Before we begin dissecting the concept of trigger warnings, let us first define trigger warnings.
A trigger warning is a warning mentioned at the beginning of a piece of media in much the same way someone would place a spoiler warning, except the spoiler in this case is that you might be offended or trigger a bout of anxiety.
Urban Dictionary, however, describes trigger warnings a little differently:
“A phrase posted at the beginning of various posts, articles, or blogs. Its purpose is to warn weak minded people who are easily offended that they might find what is being posted offensive in some way due to its content, causing them to overreact or otherwise start acting like a dipshit. Popular on reddit SRS or other places that social justice warriors like to hang out.”
Not entirely inaccurate, all things considered, but there’s more to it than that.
The purpose of this article is to break down why trigger warnings are in and of themselves actually quite harmful to the very people they supposedly attempt to protect.
Even the mere mention of a “trigger warning” tells someone that a topic is being discussed, which means that they’ve already been triggered by the trigger warning, so the whole concept of trigger warnings is nonsensical by default before we even cover how harmful they are in practice; by their very own reasoning, a trigger warning is a trigger, so now you need a warning for your warning so you can warn while you warn. Silly, huh?
One of the biggest frustrations here is that the only real way to “fix” this—other than by removing trigger warnings entirely—is to place a warning that there’s a trigger warning since even the trigger warning itself can be a trigger to the overly sensitive since it specifically denotes the fact that whatever the trigger warning is in reference to is something bad.
It gets to the point where simply seeing a trigger warning could potentially create fear and anxiety before even knowing what the trigger warning is even about. Just the mere fact that there’s a trigger warning at all states you have a reason to be afraid.
Don’t believe me? Let’s get into the specifics of how this is even possible.
No Pain, No Gain
That’s right, work it! Feel the burn from the flamers!
Well, perhaps not, but the concept is sort of true. When it comes to physical exercise, that pain you feel is the muscles being torn slightly as they’re forced outside of their physical limitations. The body reacts by rebuilding the muscles stronger for next time, making them more durable and more capable of withstanding the same rigors that harmed them in the first place.
The same goes for mental exercise: no pain, no gain. Much in the same way as muscles rebuild stronger, your mind makes associations and builds upon new neural paths via repetition.
So let’s say you have a phobia of spiders. How is this normally treated? By exposing an individual to spiders. Go figure. Maybe pictures of spiders, perhaps actually touching a live spider—it depends on the severity of what the individual has for a phobia and how far along they are in their treatment.
The concept is quite simple: if you associate spiders with “doesn’t hurt” or “not bad” frequently enough, where you aren’t harmed, eventually your brain creates an association with the idea that spiders aren’t bad. Over time, the previous association with “spiders = fear” will gradually be forgotten, and the new association will override it.
The reverse works as well, which is a problem when it comes to trigger warnings. If you have a trigger warning that says TRIGGER WARNING – SEXUAL VIOLENCE, all you’ve managed to do is reinforce the concept that even thinking about sexual violence, much less discussing it, is something to be fearful of.
In this manner, it becomes impossible to ever overcome the fear of such. Rather than susceptible readers being able to talk about the issue or recover, the trigger warnings continually and perpetually reinforce the concept for susceptible readers until even the mere mention of such is enough to “trigger” someone.
In effect, the trigger warnings themselves are a positive reinforcement of fear.
Note that by the term “positive reinforcement,” I don’t mean it’s beneficial. What this means is that it re-emphasizes that pattern of thought, making the fear worse than it was before.
In this manner, proper positive reinforcement would be to try to associate the concept of sexual violence with something along the lines of recognizing that the vast majority of people aren’t sexually violent.
The negative reinforcement method would be to actively discourage fear of the topic, such as by telling yourself, “No, I’m strong enough to overcome this.”
Knowledge Is Power, Information Is Ammunition, and You Are Unarmed.
The above statement is true, so let’s see about arming you, shall we?
When you’re afraid of a topic, you are at the mercy of that topic, regardless of what it is. This is true of all forms of fear: you either control your fear or your fear controls you. Pick one or the other because you can’t have it both ways.
Knowledge is the primary tool to break the grip of fear.
For example, I’m scared of flying. Planes feel like they’re made from cheap plastic, the negative g’s you get on takeoff and landing are terrifying, and you hear about plane crashes all over the news.
However … I’ve watched more than enough of the show Mayday, which involves re-enactments of plane crashes, and then the forensic work to figure out how they happened.
You’d think I’d be even more terrified by this kind of a TV show … and yet the opposite is quite true. The thing I’ve learned is that plane crashes are amazingly rare, which is why they stand out as being so important in the news. I also learned that for every plane crash that occurs, they will spend months and years researching it into the ground, and then arrange a list of recommendations to enforce that will prevent it from ever happening again. It’s through knowledge that I learned I have a higher risk of dying in a car accident on the way to the airport than I have a risk of my plane crashing.
The fear-mongering that goes on in the media is the primary cause of why people become afraid of this crap in the first place.
I used to be afraid that I would be raped. I used to be afraid that I would be a victim of domestic violence. I used to be afraid of a lot of things, really … and then I actually did my research and found out how ridiculously overinflated these issues had become.
One in three women will be raped in their lifetime … we’ve heard this quote a lot lately, haven’t we? It’s terrifying! Isn’t that horrible? Wouldn’t you be right to be scared shitless about that?
You would be, if it were true. Except … it’s not. Not even remotely.
The origin of this statistic is laughable.
