What’s the Point of Trigger Warnings?

A bright red light shining against a black background.

Trigger warnings are an incredibly contentious subject, from op-eds insisting that they’re ruining higher education to complaints that they’re wildly overused to a high profile author mocking them in the title of a book. But the conversation about trigger warnings that takes place outside of disability spaces often leaves something out. Are they not, at their most fundamental, an example of a basic accommodation — a measure taken to ensure that disabled people can fully participate in a given environment?

First, a note: Gun violence survivors argue that “trigger warning” as a term can itself evoke a strong emotional response, and many prefer the use of terms like “content note,” which is what I’ll be using throughout this piece. I add this explanation not simply so readers understand my decision to change the language I’m using, but to highlight how content warnings and language choices can be used to accommodate, or exclude, disabled people. Gun violence survivors can deal with significant, sometimes disabling mental health challenges like anxiety, depression, and PTSD — choosing a less evocative term is an accommodation.

Content notes appear to have originated on feminist blogs, which frequently talk about emotionally charged topics like sexual assault and wanted to warn readers that they might experience content that would remind them of past trauma. The notion of a “trigger” warning referenced common parlance among communities of people with PTSD, who refer to a stimulus that can provoke a strong emotional response as a “trigger.”

But content notes began to spill over from the feminist blogosphere, showing up on sites like Tumblr and in other settings where socially conscious people wanted to talk about difficult issues while still giving people an opportunity to proactively opt out. Expectations for what might necessitate a warning also began to expand — not just sexual assault, for example, but also violence. The objects of phobias. The use of slurs. Stories about -isms, like racism and disablism. Expectations that people should be warned if they might encounter something that could reopen past trauma also filtered to college campuses, where some professors began actively using content notes, while others began aggressively campaigning against them, claiming they were a form of coddling or censorship. The backlash had begun.

The way we talk about content warnings has evolved. The leap into the larger consciousness when it comes to seeing warnings on social media, college syllabi, and at events has led to calls that they “go too far” or are exceeding their original purpose. People who make those comments, however, often ignore the disability roots of content warnings. This is not about protecting people from something “upsetting,” but about preventing a serious psychiatric reaction.

Few people with conditions like PTSD would argue that it’s possible to avoid everything that may provoke trauma or extreme responses, or that permanent avoidance will help them recover. But warnings, say some, help them prepare for engaging with media, or help them determine if and when they should read or view something. While some argue that systematic desensitization, as used in treating phobias, is a good approach to treating PTSD and other trauma-induced conditions, it should be noted that this treatment takes place under supervision in a controlled environment, and with active consent on the part of the patient.

For people who have experienced trauma, the presence of content notes can make it significantly safer to navigate the world, reducing the risk that they’ll be surprised with something that evokes an abrupt, powerful response. The experience of panic attacks and other extreme reactions isn’t one of “hurt feelings,” as opponents of content notes seem to believe. These responses can be both psychological and physiological, and may render people unable to function for hours, sometimes days. This sounds an awful lot like a disability issue to me: Exposure to specific content can disable people, while accommodating people by providing them with content notes allows them to more fully engage with society.

That’s not to say content notes are perfect — there are many cases when it’s impossible to warn for something, and people can be taken by surprise. Rooted in Rights writer Alaina Leary shares that “it’s very difficult to be accessible for every person,” but she doesn’t think that’s a reason to stop trying. Some people may have strong reactions to unusual things — a specific shade of blue, the sound of a white noise machine, the smell of frying onions — and there’s no way to warn in every conceivable circumstance. But the growth of content notes to expand and cover more issues, says Leary, is a sign of increased interest in accommodating people.

Leary also comments that in many of the spaces she frequents, people will proactively request accommodations in the form of asking for warnings about content that people might not normally warn for, like parent death for someone dealing with a traumatic loss. There is also, she notes, a precedent for warning people about content that may cause problems for some viewers, in the form of epilepsy warnings attached to videos. “I think awareness is a big part of why epilepsy has been warned for more often,” she says, but she also cites stigma as a barrier in the conversation about content warnings. “There is this stigma against mental health: ‘Why can’t you just get over it?’”

She says content warnings don’t necessarily work for her personally — some of the things that spark reactions are obscure, and in other cases, “no amount of warning” can prepare her for something. But as a member of the media and a survivor, she still thinks they’re important. Accommodations don’t have to work perfectly for everyone all the time in order to be useful, and accommodations that aren’t relevant to one person’s needs may be very helpful for another; the presence of functioning and usable captioning devices in movie theaters, for example, is something I believe should exist even if it doesn’t (currently) help me personally in any way.

Those arguing against content warnings are effectively saying that disabled people aren’t welcome in society, for many such warnings are rooted in disability issues. And they’re saying that people who proximally benefit from accommodations without being disabled also don’t have a right to participate in society. This is a troubling assertion to make, and one that people should rightly be wary of. Arguing against accommodations creates an entry for those seeking to justify their resistance to access and inclusion, and that is a door that should remain firmly closed.

Click here to pitch a blog post to Rooted in Rights.

s.e. smith is a writer and agitator based in Northern California, focusing on social justice, with a particular interest in disability rights, trans issues, and rural subjects. smith’s work has appeared in publications like Pacific Standard, Rolling Stone, The Guardian, In These Times, and Vox. You can follow smith on Twitter @sesmith.