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Some Thoughts on Trigger Warnings

I’ve never experienced enough trauma to need a trigger warning. To be like, I was just reading this book and all of a sudden the main character got sexually assaulted or had an eating disorder and I suddenly recalled some bad memories. But I have experienced trauma. Everyone has and I am no different. But I do not expect the world to change because I have a problem. The world is not my therapist, it should not take on the responsibility for my feelings.

The reason I hate trigger warnings is that they spoil things. They make me know what’s coming, what to anticipate. If I’m reading a novel about princesses and I see “Trigger Warning: May Contain Sexual Assault”, all I’m doing is waiting for the moment that happens (probably between Act 2 and Act 3). Would Game of Thrones have been as impactful if you’d known when and where all the sex, violence, and rape was coming? So why does your trauma have to preclude my enjoyment of stories? Part of entertainment is the shock at something visceral or sudden twisting the plot.

Let’s say you’re on an airplane, and you ask “can I have some peanuts?” and they say “Sorry, sir, we can’t serve peanuts on this flight. One passenger is allergic to peanuts.” How would you feel? Look–it sucks for that person to have a peanut allergy, they probably have a lot of troubles. But why do I have to be punished for their problem?

No one gets through life without some scars. I have never heard of anyone’s life being improved because of trigger warnings. Has anyone done a study of the benefit they give people? I’ve never heard of any, either anecdotal or otherwise. It’s not like the author wrote it with you in mind, to attack you personally.

I don’t want to use the slippery slope metaphor–just because one tree falls in the forest doesn’t mean all the trees around it fall–but when does it end? Who decides what constitutes a trigger warning? I’m sure there are plenty of people in the country who are offended at homosexuality. They’re wrong, but they’re still offended. And if they were reading and enjoying a book and all of a sudden the main character realizes he’s gay, how are they going to feel? Does that book need a trigger warning for those people who are offended? Just because you’re offended doesn’t mean you’re right. Consider this exchange:

How about another metaphor? I’m going to serve you a gourmet meal of macaroni and cheese. And it’s the best thing you’ve ever had in your life. It’s delicious. It makes you see God. Now I give you a second helping, only this time I tell you that the secret ingredient is Cheez Whiz. Suddenly your joy at that meal has gone down, hasn’t it?

(This has happened before — I can’t remember where, maybe an episode of 20/20, but they did an experiment where a professional chef prepared a meal out of KFC ingredients. So it was all pretty much presentation. The tasters loved it, said it was the best thing they’d ever had, said it was five stars. Now how do you think they’d feel if they were told they just ate KFC?)

Another metaphor! Say you’ve taken your kids to a playground. Then some mom comes up to you and says “I just saw you give your kids some peanut butter sandwiches for lunch. Could your wipe their hands so they don’t get peanut butter on the equipment? My kid has a nut allergy”. Now really think about your reaction. Think about what this person is telling you. How does she know your kids are going to trigger her? How does she know some other kid who bathed in peanut butter wasn’t at the playground ten minutes ago? Does this mom ask everyone in the world if they’ve had peanut butter? This person’s expectations are off.

Last thought. My dad died in late 2011 from a heart attack. What song came out two years later? Heart Attack by Demi Lovato. The sinker lyric in that song is “Putting my defenses up / ‘Cause I don’t wanna fall in love / If I ever did that / I think I’d have a heart attack”. Every time I heard this song I’d think of my dad. I’d think of how this song makes light of heart attacks. I’d think of how I’m probably going to die of a heart attack. Did I call the radio station and tell them to stop playing that song? Did I ask them to warn me so they’d have to say “We’re about to play Demi Lovato’s song Heart Attack. If you’re sensitive to that, please turn off the radio now.”

No, because I don’t expect the world to change for me because of my problems. I expect to be responsible for my own shit, my own trauma. I own that. And it’s my responsibility to deal with that on my own, in my own way. I’m not going to stop people from enjoying works of art because some part of that work reminds me of something bad. For one thing, stories are made of trauma — they’re supposed to torture the main character with obstacles and suffering. For another, there’s always going to be bad memories. It’s part of being human. But it’s my job to cope with that, not the rest of the world’s.

Eric Juneau is a software engineer and novelist on his lunch breaks. In 2016, his first novel, Merm-8, was published by eTreasures. He lives in, was born in, and refuses to leave, Minnesota. You can find him talking about movies, video games, and Disney princesses at http://www.ericjuneaubooks.com where he details his journey to become a capital A Author.

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