Once upon a time, back in my more edgy days, I drafted a post called “triggered by trigger warnings”. The reason I never posted that BEAST-OF-A-POST was because it ended up being 15,000 words of research and incoherent ramblings… so it’s probably for the best that I lost that post when my old laptop, the Mad Hatter, passed away in February (#RIP). Besides, since I worked on that post there’s been even more discussion in the scientific community on the topic- making this more fortuitous timing to have a chat about it. Don’t worry though, this post won’t be 15,000 words 😉
Okay *cracks knuckles* before we get started, I know this is going to be a sensitive topic for some people, so I may as well begin with a little self-defence and state for the record: I’m not going to get personal. I’m certainly not writing this post for any nefarious purposes. And I would ask those who disagree with what I have to say not to assume/attack/jump to conclusions about me ta-very-much… except that’d likely be a pointless request, since most people don’t need to be told not to be dicks and the people that do need it will likely ignore the request anyway 😉
So, we’re already at an impasse, where all I can say is that I understand the perspective of those who use trigger warnings and can sympathise with their intentions. Arguments range from protecting children from inappropriate books to helping those with PTSD/mental health issues avoid topics they don’t want to read. Personally, I believe that all readers should be able to self-censor, or to use a more common term CHOOSE, what they read. That’s a huge part of why we review books in the first place. And I will say, so we’re clear, if you want to put trigger warnings in your reviews, that’s entirely your decision. Reviewers should feel free to review in whichever way they see fit. But I do think there should be more discussion around this, since there are reasons bloggers like me do not use them. And, spoiler alert, it’s not cos we’re evil 😉
The main issue that I’ve always had with the use of trigger warnings is the consensus from a large swathe of the scientific community that trigger warnings are not only ineffective, they’re also counterproductive. Most recently, a study by Harvard PHD student Payton Jones, linked below, discovered that trigger warnings increased anxiety for those with severe PTSD. His findings were that trigger warnings “countertherapeutically reinforce survivors’ view of their trauma as central to their identity.” Other trauma psychologists, such as Metin Basoglu, previously stated “Most trauma survivors avoid situations that remind them of the experience. Avoidance means helplessness and helplessness means depression. That’s not good. Exposure to trauma reminders provides an opportunity to gain control over them.” Regardless of whether an individual can seek help or not, I would question whether it is wise to adopt a practice which can worsen an individual’s symptoms. This is not as cut and dry an issue as many are led to believe.
Sticking to the topic of mental health, I believe there is an alternative way to approach the issue. Logically speaking, it’s no wonder that trigger warnings can be counterproductive. They prime the reader for an adverse reaction. Starkly putting the words “trigger warning: rape” is far more shocking than explaining gently in the review that “there are sensitive topics in the book, such as sexual assault, so readers who don’t want to read this content may want to bear that in mind”. This is aside from the fact choosing the correct warnings in the first place is tricky if not nigh on impossible (I am not joking when I say that I’ve met a person with an intense fear of buttons for instance). Rather than picking out from a carefully cultivated list, readers are usually better at determining for themselves where the line might be. A good review will always facilitate that, letting you know important aspects of the content.
Here’s where the other issues come in. Chiefly, the spoiler issue… and yes this is an issue for a lot of readers. Not everyone, obviously- many people don’t care about spoilers and some even (*shock horror*) flip to the end of a book before they start to find out how it turns out! Yet, even for those who want to avoid certain topics in books, reading trigger warnings is a no-go because they are laden with spoilers. Given that people put in *every* detail into the warning section, from plot twists to endings, it is unsurprising not everyone wants to know the entire journey in advance. Thus, some reviewers prefer to explain any content issues in the body of the review- which most reviewers endeavour to do tactfully and in depth. This is the *purpose* of a review after all. I understand the desire to give people the information quickly- which is why trigger warnings are so popular in the age of immediacy- yet the words without context aren’t just spoilery. They can actually have other consequences for a book.
Think for a moment what the label “racism” does to your preconceptions of a book. Now if I tell you that trigger warning can be applied from To Kill a Mockingbird to The Invisible Man to Gone with the Wind to Huckleberry Finn, it should raise alarm bells- because these are v-e-r-y different books. Out of context, the word “racist” is off-putting- which is why a full review, with examples, explanations and in-depth explorations, is so important. Just sticking a label on a book is unhelpful if we actually want to examine the issues it contains- especially if its critiquing said issues. I’d argue it’s potentially censorious, except that labels like these have already been used to slam cancelled books. In fact, people often aren’t even allowed to have this conversation without getting cancelled (anecdotally, I saw Erika Sanchez getting serious blowback on twitter for daring to have an opinion on this). And it’s no secret that “triggering books” have been used widely to self-censor at universities (which, given the role of academic institutions, is rather different to self-censoring when reading for pleasure).
All of this- combined with the fiery-career-ending conversations around this topic- gets in the way of free and open debate. And that is what I am most concerned about. We need to have real conversations, not resort to “here’s what this book is about in 140 characters or less!” Maybe I’m wrong, maybe the quickfire culture is right- but personally I’d rather take my time figuring things out.
That’s all I’ve got for now. Before I go, I’d like to share a couple of fantastic posts from other bloggers having this conversation and presenting their own views:
Confessions of a YA Reader https://confessionsofayareader.wordpress.com/2019/07/14/are-we-policing-books-too-hard-or-not-enough-are-we-helping-books-get-banned-controversial-book-discussion-post-massive-warning-for-triggers-and-hot-topics-throughout-the-whole-blog-post-do/
And more recent research that I’ve done:
Sooo time to turn it over to you- am I going to hell in a handbasket for my opinions here? Do you agree or disagree with my stance on this? Let me know in the comments!