Trigger Warning: This Post Is About Trigger Warnings

It seems like there is a lot of misunderstanding around the concept of trigger warnings. The idea behind trigger warnings is that before a piece of writing or a video or show or movie, etc. you would let people know if the content includes difficult subject matter that may be a trigger for someone who has experienced related trauma.

The criticism of it that I hear most is that it coddles people and the general moaning about our society getting so weak and full of people who crumble with any adversity. “We’re all turning into pussies” and that kind of thing. (Strangely, people get so worked into a frenzy over trigger warnings that it seems fair to include a trigger warning on this post to say that it is about trigger warnings!)

Trigger warnings are not really there for the purpose of coddling overly sensitive people.

(although that’s not always a bad thing either). Their purpose is really to help those who have already overcome tremendous adversity. More than the people complaining usually have.

Someone who has been through being abused as a child, for example, isn’t being weak for avoiding a movie about a child predetor. They know that it could bring back memories that they don’t need to deal with at that moment. Also, seeing a trigger warning on something doesn’t mean you’re going to avoid it. It allows you to make an informed decision based on knowing yourself and what you feel like dealing with on that day. We have a movie rating system and no one says we’re making our children weak because we warn them ahead of time if a movie has adult themes.

But yes, the purpose of trigger warnings is really for the strong people, the people who have survived things most of us never have to face.

Another way to think about it is if you have a cat and you want to invite friends over.

You would probably tell them you have a cat in case anyone is allergic. You give that warning that an allergy could be triggered. Your friends can then decide to take a Claritin or not come or come and just deal with it. You give them the chance to make an informed decision in regard to their health. Is that coddling weakness? I don’t think so.

Even though I have not been through any traumas, there are times when I would have appreciated a warning about certain content.

For example, back when Brad and I were first starting dating and I was living alone I decided to relax before bed by watching a movie. I scrolled through Netflix and saw a movie called The House Of Yes. The cover is white with a woman dressed in a pink suit. It looks cute. The description said that it was about family secrets being revealed at a Thanksgiving dinner. Family secrets is an enticing plot. I’m always interested when I hear “secrets revealed.”

trigger warning
Okay, now I see the gun in her hand but in the little image on my screen browsing Netflix I did not see that!

If I had looked on IMDB I would have gotten a more accurate description of the content I’d be watching, but Netflix gave no indication that this is actually one of the darkest things I have ever seen in my life. It left me so disturbed I couldn’t sleep. I considered calling Brad but our relationship was too new for me to sob to him on the phone at 3 in the morning. I called my mom, who said, “Why would you watch something like that before bed?!”

And that’s the thing: I had no way of knowing it was going to be so disturbing.

There were no indications that it was actually about incest and murder. If I had a trigger warning on that I could have made the informed decision to either not watch it (I mean, is my life really going to be lessened if I don’t watch a Tory Spelling movie?) Or to watch it with Brad during the day.

I’ll give you another similar example.

I had another time when  a movie did not give me enough information about its disturbing content. I think it was called The Other Woman, although I can’t find it on IMDB. It has Natalie Portman. Its description said it was about a woman adjusting to being a stepmom. I had no way of knowing when browsing through looking for a movie to watch that it was also going to include….SPOILERS…

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Sudden infant death. It is actually about a woman who is struggling to connect with her stepson after her own baby dies in her arms while she’s sleeping. Like she was so tired she fell asleep with the baby in a rocking chair and woke up to a dead infant. Later she is reassured that she didn’t kill her baby, it was SIDS and there was nothing she could have done.

I was pregnant at the time so you can imagine that I had a very hard time coping with a story about a baby randomly dying in its mother’s arms!

I feel no shame in saying that if I had known about that plot I would not have watched the movie. Does that make me weak? To be honest, I don’t care. I know what kinds of content are going to throw off my psyche and it’s perfectly reasonable to avoid it or to consume it when I’m ready and prepared for it. The world will not end if I haven’t seen a particular movie.

It’s like my mom always used to say, “Feed your mind good food.”

How can you know if that food for the mind is right for you or not if there’s no nutritional label?

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • mjm

    sorry i didn’t read the whole thing, but from what i did and if i’m getting the point, that would make perfect sense. that would be along the line of ‘viewer discretion’ advisories or movie ratings so as a 2 year old doesn’t see a honor film that gives them nightmares.

    but what i think most people, myself in this group, see as the ‘pussification of america’ is when you hear stories coming from college campuses that students are upset because someone wrote TRUMP in chalk on a sidewalk. or stories about ‘safe spaces’ being needed because some people where so upset over the election.

    as for movies being ‘mislabeled’, there is a movie called ‘happiness’. it is anything but, it is quite disturbing. or james spader in ‘the sectary’. that one is about SMBD.

