TW: two capitalised letters that have in recent weeks become a hot button issue for media outlets and academic institutions. TW is shorthand for trigger warning: an alert before an internet post, book, article, picture, video, audio clip, or some other media could potentially cause extremely negative reactions (such as post-traumatic flashbacks or self-harm) due to its content. Trigger warnings are a common sight in feminist spaces and they often earmark content that contains graphic descriptions or discussions of sexual violence and other forms of gender based violence. These prompts allow trauma survivors the notice to do the mental prep needed to engage with that piece of media or to give them the choice to avoid it altogether.
Trigger warnings have entered mass public consciousness because of a New York Times article titled “Warning: the literary canon could make students squirm”. According to the article, students at various academic institutions in the States are calling for these alerts to forewarn them about content that might cause emotional harm or spark psychological distress. Academics and journalists alike are up in arms about these requests and many claim that it’s an attempt by students to dodge uncomfortable material or an over-reaction by the oversensitive. In intellectual circles, this call for trigger warnings was seen as an attack on academic freedom and an act of censorship. In journalistic circles, this was mostly shot down as an excuse for indulgent political correctness – a way to avoid opinions that bother you or go against your own.
In this tussle between academics and editorial opinionistas, the opinions of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) sufferers especially survivors of sexual violence largely went amiss. A writer from the Guardian pointed out that although PTSD isn’t an affliction that should be taken lightly, the triggers are often personal and varied which makes it hard to label what is and isn’t harmful. Her sentiment rings true in certain cases. A trauma counsellor, I spoke to once indicated that she has a client who is triggered by hearing Julius Malema speak. His aggression creates anxiety around her refugee status. Yet, we seem to have no issue marking content for other reasons such as age restrictions and spoilers.
The New Yorker published a piece about a writer who struggled to see past his University professor’s proclamation that ‘Lolita’ is a book about “a systematic rape of a young girl”. The writer complains that his professor’s warning took away from the literary enjoyment of the book and made it too political. Fittingly, Alexandra Brodsky, an editor at the website Feministing, responded to this remark by quipping: “Why is the depersonalized, apolitical reading the one we should fight for?” This privilege of emotional distance is not one that actual survivors of sexual violence have. For survivors, a graphic account of sexual abuse like ‘Lolita’ can mean navigating a minefield of flashbacks, nightmares and anxiety.
Even in some online feminist spaces this acknowledgement of possible psychological impact seems difficult to grasp. A post about Trigger Warnings attached to the movie Frozen was belittled in the UCT Feminist and Gender Egalitarian group. The person who posted this attack claimed that adding these psychological earmarks to media content meant society had to “bend over backwards” for PTSD sufferers and that it would be better as a whole if people learnt to face these triggers head on. This response showed yet again a very shallow understanding of what survivors of traumas such as gender based violence have to mentally go through. From rape jokes to graphic depictions of sexual violence in the media, the world at large not only trivialises the experience of survivors but also replays it to them. A simple two letter warning to help survivors is enough to bring mass cries of “this is censorship” and “get over it”.
Dela Gwala is a full-time feminist and post-grad student at UCT who writes in the hours stolen from her thesis. She helps manage the South African branch of the largest intersectional feminist page on Facebook, Guerrilla Feminism.