Trigger Warnings/ Content Notes are Necessary

I missed the New Republic’s article on trigger warnings last month. There has been a lot of debate in feminist circles about the importance of trigger warnings versus the erasure of women’s experiences by labelling. I have read a lot on trigger warnings from feminist writers on whether or not trigger warnings are helpful or harmful. Rebecca Mott argues eloquently for feminists not to use trigger warnings. Her piece “Being Alive is a Trigger Warning” is an essential read on this discussion, as is her piece “I Do Not Put Trigger Warnings on the Reality”.  I have thought a lot about this because I do understand the import of Mott’s words. I have chosen to use warnings, although I also fundamentally agree with Mott’s reasons for not using them. This is, simply, a very difficult decision to make because either way it has the potential to harm other women.

I have chosen to use the phrase “content note” rather than trigger warning as the latter is mostly used for people with PTSD. I use content note on my blog and when sharing posts on twitter and Facebook.

The New Republic’s article focuses on trigger warnings in lectures which is a slightly different situation. I do think it is important that universities use content note in lectures and readings. This isn’t to say they shouldn’t teach the material because, they must. However, it is not inappropriate to warn students if a lecture will deal with rape or trauma in some form. It will, no doubt, result in history classes being taught with content note at the top of each lecture but that is rather irrelevant. What we need to do is ensure that students still engage with the material, even if it is difficult.

I have taught the Holocaust at primary level and at university level. Most of the university  students refused to read the texts on the Holocaust claiming it was “too depressing”. These are students doing history degrees  a subject not known for it’s joy-enducing lectures. These students weren’t worried about feeling triggered. They were, in many cases, simply unwilling to do the reading and were using the term depression as an excuse. It is absolutely essential that students studying the Holocaust read personal testimonies from survivors. We cannot allow them to escape from dealing with difficult topics just because they want too. We can teach it in such a way that students suffering from PTSD aren’t triggered.

We absolutely need to be up front with secondary school students about the racism, misogyny, homophobia, sexual violence and suicide in the texts they are reading for literature and history. Refusing to teach the history of slavery to 16 year olds because it might upset them is utterly ridiculous. It is upsetting and they should feel upset. They should feel angry, confused, disgusted and horrified. We simply need, as teachers, to be aware of those students who will find the material difficult without allowing lazy students to use it as an excuse to get out of doing the work. Or, allow over-protective parents who think their 16 year old will be traumatised for life from reading Beloved or The Handmaid’s Tale to dictate educational policy.

Posting a content note on art galleries and films so that people understand the graphic nature before entering/ viewing is a simple act of kindness. Using content notes doesn’t mean we should stop teaching the topics, nor does it mean we’re raising a generation of kids who are wrapped in cotton-wool. It just means making students aware that the material will be difficult before starting it so that those who will need emotional support can access it in advance of teaching.

Using content notes online is also a simple act. I frequently save blogs with a content note tag for when my youngest child is in bed because I don’t want her accidentally coming up behind me and reading something over my shoulder that she is too young to access. This doesn’t mean we don’t talk about the Holocaust or slavery or violence in general. We talk about it in age-appropriate manners and in a place where it is conducive to her understanding the topic.



I’ve had some very thoughtful conversations with some friends via twitter on this blog and want to add two points to this point.

1. The conclusion to the New Republic article was really quite snide with a throw away remark about letting “vulnerable” people dictate policy. It was completely unnecessary.

2. I have seen a lot of dismissal of the idea that it is impossible to suffer PTSD from online harassment and that people who claim they do are making it up. Personally, I think this position is horseshit. It is absolutely possible to experience PTSD from online harassment. Granted, there will always be 1 or 2 who use any excuse to get out of taking personal responsibility for their behaviour but that has nothing to do with the potential for people to experience PTSD through online harassment.

I have no time for the argument that online harassment and abuse is less traumatic or less real than “real-life” harassment and abuse. It is all part of a spectrum of male violence against women and children which needs to end.

2 thoughts on “Trigger Warnings/ Content Notes are Necessary”

  1. Love this. I’ve some perspective on the whole “trigger” thing, and I can honestly say that for many, avoiding triggers means avoiding life, and you can’t do that forever, if you want to live, and not let your trauma be the definition of your existence.
    Also , as to *too depressing* , where do you start? Heartless little twerps, raised by spineless parents. Sorry , but that’s how it seems to me. At my convent school, in the eighties, we were shown those films of holocaust victims being bulldozed into mass graves (and all the other films/testimonies) and nobody asked our parents permission, though we were warned to have tissues ready.
    Although the subject reduces me to hot snotty tears of horror, as does the more recent genocides of Bosnia et all I don’t shy from them because those tears they induce remind me I’m human. And being human hurts sometimes.

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