In our society, we generally get that many people deal with mental illness. We know that many cope with trauma caused by sexual, physical, and psychological abuse.
We understand that everyone is unique due to distinct inherited traits, upbringing, environmental influences, and life experiences.
Some of us are even able to appreciate how people become mentally distressed due to repeat exposure to things we don’t normally consider trauma — like bullying, racism, and everyday expressions of misogyny.
However, some of us struggle to remember that when you wrap all of these different factors together, you sometimes end up with people who are more vulnerable to the discussion of certain subject matters than what’s considered the general norm.
That’s why people use “trigger warnings,” or what we at Everyday Feminism refer to as “Content Warnings” — because being repeatedly exposed to the word trigger can bring up unwanted, painful memories for some. Check out these two wonderful pieces on the topic. One investigates the most common questions related to content warnings, and the other explores the most common challenges to content warnings by those who think they’re unnecessary.
The idea for content warnings arose in order to recognize — and respect — the diverging struggles and experiences of others by supplying an easy, advisory mechanism for would-be readers.
This way, they’re prepared and are able to choose whether or not they wish to be subjected to content that may adversely impact their mental state.
However, there’s a tendency for people to claim that these steps are a form of coddling, rather than see them for what they really are: Simple and considerate notice markers that empowers would-be readers with the decision of choice.
Instead of this being seen as a way to appreciate the importance of mental health, more often content warnings are greeted with hostility by people not personally affected taking personal offense — as if their rights were being threatened or revoked.
Complaints range from “Why can’t people worried about reading content just stay off the internet?” to “Grow up” to “Just deal with it” — never once considering that they’re preoccupation with situations that don’t directly concern them. That, possibly, their well-being only reflects self-centeredness and a refusal to value the feelings, mental health, or anxiety of others.
Which is ironic given that our culture already values acts of decency so stealthily. In this light, it is shocking that such an easily adaptable, non-invasive practice rooted solely in compassion for someone else’s well being is so frequently seen as “thought policing” or “PC fascism.”
Contrast this with another facet of our culture: how we engage with spoilers in the media.
The week before Christmas saw the return of one of our culture’s most beloved cinematic sagas in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Like a huge chunk of the population, I went to see Star Wars: Episode VII the same day it was released and thoroughly enjoyed it.
But leading up to the official premiere were issues related to spoilers, or bits of leaked information that would reveal plot elements and potentially ruin the maximum enjoyment of the film. This led many to issue stern demands of spoiler-free content.
Some of these requests were even laced with hostility that included threatening offenders with bodily injury or actually removing the inconsiderate as a friend on social media.
You know what was remarkable about all of this? There was almost no controversy in response to the extent of these spoiler-free demands and the related anxiety. It was extremely rare that you saw any criticisms of the heightened concern, animosity, and expectations over preserving what’s already a social custom.
Why can’t people worried about spoilers just stay off the internet? Is it wrong to think they need to “grow up” and “just deal with it?”
Judging by the public’s broad compliance with these expectations of spoiler warnings or spoiler-free spaces, it seems most think these kinds of requests were seen as reasonable.
So why is it so unreasonable to request content warnings?
And no, I’m not suggesting spoiler warnings and content warnings are equal in nature. I don’t think they’re in the same boat. I don’t even think they’re in the same marina, to be honest. They address two completely different issues and related desires. But I do think they have a few key characteristics in common.
The purpose of both spoiler and content warnings is to give readers a choice to engage with a piece of media or not.
Spoiler warnings act as a way to prepare for or avoid content that may partially or entirely ruin the surprise with a form of entertainment. Content warnings act as a form of harm reduction.
Consent and harm reduction overlaps with safety.
Offering content warnings is a form of safety and grants people agency over their mental health and well-being — and people should be able to consent to the experiences they have.
When people disregard this in order to “give people a taste of the real world,” what they’re really doing is forcing others to do or experience what they personally want them to do without allowing them a choice. That’s not a “reality check,” it’s a “me-statement” that reveals their lack of value for others.
Those who do this don’t realize that those who appreciate content warnings are fully aware that they can’t control every facet of life experiences.
But when it comes to situations where a setting is able to be controlled, it’s reasonable to expect cooperation that would aid mental stability, not willfully harm it.
2. Reasonable Expectations
Aside from those who chose to be harsh or threaten others, asking others to abstain from behavior that could compromise a moviegoing experience for you isn’t an extreme request when you think about it. Why?
Because the behavior that’s being singled out isn’t necessary or unavoidable. It’s a deliberate, voluntary act. Nobody’s pleading for people to quick salivating, or to stop blinking, or to no longer communicate in any way.
Instead, what’s being asked is, “Could you please be mindful and not impair this experience for me?”
This same principle can be applied to content warnings, and for the same reasons.
Neither content nor spoiler warnings are acts of suppression. Neither are saying you can’t speak your mind.
You still get to say things!
Something that’s reasonable is supported by decent or suitable reasons that outweigh negative consequences.
Expecting someone to expose themselves to something that may inflict harm, when they could easily make a choice to avoid it, is unreasonable.
Content warnings aren’t instructing us to “Be silent and forever hold your tongue!” Contrary to the dishonest belief that content warnings are somehow oppressive, they’re similar to spoiler warnings in that they’re really just ways to give a heads-up before proceeding to freely say whatever you had on your mind.
