In the beginning, the Internet created the trigger warning, and it was good.
Filtering through content on the Internet is no easy feat, as anyone trying to avoid spoilers to their favorite TV shows will tell you. Whether you’re going through your Facebook feed or Tumblr dash, you don’t really get to choose what you see, the intelligence of search algorithms be damned. As of now, nobody has invented a foolproof way to avoid spoilers, or useless advertisements, or the softcore porn your weird Facebook friend nonchalantly shares with everyone. But the Internet did propagate the trigger warning — a kind of tag (or sometimes hashtag, I guess) attached to articles and other pieces of media that contain graphic, sensitive material, such as sexual assault, child molestation, suicide, domestic abuse, and other things that might send certain individuals into full-blown anxiety attacks. The idea was, acknowledge that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a serious thing, and expand the safe space.
And for a while, the trigger warning was a good and helpful thing. Still is, when used properly. The presence of the trigger warning allowed PTSD sufferers to wade through their feeds with little to no fear of being pulled and dragged away by the current of trauma. The trigger warning was the internet’s way of saying, “The world has hurt you, so we won’t, or at least we’ll do our best not to.”
The field of psychology is a bigger deal than ever before, and it’s easy to observe this change in thinking. We’ve become increasingly sensitive about how to approach depression. You’ve probably shared a comic strip or infographic defining anorexia, insomnia, or gender dysphoria. We cling to Myers-Briggs Type Indicator classifications, even though your INFJ personality label is just about as effective as your zodiac sign in explaining who you are. It’s surprising — inspiring even — that in a country like the Philippines, where seeking psychological treatment is still largely stigmatized, people are becoming more considerate of the mind’s quirks and tics and ailments. We are trying very hard to be nice, sensitive people, which is great. Usually.
But when students from Columbia University start insisting that Ovid’s Metamorphosis should come with a trigger warning, or when someone from Rutgers University says The Great Gatsby should come with its own cautionary note, things get a little tricky. Where do we draw the line? Do caution signs have as much of a place in official curricula as they do in certain news publications? The line of thinking here seems to be, if anything can be a trigger, then you can put a trigger warning on anything. Mishandling the power of the trigger warning seems like a hella American thing, but it’s easy to imagine these kinds of overreactive measures happening in the Philippines, where people make jokes about Mayweather’s race, but raise pitchforks and torches when someone calls us indios, and where people share articles from The Onion with dead seriousness. God forbid hypersensitivity becomes a “thing” in local universities, and Noli Me Tangere gets stamped with a trigger warning for scenes depicting old Spanish friars doing ungodly things.
Stick a trigger warning on anything that might cause any amount of distress, and it loses its power. Everything is scary, so nothing is scary, and the issues that plague the minds of PTSD sufferers, and the stories that make them human, become downplayed. The story of a woman finding it in herself to finally blame her attackers and not herself for her years of abuse can stand as a tale of hope, but is also eligible for a trigger warning. Must a story of triumph against an oppressive memory be presented with a disclaimer that basically says “AVOID” in bold letters?
Should Mad Max: Fury Road have come with a trigger warning for people who’ve witnessed car collisions? Should Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke have come with its own disclaimer? The world can be a cruel, offensive, traumatizing place, sure. But there is something amiss if the popular response to what surrounds us is to ensure that we are never shaken up. Thing is, art and literature aren’t obligated to make you feel safe, or happy. (And college is supposed to be a place of free thinking and speech.) In order to impart some greater truth, art is sometimes obligated to cause discomfort. And when art is weighed down by the prefix of a trigger warning, that isn’t sensitivity anymore. That’s censorship.
There is a good chance that the trigger warning as a phenomenon was a fad all along, and will eventually die. Already, people are finding ways to make fun of and tear down the notion of hypersensitivity. (“Maybe hot chocolate wants to be called beautiful chocolate, just once!!!”) Or maybe, it shouldn’t die. Maybe a friendly warning still has a place in cyberspace, where the SafeSearch option is just an illusion. Maybe, for the same reason no one rings the fire alarm when someone lights a candle, the trigger warning should be used sparingly, out of respect, for the things it really needs to be applied to.