Friday, May 5, 2017

Should Books Contain Trigger/Content Warnings?

Riddle me this, book lovers: should books contain trigger and/or content warnings?

This question has made its rounds in literary circles many times before. A few years ago, many editorials came out discussing the idea after university students began asking for trigger warnings on course material. You know, mostly to have a head's up in case a disturbing scene is just around the corner. I was amazed at the amount of anger such a consideration sparked. It was as if these students had asked for regular book burnings to take place on campus. Many of the objections boiled down to some simple themes:

1) You are ruining the Sanctity of Literature if you spoil plot points through trigger warnings.

2) These special snowflakes need to buck up and deal with it. Life doesn't come with trigger warnings.

3) Being able to "opt out" of uncomfortable situations or scenarios is unhealthy.

4) Trigger warnings will lead to banning books. 

So let's really get into this. Because I want to know what you think about all this.

For the purpose of this post, when I talk about trigger warnings, usually I'm referring to graphic depictions that could trigger someone who has a history of trauma. Things like suicide, war,
racism, rape, child murder, domestic violence, etc. When I talk about content warnings, it's usually in a broader sense and covers things that may not be triggering, but many still would like to be aware of, such as group or kink sex, swearing, drug use, etc.

Frankly, content warnings are something that should have been added to books years ago. Every other media has a rating system to let people know what kind of content they're about to walk into. From movies, to television, video games, comics-- all have their own system to let you know what kind of content it holds, from a G rating all the way through to NC-17. Even TV shows have general disclaimers to make audiences aware of swearing, nudity, and violence. These rating systems don't spoil content-- it allows us to be informed consumers.

Yet books are exempt from this? Why?

Probably because books pre-date any sort of rating system. We were dragging around dusty tomes before we decided what was offensive and what wasn't. But does that mean they should stay exempt? It's easy to excuse a novel from needing a rating system simply because you need to immerse yourself to actually get the full impact. A person strolling by a grotesque movie poster only has to glance at it to feel the triggering effects. A book, however, can look innocuous enough until you realize what those words are building towards. Of any type of media, books are most deserving of content warnings and a rating system because you often have no inkling of it coming before you're immersed in a very triggering scene. Movie trailers give you a much stronger picture than vague back covers, and yet there are still ratings and systems in place to make sure you go in informed.

Also, to add to the argument against "content warnings are spoilers" lets remember that according to the University of California, spoilers don't spoil. In fact, they often make the experience more enjoyable.

But what about real life? Nobody hands you a content warning when you walk out the door. And could it be harmful to self-censor yourself from upsetting content? Unfortunately, when we talk about people who have been "triggered" by content like this, it's not because they've lived sheltered lives. It's because that person has a mental illness that is being aggravated by this trigger. To be triggered often means panic attacks, extreme anxiety, hallucinations or flashbacks, and are absolutely debilitating. People who suffer through experiences like this, often stemming from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, cannot control their triggers and are often hit by them when they least expect it. A traumatized individual could be triggered and not even know what by, which can create a life paralyzed by fear of the next trigger. Because of that, people will often avoid things they KNOW will trigger them, as they will inevitably be triggered by something they can't control anyway. Might as well minimize the damage, right?

Imagine PTSD as an allergic reaction. Every time you come in contact with coconut you break out in hives, so the logical thing would be to avoid coconut, would it not? You would want ingredient lists on anything you eat so you can know if it has coconut. If a teacher handed you raw coconut water and said you had to drink it for a grade, would you? Or would you protest, because this could severely hurt you, if not kill you?

Do people avoid certain topics and content? Sure, because everyone has preferences. At the end of the day, why should people be forced to read something they don't want to? There is no "book everyone must read" no matter what people say. Most importantly, due to life experiences, everyone will take away something different from a story. You may have found something beautiful in a book about a soldiers' journey through war, whereas an ex-military personnel may walk away feeling disgusted and horrified. It makes me think back to how media personnel vs military personnel responded to Trump's speech which honoured a fallen Navy SEAL, William "Ryan" Owens.

Media Reaction (left) and the Veteran's Reaction (right). 

Finally, will trigger warnings lead to banning books? I suppose I can see where the thought comes from, though to me it makes about as much sense as saying that if we offer people free healthcare they'll start running into traffic. In fact, everything I've seen when trigger warnings are put in place leads me to believe the opposite. Content warnings get people more excited about what's available to read. It's used as a tool to track down what you want through an over saturated market. To me, these 'warnings' are no different than tagging a book as sci-fi, fantasy, romance-- it helps to narrow down where in the world of literature this piece fits.

Before I came into the publishing world, I wrote fanfiction and participated in a lot of communities. Content and trigger warnings were STANDARD. It was EXPECTED. Often there were warnings on a chapter by chapter basis for longer pieces, so you knew exactly when the troubling content was coming. And how did people feel about it? Great! In fact, those content and trigger warnings became like lifeblood. Often, instead of turning people away from a story, it would engage them to click on and read. Back in those days, when I wanted to read a sweet romantic story featuring two gay men, I knew to look for tags such as "fluff" and usually the coded tag for that relationship (dating myself here, but in Saiyuki fandom, numbers were used to represent characters 3, 5, 8, and 9, so looking for a certain relationship meant looking for those numbers 3/9, 5/8, etc.) It worked amazingly. Going back to spoilers don't spoil piece, if people knew a story was especially dark, or contained graphic sex, or torture, tagging it as such let allowed people who were looking for those stories to find them easier.

When I transitioned out of the fanfiction world and started reading YA, I was thrown off by how little you are able to find out about a book. I wanted to find gay characters, especially as a teenager, and while in fanfiction such things would be easily tagged as such, in the book buying world I was flying blind. Unless the whole book focused around an Issue, you had to read the thing to find out if it had the content you were looking for. And then, Issue Books are often so formulaic and focuses so much on the problem that it can be hard to just enjoy the stories. Not to mention (especially for marginalized people) it's unfair that the only representation offered painted those people as People with Problems and forgot that they're just human.

Even today, when you look at how readers refer books to one another, you can see readers are concerned about content, not just when it comes to picking what not to read, but what to read as well. So many people on Twitter shoot out questions like, "Any recs for books with lesbian MCs/Disability rep/losing virginity/etc?" Yet if books had a content warning or rating page, it might be easier for people (especially teens) to track down the content they actually want to read about.

Content warnings don't have to be scary.
A content/trigger warning page doesn't have to be the end of the world. It can work like in the picture above, or a page like the acknowledgements listing out any troubling material, which can be easily skipped if you're not concerned and prefer to fly in blind. And if fanfiction is any indication, content warnings could serve to drum up excitement about books and reading. Would trigger warnings lead to censorship? Doubt it. If so, then we wouldn't have television, movies, video games... Besides, trying to slip in potentially distressing scenes in the name of Literary Sanctity, or to "teach readers" some moral or another, or because you know it won't be received well (slipping gay characters into Christian fiction, for ex)-- just comes across as, what we call in bird culture, a Dick Move.

I'm not asking for censorship. I just want the chance to be informed.

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