In defence of content warnings

Political correctness gone mad or just being empathetic

political correctness political correctness gone mad rape culture trigger warning

CW: Sexual assault, mental health

Unless you've spent the last few years living as a Yak herder in an inaccessible Himalayan mountain pass, you'll have noticed that in the West we've had countless debates about "political correctness gone mad". Angry Twitter users have relished the chance to moan about content warnings, people getting "triggered" and all else they view as PC nonsense in today's society. This idea that young people want to either ban content they disagree with, or that people somehow want to be offended has dangerously entered our discourse. And it's time content warnings and their important role in protecting mental health got the backing and support they deserve.

I'll be honest, in the past I've been guilty of acting dismissive in regards to content warnings etc. I can remember mocking moves made by the NUS to replace clapping (potentially triggering for those with anxiety) with jazz hands at their events and being dismissive of those pointing out the misogynistic undertones to words like "slut" and "whore"- mainly due to the fact they're used in gay humour. But then I actually experienced what it felt like to be triggered.

On the surface I'm not the nervous snowflake that people would envisage as the kind of person to be triggered. I'm tall, male, confident with a large circle of friends at home and university. However, I'm also a sexual assault survivor.

Recently I went to see a play that was presented as a comedy. It was brilliant, I was laughing throughout and enjoying myself. But then there was a scene, and in that scene there was a powerful and traumatising depiction of rape. Before this I was laughing irritatingly loudly, I kept making comments to my friend next to me and I was generally having a great time. But then, once the scene began I ended up spending the remaining 20 minutes of the play (and most of the evening afterwards) with my eyes and legs clamped shut, my jaw clenched as tears leaked from my eyes.

This was my first (and hopefully my last) experience of being triggered. I'd worked so hard to push down my assault and not let it affect how I lived my day to day life, and within seconds all that work was essentially undone. However, nobody should take this as an argument against graphic depictions of rape and sexual assault in theatre, film or any other art form. The scene was powerful and enhanced the play massively, without it the play wouldn't have been as good as it was. The issue was the lack of a content warning beforehand. A content warning was needed as it would have allowed myself, and other survivors, to either steel themselves for what was to come, or decide whether it'd be a good decision to attend.

As was mentioned at the start of this article, a lot of people view content warnings as a tool for censorship. A route to banning all offensive content and generally just sucking all the joy from the world. Yet it couldn't be further from the truth. Content warnings make such performances more, not less, accessible.

For instance, if somebody else had had had the same experience as me, the shock of being triggered could have deterred them from viewing any other plays where they felt something similar could occur-limiting their exposure to theatre and film in general. Content warnings avoid this by affording people with mental health issues the chance to select the media they want to consume without worrying about reliving trauma, ensuring that people with such issues can enjoy art fully.

Another misconception, is the ludicrous idea that people want to be offended, that all the noise from people discussing content warnings and "political correctness" is just faux outrage as people seek grievances to cling onto. This is nonsense. Nobody wants to be offended. Nobody wants to be triggered and nobody wants to have to drink themselves to sleep at night due to reliving a horrific experience. The idea that people rightly seeking to protect their mental health are hypersensitive or somehow lack humour is nothing short of an insult and lacks all credibility.

Content warnings shouldn't be maligned and dismissed as they commonly are for the aforementioned reasons. They serve such an important role in enabling and giving power to those with mental health issues the means to protect themselves. So, the next time you feel yourself channeling your inner Piers Morgan by expressing outrage over the perceived nonsensical outrage of others, have a bit of empathy and think about why things like content warnings exist, and what the repercussions are for people with mental health issues in their absence.

Be kinder, have empathy and if you genuinely care about mental health issues, defend content warnings when you hear those around you trashing them.