So, last year, my high school experienced a big loss. Out of respect for those involved and its lack of specific relevance, I won’t go into detail about it. But it just so happened that our theater program was working on a production that dealt with a similar loss when it occurred. I had designed a poster that I was very proud of to advertise the show. When they came back from the print shop, however, my director stopped me from taking them to my classes.
“I don’t think we should be advertising this production to AP seniors,” he had said. We spent the whole two-hour class period talking about whether or not we should hang up posters in areas where certain students would see them. We argued over whether we should warn people in the curtain speech before the show about the subject matter. We wondered whether we should write some kind of cautionary statement on the posters. We fought over how explicit we should be without giving away the end of the play.
I was furious.
I understood that this was difficult play to watch. I understood that it would definitely hit a nerve for students dealing with their personal losses. From my vantage point, however, it seemed like that was exactly the reason to do it. Wasn’t that the point of making theater? Wasn’t it supposed to talk about things you can’t talk about in other ways? Wasn’t it supposed to demolish the thinking that uncomfortable things shouldn’t be discussed?
Someone, I can’t remember who, shot back that there was a difference between making someone uncomfortable and causing them to relive a traumatic life experience.
Someone else said that all theater deals with something that could hurt an audience member. How do we know what might take someone back to a bad time in their lives?
A third someone shot that down really quickly because this time, we knew. We were well aware of what could be challenging for our senior class at that time. A question of whether this should be a rule every time was something we could talk about later.
We ended up only putting posters in underclassman rooms and common spaces. If I remember correctly, there was a mention of “sensitive material” in the speech before the show started. I was never really happy with it, but it wasn’t my show. So, I kept that to myself after the class debate.
It brought up an issue that I had never considered, though. It was an issue of how much we should shield people from what could seriously hurt them. It was the “trigger warning” issue that I keep seeing crop up.
And it taught me something. See, the discussions I see about trigger warnings lately are to do with potentially sensitive topics in class debates, or movies. And the argument I see used against them is way too frequently a misrepresented attack on some perceived threat to free speech.
Let me be very clear. A trigger warning, when used correctly, is not an invitation to stop someone from speaking how they wish. You’ll notice that, of all the arguments we had over last year’s play, “Should we still do it?” was never even considered. That is because any topic that is disagreeable at all, even in a high school auditorium, can be deeply uncomfortable. And pieces of art are supposed to have emotional impact on its viewers. Trigger warnings do not pose a threat to any of that.
No one is saying that, if there is a rape, a violent murder, a suicide, or any other tragic event in a play, that it shouldn’t be performed. We are simply saying that, maybe, we should consider giving folks a heads-up when we can.
Additionally, trigger warnings aren’t meant to warn people that they might get upset. There is a difference between having an emotional response to something and having to work through trauma, or the effects of a mental illness.
We always warn audience members about strobe lights; it could overstimulate someone with a physical disease. That being said, we would never, ever, ever outlaw strobe lights in plays because it might be harmful for someone. Trigger warnings are the same idea, but for mental illnesses.
At the end of the day, we already have trigger warnings. They come in the forms of parental advisories, movie ratings systems, and strobe warnings before the lights go down. “Trigger warnings” as we talk about them today just address a different facet of the human vulnerability.
I don’t have a hard and fast rule about how we should implement trigger warnings, and I certainly don’t want them to be so invasive that they interfere at all with the production of art, storytelling, or good discussion. But maybe it’s time we stop demonizing them and their advocates.