trigger warning

shannon-chatWhile preparing for our discussion on A Little Life for Wednesday, conversation shifted to the topic of trigger warnings. Do you think they’re necessary? If so, when and where?

catherine-chat2There are so many aspects to this topic that it’s hard to be definitive about it. I think they can serve a very important purpose as guidelines for age-appropriate material but when used as a means to deter people from reading things just because you disagree with them, then no, not good.
jennifer-chatPerhaps we should define trigger warnings. Are we talking about topics that trigger an emotional response? Something that reminds us of a difficult time? Something that triggers PTSD? There’s a big difference between avoiding topics that we don’t like and avoiding topics that actually trigger a severe emotional response.
shannon-chatI totally agree, and I think that’s one of the biggest problems with this issue in general. The term “triggers” is used pretty loosey-goosey these days. Let’s see what we can find in the way of a definition. “[Trigger warnings] are designed to prevent people who have an extremely strong and damaging emotional response (for example, post-traumatic flashbacks or urges to harm themselves) to certain subjects from encountering them unaware.” (Geek Feminism Wiki) Does that sound like a fair definition, or would you make some changes?
monika-chatIt does sound like a fair definition, but I think it can be difficult to peg down what acts as a trigger. When I think of those kinds of reactions, something as simple as seemingly benign descriptions (of a landscape, a structure, a character’s appearance) could bring everything back. It’s compassionate and thoughtful for readers/bloggers to mention potential triggers they notice (I did this with Rebecca Rasmussen’s Evergreen because I know a number of fellow preemie moms read my blog) but I don’t think it’s possible to think of all of them, since traumatic experiences are as varied and personal as the triggers that could cause those “fight or flight” responses.
shannon-chatIt’s difficult for me to make a blanket statement about trigger warnings, since I think they can take on different forms and can be useful in certain situations. When giving recommendations, I do think it’s important to let readers know if there is material people may find triggering. But when we get into the territory of labeling books, either themselves or on college syllabi, I start to get twitchy. I think the warnings serve a purpose and I’m lucky not to have anything that traumatic in my past, but I think we’re walking a fine line when we start to encourage people to not read something—even if it’s for a legitimate reason.
catherine-chat2Agreed. The word ‘label’ is the one that makes me nervous, mostly because I think of Tipper Gore and her legislation to get music labelled for violence and/or explicit lyrics. As an advisement, they can be helpful. I’m not a fan of graphic violence so knowing that a novel has a great deal of blood and gore does go a long way in helping me decide if I want to read it. In that way, it’s a service and I appreciate it.
monika-chatThis is where book blogs and reviews on Goodreads and Amazon play an important and useful role. People are very good about sharing personalized reactions on what they read. A quick glance through the reviews can really help.
shannon-chatThis is what I was thinking. There’s definitely a difference between triggering PTSD and simply not liking something, but I think all readers (if they plan on having good reading experiences) should do a little research before picking up a book.
catherine-chat2Agreed. If something is going to cause emotional harm or pain that is very different than me saying I don’t like violence. I’ll get queasy but is that really a trigger or simply a reaction? I almost feel as if this could go around and around…
shannon-chatThe key to the definition for me is the trauma. If you get queasy and have a physical reaction because you’re re-experiencing a past trauma, that’s different from just not liking violence and I think it’s a more valid reason for skipping out on a book. Still, like Monika said earlier, there are so many different things that can act as triggers for similar trauma that it’s not as simple as assuming all survivors should avoid the same books for the same reasons.

“The kinds of suffering typically imaged and experienced in the white western male realm – war, intra-male violence – are standard. Traumas that impact women, people of color, LGBT people, the mentally ill and other groups whose collective lives far outnumber those most often canonized in the American or European classroom are set apart as different, as particularly traumatizing. Trigger warnings imply that our experiences are so unusual the pages detailing our lives can only be turned while wearing kid gloves.” — Jill Filipovic

shannon-chatI could have quoted almost all of Jill Filipovic’s article, but I think this is one of my biggest concerns. As soon as I read it, I started thinking about books I’ve read recently that could be considered triggering, and most are far outside the white western male realm: The Shore, An Untamed State, Ruby, A Little Life. I’d hate to see those novels set aside for other stories.
monika-chatI love her point here, it’s very empowering in that it allows for traumatic experiences to simply be. There are times when the repercussions seem to take over, but that’s not going to be all of the time. And look at the synopses of these titles. A Little Life includes words and phrases such as unspeakable childhood, trauma, addiction, dark. Ruby: devastating violence of her girlhood, survive her memories. The Shore: abusive home, methamphetamine ravages their family. An Untamed State: a woman kidnapped for ransom, endure the torments of a man. I think there are enough clues here for someone who is currently and actively struggling with the fallout of their own experiences to stop and think, “I need to look into this further before deciding whether or not I can handle this book at this time.”
jennifer-chatSo, are trigger warnings necessary? My personal answer is…maybe. Like Monika says, we should be able to look at a synopsis and know whether or not a book is one we need to be wary of. We need to know ourselves and not expect others to clear the path ahead of us. Each reader knows what kind of books can cause them distress, but true triggers are harder to nail down. Isn’t it almost impossible to truly label those books?


So, what’s your opinion on trigger warnings? Should they be used in certain situations? Are they necessary to protect readers or do they cause more harm than good?