We put warning labels on all sorts of things.
I read fan fiction with some regularity, and it has been customary for some time at most places where one can post such stuff for the authors to include “trigger warnings.” Trigger warnings didn’t start on fan fiction sites, they were first used on forums where people discussed topics such as rape, rape prevention, domestic abuse, and so forth. The original intent was to alert people who suffer from psychological trauma that the story or commentary they were about to read contained intense and graphic description of one or more common areas of trauma. Psychologist refer to events that cause a person to relive a traumatic event a “trauma trigger.”
Now, one can understand that in a discussion dedicated to a topic such as domestic abuse, that from time to time descriptions of specific cases of abuse might come up. One can also understand that among the people who might be reading content on such a site will be people who have suffered actual domestic abuse, and they are seeking information, or recommendations, or just commiseration. So the original notion of “trigger warnings” in those sorts of places makes perfect sense.
One can also understand that in a fiction-publishing setting sometimes people will write stories which include the bad guys doing bad things to the hero, or to innocent bystanders who will need to be rescued by the hero. So if one is familiar with the notion of trigger warnings, it is understandable that one might decide such warnings are warranted on some stories.
But when you see a 700-ish word story sporting three dozen trigger warnings, one suspects that perhaps someone has lost sight of the purpose. I’m sorry, there is simply no way that in 700 words you can graphically describe that many different potentially traumatic events.
The problem is two-fold. People are worried that they’ll forget to warn someone about something, and someone will be traumatized, so they figure it’s better to be safe than sorry. On the other hand, a lot of people who don’t suffer from psychological trauma get all upset if they accidentally read something which is merely distasteful to them.
Now, I understand that people have a right to not look at anything they want. I have certainly gone on a rant or two about certain themes and topics in certain works of fiction. When I run into those topics, I may get angry or disgusted. I may literally throw the book across the room. But I do not have an actual panic attack. I do not relive an actual traumatic event.
I simply stop reading the stupid book.
That sentence right there is a great example of this phenomenon. There are people putting trigger warnings on stories merely because one character calls another “stupid” once. There are people who insist that trigger warnings are needed for one character calling another stupid once. There are people who insist that the word “stupid” is completely unacceptable in any civilized conversation—as unacceptable as reaching across the table and stabbing someone in the eye.
That is unintelligent, foolish, and utterly lacking in any understanding or sense of perspective.
In other words, that is a stupid.
Yes, it is extremely rude to call another person stupid. It is also true that one could write a scene where one character heaps a lot of abuse, including using the word stupid, on another character that could be intense enough to trigger a traumatic memory for a reader who survived an extended period of verbal and emotional abuse at some point in their past.
But if the word pops up in the dialog of a scene depicting two characters engaging in verbal banter, that story doesn’t deserve a trigger warning. What makes the other scene a trigger is not merely the inclusion of the word “stupid,” but the intensity of the entire abusive behavior of the character.
Getting back to a person’s right not to read something: such a right does not entitle you to a guarantee that you will never inadvertently see, read, or hear things that you find distasteful. You are not entitled to a world in which you only see what you want. Your fellow humans are not obligated to contort their own lives, words, or artistic expressions in such a way that your delicate sensibilities can never possibly be violated.
Courtesy dictates that we observe the niceties and comport ourselves in public and social situations in a manner that won’t cause harm or humiliation. But the obligation is to refrain from behavior and speech which could reasonably be expected to cause someone pain or embarrassment. Describing an autopsy at the dinner table can reasonably be expected to cause some people to feel nauseated, so it would be rude to do it. Telling that story of the drunken, debauched weekend you and some buddies had in college during the best man’s toast for one of those buddies, in front of parents and families of both the bride and groom, can reasonably be expected to cause embarrassment and perhaps instigate an argument between the couple-to-be, so it would be both rude and stupid to do it.
But mentioning that you are really sad that Dry Soda has discontinued their kumquat-flavored soda* in the presence of a friend of a friend who years ago had a beloved aunt die in a tragic kumquat-related accident, and mention of the fruit always makes the person break down into sobbing? It’s not at all reasonable for you to anticipate that, so you are not rude or insensitive for doing it.
And, let’s be real, here. Even if we accepted the notion that it’s reasonable to warn about a single instance of a single word, how could you possible do that? “Warning, mentions kumquats?” The warning itself would be the trigger!
* Seriously! I like the Blood Orange flavor which they brought out to replace it, but I really do miss the Kumquat Soda.