Pink Elephants on Parade
Trigger warnings are this huge goddamn deal right now. You see them all over the place, at least if you associate in any way with activists and progressive types. I’ve never used them, and I’ve had mixed feelings about them in the past. Yet there’s a general consensus that trigger warnings are necessary, and that it is the kind and perhaps ethical thing to use them.
So why do I feel ambivalent? I’d never really thought too much about it. Would it take all that much effort, after all, for me to warn people about potentially traumatic content? Is this yet another example of me being an inflexible curmudegonly asshole?
So I considered the issue and decided that no, my reservations are correct. Trigger warnings are (usually) useless. Here’s why.
Right now I want you to not picture a pink elephant. Whatever you do, don’t think about it. You’re thinking about it, aren’t you? What the fuck is wrong with you? You’re totally thinking about a pink elephant. You’re probably thinking about more than one of them. Other people would have been able to read that sentence without thinking about a pink elephant. This means that there’s probably something wrong with you. Why are you the only one who goes around thinking about pink elephants? That’s not a normal thing to think about.
Now, replace “pink elephant” with- oh, any number of things. Sexual violence. Alcoholism. Child abuse. Something horrible and inconceivable, unless your lived experience has forced you to conceive of it. That’s a tiny glimpse of what it’s like to live with trauma.
I had P.T.S.D. for thirteen years, and was constantly thinking about horrible things that I didn’t want to think about. The thoughts and images were almost always there, constant, unyielding, and disturbing. They often overwhelmed me. Sometimes I couldn’t concentrate on anything but the pain. The harder I tried to send them away, the worse the thoughts became. When they weren’t there, I knew they’d come back. I waited for them to come back and tried to brace myself. Sometimes these mental preparations would trigger the thoughts.
Any number of things would trigger the thoughts. A particular phrase in a book. The sight of someone on the street. An article of clothing. The weather. A smell.
Trigger warnings weren’t around when I had P.T.S.D. I just realized that now; when did they become ubiquitous?
If they’d been around, they would have certainly triggered me. If you read something that says “Warning: Pink elephants” you will probably think of pink elephants, if only for a fraction of a second.
And if you’ve got trauma, a fraction of a second is all it takes for those terrible thoughts to take hold. They’re looking for any opportunity to break through and hurt you. They’re waiting. They’re patient. Any opportunity will do.
I recognize that some people with trauma find trigger warnings to be effective. I can only assume that their pain works differently than mine. Pain, after all, is such a personal, individualized thing. That’s why blanket policies don’t work.
Because thoughts can’t be controlled or softened, or made to go away. The attempt to do so will make them worse.
Trigger warnings are an attempt to sanitize that which cannot be sanitized. It is the isolating suggestion that everyone else but you can go through their days choosing not to think about pink elephants.
But no matter what you do, the thoughts are there, and they’re there for a reason. I was only able to move past them when I stopped trying to send them away. Pain needs to be felt. It’s trying to tell you something, and it doesn’t use trigger warnings in order to express itself.