Trigger warnings are unnecessary

Trigger warnings are unnecessary

When I was five, I saw “Titanic” for the first time — and by that I mean I saw about 30 percent of “Titanic.” My mom skipped through all the racy bits and the potentially nightmare-inducing parts, and most of the movie, it turns out, falls into those two categories. I didn’t even see the boat sink.

It was probably for the better. My five-year-old self couldn’t handle “Aladdin,” so “Titanic” without the fast-forward button would have been highly traumatic for me. In the kindergarten crowd, I don’t think I was the exception to the rule. But kindergarteners don’t stay kindergarteners forever. One day, when they get to the part where Jack is freezing to death and Rose starts singing to him, their eyes might be wet, but they keep them open; they keep watching. One day, they outgrow the fast-forward button. At least, that’s what is supposed to happen. On Tumblr, however, the button lives on, only now it goes by another name: the trigger warning.

The concept of a “trigger” is not a new one. A Buzzfeed article earlier this year traced it all the way back to studies of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) among soldiers in the aftermath of World War I. And warning people about potential triggers isn’t a new practice, either. Trigger warning systems have been used to help sexual assault victims and PTSD sufferers cope with triggers since at least 1980. Triggers aren’t even new to the Internet — they made their first appearance on sexual assault message boards in the late 90s. But on Tumblr, the trigger warning has taken on a whole new level of popularity and a whole new meaning.

Previously, trigger warnings were mostly for the benefit of PTSD sufferers and sexual assault victims — groups that, even with therapy, often face a lifelong battle with their triggers. I fully support the use of trigger warnings to help them cope with that battle more easily. However, Tumblr has expanded the definition of trigger to include phobias, generally uncomfortable things and anything else that could conceivably “trigger” fear in anyone. This new definition is all-inclusive: people are expected to tag Tumblr posts that mention everything from kissing to clown, to the human body with trigger warnings. It’s absolutely ridiculous.

Most people on Tumblr don’t have PTSD. They are fully capable of overcoming their fears and phobias, and they are old enough to handle things they find uncomfortable. Tumblr isn’t giving them the chance. By letting them skip over the scary stuff on their dashboards, Tumblr actually gives them permission to hold onto their fears. Some of those fears involve aspects of real life so essential that, if they are genuinely triggering, getting over them should be top priority.

For example, there’s a group of people on Tumblr who count food a trigger. And while I appreciate that Tumblr wants to support those who struggle with eating disorders and weight, erasing food from someone’s Tumblr dashboard doesn’t make facing the fridge in real life any less daunting. Avoiding food altogether tends to be fatal if you do it long enough, so learning to cope with food triggers isn’t just the best option; it is the only option. If someone is so far from coping that they can’t even handle the occasional brownie recipe on their Tumblr dash, maybe they shouldn’t be on Tumblr at all.

Concerningly, food is not the only basic survival necessity Tumblr counts a trigger: water also makes the cut. I am not kidding. One of my friends was asked on more than one occasion to tag her Tumblr posts that involve water. At first, she thought it was just someone trolling her. It wasn’t. Like eating, staying hydrated is literally do or die, so if someone is legitimately afraid of water and not doing anything to get over it, they’re either perpetually traumatized or about to kick the bucket.

The best thing you can do to get over that “paralyzing” fear of water is expose yourself to it. People who actually suffer from PTSD go through exposure therapy to learn to cope with their triggers. And for everyday fears and phobias, exposure can do more than help you cope; it can cure you. Choosing to continue avoiding what scares you when you could be getting over your fear of it is lazy. If you’re on Tumblr, you’re probably well over the age of five, and you don’t need to be babied — the real world knows that. It’s time Tumblr realized it, too.

What’s more, living life with your finger on the fast-forward button means you’re going to end up missing out on more than just the things that scare you. I speak from experience when I say you can’t properly appreciate “Titanic” as a movie if you fast-forward through the climax. Likewise, by avoiding the content that scares you on Tumblr, you will be missing out on enriching ideas, art, jokes, conversations and stories.

If literature came with trigger warnings, most of Tumblr wouldn’t make it past the cover of “The Catcher in the Rye,” “The Great Gatsby,” or “To Kill a Mockingbird.” And it’s not just the classics that would be lost. Writing a story that, by Tumblr’s definition, doesn’t contain at least one trigger is basically impossible.

Think about it. Obviously, any story about humans is out of the question. It can’t bring up food and water, and humans tend to need those two things, as do pretty much all living creatures on planet earth. So the story really can’t be about earthly creatures at all. Aliens could trigger fears of an alien invasion, and angels are religious references — yes, religion is a trigger too — which means they aren’t an option either. Robots could work, but they’re sentient computers, and those probably qualify as a trigger for at least a few people. With just five possible triggers, we’ve already eliminated all earthly, heavenly, alien and robotic creatures as possible characters in this story. Even if I managed to come up with characters that didn’t fall into one of those categories, to avoid triggering someone, I would still have to dream up a plot that didn’t involve action, violence, suspense, negative emotions or romance. A story within such strict constraints would be, at best, really suck-tastic. And given the plot requirements, I doubt it would really be a story at all — it certainly wouldn’t be one worth reading. While it might not have any “hard” content, it also wouldn’t have any worthwhile content.

In contrast, the stories arguably most worth reading often contain huge triggers. When it comes to classic literature, the triggers are such big triggers that some Tumblr users have tried to introduce a trigger warning system to the classroom for students who don’t feel equipped to handle the graphic content. Perhaps these students really aren’t able to cope with the material. But I don’t think it’s that. I suspect they have gotten so used to skipping over the hard parts — the potentially triggering stuff — that they are afraid to test themselves even a little bit, and maybe they don’t even think they need to. They’re wrong.

Getting through scary or uncomfortable content is not easy — by definition, it shouldn’t be — but it is often worth the challenge it presents. It is time for Tumblr to grow up and take that challenge on. It is time to give up the fast-forward button.