Well, this is exciting. I actually wrote a post for this blog over a year ago discussing the recent trend of using "trigger warnings" (to warn potential readers about blog articles that might include emotionally sensitive content - most frequently involving sexual assault). But my stance was actually against using trigger warnings, which is a stance that I ultimately felt could be taken as insensitive to victims of sexual assault, so I tabled the post and never published it. But today I found an article discussing the potential harm of using trigger warnings, as encountered by a facility of higher learning. This comment here really sums up my philosophy:
"...some critics of trigger warnings say that higher education is rooted in confronting uncomfortable ideas and experiences. And more practically, critics say, it’s nearly impossible in classes with students with differing sensibilities to define what deserves a trigger warning." (link)
Those are really the two critical issues involved. My blog may not be an accredited institute for higher education, but I am very much dedicated to the values of higher education, and challenging readers to confront uncomfortable ideas is pretty much one of the hallmarks of my writing approach.
Don't get me wrong, I think the heart of the idea of using trigger warnings is in the right place - it's a sympathetic measure to ease the suffering of those who have been through traumatic experiences. I just happen to be a firm believer in freedom over security, and I think that if you were to balance the gains and losses of the trigger warning approach, you'd find that it leans too heavily in the ultra-PC "babyproof everything so that nobody ever gets hurt" direction that we're dangerously headed toward these days. I'm a highly sensitive individual, but even I think some aspects of modern culture are becoming overly sensitive.
But consider, also, the second part of the passage quoted above. As nice as it might be to litter media with warnings for the sake of sexual assault victims, don't you think that's kind of a little unfair to other kinds of victims? Or not just victims, but people with particular sensibilities? And how can you possibly cater to everyone?
It's like the issue of censoring porn - images of sex don't bother me, but I hate seeing pictures of spiders. So why is it fair to censor porn in order to avoid offending the average viewer, yet people can post pictures of spiders willy-nilly with no restrictions? It makes me feel like people don't care about me and my sensibilities as much as someone else's.
But as nice as it would be to never be exposed to another picture of a spider in my life ever again, that's just not the world I live in. I don't expect everybody else in the world to cater to my fears and insecurities, going out of their way to prevent accidentally offending me or setting me off. I'd rather deal with the possibility that I might encounter those things in the world, and work on my ability to deal with them rather than run away in fear.
And to extrapolate the issue to its logical conclusion, its just not practical to set warnings for everything. So then, by issuing warnings for certain topics, you're basically making a value judgment - that those topics are more important than others. Which has the described effect of isolating people who don't fit into your average "sensibility profile".
But it does something else, too. I don't want to minimize the trauma of experiencing sexual assault, but at the same time, I think that under the guise of sympathy, it's possible to go too far and end up actually increasing victims' trauma, by continuously reassuring them (regardless of their own response, sometimes) that yes, it really was that bad.
I just happen to believe that if something bad happens, the best way to heal and move on with your life is to put it in perspective, take it for what it is, and understand that it's not the end of the world. It doesn't fundamentally damage you. If you tell yourself you can get past it, you're in a much better position to heal than if you keep reminding yourself (and everybody else keeps reminding you, in case you start to forget) just exactly how terrible it was.
And that's something trigger warnings have a tendency to do. It's like a note saying, "this topic is so bad, it needs a warning, because some people can't even handle it." It encourages avoidance. Creating taboos is a dangerous game, because it makes things harder to talk about - and harder to deal with.