed to blogs with no force of law warning visitors that they will handling sensitive issues. It is, quite simply, putting the cart before the horse.
If you create content on sensitive issues without warning consumers, you are similar to a person who blurts out inappropriate words at a debate in order to showcase your incredible dedication to “free speech”
The world wide web began its life on dial-up phone lines and niche forums, usually with strict rules and civil guidelines. As the internet has exploded, so has the freedom to say what you want to say without fear of persecution. It is incredibly hypocritical for supposed free-speech advocates to attack those who wish to label their content and not those who wish to flood the internet with meaningless vitriolic dribble that lowers the quality of discussion.
I don’t believe trigger warnings should be placed on every piece of art and media, but where it is feasible it should be recommended, just like good manners in daily conversation. Free-speech campaigners have focused on the word “free” and ignored the word “speech” and the quality of discussion has decreased for it. When our society is fixated on the voluntary warnings of young bloggers and not the divisive, glib language of those in power, we, as members of civil society, have failed in our duty to promote good discussion.