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Trigger Warnings Aren't Confined to College Campuses: Here Are 3 Unusual Places They Appeared

"I had to add a content warning or else."

SignMuxiang / DreamstimeThe 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."

Photo Credit: Muxiang / Dreamstime

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  • Eddy||

    Trigger warnings were also used in the circus, and by the promoters of suggestive plays, movies, etc.

    "This movie/play/exhibit is strictly for ADULTS ONLY! It's content is so SHOCKING that people with heart conditions should STAY AWAY! This RAW and EXPLICIT material is NOT FOR THE FAINT OF HEART! Enter at your own risk!"

  • Eddy||

    Come to think of it, instead of fussing about trigger warnings, professors should take them up with gusto.

    "TRIGGER WARNING: ENGLISH 101: THE PLAYS OF SHAKESPEARE features mature themes themes which some students may find OFFENSIVE and SHOCKING. If you are easily put off by INCEST, CROSS-DRESSING, MADNESS, SEX, and MURDER, do not take this class. FOR MATURE AUDIENCES ONLY!!!"

  • Mickey Rat||

    You forgot human sacrifice, rape, cannibalism, an early "your mother" insult,..and that is just Titus Andronicus.

  • Eddy||

    "I like my children, but not *that* way!"

  • Quixote||

    Surely we can agree that warnings are also required for certain objectionable works of so-called art (they had a large one erected at the entrance to the Balthus exhibit here in New York a few years ago; clearly it would have been better not to hold such an exhibit at all, but obviously they were obliged to warn the public in the clearest possible terms once they decided to go ahead with the display) and, above all, whenever anyone chooses to emit a "parody" in the name of one of our faculty members here at NYU? See the documentation of our great nation's leading criminal "satire" case at:

    https://raphaelgolbtrial.wordpress.com/

  • Tionico||

    as I recall, Orson Welles liked his "boiled".

  • Fats of Fury||

    Trigger Warnings should come with a Spoiler Alert

  • Bubba Jones||

    A warning to epileptics isn't quite the same thing. And movies publish content advisories all the time.

    You might want to be more selective in your outrage.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    Yeah, kind of raised an eyebrow on that one. As far as I know, epilepsy warnings are a very organic response. Not required by law, but largely adopted by most media sources I know. A great organic solution to a problem.

  • UnrepentantCurmudgeon||

    The author does acknowledge physical issues that could be set off by things like strobes. And the alphabet soup of "content advisories" is almost incomprehensible to anyone except hypernerds, which probably has something to do with why progs want more elaborate "trigger warnings".

    It's still worth asking why we can't simply read a review, decide whether we want to see a movie of the type outlined in the review, and decide to stay home instead? Oh, right. That would require independent thought and decision-making, not groupthink. Today's progs wouldn't know how to handle it.

  • Griffin3||

    Tear gas? Tear gas !?!?! TEAR GAS ?!11!?!11!
    /me burst into tears and runs out of the blog, shaking ...

  • MatthewSlyfield||

    My bet is that the Mastodon moderator was more concerned about the mention of Twitter than he was about tear gas.

  • Joe M||

    The point of trigger warnings isn't necessarily to protect "vulnerable" people. It's also to stigmatize unapproved writing and keep people from being exposed to wrongthink.

  • Eddy||

    Or see above for other purposes.

  • Sometimes a Great Notion||

    Funny thing is it will have exact opposite impact on the majority of people. When the parental advisory sticker for music albums came out it was an indicator to me and my friends that we should buy this album not run from it.

  • Eddy||

    Mike Royko wrote a column about how he enthusiastically joined a campaign to ban one of his books from a public library. He offered to "help out" the banning campaign with slogans about how dangerous and salacious the book was.

  • retiredfire||

    Fuck off , Hihn!

  • UnrepentantCurmudgeon||

    You're probably not Hihn. He at least usually understood basic punctuation

  • UnrepentantCurmudgeon||

    One of the most vocal early advocates for the warnings was Tipper Gore, not exactly a representative of the political right.

  • Joe M||

    You're both thinking of how normal people react though.

  • Leslie the Bard||

    You'd be surprised how often elementary school kids say it in front of me.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Voluntarily trying to weed out the fit-pitchers isn't a bad idea.

