Belfast Telegraph

Friday 28 November 2014

Red alert over annoying rise in trigger warnings - save them for the people who really need them.

Alert: Leonardo Di Caprio in the Great Gatsby

Do you know what a trigger warning is? No, not the intimation that someone is about to get shot. It's a cautionary notice that comes attached to potentially disturbing material – whether that's a film, or a television programme, or an online blog – alerting vulnerable people to the content and giving them the option to switch off, or go elsewhere.

Fair enough, in principle, especially when you're talking about volatile subjects like rape or child abuse. It seems only humane to tell victims that they may be hurt, bothered or – in the worst-case scenario – retraumatised by such subject-matter.

But now trigger warnings have got seriously out of hand. The internet is splattered with them, like stupid sanctimonious graffiti, and they're a growing presence in the real world, too (assuming we can still distinguish between actual reality and the virtual kind), holier-than-thou disclaimers popping up everywhere.

Failure to comply marks you out as an insensitive boor, heedless of the terrible harm you may be causing to emotionally-damaged individuals.

It seems that there's hardly a subject worth discussing that doesn't come with its own trigger warning and there are plenty of 'helpful' online lists enumerating the topics that must be red-flagged.

Suicide? Paedophilia? By all means slap a warning on it. But pregnancy? Spiders? Slimy things? I'm not too fond of cockroaches, for instance – bad experience on a Spanish holiday – but I'm not going to collapse in a heap on the floor frothing at the mouth if someone happens to mention them unexpectedly without issuing an appropriate alert.

At this rate you may as well stick a trigger warning on everything, since there's no limit to the list of subjects that people could potentially be upset or offended by.

That logic has escaped the authorities of certain progressive American universities, which are considering student-led demands to attach warnings to certain classic literary texts in order to protect scholars from encountering damaging content.

At Rutgers University in New Jersey, F Scott FitzGerald's masterpiece The Great Gatsby stands accused of upsetting vulnerable readers with "a variety of scenes that reference gory, abusive and misogynistic violence".

Right, and Dodie Smith's One Hundred And One Dalmatians is sure to trigger extreme anxiety in anyone who has ever had their Dalmatian kidnapped, under threat of being turned into the most exquisite fur coat.

Look closer at what's going on here and you see that the original, well-meaning intention to protect has changed into something quite different – another tool for liberal fascists (who make an ugly mockery of true liberalism) to control and restrict the flow of debate and shut down anything that they don't want to hear, or that doesn't fit comfortably into their approved list of acceptable things to say.

Such warnings contribute to a growing culture of over-sensitivity and foolish babying, where the most arcane hang-ups are pandered to and even to disagree with someone is seen as an aggressive act.

Nobody could accuse Northern Ireland of such sappy nonsense. The entire place is one big trigger warning in a more literal sense. The marks of past horrors are everywhere, not least in the house-high paramilitary murals which celebrate and fetishise extreme violence.

Online thought-police demand that the very mention of guns should come with a red flag attached lest anyone should be left feeling disturbed.

How do victims of our own conflict feel when they actually see – not merely read about – a 10ft image of an AK-47 in the hands of a balaclava-wearing thug? What kind of internal response must that trigger in somebody who has had their body or their mind shattered by these self-appointed 'freedom fighters'?

And, sometimes, it will be the most unexpected, innocuous things that will reawaken that terrible fear which catapults victims right back into the moment where they were hurt.

A psychotherapist who specialises in treating victims of the Troubles told me that, for one police officer, it was the smell of marzipan at Christmas that brought them to their knees in panic, because it was so reminiscent of the sweetish scent of detonated explosives.

So there's real trauma, and then there's the fake, self-indulgent kind, and it's vital that we distinguish between the two.

Save the trigger warnings for the people who really need them.

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