    • Ambaa

      Secretary is a good movie! :) Yes, see what you’re saying. I guess I don’t worry too much about “pussification.” I believe that people are resiliant when they need to be. The election was very upsetting. I met up with friends the day after and we were just terrified. Now that feeling has passed and we’re nothing but outraged.

      • mjm

        what is it you are outraged about?

        did you see trump expanded the h2b visa program by 15,000?

        http://www.imdb.com/video/screenplay/vi2232746777

        • Ambaa

          He is an immature idiot who does not know how to run a country. He ran his businesses into the ground. He reacts like a child to every mention of him. He has zero class and zero ability to get anything done. Defeat ISIS in 30 days? Really?! He’s only poised to take away my health insurance and all his advisors are people who want to destroy freedom of religion and make America a Christian nation. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/whitehindu/2017/03/trump-not-friend/

          • mjm

            “He is an immature idiot who does not know how to run a country. He ran his businesses into the ground. He reacts like a child to every mention of him. He has zero class and zero ability to get anything done.” true.

            “Defeat ISIS in 30 days? Really?!” yeah that was never going to happen, just like the wall.

            “He’s only poised to take away my health insurance” so did you have health insurance before the ACA? do you think health insurance is a right?

            “his advisors are people who want to destroy freedom of religion and make America a Christian nation.” lol. you mean his jewish son-in-law? look you sound just like the republicans who freaked out about obama. how he was going to ruin the country. the president doesn’t have that much power. this isn’t venezuela, he can’t re-write the constitution.

  • mjm
  • John Gills

    As an educator, I try to provide my students with a nudge that gets them thinking, but not a shock that will traumatize them or make them withdraw. The Elmhurst College social services also works to keep us sensitized to the needs and concerns of the student body.

    • jamesparson

      I remember being quite surprised over the difference between how history was taught in college vs high school.

      In high school lots of facts and figures lots of PG rated descriptions of wars.

      But in college, I got exposed to the how ugly things can get. It got into how people would kill each other for what outside looks like a small issue, but on the inside was a big deal to them.

      Today, I don’t want the sensitive version. If it is messy and ugly, then that is what it is.

    • Ambaa

      A careful balance!

      I would assume that most students can handle it, but it’s just a case of you might not know

  • Bei Dawei

    “The House of Yes” was a dark comedy (adapted from a play). I can’t imagine why anyone would feel “triggered” over it, unless they were dealing with some seriously warped family-of-origin issues. For a more serious cinematic treatment of a similar situation, try “Angels and Insects” (1995).

    • Ambaa

      I wouldn’t say I was triggered. Like I said, I don’t have any trauma. I just would not have chosen to watch that all alone before bed. It was very disturbing. I thought I was going to be watching something light. A family dramedy perhaps!

      • Anthony Garland

        If you wouldn’t have chosen to watch it then why did you? You were in complete control every second of that movie. You could have stopped it at any point for any reason. So to sit and whine and complain about something where you had total control is beyond infantile. And also the trama or discomfort claim in any aspect especially in its lowest form is pathetic bc just by using your own example it shows how weak and childish so many young adults are today. And again that was just a movie. The point of movies are to take you on a journey to discover what and how stories unfold and resolve. If they were to give you the info you so desperately need to make an “informed decision” then there’d be no point to watch it bc you already know what’s going to happen. And another thing I learned around 4 or 5 is that movies are fiction (most anyway, not counting documentaries, etc) so nothing happening in the movie is actually taking place anywhere. They are critiques, parodies, embellishments, etc etc. Plus nobody could ever stop you from turning off or leaving if any show was “too much to handle.” Trigger warnings and safe spaces have become ways for the fearful and uncourageous. Wanna know how to not be so infantile or scared or whatever and become a stronger person? Do the things that scare you. Listen to or watch what makes you feel so bad and actually think about how you’d approach the situation so that you would come out on top. And if you can’t figure it out ask people whom you think could. Ask multiple friends or family, not putting it up on FB or social media. Talk to people face to face. You’ll be surprised at how meaningless trigger warnings truly are. Be an adult and face issues with the determination and drive to overcome.

        • Ambaa

          Well, since the description on IMDB gave a much more accurate perception of the content of the movie without spoilers, I don’t see why Netflix couldn’t have done the same.

          I’m not saying it was some horrible experience that I’ll never recover from or whatever. I’m just trying to point out that had I been someone who had been through incest or al assault, it would have been very traumatic without any warning.

          As the post says, the point of trigger warnings is not to coddle weak people, but to be kind and thoughtful to people who have already been through situations that most of us never have to deal with. Trigger warnings exist for the people who have already been stronger than I have ever needed to be.

          I thought an example would help, though I am not the person trigger warnings are there for.

          It’s funny that you tell me to face things that scare me, since I put myself outside my comfort zone nearly every day. I’m very determined to grow my soul, and so I do things that scare me and put myself in uncomfortable situations a lot.

          But I still think it is good to be able to prepare for such situations.