  • Tionico||

    I always find the fit pitchers to be borderline hilarious. They're fun to watch.

    "Whaaaaaattt, you're gone off on THAAAAT???? Whassamaddayoo ennyway, dooode. Yo Momma done babied you too much. Go back inna house, take off yer baby pantses and put on yer Big Boy Britches. Then come back outside and enjoy the game of life.

    I remember one kid in grade school.... at lunch time almost every day, we'd wait till he had just taken a bit drink of milk through his straw, then one of us would say something really funny and he'd bust up laughing and spew milk out his nose. Pretty predicatble. And no one, least of all he, would have ever expected a cue for the laugh track to be issued pre-wise crack.

    I think toward the end of that year he gradually began to both be aware of our perfect sense of timing, and harden himself against the reflex crackup. It grew more and more difficult to get the desired reaction from him. By the next fall he was cured......

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    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.

    Nothing personal. It was just your turn, Roberto. She's probably been burning through outrages at an outrageous rate. (Sure, it's a renewable resource, but at what cost to our online environment?)

  • MatthewSlyfield||

    #PeakOutrage

  • DiegoF||

    I can't imagine the queer socialist intellectual scene in Scranton is very fulfilling. Robby should go easy on this poor woman.

  • Longtobefree||

    Trigger warning: you have assumed the person is still a woman.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Now this is actually interesting. The mask slipped from which of my bigotries here?

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    WRONG. It was my Western Pennsylvania bigotry for people from the eastern side of the commonwealth. They're uniformly miserable people.

  • Bee Tagger||

    fwiw, i think its because you said "altrighteous" instead of "outrageous"

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    YOU MADE ME LOOK, DAMN YOU.

  • Dillinger||

    go Flyers!

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Flyers suck even worse than the Pens right now.

  • Tionico||

    Why do you believe a queer socialist would be in the alt-right?

    well, they live in an alternate world anyway, who not an alternate right world? Or is that the only one left?

    both queers and socialists DO live in an alternate world. I often wish they'd stay there, though..... they repeatedly escape and pollute THIS one with their alternativity.

  • DiegoF||

    I am very surprised that this type of snowflakishness would be present on a group hosted by alternative social media, above all a Twitter competitor.

  • MatthewSlyfield||

    My bet is that they were more concerned about the mention of Twitter in the book title than anything else. How dare you mention Twitter on Mastadon!. Of course, for legal reasons, they can't admit that.

  • ||

    In Illinois I see trigger warnings everywhere I go.

  • Tionico||

    my advice is to stop going everywhere when you are in Illinois. Try going everywhere in some alternative state. You might begin seeing other alternate things.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    "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."

    Honestly, adding a warning that politics are about to be discussed might just save the internet.

  • Dillinger||

    funny.

  • Quo Usque Tandem||

    "We're all just trying to find the line between setting people's expectations and not treating them like children..."

    There is no imaginary "line," Most of the push for "trigger warnings" has absolutely nothing to do with possible squeamishness on anyone's part; it is just a handy method of suppressing what the particular person or group does not agree with. Same vein as claiming victim status as a means to shush your opposition or whatever is contrary to your agenda.

  • Dillinger||

    >>>The existence of trigger warnings

    should be either ignored or met w/"fuck you grow up"

  • Dillinger||

    i have dead & co. 12/1/17 on. fabulous show.

  • Dillinger||

    >>>"toot" (that's Mastodon's version of a tweet)

    coulda lived another several decades w/o knowing this.

  • Brandybuck||

    Some trigger warnings make sense. Others are so stupid it boggles the mind.

    If I know someone has been raped, I don't talk about rape in front of them. If their dad was murdered I don't talk about murder in front of them. If they miscarred their child I don't talk about miscarriages when they are around. But I'm NOT going to self-censor myself of every topic all of the time. That's silly.

    I understand that people grieve when bad things happen to them. But at some point they need to stop grieving and get on with things instead of demanding that the rest of the world stop and wait until they are ready.

  • Pastor Arthur M. Kirkland||

    "Some trigger warnings make sense. Others are so stupid it boggles the mind."