The original study, headed by Mary Koss, is ridiculous. For example, if a man offers a woman a drink in a bar and the woman declines and he loses all interest afterward, that would be classified as “attempted rape” because the thought process was that a woman can’t consent to sex while drunk (though the same study claims men can somehow magically consent while drunk) and that the only reason to offer a drink is to attempt to have sex with her.
From there, this “attempted rape” is filed under “attempted sexual assault,” which eventually becomes conflated into “sexual assault” in general and gets rolled into the “20% of women are sexually assaulted” statistic. From there, it’s misquoted into “20% of women are raped,” or 1 in 5. Another hop and a skip along, and the 1 in 5 is misquoted time and again until it’s 1 in 4, and then 1 in 3.
Congratulations, we’ve just gone from a guy offering a drink and being declined and losing interest after that to a claim of a woman actually being raped.
What do you find when you go through this kind of information and look at the actual numbers? The more accurate statistic is that about 2% of women will be raped in their lifetime.
That’s still too high, as that still means 1 in 50. But that’s a lot better than what we’ve been told, and it certainly makes me feel a lot more comfortable to realize my chances of being raped are a hell of a lot less than I first thought they were.
Knowledge will set you free from fear. When you learn the truth, that’s when you realize you’re in a much safer position than you thought you were and you can garner a bit of comfort from that. When you realize that at least 98% of men aren’t rapists, and in fact absolutely find the mere concept abhorrent, it’s a lot easier to relax around guys in general.
A culture of fear can only exist by telling people they’re constantly in a state of extreme risk. The single greatest tool to combat that fear is knowledge of how low that risk really, truly is.
The Truth Will Set You Free—But First It Will Piss You Off
Have you ever gone swimming? The water seeming just a bit too cold, you probably didn’t want to do more than dip in your toe. If you jump in, though, it’s all over in a moment and you can enjoy yourself afterward.
This is much the same correlation with trigger warnings in relation to topics that bother you. So long as you dip your toe in, yes, the water will be cold, but if you jump into the debate, dig through the statistics and studies, and do your research, you’ll find that the pain and discomfort only lasts a short time, letting you get back to your regular life a lot quicker.
The thing is, though, as you learn how much you’ve been lied to by propaganda and fear-mongering, you’re probably going to get pissed off.
I know I certainly wasn’t amused to learn just how mangled the domestic violence and rape statistics I kept hearing were. It was more than a little frustrating to realize that there were people out there continually feeding me bullshit just so they could profit from my fear.
If you want to not live your life in perpetual fear, you have to confront the things you’re scared of. Looking at statistics that show how rare something is can help you realize it’s exceptionally unlikely to happen to you, for instance. You could go to a support group or discover others who have had similar issues and learn how they got through them and returned to their lives once more. Therapy is another major option. Hell, just reading up on ways to prevent such events can let you take command of your life rather than being a leaf on the wind.
Get Over It
Seriously, I have to agree with the Eagles on this one—”Get over it,” and not just because it’s a catchy song.
Sure, it’s probably going to sting a bit, but that’s the trade-off: one tiny bit of hurt in the short-term to be able to free yourself of the problem forever.
It really comes down to deciding whether you want to take control over your own life or whether you are willing to wallow perpetually in misery for fear that anyone might even mention or hint at something that bothers you.
It’s that simple: misery for life or get on with your life. Which is more important to you? Having victim status forever or not being triggered into a fit of misery over the tiniest of things?
It’s not that simple to carry through on the “get over it” option, but really, what is as easy to do as it is to say you will do it? Not much in life, to be blunt, and anything worth doing tends to be pretty hard.
It is worth it, though, to escape from the snare of fear.
If you trigger something often enough and nothing bad happens, you associate it and the event with being safe. If you trigger something and panic, running away in fear, then all you’ve done is associate it with terror, which reinforces the problem as I stated earlier.
Trigger warnings perpetuate the act of running away, plain and simple. Will you face your fears, and be free of them, or let them rule your life?
Have you ever been assaulted? Raped? Attacked? The best cure is to surround yourself with similar people who won’t do that sort of thing to you. If a black man raped you, make friends with some really great black men, and you’ll learn it was one individual who was a total piece of shit instead of all black men, for instance. If you run away any time anyone even mentions assault, or black men, or whatever, you’re just going to reinforce to yourself the idea that all situations even remotely similar are worthy of fear by association, even when they’re not.
We know racism is wrong, so you probably don’t really have a problem with black men, do you? But we’ve managed to convince ourselves as a society that you can’t be sexist against men, so it’s fine to be afraid of him as a MAN, but not a BLACK man.
Yet that’s all trigger warnings really are—they’re racist, they’re sexist, they’re whateverist, when you think about it. It’s fear and prejudice against something without a rational cause by applying it to all instances of whatever it is in a discriminatory fashion.
Whatever it is that you’re afraid of enough to need a trigger warning, it needs to be discussed rationally to deal with it. When you fall to fear alone, you lose all hope of ever tackling the problem.
So again, we come back to the same point again.
Get over it.
You do no one a favour by living in fear—especially not yourself.
Let the nonsensical trigger warning craze just die already. It has done nothing but instill further fear into those who would otherwise be able to make a full recovery.
You may notice that this site doesn’t have trigger warnings, at least, none that are serious rather than in parody. There’s a reason for that. We don’t support fear-mongering, nor victimizing people further by preventing them from overcoming their fears.
We’re not afraid anymore, and you don’t have to be either.
Editor’s note: this article was first published at Men’s Rights Sydney