Why I Don’t Use Trigger Warnings

by Benjamin Studebaker

In recent years, it has become increasingly popular among Millennial social justice activists to put trigger warnings ahead of material that might be “triggering” to a person who has had a traumatic experience or has other kinds of anxiety issues. There is a wide array of things that are deemed potentially triggering, ranging from rape scenes to war violence to alcohol use and on and on.While I sympathize with those who suffer from anxiety disorders, trigger warnings are the wrong way to solve this problem. Here’s why.

Anxiety disorders (like post-traumatic stress disorder) are mental disabilities. Anxiety disorders inhibit sufferers from being able to enjoy or be comfortable in various kinds of situations that normal people can enjoy or be comfortable in. Just as a paraplegic cannot walk, someone with an anxiety disorder cannot tolerate experiencing whatever it is that causes them anxiety. We don’t blame paraplegics for their inability to walk and we shouldn’t blame people with anxiety disorders for the fact that they have anxiety issues, particularly given that many of these anxieties are caused by traumatic experiences, many of which the state bears some responsibility for causing or failing to prevent. This is not a piece about how people with anxiety disorders need to just “get over it”. Anxiety disorders are serious problems for sufferers, for their families and friends, and for wider society. This is a real disability and should be talked about as such.

When we confront disabilities, there are two key questions that must be answered:

  1. Who is going to pay the cost of coping with the disability, the individual or society?
  2. Who is going to be modified to negate the problem, the individual or society?

Our society does not always answer these two questions the same way. We can think of this as a 2 x 2 matrix, with examples in each category:

Social Response to Disability Individual Pays Society Pays
Individual Changes Unrecognized disabilities, laser eye surgery Therapy, eyeglasses, hearing aids (with Insurance)
Society Changes Extra seats on airplanes Access ramps for wheelchairs

What does our answer depend on? Looking at these examples, we can observe a few trends:

  1. Society both changes and pays when it is impossible or far too difficult for the individual to change and the disability is especially crippling and/or not perceived to be the individual’s fault. We cannot as of yet cure many of the people in our society who need wheelchairs, and without access ramps, it is virtually impossible for these individuals to go anywhere, buy anything, or obtain any services of any kind. Access ramps are far too expensive for wheelchair users to pay for themselves, so the state is left with no other choice if it wishes to maintain wheelchair users as citizens.
  2. Society changes but forces the individual to pay when it is impossible or far too difficult for the individual to change and the disability is perceived to be less crippling or to some degree the fault of the sufferer. If Bob weighs 400 pounds and Bob wants to ride on an airplane, society recognizes that it is harder for Bob to lose the pounds quickly than it is for society to give Bob an extra seat on the plane. Nevertheless, we make Bob pay the cost because Bob could drive, take alternative transport, or stay home and because we still (perhaps erroneously) perceive obesity to be largely Bob’s own fault.
  3. The individual changes but receives societal aid when it is relatively easy for the individual to change but the disability is particularly crippling and/or not perceived to be the individual’s fault. Through health insurance schemes, societies prefer to cover the cost of treating or curing many disabilities rather than rearrange society to allow people to get along with them. Insurance often covers eyeglasses, hearing aids, and various kinds of family, marital, and individual therapy for these reasons.
  4. The individual changes and is forced to pay for the change himself when it is relatively easy for the individual to change and the disability is perceived to be less crippling or to some degree the fault of the sufferer. In many cases, the disability just isn’t recognized as a disability in the first place. The individual also changes and pays when the individual is electing for a treatment that is much more expensive than other, socially-financed options (e.g. laser eye surgery).

What bothers me about trigger warnings? Trigger warnings are a political tool whose purpose is to move anxiety disorders from the “individual changes, society pays” category to the “society changes, society pays” category. In the absence of trigger warnings, if a person has a serious anxiety disorder, that person is constantly bombarded with triggering content until that person seeks help, at which point there are a wide variety of therapists and mental health professionals available to help that person and health insurance organizations that will cover the cost of that help.

Trigger warnings make it easier for the sufferer to get by in society without seeking help by fundamentally changing the way we present content. They deliberately and purposefully spoil the content of books, movies, essays, and other material.  To be truly effective as trigger warnings, a warning must go beyond the vague spoilers used by organizations like the MPAA or PEGI. Instead of just saying “violence” or “sexual content”, trigger warnings typically detail precisely what kind of violence or sex will be depicted. While trigger warnings have not yet fully permeated society, we can see clearly where this might be going. Imagine if HBO read off trigger warnings prior to every episode of Game of Thrones. Every episode, you’d know if there was going to be incest, execution, patricide, pedophilia, and so on down the line, substantially diminishing the emotional value of these reveals in the course of the plot.

This accommodation diminishes the ability of the general public to enjoy material while simultaneously reducing the incentives that push people with serious problems to get help. Trigger warnings are fundamentally not like wheelchair ramps. While wheelchair ramps cost us money, their presence does not diminish the experience of going to a place and using that place’s service for someone who doesn’t use wheelchairs. Trigger warnings diminish the pleasure of consuming film, literature and other publications for people who do not need them. And while most people who use wheelchairs have no choice–there are no available treatments or cures for their conditions–people with anxiety orders can and should get real help. By enabling people with anxiety disorders to avoid their triggers, we undermine their incentive to get help and legitimize and encourage their use of avoidance coping.

Proponents of trigger warnings often view their opponents as being supporters of an “individual pays” policy, which does not take anxiety disorders seriously and pushes the cost of treating them onto sufferers, but this is a false choice. We can and should pay the costs of treating people with anxiety disorders instead of paying the costs of putting trigger warnings on things. We should not retrofit our society to render it inoffensive and harmless to an increasingly anxious population. Instead, we should treat and cure that population of its anxiety and, where possible, eliminate the social factors that lead to it (e.g. reducing the incidence of rape, abuse, war, etc.).

It is unreasonable and wrong to make people with anxiety disorders deal with their problems on their own, but reasonable people can and should argue over the best way to help these people. Whether we change our society or we change these individuals, we are going to bear costs. It is worth arguing over which costs are preferable, both for sufferers and non-sufferers. We do sufferers no service by enabling them to avoid their triggers rather than seek treatment, and we do non-sufferers no service by spoiling material for them and diminishing its artistic or argumentative value. Just as the only way one realizes one needs glasses is by being unable to read the street signs, the only way to realize one needs treatment for an anxiety disorder is to be triggered, routinely and vociferously.