My Perspective on Trigger Warnings
CW: Discussion about my project on self-harm, includes photos of (gold-painted) self-harm scars.
Two weeks back, I published my newest project - Self-harm: Behind the Scars, which is aimed at raising awareness and breaking taboos surrounding self-harm and self-harm scars. For the series, I took photos of gold-painted self-harm scars of 6 individuals, and interviewed them about their experience. Of course, this is a sensitive topic, and as someone well-versed in all things PC, I carefully considered the ways in which I would portray and publish this project beforehand, including the use of trigger warnings. In the end, I landed on using the text *CW (content warning): self-harm* in all my social media captions, and adding a trigger warning at the top of my blog post, but I didn’t censor the photos in any way. Since publishing, I’ve received two comments from people who were pretty angry about the way I went about this. Now, these are two comments among thousands of responses to my project, so this post is not about explaining or excusing myself in any way. However, I find it an interesting and important discussion, and felt called to write a post about my perspective on trigger warnings and the ways in which I used them for this project.
First of all - what are trigger warnings?
In case you don’t know - trigger warnings are (as Google Dictionary defines them): “a statement at the start of a piece of writing, video, etc. alerting the reader or viewer to the fact that it contains potentially distressing material (often used to introduce a description of such content).” Examples of topics that trigger warnings are often used in context of are sexual abuse, violence, self-harm, and eating disorders, but in theory, trigger warnings could be used for any topic that could “trigger” a negative reaction in someone.
A trigger can best be described as “something that causes someone to feel upset and frightened because they are made to remember something bad that has happened in the past” (Cambridge Dictionary). Although the term could be interpreted very broadly, in this context, these bad memories are generally of a traumatic nature, and trigger warnings can actually help people suffering from these traumas in being better prepared for or avoiding the content.
Of course, what constitutes as a trauma, and what constitutes as a trigger, is highly subjective, and impossible to find a general consensus on. This means it comes down to the individuals posting the potentially triggering content to decide what is triggering and what isn’t, and how they should go about warning others about the content, should they so desire.
Social media platforms & sensitive content
Certain (social media) platforms and lay-outs work more easily than others in using trigger warnings. This is particularly true for images that might be triggering: With text, you can simply start your writing out with a trigger warning, and people can decide to continue reading or not. With videos, people who know they are in a sensitive place can make sure to first read descriptions of videos. Images, however, are hard to *not see*. On Facebook, the description comes before the images, so if you scroll cautiously you might be able to quickly scroll past an image or reload the page in time. On other platforms, like Instagram (where I received these 2 comments), the caption comes after the image, so unless you are extremely vigilant, the harm is already done by the time you read it.
In response to this, some platforms, like Instagram and Facebook, have started to use “sensitive content” filters, which will blur or black out an image with a warning of sensitive content, so that users can first read the caption before deciding to click on the image or not. Unfortunately, this option is not yet available to people posting this content, but rather is done by the platform in response to people flagging a post.
My perspective on trigger warnings
First of all - I’m not against trigger warnings at all. In fact, I think using trigger or content warnings with sensitive content is considerate to those struggling with mental health issues and (most of the time) easy enough to do. However, I don’t believe we should force people or platforms to use trigger warnings on specific kinds of content (e.g. through legislation), either, and I don’t think it’s problematic if people choose not to use them at all.
Warning people that they might find your content traumatic is a very kind thing to do, but I believe that ultimately, we’re not responsible for each other’s feelings and responses. The internet is not very different from the real world - yes there are some safe spaces, but you will also run into things that you find hard to digest or that hurt you in some way or another. It might not feel like it when you’re safe in your bed scrolling through your apps, but the internet is still a public space. And people existing in a public space that you also happen to be in cannot be held accountable for expressing themselves in ways that you have a problem with, even if that problem is as serious as reliving a traumatic event.
Of course, social media should ideally be available to everyone in an as pleasurable or safe way as possible, which is why there are certain guidelines in place and not ALL content is allowed to begin with. But if you’re in such a bad place that you’re not (mentally) prepared for anything that falls within these guidelines but might still trigger you, I do believe it is ultimately then up to you to avoid these platforms, at least for the time being.
Why I chose this approach
Following all this, for this particular project, I chose to use content warnings in my social media captions (*CW: self-harm*), and a trigger warning above the project post reading: “this post is about a photography project aimed at raising awareness about self-harm, and includes pictures of (gold-painted) scars along with detailed descriptions of self-harm and one suicide attempt”. I chose to use a “content” rather than “trigger” warning on my social media posts because the content of the captions only featured a description of the project along with the participant’s answer to the question “what would you like others to understand better”, whereas the project post includes a lot more descriptive and in-depth accounts of self-harming. I don’t even know if there are people out there who read on with a content warning and not with a trigger warning, but it felt like a difference to me.
