Social Justice and Trigger Warning

I have always struggled with handling trigger warning in my own writings and presentations when they have a description of abuse and violence.

Usually, I write my stuff, and then go back to read it to see if any part of it requires trigger warning, although whether something requires it or not cannot be objectively determined.

But as soon as I start trying to come up with a warning, I get lost. I suddenly realize I don’t know how to warn people, and that I don’t even know why I want to give a trigger warning.


Don’t get me wrong. I take trigger warning seriously. I take abuse and violence, and psychological trauma that arises from them, very seriously. I myself am a survivor of sexual violence and have appreciated every single trigger warning that I have encountered.

But I don’t know what exactly I am trying to do by providing trigger warning.

I saw this post on Feministing the other day, looking for some answer to my question, but to no avail. Some say “everything is a trigger for someone” (I value trigger warning for gods sake!). Quite a few people there say they use trigger warning “to be polite” (what’s the purpose of being polite? to feel better about yourself?) This Melissa person even says (quoted), “because we don’t want to be the asshole who triggered a survivor of sexual assault because of carelessness or laziness or ignorance” (so that’s it? you’re not an asshole, and you’re happy?)

I wanted answers and I found none. I could’ve done google search but I was already tired by the time I finished reading the comments like the ones above.

True, I don’t want my readers to experience panics or flashbacks as they read my writing. I cannot force them to read. I should not. But the whole purpose of writing something and publishing it online is for people out there to read it. Whether it’s my own opinion, a piece of information I want to share, or someone else’s idea that caught my attention, I want people to read it, hoping that some of them might actually think it’s useful or insightful.

And by providing trigger warning, I lose a certain audience. I discourage certain people from reading my writing. Part of this is my ego. I want to be seen, read, and heard. But also, if my writing includes information that I think is very important and must be shared, why do I give trigger warning and prevent the very people who most likely need that information from acquiring it? Or, if I am writing about my experience because I hope people with similar experiences can relate and will leave a comment, those people are exactly who I want to reach, and exactly who need trigger warnings.

In the most recent conference presentation I gave, I talked about child pornography. I gave a trigger warning at the beginning, saying, “My presentation includes some description of sexual violence, so if you feel uncomfortable hearing the talk, please feel free to leave the room whenever you need to.” Looking back, I really, really regret using those words.

I mean, this trigger warning was a very unwelcoming, unfriendly, and indifferent one now that I think about it. “Feel free to leave”? I have no right to decide for the audience to stay or leave in the first place. And——this probably is the most important point I’m trying to make here——even if one feels uncomfortable hearing the talk, they might stay, despite the discomfort. And I don’t have a say in their decision to stay or not to stay.

Besides, why did I say, “feel free to leave,” when I was there to be heard, and hopefully understood? It sounded as if I couldn’t have cared less about who and how many people would listen. I sounded very indifferent. That, now I think, was disrespectful to the audience.

But then, should I have not given a trigger warning but just jumped on to my presentation about child pornography? Definitely not. But what could I have done differently?

One thing that just came to mind is that, maybe it’s better to write without depictions of abuse and violence in the first place, than write them and drive certain people away by giving trigger warning. This should not be exercised to the extent that the content lacks enough information for the audience/reader to understand it. But certainly, in many cases, we can apply this strategy to write less details when they aren’t necessary, to write in a way that does not require graphic description of abuse and violence.

But there will always be situations where trigger warning is appropriate. I don’t know how best to warn your readers/audiences, but maybe there is no one-size-fits-all solution. I really could use other people’s input on this.

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