There is massive debate about so-called trigger warnings in books. Some people are all for them. Others say they spoil the story and coddle readers.
I’ve already written my thoughts on why warnings aren’t spoilers. They’re actually a great tool. Books are the only medium that lack any sort of rating or guide system. We can talk about the potential for censorship, but the reality is that such a system helps people find appropriate books.
Warnings in book go a step further, offering insight into the book’s content. Readers can then make informed decisions.
Another term that’s cropped up recently is “content” warning. What’s a content warning, and how is it different from a trigger warning?
What Is a Trigger Warning?
This term comes from the psychological literature, particular around PTSD. People with PTSD have “triggers,” which can set off a wide range of behaviors. A trigger usually connects to the traumatic event in some way. For example, a veteran soldier may hear gunfire on a TV program and relive a field experience. They may dissociate, experience a flashback, or become violent and aggressive.
Someone who survived a hurricane may have different triggers. For example, they may be upset by heavy rains or high winds. They might worry about flash flooding, or they may experience flashbacks if they try to go swimming or take a bath.
Triggers aren’t always so logical, however. They also aren’t the unique domain of PTSD. People with anxiety, for example, may have triggers that send them spiralling or induce a panic attack. People who have BPD may be triggered by someone departing or not answering a message “fast enough,” because it raises fears of abandonment.
In some cases, a trigger may seem totally unrelated to the behavior, such that even the person acting out doesn’t realize what set them off.
A trigger warning, then, is a note in a book that tells readers about content that could be potentially triggering.
What Is a Content Warning?
A content warning is very similar to a trigger warning. It’s a note that tells the reader about kinds of content in the book. Usually, the reader might find such content offensive or upsetting. (We rarely give “warnings” for good feels and the warm fuzzies.)
Content vs. Trigger Warning: Which Is Better?
Generally speaking, a content warning is broader than a trigger warning. A trigger warning is a specific kind of content warning.
The two ideas overlap, in that if you use trigger warnings, you’re still warning people about particular content in the book. In that sense, there’s no difference.
Content vs. Trigger Warning: A Tale of Two Terms
The difference between a content warning and a trigger warning is mostly one of linguistics.
When authors first started offering warnings in their books, they often used the term “trigger.” They worried that content such as rape, homophobia, medical trauma, or racism would upset people. After all, many readers have trauma from lived experiences. Seeing similar circumstances on the page could trigger symptoms of PTSD, such as flashbacks.
As I discussed, though, triggers can be nonspecific. So, someone who was raped may not find rape scenes upsetting. Instead, they might be upset by certain circumstances, such as a character walking down a dark alley by themselves. Or, in an even odder example: the reader may be triggered by the author describing the smell of toast because toast is connected to their trauma.
Triggers are thus highly unpredictable. In many cases, they’re scenario-specific. What any given reader finds upsetting may not make much sense. It’s impossible to warn for every single thing that could be a trigger.
Content Warnings Are Less Specific
That is why content warning is the superior term. A content warning isn’t worried about specific triggers. It’s simply stating there are certain kinds of content in the book. It could say there is violence or homophobic language.
The reader can then decide if they want to engage with this material. Some readers may not want to read a book with homophobic language in it, because they hear homophobic remarks day after day. Seeing it in their fiction is a painful reminder of reality.
Some might not be in the right frame of mind to read this book right now. They might come back to the book at a later date.
In many cases, readers simply go in knowing that they will encounter some homophobic language, which may upset them. They can mentally and emotionally prepare themselves for when it appears on the page.
Note that content warnings usually function as blanket warnings. They don’t give much away, so readers still do not necessary know the context of the homophobic language or the sexual assault that happens on page.
Some authors go above and beyond. They include page numbers or more detailed descriptions. For the most part, though, content warnings function like notices on TV shows, which tell us both the rating and why the film earned the rating it did. It lets us know what to expect.
Getting Rid of Ableist/Saneist Language
Another reason to use the term “content warning” vs. “trigger warning” has to do with the fact the term “trigger” is somewhat overused.
The psychological-medical field uses the term trigger to identify objects, actions, or situations that result in unwanted or intrusive thoughts. The term has since become more mainstream, with applications beyond the psycho-medical understanding.
The toast example here is useful. Toast is a trigger for our PTSD patient, because it’s connected with a traumatic event. Smelling toast or seeing it may cause flashbacks.
In common parlance, though, “trigger” simply means being upset about something. So a student may discover their roommate eating the last of the toast. They may be upset, and the roommate later says that they “got triggered” over the toast.
Someone who underwent a breakup may be sad if their roommate makes toast, because toast reminds them of their partner. They may say that toast is “triggering” for them.
Neither of these latter two examples are triggers. They are fairly normative reactions. Unless the dumped party or the angry student have a history of PTSD around these events, then neither of them are “triggered.”
From its entrance into common parlance, “trigger” has since become a derisive way to dismiss legitimate outcry. Since the right generally sees the left as “bleeding hearts” and “softies,” they suggest that even the slightest provocation will “trigger” leftists, who are just a bunch of big babies who need to pull up their undershorts.
Warning Readers Is Still a Good Idea
The word “trigger” is thus not very useful. It’s impossible to provide a warning for every possible trigger. The word also generates mockery when used outside of clinical settings, so putting “trigger warning” in a book is likely to inspire backlash.
A “content warning” is somewhat more difficult to mock, and the idea of warning about themes or situations in the content is much less controversial. There are, of course, still detractors out there, but readers are more likely to accept content warnings versus trigger warnings specifically.
Content warning, again, is simply better terminology.
This is often the case that, over time, we refine and allow our terminology to evolve. Trigger warnings weren’t wrong-headed, and the term was not necessarily wrong. Over time, though, we’ve realized some shortcomings and the need to let the language evolve.
So: a content warning and a trigger warning are similar things. Trigger warnings are usually more specific. Unfortunately, the term is limited and not as good as it could be. In turn, people have adopted terms line content warning and content notes.
At the end, though, all of these are meant to help readers make better choices about what they’re reading and when they’re reading. And there’s nothing wrong with that.