Trigger Warnings and Not Getting It

Thanks to that college professor who didn’t want to warn students- one of whom was a victim of rape- about a graphic rape scene in a movie he was showing his class, some have taken “Trigger Warnings” to be a sign of “political correctness,” when they exist as a courtesy to those among us who experience PTSD as a result of physical or emotional traumas, whether they experienced it on the battlefield, or through physical or emotional abuse. May you never feel the need to be warned. But don’t mock those who do.

Gaiman absolutely does not get it, by appropriating this term to say “well, life is dangerous” to sell his collection of horror stories. I like his work and he seemed nice enough when I saw him read at FDU last year, but this was a bad choice, and his explanation is incredibly narcissistic, and comparing a Trigger Warning to an R-rating on a movie or a “For Mature Audience” label is beyond condescending. This isn’t a matter of squeamishness or immaturity. When 25% of women will be sexually assaulted, and 10% of men, when we have sent thousands to battlefields, it simple courtesy that acknowledges these people as existing; it is not marking violence as an incorrect thought, or horrifying fiction as somehow suspect and unseemly, on the first step toward censorship.

If you choose to write about violence, especially sexual violence, hopefully you’ve researched it beyond watching your share of movies. If you’ve experienced it, as victim or witness, or even the perpetrator, you’ll know it stays with you. Trauma leaves impressions on the brain. When writing about it, what responsibilities do we have? Some will say none, that freedom comes with zero responsibilities—and certainly, a law enforcing those responsibilities would have a chilling effect, so let’s make sure we never pass one—but I find that courtesy is free and the only thing irking me about putting a “trigger warning” before sharing a particular graphic news story or publishing a piece of fiction that draws from the pit of darkness left by trauma, is the immature response against being “told” what to do.

But we’re not telling anyone what to do. We’re asking politely, Mr. Gaiman. And naming a book this way comes off as mockery. I hope it gets you all the sales you hoped for.

For my friend Elizabeth’s take on it—the post that inspired me to dust off this one, which I had decided not to publish a month ago—check out her website, Amber Unmasked.