Trigger warnings – Internet civility and the risk of infantilization

Those of you who frequent corners of the Internet that discuss prejudice against other human beings on the grounds of things like race, sex, sexual orientation, physical disability and the like would no doubt have come across the term “trigger warning”. For those who haven’t, a “trigger warning” is essentially an alert that the text that follows might contain words or ideas that “trigger” some negative reaction in the reader. For example, a victim of violent crime might be prompted to re-live their terror on reading a descriptive piece about an armed home invasion.

There’s no doubt that some of us can be insensitive to the needs and interests of others, some of the time. In fact, some people seem to take pleasure in being wilfully offensive, and might deliberately taunt others for some or other manifested difference (or even an imagined difference). Trolls are one example on the most egregious end of the spectrum, but more commonplace is the problem that for those of us – like me – who fit into the categories that have long been considered “normal”, it’s easy to find yourself offending others without realising it, and without intending to.

More worrying for us “normals” is the possibility that this social-baseline existence makes you blind (or contributes to blindness) regarding the privileged status you might occupy in life and social discourse. The relevant catchphrase here is “check your privilege”, and as I’ve previously argued, demands to “check your privilege” can sometimes be a complete nonsense, used to evade the responsibility of making and engaging with arguments, even if it is sometimes true that “privilege” can blind one to other ways of being.

But it can also sometimes be accurate, just as there might be – and are – situations in which we’d want to warn a potential audience that something they are about to read and/or hear could unsettle them. The concept isn’t an alien one – age-appropriate warnings for visual media rely on it, and news inserts are often preceded by a warning regarding graphic content.

Yet, we surely need to take some responsibility for ourselves, in that it would be unreasonably demanding to expect, for example, a support group for war veterans to precede every recollection of some event they witnessed with a “Trigger warning: violence” alert. Instead, the most obviously suitable place for trigger warnings (if we are to agree that they should be more prevalent, that is) would be on content or platforms where a responsible consumer of that content would be justifiably surprised to encounter that which they find triggering.

Take an unmoderated Internet discussion forum, for example – you cannot expect such a place to contain only things that don’t upset you. But you might more reasonably expect a discussion forum on how to raise children to not contain accounts of children or parents dying in labour – an unwritten social contract has arguably been violated in the latter case.

The broad point is that it’s impossible to protect people from all harms, and it’s also only morally expected of us to avoid causing foreseeable harms to others, and even then, it’s unreasonably demanding to expect that we take all such harms into account. I don’t want to explore the issue of which harms we’re obliged to take into account and which not (not today, at least), but for example, I know it might harm the feelings of a religious person to tell them that God is a fiction, but that shouldn’t prevent me from being able to say so.

In other words, both because the Internet is an unregulated place, and second because we can’t reliably predict what people might or might not be harmed by reading, the traditional distinction between what’s morally expected and what’s “nice to have” – supererogatory in philosopher-speak – needs to be maintained here. We might prefer for people to create a environment of type X, but might only be able to expect an environment of type Y.

Because the alternative – of always and only saying things that are guaranteed to not harm anyone – creates such a sanitised environment that it would run a serious risk of infantilizing us. We need to be able to tolerate different points of view, and that which we might find offensive, because that’s part of the way that we learn to cope with the slings and arrows of fortune.

Of course, this approach does advantage those whose points of view, or who – as people, are subjected to fewer of those slings and arrows. But at the same time, there are people who have endured traumas that prefer to talk about them openly, to not have them treated as a “special” topic that needs to be preceded by warnings, or confirmation that a certain conversation is permissible.

Striking a balance here requires empathy – and there’s no question that far more can and should be done by “normals” to be sensitive to the fact that they frequently win at life simply because they wrote the rules. But the solution isn’t to be found in swinging completely to the other end of the spectrum, and attempting to rule out all possibility that people might find themselves challenged, even hurt, by the things they encounter in the world.

The thoughts above were prompted by a worrying trend described in this New Republic article, namely that of college classes now carrying trigger warnings on class syllabi. If a class called “Histories of the Present: Violence” is expected to carry a trigger warning, then it seems clear that we’ve over-corrected – even if there’s a real problem at the heart of the motivation for that correction.