Mosaic / Reviews / May 14, 2014

Editorial: Trigger warnings undermine art

To give a little history: trigger warnings first appeared on feminist blogs and websites as a means of warning readers of extreme content, usually discussions pertaining to rape, the idea being that mentions of sexual assault might “trigger” a panic attack in victims suffering from PTSD.  These days, trigger warnings are applied to a wide variety of subjects, from eating disorders to domestic violence to common phobias, and their usage continues to spread.  University of California Santa Barbara student Bailey Loverin has proposed a “Resolution to Mandate Warnings for Triggering Content in Academic Settings,” which would require professors to alert students to troubling content in their courses.  And several other colleges have taken steps to institute mandatory trigger warnings into their own curricula.

Would such a policy be beneficial to Knox theater?  For me, it’s hard to say.  I find difficulty arguing against trigger warnings because, by their nature, they seem more like a common courtesy than anything else.  They function as warnings of strobe lights and loud noises do: they alert audiences to material that might prove physically dangerous for some theatergoers. Victims of PTSD can experience panic attacks and even fainting if triggered, and for the good of everyone (the cast, the crew, the audience and especially the person in question) theater practitioners do whatever they can to prevent these incidents from happening.  But what is the intended result of trigger warnings?  Are they meant to mentally prepare audiences for a difficult show?  Or are they meant to keep sensitive persons out?

I do not think directors and designers go into a production intent on turning people away.  But it is my concern that, in including specific trigger warnings on posters and in programs, such is a potential unintended consequence.

Audiences, wary of potentially upsetting material, may choose not to go altogether, avoiding the tension but also missing out on important, thought-provoking art.  As a playwright, there are things I wish to impart to the world at large, and sometimes the only way I can say what I need to say is through extremity.  Would “A Streetcar Named Desire” have been as palpable if a trigger warning for rape had been attached to it?  Would as many people have struggled with the ethics of David Mamet’s “Oleanna” if a warning had been included beforehand?

The problem, as I see it, is that everyone is prone to different triggers and to varying degrees.  To include a trigger warning, then, is to make a presumption about the content of one’s show and the audience that’s viewing it.  In some cases — as with the presence of rape — it’s more likely than not that an audience would appreciate an advanced warning.  But that’s just it: the chance is only “more likely” and not “definitely”.  Further, the presence of trigger warnings has communicated to me the views of a director, indicating what content they, personally, find objectionable.  Worse, it has the potential of setting a terrible precedent. If other directors do not include the same trigger warnings when they should, then they clearly don’t think that subject is questionable, right?

Though I believe that Knox directors include trigger warnings with the sincerest of intentions, I also think their decision might be informed by a sense of obligation to the community.  With social justice becoming an ever more prevalent component of Knox discourse, so, too, has political correctness entered the conversation.  And when we Knox students are offended, we’re not afraid to be vocal.  As a result, the limitations of art take shape.  An artist can produce something extreme, shocking and even controversial, so long as it is identified as such with a proper trigger warning.  For me, this raises two concerns. 1. This identifies more extreme art as an “other” to what is considered “normal” and “acceptable”.  This art then comes to be defined by its extremes, the message diminished.  And 2. It passes judgment on the work of art before an audience may experience it, presuming that a subject, and not its context, will dictate reactions.

Every audience member brings a different perspective to a theater production: as a result, every person prone to triggers handles their situation differently.  Through email, a member of the “Playhouse Creatures” production team recalled a gentleman who, upset by a graphic abortion scene, left for its duration and politely returned.  From my own experiences, a date suffering from PTSD during the incredibly claustrophobic war drama “At Night’s End” insisted on staying, despite my concerned inquiries about leaving.  To say that these individuals (and others like them) are in need of a trigger warning is to deny their ability to overcome PTSD in their own way.  Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett, in an article on the newstatesman.com, explores this issue better than I ever could, disagreeing with trigger warnings because of their promotion of “victimhood”.

Still, one cannot ignore those audience members for whom trigger warnings are a necessity.  How, then, does a theater practitioner satisfy the needs of all audience members?  The obvious answer: it can’t be done.  Despite protests to their inclusion, trigger warnings seem like a “better safe than sorry” tactic in our modern climate of political correctness.  But I think that there are more constructive ways of presenting audiences with warnings other than explicitly stating them on programs and posters (which, for those of you who read my review of “The Child Killers Club” know, can lead to unintentional and potentially hilarious spoilers).  “Playhouse Creatures,” for instance, included a warning for extreme content, encouraging people to ask their ushers for details if they were really concerned.  This promotes a healthy relationship between production and audience by having the latter ask the former in person, creating a mutual communication that would not exist if audiences were informed via program.

For me, what is most important is to maintain the audience’s sense of responsibility.  As said, every person has different needs and different triggers, and if they’re truly concerned, they should ask about it and expect an answer.  It is not our responsibility as theater practitioners to make explicit every potential problem of a production, but it fosters healthy artist/audience relationships if we’re knowledgeable enough to provide answers when asked. And after all, that is the theater in a nutshell: an individual connecting with another individual uniquely.  Audiences may feel solidarity all watching a play together, but really, the experience you have in the theater is yours and yours alone.  And as such, it is your choice to engage with it as you will, with or without the warnings.

Jackie Hewelt

Tags:  art editorial PTSD studio theater theatre trigger warnings warning

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  • http://wordsacrossborders.wordpress.com Rana Tahir

    Sorry but this whole argument is upside down. The point of a trigger warning is so that the audience can make the decision for themselves. By providing the trigger warning a (potential) audience member could choose more than just not to go. She/he could choose to ask a member of the production, ask friends/acquaintances who may have gone about it (thus later choosing to see it another night), go in prepared to see something that might trigger her/him, etc. It’s not like everyone who sees/hears a trigger warning just throws their hands up and says, “whelp, no art for me.” What this does is box anyone who may have any type of trigger into one box of response. Also, without a warning, are you saying every Knox theater production (or any art production on campus) has someone on hand to help any student who does get triggered at an event? Because we all know that is false. At least, in the absence of qualified responders, the warning can give someone time to emotionally and mentally prepare for a potential trigger.



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