Trigger Warnings vs. Spoiler Warnings: Which Are Destroying Society?


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Sorta transcript:

I was reading an io9 post about Game of Thrones the other day about the producers responding to complaints about last season’s prominent rapes. Oh, by the way: trigger warning, I’m going to talk a little bit about rape. And spoiler warning, I’m going to talk a little about what happened on Game of Thrones last season.

Back when the episode aired in which Sansa is raped, I wrote about my reaction to it and my problem with it. It wasn’t that Game of Thrones featured one of the main characters being raped — it’s a horrible world where horrible things happen, particularly to women because it’s an amped up patriarchal world where women are treated like objects. That is part of what makes the show and the books interesting to me — I enjoy seeing the different ways that the various female characters survive that kind of world, from Cersei’s unapologetic scheming to Cat’s embracing of what it means to be a strong mother.

My problem with the rape of Sansa was that it didn’t push her character in any new direction. In fact, it trapped her into yet another season in which she’s a victim who only serves to further other characters’ arcs. Meanwhile, at this point in the books, her character is my favorite arc because she’s busy developing her cunning, and using it to keep herself safe. She’s actually gone from being a passive object who dreams of princes rescuing her to really understanding the game, and taking control of her destiny. In a way she’s turning into a better Littlefinger. It’s a way more interesting story than “Sansa gets abused. Again. News at 11.”

Anyway, the tv producers say they’re taking the feedback on Sansa’s rape into account, but they don’t say how. I really hope that their response is to get her arc moving, but who knows.

Back to the io9 article. I scrolled down and read the top comment, which was this:

“Is the trigger warning in print here to stay, will every grown up and hard to discuss, or accept,thing now be self censored, and forewarned, and cut out in the future to suit the selfish purview of a vocal minority? Do the Millennials get to force a world upon us where we pretend nothing hurts their-feelings-ever, and they are perfectly safe from how real adult life really is? We’re doomed if so.”

I scrolled back up and see that the commenter is responding to this trigger warning in print: “(Warning for those who need it: discussion of rape scenes in storytelling)”

Oh, poor baby! I find the mewling over trigger warnings to be one of the funniest ironies of the current trend of complaining about complaining. This poor commenter felt the need to write 73 words because he was forced to read 12 words. Meanwhile, elsewhere on io9 there are several articles with redacted headlines to save people from Star Wars spoilers. They’ve actually self-censored! But strangely, this guy isn’t complaining about that. He is only triggered by trigger warnings, which makes one wonder how exactly to go about making sure he’s aware that a trigger warning is forthcoming so he could better avoid them. It’s like having a severe phobia of psychiatrists. The thing is unfixable by definition.

I suppose the only solution is for people to lighten the fuck up and stop whining about trigger warnings, or at least not be a hypocrite and boycott all content warnings: trigger warnings, spoiler alerts, those signs telling construction companies where sewage lines are, packages of crackers that say they may contain nuts, and boxes with live snakes inside.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon mstdn.social/@rebeccawatson Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky @rebeccawatson.bsky.social

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  1. Spoiler alerts protect you from having an experience spoiled prior to experiencing it in context, usually for entertainment purpose. Trigger warnings are presumably for the opposite: to prevent you from having an experience at all, namely reliving a prior traumatic experience. Things like gas line warnings are to prevent bodily harm. So none of these things are very comparable.

    I think the argument against trigger warnings is twofold, and I’m not saying I endorse either, but here they are, as I see it: Either a person should be aware enough to avoid material that might be traumatic without explicit warning (because where do you stop in your endeavor to forewarn people?), or that triggers should not be avoided, because life is filled with triggers, and we should not coddle people.

    To be honest, I’m not convinced either way in the argument. Trigger warnings would do nothing for me, but that’s only because my nature is to be more curious than self preserving, and curiosity killed the cat.

