The existence of trigger warnings in university classrooms has attracted much media attention, but they were never just a campus phenomenon. In fact, they first appeared in online forums and blogs, well before their mandatory inclusion in the curriculum became a common demand of student activists.
Even so, trigger warnings are now showing up in some unusual places. Perhaps more concerning, they often cover a much broader range of expression—content that doesn't seem very worthy of forewarning. Here are three examples.
First, there was a New York Times article last week about trigger warnings appearing at the theater.
"Please be advised," warned a sign posted outside the door to a stage in Denver. "This production contains: Strobe lighting effects. Sudden loud noises. Theatrical fog/haze. Scenes of violence. Adult language. Sexual situations. Adult humor and content." A venue in Brooklyn warned theatergoers about "moments of darkness and violence" in a play. "This production may trigger an adverse reaction," read a sign at a theater in Baltimore. A Philadelphia-based theater company even offered to direct uncomfortable audience members to a safe space in the lobby.
"We're all just trying to find the line between setting people's expectations and not treating them like children and not giving away the core of the story," artistic director Chris Coleman told the Times.
If paying customers really want to be forewarned about troubling material, then theater owners are bound to accommodate them. But I wonder whether many customers actually feel misled—or frightened, or triggered—if they see a play that isn't completely predictable. And while I understand why some customers would want to be warned, for physical reasons, about strobe lighting effects, "adult humor" and "moments of darkness" seem like another category altogether.
Consider another case: an online forum for a book club. Bob, an academic whose real name I have omitted, posted on a discussion forum for scholars hosted by Mastodon, a competitor to Twitter. His post was a very brief announcement regarding his book club's next reading, the nonfiction Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest. In response, an administrator asked him to revise the "toot" (that's Mastodon's version of a tweet) by adding a content warning. Bob complained that this was unnecessary, but the administrator persisted.
"Using Content Warnings allows other users to consent before engaging with the topics listed on our Community Standards," wrote the administrator. "I'm going to have to ask you to delete and re-draft this post at some point over the next day or so and add a CW for U.S. politics."
The required content warning was for tech companies and violence. The administrator wanted to hide the post—which was just the book's title, plus a link to Bob's book club—beneath this note of caution, as if merely reading the words "Twitter" or "tear gas" would be disturbing.
"I pointed out that those words are, in fact, the title of an academic book, and that this was a discussion forum for academia," wrote Bob. "No dice. I had to add a content warning or else."
Third, a personal anecdote: A woman named Mira Lazine—who provides "a queer socialist perspective on the local politics of northeastern Pennsylvania," according to her Twitter bio—criticized The Daily Beast for "regularly publishing" my work. (Note: I haven't written anything for The Daily Beast in quite a while.) She wrongly accused me of "blatantly defending blackface" and provided a link to a representative offending column—with a content warning, of course. A subsequent tweet, which linked to another one of my columns, provided an equally inaccurate content warning for "queerphobia, ableism, and much more."
It certainly seems like the trigger warning phenomenon is spreading—and is being used to warn people about speech that isn't intrinsically disturbing, except for the very easily unnerved. As long as such practices are voluntary, as most classroom trigger warnings are, then this isn't a free speech problem. But I do worry it becomes more difficult to talk to one another if the speaker always assumes fragility on the part of the listener. People really shouldn't need a content warning before they read the words "tear gas."