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Trigger warnings are ultimately a force for good

Trigger warnings seem to be inescapable nowadays – frequently cropping up before social media posts, films, articles and, frequently, plays. It’s normal to find a paragraph on the website of a theatre company, describing the ‘emotive content’ featured in specific plays. To many people, this isn’t a cause for annoyance. However, there are seemingly just as many people who take issue with the idea of trigger warnings in the theatre. After all, isn’t art supposed to be provocative?

This was the exact argument used by Micheline Chevrier, artistic director of Imago Theatre, when a play there encountered criticism over its lack of trigger warnings, despite the production featuring scenes of sexual and domestic violence towards women. Chevrier argued, “I think we will always have some kind of reaction and I think that’s great. In fact, reaction is what we’re looking for – whether people feel it was inappropriate or appropriate – and then that debate can occur.” This perspective is shared by many who attend the theatre, with one of the main controversies of trigger warnings being that art is designed to ignite debate and stimulate intense emotion in the audience. Surely that can only be achieved through featuring content that evokes such controversy in the audience, and being forewarned of such content diminishes that?

One of the main controversies of trigger warnings being that art is designed to ignite debate and stimulate intense emotion in the audience

It’s also been suggested that trigger warnings are simply the product of a generation of overly sensitive, fragile millennials – a ‘snowflake generation’. After all, theatre productions are just productions, many of which are works of fiction. This standpoint has been taken outside of the theatre as well. In 2014, the American Association of University Professors released a statement criticising trigger warnings in academia: “The presumption that students need to be protected rather than challenged in a classroom is at once infantilizing and anti-intellectual. It makes comfort a higher priority than intellectual engagement.” Here we see more than a criticism of trigger warnings: it’s an outright condemnation, labelling them as products for children, not independent-thinking adults.

But we can find importance in the existence of trigger warnings, whether that be in literature, film, or theatre, through analysis of their definition. The Cambridge Dictionary defines trigger warnings as, “warning people that they may find the content very upsetting, especially if they have experienced something similar”, with the purpose being, “to protect people from post-traumatic flashbacks”. The motive behind including trigger warnings is to ensure that all members of the audience are mentally prepared for what they are going to witness on stage, and, more importantly, to give people who are especially distressed by certain themes the chance to leave. Trigger warnings give people the opportunity to decide whether or not they are comfortable to expose themselves to specific, emotive content. This could be as little as allowing someone made uncomfortable by graphic violence to leave at specific moments, to allowing a sufferer of PTSD to avoid plays which feature specific emotional stimuli.

The motive behind including trigger warnings is to ensure that all members of the audience are mentally prepared for what they are going to witness on stage

For the people who do take issue to trigger warnings, the simplest solution is to avoid them. If you want to ensure a truly ‘spoiler-free’ experience, there is no need to read the ‘emotive content’ section on the theatre website. It changes nothing about your theatre experience to avoid doing so. However, if trigger warnings were taken away, and an individual was sent into a state of genuine distress by contentious content they were unprepared for – that is a much more extreme situation than someone accidentally stumbling upon a spoiler. The best way to ensure a non-distressing viewer experience for all members of the audience is to allow trigger warnings, and trust that the people who need them will use them to choose responsibly their theatre content.  

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