Warning: Don't Read This Book

Trigger warnings. How do you feel about them? Me? I'm not a fan.


They remind me of that episode in season 4 of 'Black Mirror' (if you haven't watched it, you should. The episode is called 'Arkangel' and it's on Netflix and is super-trippy) where in the not-too-distant future, parents are able to implant a chip into their child that is the equivalent of a parental advisory warning filter, that enables them to censor the information or stimuli their child is exposed to. Not online, but in the real world. So, if you don't want your kid to see blood, or be upset by violence, their senses (sight, sound, smell and even hearing) will be edited so they aren't exposed to those things at all. AT ALL. I won't tell you what happens, in case you haven't seen the episode, but I bet you can imagine that the consequences are very much unintended.



When I saw this episode, it reminded me of the phrase "helicopter parents", the ones who hover over their kids lives, controlling and surveilling and monitoring. Sometimes to ensure they make no missteps, and sometimes to censor their experience to prevent stress, discomfort or pain. It's telling that no one thinks "helicoptering" can be equated with "good" parenting.


For me, trigger warnings feel like a requirement that the creative world "take care of" us in similar fashion. We don't just ask for warnings about content that may be inappropriate for people (usually children or teenagers) who are developmentally or experientially ill-equipped to understand and contextualize that content. Now, we're asking for warning about things that may upset and disturb us. Things that are "triggering" of negative emotions or experiences that a creative has no way of knowing their anonymous audience may have had. By waving the specter of possible trauma, we can---if not warned---essentially shame those people who had the temerity to produce the upsetting content in the first place.


Interestingly, books that contain trigger warnings, in my experience, general have implicit (or explicit) in their blurbs something that already "warns" the prospective reader. Dark romances with a blurb which reads something like: 'Chastity doesn't know she's a target. But she is. Rafe is determined to possess her at any cost, even if it means kidnapping and holding her in his mountain cabin away from all she loves.' Now, I don't know about you, but reading a blurb like that? I expect that things like 'dubious consent' or even 'non-consensual sex' might be included. In fact, one might argue that if I picked that book up, I'm inviting that content.


But inevitably, someone is offended and the creative who dared put that content out into the world is shamed (usually publicly) for having not given due warning. I've often wondered ... is that really what happened though? That folks were taken wholly off guard? Or is this just a tactic that's a close cousin of censorship?


When I find a book offensive, I generally stop reading. And thereafter, I approach other books with similar content cautiously. I appreciate the risk, and maybe in some instances court that risk. Because it feels inherent in the reading experience. That's part of the magic: I don't know where all those words will take me. I trust the writer to take me somewhere new, and interesting and thought-provoking. And if, after a while I don't like where they're taking me, or they betray that trust by taking me someplace unpleasant, I stop reading that book, or (very seldom) that author. Now, I'm not suggesting that creatives should be free to provoke and unsettle ... except ... maybe I am suggesting that.


And if they did have that freedom, what exactly are we afraid would happen?

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