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In Defense of the Trigger Warning

As I sat down in one of my film classes today, my professor did something that surprised me. Before screening Gus Van Sant's Elephant, a film inspired by the 1999 shooting at Columbine, she gave a warning, offering anyone who may be negatively affected by the film because of past trauma the opportunity to watch an alternative film for credit. She continued to warn the class about an upcoming film we would be screening later, mentioning the themes of sexual assault and offering another alternative film to screen.

I don't remember when I first started seeing "trigger warning" on the Internet. The tag, most commonly used on sites like Tumblr to warn people of content that contained explicit references to things like drugs, eating disorders, suicide, abuse, and other elements that people who have gone through trauma may find upsetting.

Though I never had to stay away from anything with a trigger warning, I definitely understand the value of the phrase. I even put a warning on the link to our short film last week to warn viewers of the drug content in it. Lately, though, I've seen a lot of backlash against this kind of warning, and I really don't understand it.

Usually, this backlash comes from people who believe Internet users who utilize the trigger warning phrase are being too politically correct. To me, the issue of political correctness is completely separate from that of the trigger warning, though I find both arguments insensitive and, quite frankly, ignorant.

Here's why the trigger warning should exist: films, books, TV, movies, and Internet content should be safe for everyone to enjoy. These things are meant to be entertaining, thought provoking, and stimulating, not traumatizing. Those who have been through trauma because of violence, mental illness, and substance abuse should not have to relive it because they use the Internet or want to watch a movie, listen to music, or read a book.

I never thought I needed to heed a trigger warning until I saw the movie Whiplash. I was moved by the movie and admired it for its incredible performances, visuals, and storytelling, but, ultimately, I was reminded of the verbal abuse and manipulation I experienced under an authority figure similar to J.K. Simmons' character, leaving me physically sick after I left the theatre. While I don't regret seeing the film, I recognized the value of that kind of warning firsthand.

There are kind souls out there who don't just warn against triggering elements in Internet content, but in other media, like films, as well, and to them I am grateful, not just because it keeps me from reliving trauma, but saves so many other people who have been through so much worse from reliving their pain.

To those of you who warn, thank you. To those of you struggling with trauma, keep your head held high and know there are good people out there. To those who don't understand these warnings, I beg you to put yourself in trauma victims' shoes and reconsider.

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