    I guess your (bigoted) conception of trigger warnings has much in common with the right-wing haters you lend credence to. Fascist.

  • EscherEnigma||

    [...] instead of demanding that the rest of the world stop and wait until they are ready.


    How does Does the Dog Die make any demands of the "rest of the world"?

    It helps people that want to avoid certain content in their entertainment, while imposing no obligations on anyone else.

    This is the definition of taking personal responsibility for avoiding things you don't like, rather then demanding everyone self-censor for your benefit.

  • Pastor Arthur M. Kirkland||

    When it isn't carrying water for the right-wing bigot class, Reason is busy targeting the current generation for...being too considerate. They hide behind ideas like freedom of thought and artistic expression, but these are just buzzwords for their real agenda: attacking vulnerable communities, such as people of color and victims of sexual violence.

    But their protests are in vain. The culture wars were won years ago.

    By my side.

  • Dillinger||

    >>>such as people of color

    people of color?

  • Dillinger||

    people are people.

  • Dillinger||

    call them whatever *you* want, i'm not on that team. people are people.

    never change, man.

  • Dillinger||

    >>>BULLSHIT You challenged "people of color" ... got called out ... so you reversed yourself

    are you certain I wasn't calling you racist for segregating people by skin tone?

  • Ship of Theseus||

    It's Hihn (or some parody of him).

    The man's unhinged.

  • Dillinger||

    i'm in on the yoke. sometimes he entertains me. i'll stop soon

  • Dillinger||

    >>>What would THEY prefer to be called?

    generally I go w/their names. or dude.

  • retiredfire||

    Fuck off, Hihn!

  • UnrepentantCurmudgeon||

    This may come as a surprise, but I for one (at the ripe old age of 71 and being as thoroughly white as they come) have never used that word, not even in jest or by way of example or for any other reason. It tells me all I need to know about you that you can throw it out there so casually in order to make your point.

  • Pastor Arthur M. Kirkland||

    Exactly. Trigger warnings aren't for the weak. They're a sign of progress and sophistication. Sadly, most libertarians are secretly alt-right bigots, so their reactions aren't surprising.

    The future will be many things: female, inclusive, considerate. Libertarian won't be one of them.

    Libertarianism minus bigotry equals zero!

  • Ship of Theseus||

    Hihn's talking to himself now?

  • mtrueman||

    This article could do with a trigger warning for excessive hand-wringing over a few anecdotes. Would have saved me a couple of minutes.

  • Longtobefree||

    The Eagles wrote a song about this - - - - - - - - -

  • Dillinger||

    New Kid in Town?

  • ImanAzol||

    Get Over It.

  • Dillinger||

    thanks! I was never going to get to that one.

  • Inigo Montoya||

    I think these kinds of warnings are at least as old as R-rated movies being shown on cable TV.

    Years ago, in my pre-cord-cutting days, I remember settling down to watch movies on cable and hearing an announcer intone something like:

    "The following feature is intended for mature audiences. It contains foul language, nudity, sexual situations, and violence. Viewer discretion is advised."

    I invariably though, "Good! Those are all the things that make for a decent movie!"

  • Ship of Theseus||

    Jesus, fuck off.

  • Ship of Theseus||

    You are a hilarious lunatic.

  • UnrepentantCurmudgeon||

    Actually, it's "Another one gone, another one gone, another one bites the dust". Please try to pay attention

  • Ship of Theseus||

    "unnerved"....

    Needs a trigger warning for the nerveless!!!

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    "This production contains: Strobe lighting effects. Sudden loud noises. Theatrical fog/haze. Scenes of violence. Adult language. Sexual situations. Adult humor and content."

    If we broaden our definition of trigger warnings, then yes, trigger warnings are everywhere, and certainly nothing new. I want to say they started popping up in the mid eighties when everything needed a "warning label". Television shows for the last 30 years will preface the show with "this program contains scenes that [fill in the blank]".

    Again, if we broaden our definition, then sure, I'm more than happy to have a discussion about the "warning label" culture, because I wasn't happy about it 35 years ago either. The fact that it was embraced in college campuses to protect the feelings of people could just be a symptom of a growing cancer.

