As an English Literature student, one of the first things I learned at university was the Old English epic Beowulf. In case you’re not familiar, the main character, Beowulf, is the hero who slays Grendel’s monster and Grendel’s mother, and then (spoiler alert!) the dragon. Then (additional spoiler!) he dies.
The University of Aberdeen has placed more than 30 trigger warnings in a course module in Celtic and Anglo-Saxon studies entitled “The Lost Gods and Hidden Monsters of the Celtic and Germanic Middle Ages” – one of the texts included in the warnings, Beowulf.
It reads: “The texts studied in this course contain representations of violence, coercion, animal cruelty or death to animals, incest, suicide, sexually explicit content … ableism.”
At Manchester Metropolitan University, a similar warning was added to a medieval Christian text that describes graphic divine healings called Miracles of the Hand of Saint James. The students are told: “Attention. Some miracles can be quite visual, while others can be repelled.”
My answer? OK then.
Trigger warnings, long the target of derision and hatred on the right, are like signposts. They inform consumers with images, audio, video, and text about potentially disturbing content ahead. They usually warn us about graphic images of violence and cruelty, sexual harassment, self-harm, suicide, and eating disorders, among other things.
Recall the disparaging headlines in some sections of the media that “snowflakes” (usually millennials) can’t “handle” difficult or disturbing things. The conclusion is that we need to “harden up” and young people who appreciate trigger warnings are stupid crybabies, but listen to me:
Trigger alerts are useful for people who have experienced and survived trauma—sometimes horrific and life-changing trauma—and allow those people to take care of themselves in the future. Caring for yourself and others is not a weakness, it is the peak of strength.
This may look like avoiding a movie or TV show that has a graphic depiction of suicide, such as the controversial Netflix series. 13 reasons why; or a book detailing explicit sexual abuse. It can be as simple as just being warned so you don’t get caught off guard and suffer the consequences.
I remember watching the fifth season Game of Thrones, a show I followed avidly and remained cold and shivering as I watched Sansa Stark being raped. It was especially upsetting that the scene played out through the gaze of the male character, Theon Greyjoy. I felt terror in my body, which is a very common reaction to reminders of past trauma. It brought me back to the past – to helplessness and horror.
The body may react as if the danger is right here and now, with a racing heart, a clouded head, frozen limbs, a feeling that you might vomit or pass out, panic attacks, flashbacks, or an impulse to immediately become numb with drugs. or alcohol, among other reactions.
At work, in our bank of images used to accompany articles, we warn about the graphic content of images depicting violence, such as the aftermath of the war in Ukraine. This is a professional obligation and the universities mentioned above intend to provide for their students. They don’t do it for laughs or to keep their students “soft” or “weak”.
No university can know the exact history of each student, what they may have experienced, so they provide short text indexes. It won’t hurt anyone, and it might even help.
The nature of trauma is complex—and of course, it’s different for everyone. We can all process trauma in different ways. Trigger alerts don’t always cover every topic that could cause a deep unpleasant reaction, but they do provide choices and leeway for people who have had their agency denied in the past because of the nature of the abuse or the life-changing event. .
Perhaps we need a generic, spoiler-free warning symbol — a simple yellow triangle with an exclamation point inside. This will invite anyone who may need a warning to learn more and then decide how they will proceed.
For people and publications complaining that trigger warnings have “gone too far”, I would ask – who are you to decide how to deal with this for those who have experienced trauma? Who are you to decide what they need? Who are you to decide what might be helpful or help the healing process for them?
Trigger warnings are about choices and information. What good is ignorance? If they are useful, apply them. It is so simple.