How much do warnings help?


Is my skin becoming too thick? Too insensitive to those things I want to feel? Need to feel? Or has it merely developed callus over areas too frequently assailed?

These are questions that I’m beginning to ask as I notice the burgeoning warnings on virtually every television channel that whatever follows may not be suitable for all audiences, or that parental discretion is advised. Curious as to what offence is about to be committed, I find myself more engaged in searching for possible misdemeanours than attending to the substance of the program -a minor diversion, to be sure, but nonetheless a distraction from the evaluating the presentation of the subject matter.

I suppose these warnings are the polite thing to do, although they are certainly missing from the business of everyday life. Still, if there are people out there who feel compelled to guard themselves or their children from strong language, or upsetting scenes of violence, I do not begrudge them that -although I do wonder how they manage it elsewhere in their day.

And I certainly don’t want to see gratuitous savagery in a program purporting to educate me about poverty and how different jurisdictions are managing it. We all have our boundaries, and individual thresholds are sometimes hard to gauge, but perhaps our sights are set rather low on programs whose subject matter should be obvious from their titles. If I choose to watch a crime drama, or a documentary on the ravages of war, I would likely have factored in the probable contents before I tuned in. And if I’m being warned about the content of language I might hear, well, good luck walking past a school at recess, or even along the average city street.

At any rate, I’m beginning to question the motivation for these warnings. Does everything require a warning, or are they mainly hedges against possible lawsuits, or something? And perhaps more importantly, do the warnings actually work? Are there such things as ‘triggers’ whose very presence could cause serious injury unless stringently avoided? And what if I warn, but you do not heed? Would I then be at fault -or would it be you, for not listening…? I wrote about this subject a few years ago: (https://musingsonwomenshealth.com/2016/07/06/the-trigger-warning/) but I’m wondering how much we have learned about these triggers in the intervening years.

More recently, I came across an essay in Aeon that I hoped might shed some new light on the issue. https://aeon.co/ideas/trigger-warnings-dont-help-people-cope-with-distressing-material It was written by Christian Jarrett, a cognitive neuroscientist and a senior editor at Aeon. He too, it seemed, was conflicted about trigger warnings: ‘the use of trigger warnings has since spread… to educational institutions around the world, and further: into theatres, festivals and even news stories. The warnings have become another battlefield in the culture wars, with many seeing them as threatening free speech and the latest sign of ‘political correctness’ gone mad.’

And yet, ‘Ideology aside, one could make a basic ethical case for giving warnings in the sense that it’s the considerate thing to do.’ But is there any proof that a warning is helpful in avoiding psychological damage in people with a history of trauma, or painful memories similar to what is being warned about?

Jarrett cites some evidence that, far from helping those sensitive to the issues because of past traumas, ‘trigger warnings enable survivors of trauma to avoid re-experiencing the negative associated emotions, [and] critics argue that the avoidance of potentially upsetting material is actually a counterproductive approach because it offers no chance to learn to manage one’s emotional reactions. As a result, fears deepen and catastrophic thoughts go unchallenged.’

I don’t think Jarrett is totally convinced of the evidence -much more study is required- but at least there are competing considerations in the management of so-called triggers. In fact, ‘On the question of whether trigger warnings give people the chance to brace themselves emotionally, a spate of recent studies suggest that this simply isn’t how the mind works.’

Fair enough, I guess -although I personally wouldn’t want to upset someone by mistake. However, he goes on to mention the concept of ‘coddling’ -as developed in a book by ‘ the attorney Greg Lukianoff and the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, authors of the book The Coddling of the American Mind (2018) – namely, that these warnings encourage a belief in the vulnerability of people with a history of trauma and, in fact, in people’s vulnerability in general. For instance… Harvard research found that the use of trigger warnings increased participants’ belief in the vulnerability of people with post-traumatic stress disorder – an unwelcome effect that the researchers described as a form of ‘soft stigma’.’ In other words, not being able to talk through issues for fear of upsetting the other person -avoiding the subject altogether, and hence, treating the person ‘differently’.

But, as Jarrett reiterates, much more study is required to determine the benefits of ‘trigger warnings’. ‘Yet already the results are surprisingly consistent in undermining the specific claim that trigger warnings allow people to marshal some kind of mental defence mechanism. There is also a solid evidence base that avoidance is a harmful coping strategy for people recovering from trauma or dealing with anxiety. The clear message from psychology then is that trigger warnings should come with their own warning – they won’t achieve much, except encourage maladaptive coping and the belief that folk are sensitive and need protecting.’

As my previous essay hinted, I am still undecided about the value of these warnings. I would not knowingly wish to offend anybody, nor traumatize them by something I say, but it can be devilishly difficult to know what might need to be avoided. Every topic is a potential minefield, and yet surely part of the onus is on the recipient to choose -and therefore avoid, or at least warn the offending party- what they find problematic. To be sure, sometimes the extent of effect on them is unpredictable, or a surprise -for both sides- and yet if the subject is presented in a sensitive manner, one would expect much of the damage could be mitigated.

Communication, after all, is the exchange of information, but as much as we might try to soften the blow, it will not always pleasant; to pretend that it will be, is disingenuous, at the very least.

Do you understand why I am confused…?

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