Trigger warnings have nothing to do with 'political correctness'


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"Have we got an entire group of returned soldiers that has been so coddled and that is so spineless that it is completely incapable of dealing with the harsh realities of the modern world?..."

This is a quote from an article about the "wussification" of the youth of today, only I've changed the words 'young people' to 'returned soldiers'. Think it's a bit much to talk about combat veterans like that? I agree. So what about survivors of other traumas?

Some people argue we've gone too far in making allowances for those who have suffered, but in my observation it's never men they are talking about.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is often associated with men diagnosed after going through work-related trauma in fields such as firefighting, the armed services, and police; and the public response is usually sympathetic and understanding. Survivors are believed, and no one doubts the sincerity of their trauma or their suffering. PTSD symptoms are understood to be deeply unpleasant (to put it mildly); they can include flashbacks, nightmares, insomnia and hyper-vigilance.


It is also well known that reminders of the traumatic events are a problem for people with PTSD (thanks in part to popular culture) and that people with PTSD often need to avoid situations that may trigger their symptoms.

So why is there a steady drip-feed of articles critical of trigger or content warnings as "babying" or "coddling" given such warnings originated to assist combat veterans and others with PTSD?

These origins are hardly obscure. Like many mental health diagnoses, PTSD has gone through a number of names: soldier's heart, shell shock, war neurosis; but it has been observed since the Iliad, and has been in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders since 1980.

All this history and context disappears in articles like the one The Age ran last week that warned about "political correctness", suggesting academic freedom is being irrevocably damaged if lecturers spend literally four seconds including a content warning.

Rarely does such comment discuss the origins of PTSD and trigger warnings. Most don't mention it at all. What most do mention, though, is the content authors don't think warrants a trigger warning: rape, violence, sexual assault.

So is PTSD an illness suffered heroically by those who've survived terrible events, or are we to believe trigger warnings are the perfidious work of precious petals too self-indulgent to live in the real world?

Why the sympathetic understanding of combat veterans, but the dismissal of – and lets be clear about who this dismissal is aimed at, generally – women, and other sufferers of trauma?

The reality is this: content warnings have nothing to do with pandering to the overwrought sensibilities of spoilt millennials or the handwringing pleas of "generation snowflake".

If you can accept that the science of "unconsummated grief" for soldiers is real, then why not for women and other sufferers of trauma? If someone dismissed a traumatic flashback for a soldier as them "taking offence", hopefully they'd be asked when exactly they qualified in psychiatry, given they appear to be an expert.

But here we have critics blithely recommending against content warnings and prescribing exposure therapy without a thought to the possible consequences. Nor do they have any training to do so, with a deep misunderstanding of how trauma works to boot.

It's hard to avoid the conclusion that the dichotomy is underpinned by a greater social ease with depictions of, and actual, violence against women.

Or to put it another way: when one in three of us suffer violence and one of us is murdered a week, is it reasonable to expect that women must accept the ubiquity of violence around them, and that to moderate some of it is "political correctness gone mad"?

This is what articles discussing the use of trigger warnings should actually say:

Content warnings are a minor and brief inconvenience. They serve a number of groups, including combat veterans and survivors of sexual violence.

Women suffer PTSD at more than twice the rate of men. Estimates vary, but the rates of PTSD for women are similar to Gulf War veterans.

Given that one in three women will suffer violence in her lifetime and one in five women will suffer sexual violence in her lifetime, these gendered rates of PTSD shouldn't come as a surprise (and don't, to experts).

Trigger warnings or content warnings are a way for someone to manage their illness. This may or may not include consuming content that includes triggering material. Examples of content warnings include mentioning depictions of combat and gunshots for the benefit of any combat veterans, or scenes of sexual assault for sexual assault survivors.

If someone includes a content warning in a lecture/presentation/video, they aren't telling someone they might be 'offended' by their work.

They aren't telling survivors what to do, either. They are giving them the power to decide for themselves.

So there you have it. If you feel triggered to mouth off next time you hear a content warning, take a deep breath and count to three. You'll be OK.