I've noticed a lot of mocking surrounding the concept of trigger warnings lately. I understand the purpose, but it should be mentioned that triggers are serious and warnings helpful. In the realm of mental illness a trigger is an event or situation or other stimuli that triggers a mood change in you. It may be certain imagery or descriptions or topics that will have lasting, potentially-serious effects in you beyond the immediate conversation or article.
Some people have to be especially careful about what they see and hear. A word can place them right in the middle of a devastating memory, as though reliving the trauma. A simple trigger warning can serve as a powerful protection.
Of course, trigger warnings have been abused to include anything that someone may disagree with. And safe spaces have become places where you need not hear anything that differs from your own, personal view of reality. This is a perversion of a helpful psychologic tool. The danger is in suggesting the author or speaker is culpable. Sometimes, the charge is warranted -- pornographic imagery, for instance, always sparks deviance. The trigger-effect is inherent, so the publisher is not innocent. This is not always true. Consider Jane Austen.
The beauty has value on its own despite the possibility or even probability of a negative impact. Pride and Prejudice may well be a trigger for you; this says nothing at all about its worth as art or about its author.
I remember being surprised during pre-engangement counseling when my pastor included dear Jane in a question about romance novels. Jane Austen did not write romance novels. Romance novelists are responsible in part for the effect their stories have on the mind, just like pornography producers. Trashy romance novels are pornography after all; words have the same kind of power as images in that sense. Masterpieces such as Sense and Sensibility do not belong in that box. Jane created beauty. Excellence. An excellence that engulfs you as the reader. And excites. The fact that this excitement is so often twisted into lust cannot be blamed on the author. She has created beauty; that we use it to create something ugly is not her fault. The beauty has value on its own despite the possibility or even probability of a negative impact. Pride and Prejudice may well be a trigger for you; this says nothing at all about its worth as art or about its author.
At the beginning of this writing I might have asserted that the intent is significant. Jane Austen, for instance, did not create Elizabeth to tantalize women and drag their minds through the dirt. But I realize now at the end of this post, that this assertion is untrue. Her intent does not matter, or at least, hardly matters. If she created something ugly that destroyed lives without forethought, she would still be the cause of the ugliness. She would still be responsible for the way this ugliness worked out in her readers' lives. It would not matter if she had intended only good or self-service.
I read today something that said we should care more about the impact of our words than our intent in saying them. In some cases this is true, and by requesting a trigger warning I am asking you to consider the impact. Usually, it is not because you must. You are not usually directly responsible for your impact, especially the negative impact of most of your words. Sometimes, you've said something ugly, and my hurt is your fault. Sometimes, you've said something beautiful, and my hurt is my fault -- by my calling beauty ugly. Sometimes, you've said something neutral, and my hurt is neither my fault nor your fault. It's the fault of somebody you've neither met nor heard of that I knew 20 years ago, and all you did was unwittingly trigger a foul memory.
Though a warning is not the responsibility of the one who may provide it, it is often life-saving. That's the thing. You are not responsible for my sin, but if you can help, if you can provide real, timely safety, please provide it. Help is rarely ever a must-do. It's not required. It's just help.