Melissa vs Matthew: Do we need trigger warnings?

Matthew and Melissa

Last week Melissa and Matthew debated the merits, or not, of space exploration. Some 56% of you who voted agreed with Melissa that it is a waste of money, making her the debate winner.

This week the pair discuss trigger warnings – whether there should be a warning for content that may disturb people so they can choose whether or not to view/read/discuss the issue at hand.

Melissa says:

Listlessly scrolling through my Facebook feed this morning (the endless cats! The anti-Trump memes that simply won’t die! For goodness’ sake, let’s have more punk rock and beautiful people in swimwear, chaps) I stumbled upon a video that didn’t play. Instead it said: Warning! Graphic content.

I was glad of that warning. And I didn’t play the clip. Given the interests of the woman who’d posted it, I assumed it would contain images of animal cruelty, probably alongside a petition to prevent it.

Now, I couldn’t be less in favour of animal cruelty. I’ll happily sign all the petitions. But as a squeamish vegetarian, I have no desire to look at it. Particularly first thing of a morning, before I’m fully conscious. I realise, of course, there are such things as factory farms, bull-fighting  and puppy torture in the world, but I don’t want a side order of them flavouring my granola.

Doubtless Mr Munson will tell you that trigger warnings amount to censorship.  He’ll insist they pander to the nonsensical whims of the flaky, entitled, po-faced “snowflake generation”; effectively, they are akin to universities choosing to ban controversial speakers, rather than letting students think for themselves. I don’t believe this is the case. If I did, I’d be screaming louder than him for their removal. Trigger warnings are merely a polite suggestion that this content might not be for you, at least not at this particular moment, if you’ve a toddler on your lap, say, or you’re about to endure high tea with your great aunt, and need to plaster on a big, bright smile. It warns that many people – not all, of course, but a reasonable number of reasonable people – may find something distressing.

Of course, that’s problematic. What you find distressing may well be my favourite way to spend an evening, and vice versa.  Personally I find that pictures of old Etonians, dressed in top hats, attending Bullingdon club dinners and being rude to waitresses, sends me into a frenzy of murderous psychosis. Perhaps for you it’s images of breast-feeding, burkas, Boris Johnson in Speedos. Of course we can’t warn everyone about everything that might upset anybody. That would be ludicrous and counter-productive.

But certain things we can agree upon, I think. Images or discussions of violence, and also abuse. Anything that wouldn’t make it into your average PG-13. This isn’t patronising, nor is it censorship. It’s simply a courtesy. It’s akin to those messages they give about flashing images before news reports. I’m not epileptic. News-readers can flash as much they like for all I care. But I’ve no objection to those who may suffer negative consequences being forewarned. This doesn’t infantilise viewers: it gives them the information they need to decide about their own well-being. You’re free to ignore those warnings. The choice still lies with you. We ignore warnings every day. We speed on motorways, drink too much, lie out in the sun like idiots. The warnings don’t infantilise us. Indeed, often our inability to heed them does.

Now, Mr Munson may also argue that putting certain information or images into a special category – images of war, say – may ultimately do us all a disservice. By allowing such images to become rarefied and arcane, we will never allow the sensitive to toughen up, to desensitise to their particular triggers. But I don’t want to toughen up. I never want it to become normal for me to see pigs tortured in tiny, filthy cages, or Palestinian children shot in the face, to take two fairly obvious examples. I want these images always to be horrifying to me, and frankly, to all humans everywhere.

I had to explain to my mum what trigger warnings were. She told me she greatly appreciates them: they make her watch with heightened interest and attention, as when you gawp at a traffic accident. A benefit of trigger warnings that hadn’t even occurred to me. Lose them and my mum may neglect to pay proper attention to the murkier side of life. And what kind of monster would want that?

Matthew says:

Warning. This column could trigger you. It might make you angry. It could very well make you shout at the page. You might even think that you passionately agree with what I’ve got say. But none of those things mean that I shouldn’t write this column, and it certainly doesn’t mean that you are under any obligation to read it.

Because that’s the fundamental point I’m trying to get across; trigger warnings are useless if you don’t read the thing that might trigger you in the first place. You might end up deciding to read it anyway and discover that you haven’t been triggered.

