Recently, I had an interesting conversation with a colleague about trigger warnings, censorship, and how these issues impact different folks. One of my fellow Librarians here in Medford runs a book club based around books that have been banned (if you’re interested, find out more here!), and while conducting research for future book selections, she came across a story of what some people were railing against as censorship: A University in the UK had recently gone viral for including trigger warnings for Northanger Abbey in a syllabus for an English course. When we dug a little further, we found that the title was still assigned to students. There was no option to opt out, and the trigger warnings had actually been added at the request of the students, but critics argued that the trigger warning was akin to censorship because some might drop the class, not attend discussions of the title, or otherwise not engage with the book out of fear of being traumatized.  

For those unfamiliar with the idea or needing a refresher, a trigger warning, also called a content warning, is usually defined as a statement before media “warning people that they may find the content very upsetting, especially if they have experienced something similar.” The idea is that if someone that has been a victim of abuse sees similar abuse in a movie, for example, then this might trigger flashbacks or other distressing situations. A warning can give those individuals a heads up to brace themselves or even to not watch that movie at all. Trigger warnings are a common topic of debate in the US, and many people have strong feelings for or against them, for a variety of reasons.  

When it comes to those who strongly support trigger warnings, the reasoning is based on very similar reasoning to the example I shared above: trying to give a heads-up to those with PTSD or related trauma responses. Trigger warnings were popularized in the modern era among online message boards in the 1990s amid discussions of rape and assault and were used to preface discussions or posts that could trigger traumatic episodes or memories for rape victims, giving them the opportunity to either avoid reading that discussion, or to practice some self-care in advance to allow them to get through the discussion more easily. 

Over time, the use of content warnings has expanded to social media posts, speaking events and presentations, and in classrooms, particularly at colleges and universities. This expansion has been fueled largely by a second major reason people support trigger warnings: consent. Advocates argue that just like someone would consent to a sexual situation or a medical procedure, they should be able to consent to participating in potentially traumatic or uncomfortable situations and discussions, and to be able to consent effectively, one must be informed of what they are consenting to. In these cases, it is not only about triggering a trauma response, but allowing people to choose if they want to engage with potentially upsetting content, instead of being surprised by it. (For more information about the arguments supporting warnings, check out this article). 

For those who oppose trigger warnings, the strongest reasons I found were that people felt warnings were setting people up for failure, both in that situation and the world as a whole. The most common criticism I found was that life won’t give someone trigger warnings, so professors and social media posts shouldn’t either. If school and social media cause someone to expect a warning before an uncomfortable situation, that person might be less likely to be prepared when an uncomfortable situation inevitably comes up without a warning at some point in life.  

More specific to the individual situation where a warning is presented, those who oppose content warnings argue they are ineffective, and possibly even harmful. And while more research needs to be done, the preliminary studies that have been published would suggest these critics are correct. One such study found that those exposed to potentially traumatic content after receiving a warning were no less traumatized by the content, and in some cases, had worse reactions compared to those that did not receive trigger warnings. The worse reactions were due to viewers assuming they would be offended going into the situation, causing them to become defensive or disengaged with the materials presented. 

Whether we like them or not, and whether they help or hurt, they are all around us. Warnings have become popular in college syllabi across the country and on social media, but they also show up in other ways in society that are so normalized, we rarely think of them as content warnings. In movies, for example, the Motion Picture Association has put out content ratings for movies since 1968 and has included brief descriptions of the reasoning for ratings since 1990. Television has had its own rating system since 1996, and the music industry started adding Parental Advisory content warnings in 1987. News coverage of catastrophic events and violence often warns viewers that they are about to see something that could be distressing. And even when we are just talking to those around us, we often unconsciously preface suggestions or conversations with a warning, such as when we recommend a new movie to a friend but also let them know there’s a lot of swearing in it. While we don’t use the word “trigger” to describe these warnings, they are effectively all forms of preemptively warning someone of the content they are about to come across, either to brace themselves or to allow them to opt out of engaging.  

This type of content warning can happen with books and the library as well. Some authors have added content warnings, either at the beginning of a book or in an index at the end with page numbers. And while library staff work to never imply judgement or negative opinions on books that patrons read, it’s not uncommon to ask patrons about their comfort level with different topics such as saucy scenes in romance or gruesome details in thrillers while providing recommendations. While not the same as warning about a specific trigger, the idea of prefacing a piece of media with a discussion about uncomfortable content is quite common. Our JCLS Discovery request form even has an option to opt out of recommendations with specific content, effectively meaning patrons are providing their own content warnings and expressing desire to avoid those topics. Libraries are anti-censorship, but these warnings and discussions are not designed to discourage reading or engagement, and instead find a fit for patrons at the comfort level they desire. And that’s the beauty of libraries: we’re here to provide materials to patrons from all walks of life, with all different beliefs and ways of engaging with the world.