Trigger Warnings Aren’t Censorship

A nice discussion here:

2. Trigger warnings are already common, and have been for a long time.

hbo violent content

Every time the news warns you before watching a piece of violent video footage, that’s essentially a trigger warning. When you watch HBO and there’s that pre-show list of all the violence, nudity, and sexual content you’re about to see, that’s a trigger warning. All we’re asking is that some of those trigger warnings list “rape” instead of lumping it under “sexual content,” or say “violent hate crimes” instead of “violence,” for example. It isn’t wrong to ask that they let us know which episode of American Horror Story will cheaply involve rape to move along a mediocre plot. Some people need to know that kind of stuff in advance.

15 thoughts on “Trigger Warnings Aren’t Censorship

  1. The analogy to already-existing movie ratings is poor.

    The purpose of the MPAA ratings of movies in the US is not to alert a general audience member about content. Instead, according to the MPAA website, the ratings are to alert parents about content so they can decide whether to take their children. I’m not as familiar with the ratings systems in Britain and other countries, but based on their own website, the BBFC ratings in the UK also seem to be explicitly about judging content on whether it is age-appropriate.

    Furthermore, both ratings systems do actually grow out of censorship policies. The MPAA ratings were put into place in the 1960s as part of the move away from the Hays code that censored movies for 30 years. And the BBFC used to be called (until 1985) the “British Board of Film Censors”.

  2. Peter, if you read the article closely, the analogy isn’t to MPAA movie ratings, it’s to the type of content warnings you get on TV networks like HBO. And those are aimed at adult viewers as much as parents – e.g., they warn about rape, hate crimes, graphic violences, etc, and the descriptions of these warnings specifically mention viewers who might find these depictions upsetting.

  3. That trigger warnings on television are useful does not mean that they are in the university classroom.

    Many of us have inner demons and traumas that are psychically painful to face, but from what I’ve seen, sooner or later, they catch up with us and we have to face them.

    People at the age they generally attend universities are in a good position to face those inner demons and traumas. First of all, they are young enough to learn new strategies for dealing with them, unlike older people whose mentality becomes more rigid and thus, less capable of learning new strategies, new ways of seeing.

    Second, most universities, as far as I know, have free pyschological counselling services, available to help students deal with their problems. Those counselling services should be educated and trained to specifically treat traumas coming from past experiences. While I’m aware that university professors can be unfeeling and insensitive to students’ pain, generally in most faculties there are at least a few empathetic souls, whom students can rely on.

    Leaving the university, students often face a very different world. They learn that psychological counselling is expensive and/or very insufficiently covered by health insurance. Although university faculty can be insensitive, as I noted above, they are models of empathy compared to most bosses in work situations where the only thing that counts is how much you produce or sell.

    Having to deal with one’s inner demons or traumas while working in most corporate settings, pressured to produce or sell more by the needs to make ever higher profits without access to decent therapy. is a nightmare that many have to face.

    It seems far better for students to face their inner pain in a classroom setting, where therapy and counselling are at hand.

  4. Magicalersatz: In fact, the ratings on TV are specifically designed for parents/children:

    TV-Y – This program is designed to be appropriate for all children.[41]

    Programs rated TV-Y are designed to be appropriate for all children. The thematic elements portrayed in programs with this rating are specifically designed for a very young audience, including children from ages 2–6. According to the FCC, programs are “not expected to frighten younger children”.[41]
    TV-Y7 icon.svg

    TV-Y7 – This program is designed for children age 7 and above.[41]

    Programs rated TV-Y7 are designed for children age 7 and older. The FCC implies that it “may be more appropriate for children who have acquired the developmental skills needed to distinguish between make-believe and reality.”[41] The thematic elements portrayed in programs with this rating may include ‘comedic violence’, or may be frightening or confusing for children under the age of 7.

    Programs given the “FV” content descriptor exhibit more ‘fantasy violence’,[41] and are generally more intense or combative than other programs rated TV-Y7.
    TV-G icon.svg

    TV-G – Most parents would find this program suitable for all ages.[41]

    Programs rated TV-G are generally suitable for all ages. The FCC states that “this rating does not signify a program designed specifically for children, most parents may let younger children watch this program unattended.”[41] The thematic elements portrayed in programs with this rating contain little or no violence, no strong language, and little or no sexual dialogue or situations.[42]
    TV-PG icon.svg

    TV-PG – This program contains material that parents may find unsuitable for younger children.[41]

    Programs rated TV-PG contain material that parental guardians may find inappropriate for young children.
    TV-14 icon.svg

    TV-14 – This program contains some material that many parents would find unsuitable for children under 14 years of age.[41]

    Programs rated TV-14 may contain some material that parental guardians may find unsuitable for children under the age of 14. The FCC warns that “Parents are cautioned to exercise some care in monitoring this program and are cautioned against letting children under the age of 14 watch unattended.”[41]
    TV-MA icon.svg

    TV-MA – This program is specifically designed to be viewed by adults and therefore may be unsuitable for children under 17.[41]

    Programs rated TV-MA are usually designed to be viewed by adults. Some content may be unsuitable for children under 17. This rating is seldom used by broadcast networks or local television stations due to FCC restrictions on program content, although it is commonly applied to television programs featured on certain cable channels (especially premium services such as HBO and Showtime) for both mainstream and pornographic programs.