Who would ignore this simple, harmless request?
Whether it be movie spoilers or cautionary notes, people only disregard these kinds of warnings for oblivious or malicious reasons.
If someone’s honestly oblivious, their unawareness of why a notice would be helpful is excusable. It’s safe to assume we’ve all been guilty of being uninformed at some point in our lives about these matters.
I remember one time I acted indiscreetly while discussing how a relatively new movie totally missed the mark with a situation. By doing this I had unthinkingly revealed a key point in the movie.
It didn’t dawn on me until, a short while later, I saw someone comment that “someone” had spoiled the movie for them but they were curious about this identical issue I referenced.
I was that someone who spoiled the movie and I was embarrassed by my indiscretion.
On the other hand, if someone knowingly ignores the function of warning their audience before discussing a topic that could be sensitive in nature to them, that’s another kind of ignorance altogether. People who do this overly rely only on their point of view and limited life experiences.
This type of thinking is what we refer to as being “close-minded.” Closemindedness leads to insensitive behavior like selfishly spoiling a movie for someone and finding it amusing. It can also be the motivation behind having a careless attitude about content warnings based off a hasty self-examination that says, “Well, I don’t need one, so that’s stupid!”
Adding a few words of caution to the beginning of dialogue is undemanding and only requires a few words that rarely amounts to a complete sentence. For movies and other forms of entertainment, all that’s usually required are the words “Spoiler Warning,” “Spoiler Alert,” or even “Spoiler” along with reference of the subject being discussed.
With serious matters involving mental health, all that’s usually required are the words “Content Warning” and then an additional mention of whatever subject being discussed. Examples include “Content warning: sexual assault,” “CW: abuse,” and “Content note: suicide.”
This, too, is reasonable.
Again, while they’re different on various levels, neither spoiler nor content warnings are difficult, abusive, or repressive.
Neither practice leads to mental, emotional, or physical stress or harm. Both practices can prevent wide-ranging negative results.
We all get the practical use of not ruining a movie for someone. With more serious matters and content warnings, appropriately tagging content may prevent intense psychological or physiological reactions or at least spare someone from having to endure a piece of media that relates to traumatic or distressful events they’d prefer to avoid at that particular point in time.
For these reasons, we can conclude providing warnings for media is far more reasonable than unreasonable.
3. Common Courtesy
An extension of reasonable expectations is what we refer to as common courtesy, or a code of social behavior that people follow to be courteous to one another.
When people display manners, they aren’t being forced to, they do it to express some level of basic respect. Most of us perform very small acts of politeness each day and don’t give it a second thought.
We do these things because those brief moments of civility are good, they make us feel good, and we identity with how that goodness makes others feel.
Many would agree that spoiler warnings are both reasonable and a form of common courtesy. Far less see content warnings in the same light despite both sharing similar values of reasonable, common courtesy.
Maybe the biggest reason for this is lack of empathy. It’s hard for us to be considerate when we just can’t grasp or identity with the circumstance, struggle, or anxiety of another individual or group of people.
The thing we have to remember is, even when we haven’t encountered the same experiences of others, or even when it’s difficult for us to imagine ourselves in their shoes, our inability to relate doesn’t invalidate their experiences or desires.
And along with a lack of connection to the issue of content warnings come appeals to extreme examples of the consequences of using content labels. Though they’re intended to make a reasonable argument for why content warnings are unnecessary, they almost always take a great leaps to try and make a point.
“So I have to coddle you? We can’t cast a protective bubble over the entire world?!”
Wow, that’s a stretch. Content warnings aren’t meant to shield someone from reality. Content warnings are just flags with info about content to help people manage — not eliminate — their interactions with potentially stressful or even traumatic media.
People who use and benefit from content notes fully realize they can’t be insulated from all troubling or traumatic experiences. Content warnings are simply one way people can extend a little courtesy to each other and help some navigate life in more optimal ways.
The question isn’t whether or not this is too much to ask. It isn’t. The question is are you the type of person to deny a reasonable expectation of common courtesy because you don’t benefit from it or fail to see the benefit of it?
Both content and spoiler warnings are an extended form of compassion. Part and parcel to compassion is empathy — the capacity to identify with the frame of mind or circumstances of others.
I believe that how we practice compassion should mimic the Chinese philosopher Mozi’s principle of jian’ai, which means “impartial concern.” This concern for the welfare of others makes no distinction between oneself and others.
It’s also referred to as “universal love.”
The conscious decision to allow compassion to reign gives us the ability to dethrone ourselves from the center of our world and place another there.
When we speak of compassion, this should be the aim.
Acknowledging the importance of consent, safety, reasonable expectations and courtesy leads to a more evolved sense of concern for the condition of others.
Content warnings is the perfect expression of impartial concern. It’s something that should be applied with appreciation and mutual respect for one another.
Sincere Kirabo is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism and is a writer, activist, and the Social Justice Coordinator with the American Humanist Association. He’s a self-described philosophile with a high regard for Sikivu Hutchinson, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Shirley Chisholm, and James Baldwin. When he isn’t writing, Sincere enjoys road trips, trying to beat Super Mario Bros with his son, and learning about history. Sincere’s work can also be found on The Humanist and Patheos. Follow him on Twitter @sinkirabo.
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