    Was anyone ever actually triggered to the point of panic and relived trauma? I have to say yes, since I have second hand testimonial that I totally trust. In grade school we were shown a disturbing film that supposedly made some point in psychology, and my teacher said that a student in a prior class had to rush out of the room. So I don’t discount the idea of triggering, especially in contexts where people are “trapped” in situations they can’t escape easily, or “making a scene.” To what extent this applies to reading material, I cannot attest. I think every effort should be made to warn people of situations from which there is no easy escape, but hell, I once had a major panic attack boarding an amusement park ride, and there was no escape. There are some situations where people simply can’t, logistically, be forewarned of noxious experience. it is probably true that we can’t make the world entirely comfortable for everyone.

    1. Trigger warnings are presumably for the opposite: to prevent you from having an experience at all, namely reliving a prior traumatic experience.

      No? I mean, sure, in the sense that spoiler warnings exist to prevent you from having the experience of having a film spoiled, and gas line warnings exist to prevent you from having the experience of cutting into a gas line, but if that’s the sense you meant then it seems strange to distinguish between them and identify the trigger warning as the one that’s intended to prevent you from having an experience.
      Trigger warnings aren’t a universal sign of, “Stop! Come no further!” They’re just saying, “make sure you’re ready to deal with this thing,” and, sure, if you’re absolutely not ready to deal with that thing, then maybe don’t go on, but it’s really just alerting you to a potential issue and making sure you’re prepared for it. I honestly don’t see how that’s not comparable.

    2. Spoiler warnings are for telling people that they may not want to read a piece of information that is almost invariably pointless.

      I don’t want people to tell me what happens in episode 7 of Star Wars, or the results of a Formula 1 race before I watch it. Most of if not the whole point of the entertainment is surprise. A spoiler warning is to separate people who have seen the show/read the book from those not up to that point.

      Trigger warnings are in a different class because the subject matter often matters and the population that is affected is much smaller. There is also the issue of insincerity. Giving a trigger warning seems to be more a pro-forma checkbox than a genuine attempt at addressing an issue.

      I get really peeved by the attempts of the military to whitewash their proposals in jargon. They don’t kill people, casualties ‘occur’. Everything happens in the passive voice. Nobody wants to consider past behavior.

  2. I feel like I’m terrible for saying this, but I think trigger warnings are useless.

    Not because I think they quash free speech, or coddle children, or any of these “Our society is doomed” kinds of hyperbolic overreactions. I feel that way because psychological triggers are both subtle and individual.

    I had a friend with severe PTSD, and one of his triggers was something being very close to one side of his face. No one is ever going to know to avoid that. No one is going to mark up arachnophobia triggers either, because it just won’t occur to them.

    I just have to suspect there’s too much variation out there to get much out it. There’s certainly no harm in trying.

    1. An important point. The trigger is usually not the actual traumatic event, but something related to it. Hence the title Rosewater. That’s a true story, and the scent of rosewater still brings back memories of ‘enhanced interrogation’ courtesy of the Iranian government for that guy. But no one is going to say “Trigger warning: Rosewater” because the entire concept of being triggered by cologne is unique to him.

      There’s no harm in trying, though.

  3. Sure, there are unique and individual PTSD triggers. Just like someone can have a deathly allergy to plain white rice that nobody bothers to label. But that doesn’t stop us from putting a warning on the more common risks.

  4. Trigger Warnings are definitely worth it when you consider people can know their own triggers, and the really individual ones, like the cologne in Rosewater, often aren’t words or subjects anyway. I have a problem with being stuck in a crowd and unable to move. No writing can *do* that one to me, though. Warnings about common triggering subject matter, like rape, which *can* hurt me if I’m not prepared, tend to cover the trauma triggers writing can hit for me.

  5. I still think there was a point to the Sansa scene. Up to that point it appears that Sansa might have the option of turning Ramsay to her side by seducing him. She has agreed to marry him despite the fact he murdered her brother.

    Forcing Theon to watch demonstrates exactly where Sansa is and where she will remain. He is also an utterly broken object of pitty, or would be except that he murdered her other two brothers.

    The turning point for Sansa in the series is when she discovers that her brothers are alive, she is not alone, she still has family.

    I suspect there is a difference coming between the books and the series here in that Theon also has a redemption arc.

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