I also considered ways in which I could censor the images of my post. On Facebook, this could be done by for example posting the images in the comments, or by only providing a link to the project that people can then choose to click on. On Instagram, this could be done by posting a picture in front of it with a trigger warning, so that people need to consciously slide to view the image. I gave it some serious consideration, and also discussed it with some of the participants of the project, but ultimately decided against these measures. This was for a few reasons, all having to do with the nature of the project and my aim to raise awareness:
Most importantly, using any of these options will 100% result in less views, less shares, less likes, less everything, meaning that the chances of the project gaining ground and actually raising awareness are significantly reduced. This, unfortunately, is just the way in which our image-dominated media works. Additionally, along with raising awareness, the aim of the project is to actually help normalize self-harm and self-harm scars, and “hiding” these photos by using a click-through link or front image feels counterproductive and just… wrong. Yes, maybe to some, these scars can be triggering. But they are also part of many people’s bodies, and those shouldn’t need to be hidden. Thirdly, relating to both, I also worried that adding in these filters would not only keep out those who might be triggered by the images or content, but also those who might feel discomfort or disinterest - precisely those I want to reach most. The ones who are ignorant about these issues, who prefer to look the other way, and in doing so contribute to the shame and stigma surrounding self-harm. With these things in mind, I then also considered how triggering or offensive these photos could really be to people. I tried to make the pictures as “light” and personal as possible (i.e. through the gold paint, colors and poses); if they were darker, featured actual wounds, or more objectified portrayals of scarred body parts, it would have been a totally different thing. I ended up at the conclusion that if someone were to get seriously triggered by these pictures, a blurred photo with a content warning saying “self-harm” would almost be the same thing; the only difference being actually seeing the gold lines on a body rather than simply the idea of it.
Still, I want to emphasize that this is my own personal conclusion, and nobody can dictate for anyone else what they might find triggering. The decision to not censor images does not mean I think people shouldn’t be triggered by these pictures, or that I don’t sympathize when they do. Based on the reasons I listed above, I landed on this decision, knowing that this could mean some people might come across it and find it triggering. I regret this for those in question, but I don’t consider it “my fault” or my responsibility.
The comments I received & when PC culture goes too far
The two girls who commented under one of my Instagram photos seemed to disagree with me on this.* These were their comments:
Although the sarcasm turned me off a little, I could understand where these girls were coming from, so I replied:
Neither of the girls responded to my comments, but one of them instead proceeded to post screenshots of these comments on her own Instagram, with the caption ‘this is all such a pile of ignorance’. Alright, I thought. This is a bit unfair. So I commented that I would love to actually have a conversation about this, as it seemed she did have something to say, but to no avail. In this comment section I was also greeted by another person telling me in no uncertain terms that I was glamorizing self-harm and that the reason my project is getting “so much backlash” is because it was an idea that may have come from a good place but was terribly executed. Quote.
There was a lot of finger-pointing, but no one actually wanted to talk. The message was clear: don’t touch our trigger warnings. Or, maybe underneath that, don’t touch our pain. In their comments, they all also emphasized that they had personal experience, meaning that “they knew what they were talking about”, and anyone who disagrees with them is simply “ignorant” - and this is something I’ve seen more often with PC culture. It’s a problem.
First off, dismissing everyone who disagrees immediately, even when they try to have a conversation with you, is just plain unproductive and divisive. But what’s underneath that, is the fallacy that having personal experience with something (in this case, self-harm) somehow means your opinions around related issues are “right by default”, and warrant no further reflection. It wouldn’t have mattered what I said; I would have always been “ignorant” and “wrong”. This is madness! Neither of us is right or wrong, we simply have different opinions about something. I believe political correctness has it’s value, but when it becomes an excuse to put yourself above others and evade discussions with those who disagree with you, it quickly turns dangerously dismissive, and something aimed at inclusiveness, suddenly becomes quite the opposite.
I myself have thought differently about trigger warnings in the past, and I probably will again in the future. It’s easy to get stuck in our own opinions and feelings of being right, especially when they stem from a place of being wronged. But sarcastic critiques and an authoritative tone aren’t going to help you change the world. An open mind and a loving heart will.
*If you’re looking for the comments, they were under a post promotion which is now invisible. This is why I also feel like it’s ok to discuss these comments here.
Why trigger warnings might even be harmful
I won’t go into this too deeply, as this post is about my perspective, but I want to briefly note that there is also some budding research suggesting that trigger warnings could potentially even be harmful. A new Harvard study found that using trigger warnings before letting students read a piece of sensitive content actually made them rate others and themselves at a higher risk for PTSD. In some participants, it even increased anxiety. This study was done with the so-called ‘general population’, though, and future research focused specifically on trauma-patients could have different results.
The authors of the study, however, have also proposed that trigger warnings may be counterproductive for those suffering from PTSD, as they encourage people to avoid trauma, which can worsen symptoms in the long-term. One of the best measures in healing PTSD is prolonged exposure therapy, where patients are repeatedly confronted with triggers so that they can get used to them until they find them less upsetting.
Of course neither of these results mean we should start bombarding each other with sensitive content without warning, but it’s important to factor the other side into the conversation as well. There is also a whole other argument relating to censorship and freedom of speech, but that’s a discussion for another time.
To me, the ideal solution to the whole trigger warning discussion would be social media platforms taking it upon themselves to create a kind of system similar to some #NSFW systems, where the poster can tag something as sensitive, and users who don’t want to encounter content like that or who want to receive special trigger warnings (such as blurred images that need to be clicked on) can put that as a personal preference setting. But until that happens, each of us is responsible for our own decisions.
What do you think? What would you have done in my place and why? When does PC culture go too far for you? Let me know in the comments below!