Or you might be triggered. You might experience a flashback to something you’ve experienced in your life. You might just plain get angry because a point of view has been expressed that doesn’t agree with your own and that disturbs you.

Both of those are entirely valid points of view. But, I’m sorry to tell you, that it doesn’t prevent those views being expressed. We might find them revolting, repugnant, or even ridiculous, but the way we shut down such ideas isn’t by shutting down the holders of those opinions and cutting off their methods of communication. We do it through discussion and debate; we argue for an alternate point of view and try to convince people that the alternate points of view aren’t where we should be. That’s what Mrs Todd and I are doing in these debates, and we’ve discussed some topics that evoke a lot of passion (Manston).

But when people feel triggered, they aren’t comfortable with a particular point of view, whatever that might be. You can be assured that the point of view will be an opposing one, and might very well be uncomfortable, difficult, or downright challenging. And when you feel like that, it’s entirely possible that you might want the opinion that’s causing the triggering to be shut down – suppressed, even, to prevent that discomfort or offensive view being shared.

But that’s just plain wrong. The point of this argument isn’t to dismiss a person’s personal history or comfort level – a lot of us have had terrible experiences in our lives that I’m sure we would rather forget – but our own personal discomfort isn’t a reason to shut down an alternative point of view, no matter what it is. The way to shut down a debate is by clear, concise discussion that is able to showcase how effective and clear-cut your own view is when compared to the other.

In essence, we should be learning how to debate effectively, and how to have a discussion of ideas without the need to shut someone else down. We should be able to showcase, through a calm, clear, and concise argument, why our viewpoint is clearly the stronger one as opposed to the alternative. We often see discussions that end in name-calling, comparisons to Hitler, and distasteful slanging matches that are entirely emotive and completely lacking in any logical reasoning. As soon as debates shift to that level, we’ve lost the argument, and it shows that we need to raise the level of debate and base our arguments on openness and intellectual curiosity. We can’t do that if we’re not listening to alternative ideas that we disagree with and coming up with clever arguments that challenge the opposition.

We lose something of ourselves when books, films, articles, and so on are given trigger warnings before they are read. Shakespeare or Amis or Dickens or Rushdie write powerful, often shocking, pieces of fiction that reflect the real world in a myriad of ways. But we shouldn’t censor by warning these books; we should give them free reign to challenge, to make people think, and to help form opinions.

The world does not treat its inhabitants as fragile creatures made out of glass; it can be cruel, and to carve out places – in literature, work places, universities, and everywhere else – where peoples’ views are respected, cherished, and helped to heal if that’s what is needed, is a great privilege to be a part of.

Where there is a risk of a trigger, we should be alert to that, but we should be looking to help those triggers heal – not suppress opinions that challenge them. Investing in good quality, effective mental health care and helping people deal with their own complexities, is a better sign of a healthy society, not suppressing views because they challenge or offend us.

Only by hearing alternative points of view will we know what our own opinions truly are, and what the arguments are against them. We become better informed, better able to inform a view, and better aware of the world – and more able to be involved in it.

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  1. This was, for me, one of the easiest to vote in. I see nothing ‘grown up’ or ‘free’ about Being faced with appalling scenes of cruelty as I scroll through FB over my morning coffee. Trigger warnings please!

  2. The big problem with this debate is that trigger warnings are normally attached to visual content, and Matthew is talking almost entirely about written content.

    The two cases are not coincident.

    If I start reading something and don’t like where it is going, I can stop, generally before I have read anything too upsetting. If, however, something I don’t wish to view suddenly flashes up on a screen it’s usually too late to do anything about it.

    Thus alerts attached to visual content are a matter of giving your audience a choice. The real problem with alerts as they are used at the moment is that they are applied on a hair trigger, so ‘sexual content’ could be nothing more than a sub-second glimpse of bare breast and ‘may be upsetting to some viewers’ is completely unhelpful unless you really are trying to protect the most delicate little petal.

  3. I voted with Melissa. Her account was well written and easy to read. Unfortunately Matthew’s was over-long and rambling, and I found myself skim reading it. Presentation is just as big a vote winner as content.

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