So I recently gave my first trigger warning to someone interested in Taken in the Dark of Night.
For context, this was a writer I’ve spoken to on Twitter who expressed interest in supporting my work by buying a copy of the book. I was flattered and pleased to have at least one more reader, but the unconditional nature of the exchange obligated me to say something.
But I may be getting ahead of myself a bit. Let’s start at the beginning.
First Thing’s First
If you’re familiar with trigger warnings and don’t want another re-hashed hot take, you can skip straight to the writing part: Should my book have a trigger warning?
If you’ve stumbled across this blog post because you’re struggling with a traumatic event in your past, then please seek help. Here are some resources:
- for help in the UK
- for help in the USA
- for help in Australia
- for help anywhere else, google PTSD in [your location]
Despite my irreverent sense of humor, I’m pulling for you and hope that you can make a full recovery from whatever hurt you.
Also, unless you have a sense of humor that match mine, you’re probably not going to like everything you see here. If however, you’re looking for an alt-right takedown of trigger warnings, snowflakes, cucks, or whatever, then you’ll probably not like this either. Basically, I wrote this because it was fun and interesting to me, and I hope you feel the same.
You have been warned. Trigger warned.
What is a trigger warning?
A trigger warning is a disclaimer ahead of a piece of content that it deals with subject matter that could trigger past traumas. It is a protective buffer for people who have been damaged by past events, especially horrible experiences involving violence. A sudden exposure to one of these “triggers” can undo years of emotional and mental healing.
Think of it this way… You wouldn’t ask someone who’d broken their arm to help you move, would you? Not unless you’re a sociopath. So by the same token, you shouldn’t force a sexual assault survivor to watch Game of Thrones. Either event would just reopen old wounds, maybe even make them worse.
I am fully behind this kind of trigger warning, by the way. I have family that suffers from post-traumatic stress. (That’s as much as I’ll say, so don’t bother asking, and I won’t engage with commenters on this point.) Reactions to unexpected triggers are real and often just as traumatic as the original event.
There’s a big but coming, though…
Trigger warnings have become toxic.
The title of this post is only half-ironic. That’s because trigger warnings have become a short-hand for far-left censorship, and in some cases rightly so. While there is great value in notifying vulnerable people that something could cause a severe emotional reaction, it seems the definition of “severe emotional reaction” has become much more nebulous than it once was. It appears that “emotional discomfort” is too often being mistaken for “trauma.”
Because here’s the thing with many current uses of trigger warnings: being offended isn’t the same as being traumatized. And if the greatest trauma you experience in life is getting offended, then you’ve lived a charmed life. But because people are equating emotional discomfort with a genuine mental trauma, everyone loses.
Because we SHOULD be getting offended. I’m offended by the vast majority of what comes out of the mouths of the current United States government. I’m offended by many right-wing pundits, shock jocks, and “provocateurs.” I’m occasionally offended by ill-conceived words by people I like and admire, both in media and my personal life. I’m offended every single time that I need to remind people in Taiwan that not all white people are Americans, and I am in fact Canadian. All this – and more – pisses me off.
But I’m not triggered. I’m just offended. And in many cases, I’m motivated to do something about it.
Now, if any of these things that I flippantly actually trigger some post-traumatic stress response in you, that’s a perfectly valid response. I am a member of a highly privileged class and don’t know what you’ve gone through. But I would imagine that if you’ve experienced a genuine trauma, you know the difference between being triggered and merely being angry, sad, or some combination of the two. I respect your right to feel both, and I’m happy to have a dialogue on the nuanced semantics of your perceptions. We’ll only have a problem if you conflate mere emotional discomfort with actual trauma.
Why are trigger warnings a big deal?
Well, besides the fact that people over-reacting to non-issues detracts from people with a genuine problem (like the gluten-free craze that delegitimizes people with genuine allergies or celiac), trite ersatz-triggering waters down genuine responses to trauma. It also gives people a tool with which to stifle debate. Are you offended? Then you can claim to be triggered and therefore dismiss all your opponents points. Or run screaming for the nearest safe space. (Again, a good idea in theory that is often abused.)
Most frighteningly, however, is the fact that trigger warnings have made it into the vaunted halls of academia. And this is the one that really makes my blood boil. Trigger warnings are in our universities and our institutes of higher learning, and fear of triggering entitled little shits has resulted in uninspired (and uninspiring) education. In short, it’s making people dumber.
Now, if you were horrifically bullied in school, should you be forced to read Lord of the Flies? I don’t think so. Should all Holocaust survivors be forced to read The Diary of Anne Frank or Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning? Fuck no. That would be cruel. These are people with legitimate reasons to not want to study a particular work, and some accommodation should be made. But for most of them, the most important accommodation has already been made. After all, these books should appear on a course’s syllabus. Students then have the choice of opting out of the program or speaking to administrators for find a mutually beneficial solution.