  5. Actually, that article is really poorly argued – chock full of fallacies – and it appears to be saying not that HBO does already include more descriptive warnings aimed e.g. at rape survivors, but that they would like additional information about things like rape and hate crimes to be offered in the warnings. Just because someone dislikes trigger warnings doesn’t mean they think such warnings amount to censorship, or that they are opposed to reasonable accommodations for people who have disabilities, as the author suggests. The NYT comment about ancient Greek mythology does not, in fact, miss the point: that material contains all sorts of violent rapes! So why does that not deserve a trigger warning while some lousy television show does, since feminists supposedly “want and need triggering media”? I think there’s a case to be made for trigger warnings on the grounds of basic politeness, coupled with a better explanation of the difficulties faced by people who are surprised by such material in a context it wouldn’t be expected to appear. I don’t know that even the best case for them would ultimately convince me, in part because I think they paint feminism in an absolutely terrible light, but I know this article isn’t making that better case.

  6. S. Wallerstein: most therapists I have dealt with advise not addressing serious traumatic incidents with therapists untrained in trauma. I can’t imagine their reaction to the idea that it’s a good idea to address trauma in a classroom with a professor of philosophy!! addressing trauma, in the clinical sense of the term, is actually a risky and delicate business, and when done wrong had the possibility of greatly exacerbating the problem. It’s such a risk that many modern therapeutic approaches to trauma actually stress coping with symptoms and limit the extent to which the past trauma is revisited. finally I would note that many therapists are not trained to deal with trauma and in my experience, it can be hard finding a good trauma specialist at a university clinic. The idea that a student should be forced to confront his or her Demons in the classroom because universities are equipped to handle the serious psychological damage that may ensue is risible .

  7. I would be much happier with “content descriptions” or “content warnings” if they were called by those names. The phrase “trigger warning” implies that someone out there has a problem that can be set off at any moment with the wrong stimulus, so we have to tread lightly to ensure that this unknown person’s unknown problems aren’t somehow rustled up by whatever is presented. It implies that everyone is responsible for vague yet sweeping demands not to offend people in ways they might not even be able to predict. If it was only a matter of “content descriptions” or “content preview”, then presumably many people would like to know what they’re getting into before experiencing it. No judgment of any sort is implied about why someone might want to know – it’s enough that the viewer has any motive whatsoever. “I don’t feel like watching a loud movie with a lot of faked gunshots tonight” would be ample reason for offering a content description, regardless of what psychological state or past experiences the viewer might have had. One person who has been assaulted and is struggling with PTSD may benefit from a warning; another person who has experienced the same kind of assault but has no difficulty with PTSD may not require the warning at all. I would prefer that we find some language that better characterizes the beneficial practice of letting people know more about content, as opposed to tagging the audience with some kind of psychological description. I don’t know if that makes any sense; I’d be interested to know what other people think about this. In short, I think it’s a kindness to offer information to people. A basic courtesy? The psychological condition of those who will receive and benefit from that information is beside the point. We’re not doing this to coddle people who have special problems; we’re doing it to be helpful in general.

  8. It’s hard to talk about whether trigger warnings “are censorship” without talking about policies, rules, and sanctions. An individual trigger warning is not censorship–it’s not the right kind of thing to be that!– but a policy of requiring them might plausibly have harmful side effects (how the benefits and harms stack up is a separate question). And this sort of thing doesn’t really help: “There is no slippery slope; triggering media will not suddenly become banned.” Worries about slippery slopes are worries about…slopes.

  9. Trigger warnings are not infantilising. They are quite the opposite. They are designed to allow people who have been victimised in horrible ways to prepare themselves for discussions of such victimisation. This is about enhancing, rather than decreasing, autonomy.

  10. But you must acknowledge that the example you linked to quite clearly undercuts exactly the point you’re trying to make. As the LA Times article notes, these warnings on pay channels were explicitly meant to alert concerned parents. It’s incredible to me that defenders of trigger warning unselfconsciously use examples based on child rearing, yet nevertheless insist that trigger warnings aren’t infantilizing.

  11. Question to those who do issue trigger warnings: do you warn people only when you are showing a video or pictures or reading a graphic account of some traumatic incident? Or, would you also warn people in advance of a philosophical discussion or analysis of certain topics, e.g., sexual consent or the permissibility of incest? If you did not warn in advance of these discussions, would it be too late for someone to avoid being triggered once the discussion begins? In analogy with warnings for TV shows, I’ve never seen a warning in advance of a news broadcast in which traumatic events are reported or discussed by pundits but no graphic images are shown. Of course, it’s easier and quicker to turn off a TV than to leave a classroom. (The analogy with TV warnings brought these questions to mind, but if moderators find them irrelevant, I understand.)

  12. Why not treat ‘trigger’ and ‘offense’ information like we treat food information? At a restaurant, while not customer wants or needs to know every ingredient in a given dish, the information is generally available for those who do need it. And for those with numerous or unusual dietary restrictions, they can call the restaurant in advance to make sure, or they can check online. Trigger information could be similar: if you are a person who is susceptible to triggering, you can look up the information about the television show or film you want to watch in advance – suppose the content provider supplies it on a website. Most of us don’t need trigger information, and indeed, it’s easy to imagine experiences of art that would be spoiled by knowing important plot details immediately before the work begins. Why should the non-trigger audience have certain portions of the plot spoiled for it when making the information available in advance seems to address the problem adequately?

Comments are closed.