Trigger Warning: "Trigger Warning" is By Definition Triggering and Should Be Replaced with "Content Warning"

Where did the need to bubble-wrap every conversation come from? And will it ever end?


Via the Twitter feeds of Thaddeus Russell and Tom Owolade comes this beyond-parody explication of the dangers of using the term trigger warning to caution prospective readers about content that might upset them.

As an intro to an article that claims to be "Your One-Stop 101" about trigger warnings, the editors at Everyday Feminism write:

Everyday Feminism definitely believes in giving people a heads up about material that might provoke our reader's trauma. However, we use the phrase "content warning" instead of "trigger warning," as the word "trigger" relies on and evokes violent weaponry imagery. This could be re-traumatizing for folks who have suffered military, police, and other forms of violence. So, while warnings are so necessary and the points in this article are right on, we strongly encourage the term "content warning" instead of "trigger warning." 

And then, this:

Content Warning: This article discusses triggering in detail and mentions common topics of triggering (sexual assault, anxiety, health anxiety, depression, death, non-specific fears and phobias).

Emphasis and italics in the original.

I've written recently about why I think that "college students are human veal." That is, they are being treated as if they cannot endure the slightest moment of upset or discomfort, even or especially in the safe space of higher education. Sometimes they are the ones demanding to be treated this way but often it is paternalistic adminstrators who are speaking for the delicate flowers in today's hothouse campus environments.

This phenomenon is a long time coming and extends far beyond the hallowed halls of academia and what Christina Hoff Sommers has called "fainting-couch feminism." As Lenore Skenazy documents here at Reason and on her own blog, Free-Range Kids, we are increasingly treating our children as china dolls who are fragile beyond belief.

I first noticed and wrote about this trend for Reason back in 1997, in an article titled "Child-Proofing the World." Even back then, "this trend ha[d] been intensifying over the past two decades or so…":

…lurching from isolated scares about poisoned Halloween candy in the 1970s and child abduction in the 1980s to a generalized calculus that places perceived harm to children at the center of seemingly every discussion. The tendency is ubiquitous enough to be fair game for parody. On The Simpsons, for instance, one character routinely asks at any public gathering, "What about the children?" It is not coincidental that the rise of such attitudes to cultural dominance occurred as the baby boom generation—that gargantuan cohort born between 1946 and 1964—shifted into parenting mode and started to grapple with the most unfamiliar role of authority figure. While it is unclear what effect this may have on the kids themselves—Will they respond to doomsday scenarios by shrinking from the world or by becoming what-the-fuck nihilists?—one result has been a gradual shifting of the costs of raising children onto wider and wider swatches of society, and not merely in dollars: If kids have access to TV, for instance, then all programs must be made child-safe.

The threats are everywhere, we are told: If children are not hounded by ritual satanic child abusers at day care or by perverts on the Internet, then they're sucking in too much asbestos at school, or chewing on too much lead at home; if television, purportedly the babysitter of choice in the overwhelming majority of American homes, hasn't transformed kids into underperforming, slackjawed dullards, it has overstimulated them into feral children who must be tamed with Ritalin and Prozac; if we haven't failed the kids by not spending unlimited amounts of tax money on them, then we have transformed them into shallow consumers who can only measure affection in terms of dollars spent; if they're not at elevated risks of brain cancer from eating hot dogs, then they're likely to become punch-drunk from heading soccer balls; and on and on.

Read the whole thing here.

I think it's easy to conclude that yesterday's (and today's) kids have not become "what-the-fuck nihilists." But they have become, at least in certain settings and circumstances, ever-more constrained by ideological and emotional bubble wrap. In general, society has never been more pluralistic and tolerant and empathetic (not perfectly so, whatever that would mean, but much more so than just a decade or two ago). And yet the remaining points of misunderstanding and disagreement have never loomed so large.

In the 1997 Reason story, I chalked up our hypersensitivity to objectively lower level of threats to children to a variety of factors: We have fewer kids and invest more (emotionally and economically) in them, so our stakes in them are figuratively and literally higher); post-war America was raised to believe in a crypto-Freudian notion that a single bad traumatic experience—even something as banal as a scary movie or violent video game or a heavy dose of processed sugar—could forever damage our psyches beyond repair. We have forgotten not just the distant past, when universal human misery was the rule, but the near past, when full-on economic depression and world war was the rule. Most important, generations of activists, in pursuit of a sympathetic audience, routinely overgeneralize the tragic circumstances of the few to gain a hearing in a media that loves to tell tales of widespread decline and degeneracy.

There are other causes, of course, but the result is where we live today: In a world where before you can even talk about how to best to instruct your audience on how to disseminate trigger warnings, you need first to apologize for and revise the very term trigger warning.

There are signs that this particular intellectual death spiral is drawing to a close, or at least being increasingly quarantined on college campuses and in serious public discourse. Every bit as much as violent revolutions, ideological revolutions ultimately eat their own and die out like Ebola pandemics. That's good news, especially because it will allow for exactly the sort of productive and meaningful—and yes, often uncomfortable—conversations people need to have to grow beyond old, worn-out, and unfair prejudices and arrangements.

Reason TV talked with Robby Soave about 3 of the Most Fucked-Up Campus Stories of the Year. Take a look: