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Everyone is still struggling to know what to make of 'trigger warnings'
Are trigger warnings a symbol of our growing sensitivity, or a sign of our incremental acceptance of censorship? - photo by JJ Feinauer
After discussing his "mild racism" during his opening monologue for Saturday Night on May 16, stand-up comedian Louis C.K. ruffled some feathers by joking about knowing a "neighborhood child molester" in his youth.

Not everyone was pleased.

C.K.'s jokes landed in the context of a recent debate over how offensive material in the media should be handled. While plenty on social media (especially Twitter) found the boundary-pushing material so offensive it shouldn't have been aired in the first place, there are others, such as Slate's Sharan Shetty, who found it to be "bold, taboo material," that simply proved C.K.'s comedic genius.

The fact that C.K.'s material of choice touched on a subject that many find traumatic places his routine smack-dab in the middle of the recurring debate over what have come to be called "trigger warnings."

Trigger warnings are, essentially, warning labels that accompany material that might "trigger" feelings of unease due to the graphic nature of the subject matter. There have been movements recently, for example, to require these warnings on required reading materials for school assignments.

So could such a warning have saved Saturday Night Live some grief? By warning the audience that C.K. would be joking about child molestation (and racism, for that matter), those who find such material offensive could have simply tuned out earlier.

Not so, according to the Wall Street Journal's Peggy Noonan. According to Noonan, these warnings are little more than a veiled form of censorship.

"Masterpieces, by their nature, pierce," Noonan wrote. "They jar and unsettle. If something in a literary masterpiece upsets you, should the masterpiece really be banished? What will you be left with when all of them are gone?"

Plenty of other writers have shared similar concerns.

"What began as a way of moderating Internet forums for the vulnerable and mentally ill now threatens to define public discussion both online and off," Jenny Jarvie wrote in The New Republic last year. "The trigger warning signals not only the growing precautionary approach to words and ideas in the university, but a wider cultural hypersensitivity to harm and a paranoia about giving offense."

As Jarvie mentioned, trigger warnings (typically shortened to TW) began as an effort by feminist bloggers to warn readers that the content in their blog might bring up post-traumatic stress symptoms. The issue, for many, isn't that the practice exists, just that it's reaching too far into regular and academic life.

Writing about this issue last year, The Guardian's Jill Flipovic argued that college (which is the most heated battleground of the TW debate) is a place where "the student is challenged and sometimes frustrated and sometimes deeply upset, a place where the student's world expands and pushes them to reach the outer edges not a place that contracts to meet the student exactly where they are."

In short, many fear that trigger warnings have morphed into censorship and coddling.

But according to Media Matters' Hannah Groch-Begley, the rising dismissal of trigger warnings is based on a misunderstanding of mental health. She points to a specific passage in Noonan's column that flippantly mentions that some of these students might be better off just seeking therapy instead of leaning on trigger warnings for protection.

"Colleges don't offer students enough mental health support," she wrote, "which may be one explanation for the growing trend of students trying to create safe spaces and safe texts for themselves."

The issue, according to Groch-Begley, is not that these images and phrases offend the ears or eyes, but that they can potentially do real damage to the mind. In the case of C.K.'s SNL monologue, for example, one of the prominent criticisms on Twitter was that sexual molestation affects roughly 20 percent of women and 5 to 10 percent of men.

In other words, for many, images and stories of sexual abuse aren't just images and stories, they are memories.

Taking things a step further, The New Republic's Jeet Heer places the recent trend of trigger warnings into a larger context of post-9/11 anxieties.

"The explosion of trigger warnings and the growth of safe spaces is best understood as a consequence of the expanded social and cultural role that PTSD has assumed in our society," Heer wrote on May 20.

"The concept of PTSD rests on the importance of buried memories memory traces which can be reignited as flashbacks."

There are still others, however, that argue despite the noble desired outcome of such warnings, they don't actually work.

"Trigger warnings arent much help in actually overcoming trauma," New York Magazine's Jonathan Chaite wrote in January, citing a study by the Institute of Medicine. "The best approach is controlled exposure to it, and experts say avoidance can reinforce suffering."

"Surely college students should know what's coming when they set out to plumb human civilization," The Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf wrote in 2014. "A huge part of it is a horror show. To spare us upset would require morphine."
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