It is my opinion as a sufferer of mental illness – depression and anxiety in my case – that my mental illness is my problem, and not others’. (it’s unfair for others to impose their perceptions on my, and vice versa.) Therefore, I should take responsibility for my behavior, and for my behavior when I’m having an episode. The same goes for people who are dealing with trauma. Yes, you can seek out accommodations, but it’s horribly unfair to expect that everyone else in a course (or in some cases the world) cannot experience a piece of literature, film, or art because it makes you feel bad.
Now that I’ve ranted and raved, however, it’s time to come full circle.
Should my book have a trigger warning?
Definitely sort of.
I totally understand you may have just told me to fuck off, but that’s really the best answer: you should definitely sort of give trigger warnings. So why?
Well, I’m still pretty utilitarian at heart. As such, I recognize that even a book with violent, abusive, horrible content as Taken in the Dark of Night isn’t likely to trigger most people. It might make them upset – or even sickened – but it’s unlikely to give them much more than a thrill of disgust. If I gave trigger warnings for my book, however, I would ruin some of this suspense for the vast majority of people who would read my book. Basically, it’s a big spoiler. (And spoilers suck.)
On the other hand, there is definitely a segment of the population who will be triggered by some of the events in this story. (And some who will be just plain offended as I’m perfectly aware I’m dealing with sensitive subjects with which I thankfully have no direct experience.) People who would be vulnerable to harm should be aware that this book probably isn’t for them.
So put it in the book description.
That’s right, just do something as silly simple as putting a few lines regarding sensitive subject matters into the book description. You don’t need to spell things out directly. Not only will this ruin the experience for potential readers, being in-your-face direct about violence or abuse or other traumatic events could also trigger those who are in genuine danger. Instead, use your writer super-powers to allude to sensitive material.
Tabitha is a girl who dreams of vanquishing monsters and rescuing the innocent. Then she is sold to a mysterious man of grotesque appetites. She discovers that monsters are very real and innocence is a fragile thing.
Above is an excerpt from my book description on Amazon. Now that it’s highlighted, I may have even ruined some of the suspense for some readers who can easily guess what shocking depravity will appear in this book that’s ultimately about an elf who kills people. But I wanted to make sure that people reading the book description know that this story may contain distressing content. As far as I’m concerned, by doing this all my bases are covered.
But what if I NEED to include a trigger warning?
Of course, if in doubt, then include a trigger warning. Something along the lines of “WARNING: This book contains references to abusive relationships” or “CAUTION: This book deals with sexual assault.” Of course, you could simply go with a generic, “TRIGGER WARNING: Some people who have experienced personal traumas may be triggered by this book’s contents.” Be aware that the more generic warning is more to cover your ass than provide real support to a trauma survivor, but it’s something at least.
And always remember, that if you’re dealing with any subject you’re likely to offend of upset someone. The recreational outrage machine that is Twitter can find fault with whatever you do. So in my books, the fact that certain classes of people are victimized will offend some people, but other will take issue with the fact that I include strong characters who are also women, people of color, or both. And sometimes those strong characters are victims despite their strength. Fiction is messy and emotional, and different people will deal with that emotion differently. There are some masochistic people who go out SEARCHING for things that will trigger them. These are the rabid bloggers, Twitterers, trolls and pundits of the world, the ones who feed on drama and conflict (and not the fun literary kind). Ignore these assholes. The vast majority of the time, they will scream into their echo chambers of outrage and eventually grow up to be mildly ashamed of their childish tantrums.
So… What should I do with trigger warnings my writing?
In essence, just follow the old adage, “And it harm none do what you will.” Do what you can to minimize what harm can come to the vulnerable, but not at the expense of your voice or to speak truth to power. Put another way: You do you, just try not to be an asshole. That’s all any of us can hope from ourselves, I suppose. Time will tell how successful you, me, or anyone else is in that goal.
Mostly, just write. Put pen to paper. Put fingers to keys. Talk into a tape recorder for some poor sap to later transcribe. Tell your story however you think it needs to be told.
Because no matter what it’s about, it’s going to piss someone off.
Now for clarity’s sake…
My style of writing can be flippant, which could make it quite easy to quote me out of context. So here’s a summary of the salient points of this article, and how they apply to writers.
- Trigger warnings are important for preventing fresh trauma to vulnerable people.
- There is a distinction between “triggered” and “upset,” and failing to make that distinction is an insult to genuine trauma.
- Authors should write the stories that are in them to write.
- Authors of traumatic stories should make that clear in the book description.
- Trigger warnings should only be used when there is a genuine risk of accidental harm, and never to appease the recreational outrage machine.
So what do you think of my little diatribe? Agree or disagree, I’d love to see a few comments below.