A Penchant for “Trigger Warnings”

A headline snagged my gaze on the ipad edition of The Australian this morning. Something about ‘Trigger Warnings’. Here’s the gist of the story:


“Colleges across the country this spring have been wrestling with student requests for what are known as ‘trigger warnings’, explicit alerts that the material they are about to read or see in a classroom might upset them or, as some students assert, cause symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in victims of rape or in war veterans,” The New York Times reports.”

Students asking to be spared confronting stuff in their lecture materials? Are you kidding? Have things really changed so much in the decades since I lounged around lecture rooms?
I know it’s a while ago, but I’m pretty sure it used to be seen as a badge of honour to be interacting with stuff we thought might shock our parents, little old ladies, and young children. We revelled in it. We flaunted it! As for being upset or disturbed by reports of violence, images of death, or hints of insurrection, well it was just as likely then to see a porcine squadron winging its way in formation overhead as coming across a traumatised student needing counselling after seeing images of naughty people doing things they shouldn’t. Sexual abuse hadn’t yet entered the popular consciouness back then. I have no doubt there were damaged people all around me as I was a student, but they sure didn’t go around advertising it and demanding to be shielded from anything that might possibly aggravate their trauma. Back then we knew how to hide our secret pain, sometimes to our cost.

Now I find myself confused.

The times seem to have moved on. We don’t hide stuff inside anymore. We sniff it out of every corner and from under every bin lid. We go looking for it, the guns of social stigmatism unholstered, ready to go into battle to clean out every last vestige of anything we don’t like or that threatens the new morality that has sprung up out of the anarchy of the 60s. Everything traumatic from the past must now be brought out into the open to face the disapproval of the new monastic order: those sensitive, Earth-friendly, metrosexual, enlightened, and emancipated individuals who have taken on themselves the role of reforming society in their image.

We have public enquiries and Royal Commissions. The bad, the ugly, the immature, the sick, and sometimes just the unfortunate, are dragged before them and subjected to public opprobium and worse for dark deeds of the past. Lives are destroyed now as payback for earlier lives destroyed.

That’s on the one hand.

On the other hand we have articles like this one from the Wall Street Journal telling us about moves to put so-called ‘Trigger Warnings” in place so people can avoid unpleasant reminders of trauma if they so choose. Is this maybe a reaction to the incessant media focus on past trauma and its effect on people’s lives? Are some people just getting sick and tired of it all and want it out of sight?

Or is it a sign of something else? Could it be that having been encouraged by the signs of the times, where the focus has shifted increasingly to the individual being entitled to be compensated for all manner of wrongs, some people are now emboldened to claim that the media must become their personal gatekeeper? If that is the case, and I suspect it may be, I have a problem with it.

You may argue that “Trigger Warnings” are not really any different from classification ratings for TV shows, games and movies. In a sense you would be right, but there is an important distinction. Media classification ratings are in place to protect minors – not adults. “Trigger Warnings” are there to protect so-called adults. That is the difference. When we remove from adults the responsibility of being adults we patronize them and we make them like children.

I’ve realised since beginning to write this post that “Trigger Warnings” are already with us. Some examples:

Have you noticed every news story about suicide is followed by a notice something like this one?
“Readers seeking support and information about suicide prevention can contact . . . etc. etc.”

In Australia we are constantly reminded by our public broadcaster that our indigenous people are not able to deal with the sight of dead indigenous people:
“SBS wishes to advise people of aboriginal or islander descent that the following program contains images of people now deceased”. Fair enough I guess, but is it really that hard to anticipate such things?

Have you noticed that caring and sensitive news readers will alert you sometimes to the presence of disturbing scenes to follow?
“Viewers are advised that the following story contains scenes some may find disturbing”. Do they really think functioning adults need to be protected from such stuff? Really?

At the end of any and every news story about tragic or violent incidents the now obligatory appendix is included about the survivors being offered trauma counselling. Good grief! (Pun intended). There is nothing at all wrong with trauma or grief counselling. It is absolutely necessary in a host of situations and contexts, but are we so insecure as adults that we need to be reminded of that each and every time there is a news story of a tragic event?

In all of this, it seems there are a lot of people who need to be shielded from reality. Why would this be? Is the assumption of personal responsibility so foreign a concept these days?

Like I said. The times seem to have moved on. I’m not sure I like where they have moved to. I am an adult. I do not need my sensibilities to be protected by people I do not know. I can look after myself thankyou.

Reading this I realise it sounds as if I am arguing against censorship. I am not. Censorship, properly applied is a powerful weapon to protect our society and especially our young and vulnerable.
I am just incensed at the faux piety with which things like “trigger Warnings” are imposed on adults. I don’t have any time for faux piety in religious contexts and I have no time for it in secular contexts either. Just as in religious contexts the real agenda is to control, so it is, I believe, in this case. ‘We have your best interests at heart’. Whenever I hear that I know I am being patronised and not treated as what I am. A functioning adult.
Thanks for reading.


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