As an English Literature student, one of the first things I studied at university was the Old English epic poem Beowulf. If you’re not familiar, the protagonist, Beowulf, is a hero who slays the monster Grendel, and Grendel’s mother, and then (spoiler alert!) a dragon. Then (extra spoiler alert!) he dies.
The University of Aberdeen has put more than 30 trigger warnings on a module for the Celtic and Anglo-Saxon Studies course, called “Lost Gods and Hidden Monsters of the Celtic and Germanic Middle Ages” – one of the texts included in the warnings is Beowulf.
It reads: “Texts studied on this course contain representations of violence, coercion, animal cruelty or animal death, incest, suicide, explicit sexual content... ableism.”
At Manchester Metropolitan University, a similar trigger warning has been added to a medieval Christian text, which chronicles graphic divine healings, called The Miracles of the Hand of St James. Students are informed: “Warning. Some of the miracles can be pretty graphic and may be off-putting to some.”
My response? OK then.
Trigger warnings, long a staple target of right-wing mockery and hatred, are like signposts. They inform consumers of images, audio, video and text about potentially disturbing content ahead. Usually, they warn us about graphic depictions of violence and gore, sexual abuse, self-harm, suicide and eating disorders – among other topics.
Cue the scornful headlines in certain sections of the media about “snowflakes” (usually millennial) not being able to “cope” with difficult or disturbing things. The inference is that we need to “toughen up” and young people who appreciate trigger warnings are silly cry-babies, but hear me out:
Trigger warnings are helpful for people who have experienced and survived trauma – sometimes horrific and life-changing trauma – and they enable those people to look after themselves in the future. Caring for yourself and for others isn’t weakness – it’s peak strength.
This might look like avoiding a film or a TV show where there is a graphic depiction of suicide, such as in the controversial Netflix series 13 Reasons Why; or a book that details explicit sexual violence. It might be as simple as merely being forewarned, so you’re not taken entirely by surprise and then suffer the consequences.
I remember watching season five of Game of Thrones, a show I’d followed avidly, and being left cold and shaky, watching the rape of Sansa Stark. It was particularly distressing that the scene played out through the gaze of a male character, Theon Greyjoy. I felt the horror of it in my body, which is a very common response to being confronted with reminders of past trauma. It put me back in the past – back in helplessness and terror.
The body can react as though the danger is happening right here, right now, with an elevated heart rate, foggy head, frozen limbs, feeling like you might vomit or pass out, panic attacks, flashbacks, or the impulse to immediately numb through drugs or alcohol, among other reactions.
At work, in our bank of images used to accompany articles, we provide warnings of graphic content on images that depict violence, such as those of the consequences of war in Ukraine. It’s a professional duty of care to do so, something that the universities mentioned above intend to provide for their students. They’re not doing it for a laugh, or to keep their students “soft” or “weak”.
No university can know the exact history of every student, of what they might have experienced, so they are providing short signposts on texts. It doesn’t hurt anyone, and it might actually help.
The nature of trauma is complex – and, of course, everyone is different. We can all process trauma differently. Trigger warnings will not always capture every topic that might spark a deeply distressing response, but they do provide choice and agency for people who have had their agency taken away in the past due to the nature of the abuse or life-altering event they have experienced.
Perhaps we need a universal, spoiler-free trigger warning symbol – a simple yellow triangle with an exclamation point in it. It would invite anyone who might need the warning to find out more, and then make the decision of how they will proceed.
For people and publications bemoaning that trigger warnings have “gone too far”, I’d ask – who are you to decide how those who have endured trauma deal with that? Who are you to decide what they need? Who are you to arbitrate in what could be helpful or facilitate the healing process for them?
Trigger warnings are about choice and about information. What is so good about ignorance? If they’re helpful, apply them. It’s that simple.