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Sorry, trigger warnings do not hinder free speech

It’s presumptuous to assume that trigger warnings will deter people from consuming content

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Image Credits: Wikimedia Commons

Tyler Knoll’s article entitled, “Trigger warnings are not an excuse to censor free speech” could not have gotten it more wrong. Trigger warnings don’t censor or stifle free speech. They’re simply warnings — like online pieces of courtesy to the faceless people on the Internet. A person who writes something for the web has no way to judge or adjust their tone in accordance with the audience’s response.

In person, if you’re conversing with someone and they begin to get uncomfortable, most people wouldn’t just shrug and keep going because it’s their right to say what they want (well, a few might). But most people would pause and adjust the discussion, ask if their counterpart is alright, and maybe even say “If you’re okay, I’m going to talk about _____ and then I’ll move on, all right?”

A trigger warning doesn’t have anything to do with the presenter or the person writing. The writer can say what they want — nothing stops them. The right to free speech is not the right to be heard. The trigger warning is just the pause; it’s the “this potentially sensitive material is going to crop up, so prepare yourself accordingly.” It’s like a movie rating. Rated PG-13 for some violence.

Why can’t we have trigger warnings for content that could trigger damaging, traumatic experiences? Who does it hurt? Not the lecturer, and certainly not the students. To assume that the people who need trigger warnings would skip past an online post or an entire lecture simply because a small warning has been shown is inherently flawed.

Instead, people can now read through an article or blog, or attend a lecture in an informed way instead of being slapped across the face with it midway, caught completely off-guard. When that happens, people freak out and stop reading, or get up and leave.

The right to free speech is not the right to be heard.

In regards to the article’s example about the English class discussing terrible things First Nations peoples had to face, I’d like to say that just because a trigger warning was shown doesn’t mean that students are ignorant about what happened to First Nations peoples at the hand of the Canadian government. The trigger warning clues students to the intense and horrific natures of the things our government has done, and most of the people who need the warning can then sit through the class.

If people leave after having been exposed to a trigger warning, I find it presumptuous to assume that they left because of it. This is especially if a large contingent leaves. Those are probably just people who skipped class for the heck of it.

My other problem is the claim that “any psychiatrist will tell you the only way to face your fears is to confront them directly.” No, they won’t. Many of them will, as desensitization is a prolific form of therapy when dealing with fear and anxiety. However, the opposite effect — sensitization — can also occur. The added pressure to ‘face your fear’ can further add to fear and anxiety instead of alleviating it.

This isn’t about students being fragile. This is about realizing that you can never know the stories of all people. If one sentence at the beginning of a lecture or an article can prevent extraneous emotional turmoil — why not? It takes all of three seconds to write or say, and it could be the difference between a captive, engaged audience and an audience that leaves before you can finish your free speech.

  • Trevor Reid

    In the same breath you’re saying this is not a form of censorship and comparing it to the (useless, inconsistent) movie rating system. Here’s a clue: the movie ratings and explicit lyric labels are avenues of censorship. They were implemented “voluntarily” under threat of something worse. Today editorial and creative choices are made in light of this scheme. Censorship.

    So, no. Trigger warnings are not an innocuous courtesy. They’re a trope in the culture of fragility and over sensitivity. Humanity survived millenia without such B.S. Discourse ought to thrive without them quite a while longer. Authors can use them if they wish. At the immediate cost of some respect from a discerning portion of his audience.

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