  • EscherEnigma||

    Does the Dog Die is nothing but trigger warnings. It literally takes a given movie and answers questions on "does the movie contain X trigger?"

    It does not place any obligations on anyone else. If you want to go into a movie blind, you never have to look at it. But if there are some things you find personally upsetting that are often included in movies (like the dog dying), then it's a place where you can check real quick to see if that movie is right for you.

    This isn't being a "snowflake" and demanding a censored world, it's taking steps to avoid media that you won't enjoy based on self-awareness.

  • Rich||

    "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.

    How about simply doing nothing, Chris? Are people just stumbling into your art?

  • Ship of Theseus||

    Fuck off, Hihn.

  • ImanAzol||

    You should have a trigger warning that your article contains explicit description of liberal retardery.

  • SlothB77||

    The concern has always been that trigger warnings would not remain confined to college campuses, but infect companies and other organizations beyond college. Here it begins.

  • Number 2||

    "A subsequent tweet, which linked to another one of my columns, provided an equally inaccurate content warning for 'queerphobia, ableism, and much more.'"

    Robby wrote a column containing muchmore?! Queerphobua and ableism is bad enough. But muchmore?! I am speechless at the very thought!

  • BradA||

    My regional Shakespeare festival regularly includes trigger (?) warnings about strobes, gunfire, and actors making entrances and exits through the aisles some of whom may be armed. Nothing like ducking out for the rest room only to be run through by a sword, or worse.

  • Inigo Montoya||

    I can imagine Hamlet holding up the skull of poor Yorick, whom he knew well, could trigger an audience member with a relative who was decapitated.

  • Robert||

    Then wouldn't you also need a trigger warning for the trigger warning? Trigger warnings all the way down?

  • Joe Emenaker||

    Ask people who roll their eyes at trigger warnings if they've ever been the victim of traumatic abuse, assault, or accident, it turns out that they almost always have not. Another case of people being unable to imagine themselves in others' shoes.

    For some reason, it's harder to accept that people are seriously triggered because it's psychological. We don't seem to have much problem with requiring food producers from disclosing if their food contains, say MSG or nuts, possibly because we can measure these reactions externally. Indeed, even the author does this: "And while I understand why some customers would want to be warned, for physical reasons, about strobe lighting effects...". *Physical* reasons.

    My feeling is that psychological triggers are quite real and serious, and I say that as probably one of the most untriggered people I know. Nevertheless, at times in my life (usually after breakups), I've changed the channel on the radio to avoid certain songs or taken different routes to avoid driving past a place associated with my ex. Granted, I was just taking small steps to avoid a fleeting melancholy, but it taught me that places, songs, images, and depictions *absolutely* can conjure feelings which are unwanted and can't just be turned off. I just thank my lucky stars that I was never raped, molested, attacked, or maimed... and I'll *gladly* take having to give trigger warnings over actually having to, without forewarning, relive some horrific past trauma.

  • UnrepentantCurmudgeon||

    Which is understandable and all well and good. All I would have to say is that anyone can make such a judgment on his or her own merely by reviewing a synopsis of the material in question. As an example, take the recent movie "Red Sparrow", in which Scarlett Johansson plays a secret agent basically trained to be a whore to get the job done. If you know that much, it should be relatively easy to decide if you want to waste your money on this piece of trash or not. You don't need a laundry list of "trigger warnings", just a little reading and thought. Is that really too much to ask?

  • BLNelson||

    Well, of course. The coddled kids are now going out into the world and will need to be protected from anything that might jar them out of their kindergarten reveries. Are we really surprised?

  • UnrepentantCurmudgeon||

    Just out of curiosity, what books were banned in the Bible?

    And the word "diktat" is Russian, and became famous during Stalin's reign as he consigned his opponents to the gulags even as he was hailed by lefties everywhere as the proletarian hero.

    And I hate to break it to you, but the left is almost totally fascist and has been for decades.

  • Leslie the Bard||

    As a Person Of (some) Color (Chippewa Indian) myself, I am extremely tired of other people -- who are not of my ethnic group or culture -- telling me what I should or should not find insulting. Talk about "cultural appropriation"! Go away, O Social Justice Warriors; I don't need, or want, your help.

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