Trigger warnings and run away safety culture

Safety is an interesting concept. What do you think you need in order to feel completely safe? What would make you feel safer? Here’s another question, would spending countless hours thinking about what would make you feel safer, make you feel safer, or would it trap you in a spiral of ever increasing anxieties?

The left has become obsessed with safety in a way we find counterproductive. This includes institutions like trigger warnings, and other ways of relentlessly trying to avoid triggers. Our critique will focus on institutions created around preventing triggering, particular the trigger warning. However it could be extended to some other forms of concern about safety on the left. This is not to say that we consider safety to be unimportant or uninteresting. We feel the left has gone out of balance on these issues, and consequently is harming vulnerable people.

The kind of focus on safety in interpersonal contexts that we are critiquing here about has no limit. There will never be a point where people stop saying triggering things to each other without trigger warnings. Instead we are left with a permanent war for safety, as futile as a puritan war on sin or the American war on drugs. In our opinion it is at least as counterproductive.

We say counterproductive because for us and many of the people we’ve talked to about this, nothing serves to reinforce our ongoing experience of trauma quite as well as endless fussing about safety. Every trigger warning, every discussion about whether or not something might be triggering, brings to the edge of our consciousness the experience of trauma, but doesn’t even give us the opportunity to face it head on. As we scroll through the Facebook pages and read:

Trigger warning- Rape

Trigger warning- Depression

Trigger warning- Suicide

Trigger warning- Violence

Over and over and over and over again we are constructed, over and over, as the vulnerable subjects of trauma. We are reminded of trauma by endless efforts to exclude it. Not only do the memories still come, but we are increasingly encouraged to see those memories as triggering. Past experiences that we may not have previously thought were traumatic begin to be experienced as trauma.

All we can say is that in our experience, trigger warnings have not been helpful. We suspect that this experience is quite common. We also suspect that many trauma survivors have been encouraged to think that trigger warnings are helping them cope with their trauma, where in reality trigger warnings have been counterproductive.

We recognize that there is a diversity of experiences, but tentatively propose the abolition of trigger warnings, and similar institutions which aim to exclude triggering experiences.

To put the case in point form:

1      Trigger warnings make us less safe by encouraging us to obsess over our safety. The more time we spend thinking about it, the more we begin to identify as unsafe. Things that were previously just at the margins can become quite threatening. Constant debate and discussion about safety won’t let it out of our minds, and so thinking about the concept begins to overwhelm us.

2.       Trigger warnings make trauma, and our recollection of trauma, eternally salient. Thus we encounter not just the word “rape”, for example, but a reminder that rape may remind us of our trauma, the association between our memories, and the traumatic experience of those memories, is strengthened. At the same time we never directly confront our memories full on, so we have the worst of both worlds, trauma is at the edge of consciousness, but not quite there. Trigger warnings seem to be helping, because they enable us to avoid full blown recollection of trauma in contexts where they are used consistently, but in the long run the practice strengthens the traumatic aspects of our memories.

3.       Trigger warnings enable us to avoid recollecting trauma. You may respond that this gives us the choice of whether to confront our trauma or not, but things are not so simple. When we are given the option of avoiding recollections of trauma, it can be hard not to take it. Trigger warnings can enable the self-destructive behavior of avoidance. We may not wish to engage in such avoidance, but the temptation is strong, and trigger warnings have the potential to enable that.


Written by a group of trauma survivors of which Tim is a part.



About timothyscriven

I study philosophy at Sydney University. In the grand scheme, I'm not very important.
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2 Responses to Trigger warnings and run away safety culture

  1. em says:

    Trauma is a medical issue. You aren’t an expert in it. This article is about as useless (if not damaging) as if you wrote a paper on cancer treatments.

    • It’s certainly true that I’m not an expert on trauma (though I could have validly claimed to be something of an expert on some related conditions at one point, since I was doing research on them). The problem with your post though is that you seem to assume trigger warnings are a medically indicated response. They’re not, or at least there is nothing like a worked out psychological literature in support of them, at least that I’ve encountered. They’re a folk-remedy. From a purely scientific perspective your guess is as good as mine as to whether they work, it’s all guesswork. There is a worked out psychological literature which could be seen, tentatively, as suggesting that increasing the salience of the possibility of certain responses to trauma is counterproductive. I’ve talked about this with a few friends who stayed on at psychology and either are clinical psychs or are studying to be clinical psychs, and the general consensus is that they don’t really know but are quite skeptical, partly because of the literature which suggests that making trauma salient is dangerous, though one was unsure and tentatively supported the idea. Really though it’s all guesswork.

      More generally though, I’m quite skeptical of this methodologically. The scholar practitioner method doesn’t really work, and for all the pretensions of clinical psychologists the extent to which their practice is informed by genuinely solid empirical evidence is surprisingly limited. The idea that this stuff is on par with the rest of medical science is risible. I see little reason to think that thoughtful discussion and debate about this stuff, informed by experience, isn’t at least on par with what the experts can provide.

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