Jeremy Elwood & Michele A'Court: Do we really need trigger warnings?

Copies of Massey University's Massive magazine were covered up after complaints about the cover of the latest issue.
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Copies of Massey University's Massive magazine were covered up after complaints about the cover of the latest issue.

OPINION: Husband-and-wife comedians and commentators Jeremy Elwood and Michele A'Court give their views. 

Jeremy Elwood: Trigger warning: this column contains content that may upset some readers. Just like every piece of writing, ever.

"Trigger Warning". I hate that phrase. I get why it exists, but I hate it just the same. 

For those of you who haven't encountered it yet (and you will, so keep reading) here's how several online dictionaries define it: "A stated warning that the content of a text, video, etc., may upset or offend some people, especially those who have previously experienced a related trauma."

Fair enough, right?

Jeremy Elwood: "Pretending trauma doesn't exist doesn't stop it happening."
KATE LITTLE

Jeremy Elwood: "Pretending trauma doesn't exist doesn't stop it happening."

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If someone has been through a horrendous experience, you might want to give them a heads up that something they're about to see or read might remind them of that experience. 

Except that's not how it's being used anymore. It's spread through our culture like a - trigger warning for anyone who has ever been sick - virus.

It's an incredibly patronising phrase, enforced and insisted on for everything from live theatre to blog posts by people who assume they know what everyone else's triggers are. 

Before you even start, I am not trivialising trauma here; people who have been through horror deserve every protection against reliving it; but they tend to be a bit more aware, and a bit more specific, about what might trigger themselves than any number of well-meaning outsiders. 

Pretending trauma doesn't exist doesn't stop it happening, and sometimes shocking people is the most effective way of making them think about an issue - think Once Were Warriors or Blood Diamond - and the existing victims deserve the benefit of us thinking they're smart enough to avoid the stuff the rest of us need to see.

Instead, we have self-proclaimed activists imagining every possible scenario in which someone with a history of trauma might be affected. Except they can't. If you haven't been through it you will never know why someone from Christchurch gets jumpy when a truck drives past, or a war veteran ducks when a car backfires, or why women walk home clenching their keys in a fist. They know. They also know that fear can't always be avoided, but often it can. 

We have R ratings for a reason, and bad taste is just bad taste - I'm looking at you, Massey University's Massive magazine. Your recent cover art wasn't a trigger, unless you're triggered by blatant attention seeking. 

We need to deal with victims of any form of trauma seriously, and that means listening, then more importantly, believing them when they describe what they've been through and what brings it back.

It does not mean looking at anything that even dares to discuss the issues they're dealing with and saying "Shhh, don't say that. It might offend someone." 

Michele A'Court: "I appreciate a heads-up."
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Michele A'Court: "I appreciate a heads-up."

Michele A'Court: I'm not generally a fan of surprises that don't come with a ribbon, accompanied by cake. I appreciate a heads-up, a ready-steady-go, an on-guard, the bell on a rear-approaching bicycle.

I even like those charming warnings before TV shows - "contains bad language, sexual content and nudity" - which, round our place, makes us nod at each other and agree, "Yes, good choice".

So I've grown fond of the phrase, "Trigger Warning". Not least because the first time I saw it attached to a link on the Internet, I missed the "r" and pictured something out of Winnie-the-Pooh. The chance that Tigger might be bouncing around in some article about, say, sexual assault can help you find your spoons.

"Having the spoons" is a delightful expression which describes how capable you feel on any given day to deal with hard stuff which, at your best, in the right environment, you're ready to tackle, but on a less terrific day might feel like having to eat soup with a fork.

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Being "triggered" - sent back to revisit the emotions of a trauma - is a real thing. It doubtless feels different for different people. I'd describe the physical reaction as a punch to the solar plexus. A literal inability to breathe, with twin urges for fight and flight meeting in paralysis - the awake version of that nightmare where you scream but no sound comes out, and try to run but your legs won't move. It is surprising in its ferocity.

The trigger warning, then, was invented to give you a choice - a moment before you dive in to consider whether you are up for it.     

It's not a perfect system – it can end up reducing the thing you are about to read or watch to its most challenging features. "The Bible – Trigger Warning – contains graphic violence and sexual themes". Still, it has been useful.

And then some massive numpty comes along and abuses it. Massey University Wellington's magazine last week managed to turn it into the publishing equivalent of every conversation that begins, "I'm not racist, but..."

After publishing a cover depicting a woman being, if not raped, then at the very least non-consensually engaged in joyless sex, (and yes, I am appalled I came up with that euphemism for this hateful thing, too) they stuck some brown paper over it and added a trigger warning. Job done, it suggested.

But really not. Simply saying, "Look out - you might find this offensive" doesn't then give you permission to deliberately be offensive and not get called out on it.

What it does get you is all of us, on our good days, fighting back with our spoons. And if you're not convinced spoons can be an effective weapon, (Trigger Warning) google it.

 

 - Stuff.co.nz

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