Matthew P. Schmidt

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On Trigger Warnings

Sep 30, 2021 | Behind the Scenes, Thoughts, Writings | 1 comment

Trigger warnings are a subject I’ve gone back and forth on several times. This is at least my most recent thoughts on them.

As an author, I have to decide whether or not to provide trigger warnings on my works, and I am planning not to do so.

But why?

Is one morally obligated to provide trigger warnings? I’m not sure if anyone has actually explicitly stated this, but it is implied that if you don’t, you’re doing something wrong. (Insomuch as anyone can agree on right and wrong any more.)

I have concluded that one is not. What exactly is a trigger? Let me use a personal example:

For the longest time, I had a deep abiding terror of AI. I will not go into detail in this post, but a science fiction story, or article on AI, could cause me to go into at least a day, and possible even a sleepless night, wrapped in despair. I contemplated suicide on multiple occasions, seeing myself as ultimately a useless kludge on the way to technological gods.

Was that a trigger? If a trigger is defined as something that is hazardous to mental health, then yes, it was a trigger, and quite an awful one.

So are all SF authors obligated to self-report if their stories contain AI? Really?

This may be a strange example, but as just about anything can be a trigger, there is no way to draw a line on what “ought” to be a trigger. A firecracker can sound like a gunshot, and a certain brand of aftershave can be associated with an attacker. Logically, if there was a moral obligation to warn of potential triggers, then those products would have to be covered with warning labels, as well as everything else that might have ever been involved in a traumatic event.

But here’s the thing: even if trigger warnings were even logistically plausible, they do not help. A Harvard study found no emotional benefit from putting trigger warnings prior to potential literary triggers. (I cannot find a direct link to this study, but it’s all over the Internet) But once again, let me tell you my own story.

As I was still struggling to survive the philosophical torments of AI, I came across John C. Wright’s writings, and decided to pick up the book of his at the library: The Golden Age. It was a series all about technological gods, but noble ones that willingly served humanity as mere pets. It was a postsingularity world that was not horrifying to contemplate. Indeed, it greatly influenced my later writing, including The World of Wishes. That series was ultimately a healing experience, and now I can read books about any kind of AI without even the slightest fear.

This is because avoiding a trauma or fear only feeds it. Only by deliberate, careful exposure to the horrible thing can you overcome it.

So what purpose does a trigger warning have? Perhaps it still has some, however, so I am not willing to reject the concept altogether.

The VR game Superhot VR has two scenes where you “kill” yourself. I found them quite disturbing, and would not have even bought the game had I known they were in there. (They have since been removed, and many shameful indivuals beg for them to be returned.) This kind of trigger warning–simply warning people away–has potential merit. Perhaps I would like not to be ambushed by something traumatic in my entertainment, even if I must ultimately face it.

But then I must bring up that there was a book written by an author who I enjoyed that listed in the blurb, in detail, all the tramatic events in the story. I then decided not to buy the book, as it was seriously spoiled. (As an author, spoilers affect me differently, since I can usually guess where the story is going.)

So where does that leave us? I currently have content warnings on my “bookshelf” here, but hopefully by the time you’ve read this they’ve been removed. I am going to simply give an age group.

As for The World of Wishes, this is my official Meta-Trigger Warning that the book is not for the sensitive. That’s all I want to say.

1 Comment

  1. Maybe trigger warnings should be hidden behind a spoiler warning?

    I think suicide and rape always deseeve a trigger warning for those that do want to know.

    Also context is important if I read a WW2 book with for example a soldier and tanks on the cover titled “war story” I know I can expect violence. If the same book would feature a Horse on the cover and be titled “travelling to Germany” maybe some trigger warnings are useful.

    The problem is in using things like trigger warnings too much until every thing that could unconvince somebody is listed in a 3 page long trigger warning list and somebody will find something you missed ….

    As a teen I had a severe gag reflex if I saw others brush their teeth no problem watching zombie movies but if someone was standing in the bathroom brushing their teeth I had to leave the room or risk vomiting…

    As a lucky person I need no trigger warnings especially if they spoil anything but I think for very dangerous content a notification like “For trigger warnings see page 365” could be useful to those suffering from trauma etc. without spoilers for the rest.


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