Trigger warnings: give me input on them

This post contains a references to extreme forms of violence

So, I’m about to start writing a book chapter or two on religious morality, the question of whether religion is harmful, and so on. The thing that I’m hesitating on is, well… okay, so I’m thinking of starting off with a discussion not of any currently popular religion, but of the Homeric Epics. And how they assume raping and pillaging is perfectly suitable behavior for a “hero.” To the point where the plot of the Iliad basically revolves around who will get to rape a particular female prisoner.

Having just typed that, I’m now feeling a bit ill, and not at all in the mood to explain some of the other things I’m going to be writing about. And I’m not carrying around any major traumas with me. I can’t imagine what reading something like the above paragraph might be like for someone who is carrying around certain traumas. Which is basically the reason for trigger warnings.

I’m going to force myself to mention one other example of this: the fact that a recurring motif in the Old Testament is God forcing people to eat their own children in return for disobeying him. Feeling nauseous again. And I don’t have any kids. I imagine there are some parents out there who do not under any circumstances want to read about that sort of thing, even if it’s in the service of making an important point.

I don’t want to scale back these parts of what I’m going to write at all. Not only am I willing to make people uncomfortable, I want to make them uncomfortable. We should be uncomfortable with the contents of the holy books revered by billions of people around the globe. But I recognize that what’s uncomfortable for most readers may be absolutely unbearable for a minority.

What I’m unsure of is whether trigger warnings are really the answer here. One, I’m worried they’ll just confuse people who aren’t part of those subcultures where trigger warnings are common. And there’s the question of where the line should really be drawn between “trigger warnings are necessary” and “trigger warnings are unnecessary.” The discussions will not be in any way graphic, or even as extensive as they might be, but I do mean them to be uncomfortable. So what side of the line does that fall on?

One other issue is that I personally find matter-of-fact descriptions of horrifying things to be especially stomach-churning. Styles of writing that, for other people, dilute the emotional impact can have the opposite effect on me. I may be in a minority there, but I don’t think I’m alone. Issues like that, I worry, may make the whole business of trigger warnings futile.

  • Sylvie

    I wouldn’t worry about whether the concept of a trigger warning will confuse people who aren’t familiar with the idea – that’s what Google is for. Besides, if it’s not a concept they’re familiar with, maybe they should be.

    I don’t have any opinions on when trigger warnings would be needed and for what topics (I see them most often around detailed, personal stories of rape or mental health issues) but your post around and see if anyone else has input.

  • AJ

    trigger warnings? in a *book*? about **morality**? (this is me, looking incredulous.)

    ugh. fine. whatever. seeing that would probably make me avoid the chapters. not because of my own trauma (which I have), but because I’d think the author was unable to discuss difficult subjects with any objectivity.

  • IsaacSapphire

    By my understanding, if you give a fair heads up on the cover, in the table of contents, and even in opening paragraphs of the chapter in question about what you’re going to be talking about (eg. Chapter 5: Rape, Chapter 7: God Makes You Eat Your Kids), then that counts as an implied trigger warning.

    If I saw a *book* with trigger warnings in it, I would understand that to mean that the author held particular viewpoints, liberal and probably super-feminist viewpoints, and many of those who hold even those ideals don’t use trigger warnings in their books (I mean, pretty much everything Andrea Dworkin has ever written should probably have a trigger warning on it).

    Actual formal trigger warnings are part of a particular context and culture and will baffle or offend those who are not part of that context or culture. And even within that culture, I don’t see trigger warnings used in books generally. The closest thing I’ve seen with any regularity is on the back covers of explicit and kinky romance novels that simply makes it clear what kind of book it is and serves as much as an enticement to someone who *is* looking for that kind of thing.

  • LeftWingFox

    The first paragraph or two in a chapter seems like an appropriate place to introduce the subjects , and a warning of particularly graphic descriptions ahead would probably be appreciated. I don’t think it needs to be explicit as a trigger warning though.

    Book readers are more likely to be committing time to reading the book and expect the subject matter. Blog readers are reading a more diverse selection casually; stumbling across a graphic rape description unexpectedly during a work break would probably result in much more severe impact on a reader’s life than reading it in a book specifically on that topic.

  • Daniel Fincke

    I wouldn’t go so far as to have a formal trigger warning but just introduce the topics with prefatory remarks that serve the same basic function. Something along the lines of “Now, in this section I’m going to highlight some dark and violent attitudes and god-approved actions towards women, children, and people in general that we find in all sorts of religious stories, including biblical ones. It makes me queasy just thinking about some of what I am about to talk about and I have no interest in being salacious. But it is important that we air the reality of what is in these texts and look at them with a critical eye so that we can adequately question and criticize the religions (and their mindsets) that would condone or celebrate such monstrous deeds.

    If you say something like that, anyone who needs a trigger warning has effectively gotten one. You could even add, “if you are not up for the graphic descriptions I understand if you skip this section. I just ask that you take the point that some pretty horrific things are called holy by the supposed gods in Western culture” but you won’t even need to at that point.

    • hf

      That’s more words and more work than a trigger warning! As a reader, I’d much prefer the more compact and skip-able version.

      I don’t know how to address the fact that some people have a negative emotional reaction to trigger warnings. But those people are objectively wrong. ^_^

      • Daniel Fincke

        It’s not about catering to a negative reaction, it’s about it being fairly esoteric outside of specific circles

        • hf

          I don’t know if I follow: do you think the word “trigger” will puzzle people? Does that mean we should say “content note” instead?

    • Chris Hallquist

      I really like this suggestion.

    • Liz

      The problem with that is that it’s non-specific. Someone who can’t handle depictions of rape, for example, might be fine with most of the posts that have that warning.

      I’d vote for something like “Heads up: This post contains graphic depictions of sexual violence / child abuse / suicide” etc.

  • The Other Weirdo

    What’s so horrible about reading about God forcing people to eat their own children? Dude, I watch zombie movies, and I’m an atheist. So long as we both know it’s fiction, who cares? How, when I read about what the Nazis did to people, or the Communists, or the Chinese or the Japanese, now THAT’S a trigger. That’s REAL people behaving like FUCKING MONSTERS, and THAT’S horrible.

    • Rosco

      People with severe trauma in their pasts, such as childhood molestation, rape, prolonged abuse, etc., can be so damaged by their experiences that their brains develop an irrational, reflexive response to certain input. Given the right circumstances, a mention or description of, say, rape can induce in a rape victim a re-experiencing of their trauma. This may range from a swell of powerful emotions (terror, rage, etc.) to a full-on hallucinatory experience (actually re-living the trauma within their own minds). This article is merely addressing the question of whether to warn those readers who may be susceptible to such flashbacks that the upcoming chapter may trigger a trauma-related response in them, and what is the best way to do so.

  • Blue Devil Knight

    Why not just give a warning in plain English. No need to call it a ‘trigger warning’ which is an idiosyncratic neologism. They do it on news shows before they show disturbing images.