Sunday, 3 April 2016

Content Warnings

When entering this blog to post today, I noticed the 'Content Warning'. This has appeared every time I've ever entered the blog and I read it the first time, then forgot it. It is a relevant warning, that the blog posts are likely to have adult content that might not be suitable for under eighteens.It provides information and something far more important - a small measure of legal protection against any allegations of providing content unsuitable for minors.

Okay, I can accept that, see the sense. Still, my hackles rise.

What is the job of the writer? To entertain? Of course. To educate? If possible. To innovate? I sure hope so. To provoke emotion? If their writing is worth a damn. To shock? Many of the best do.

As I see it, the primary job of the writer is to entertain. The secondary, and just as important job, is to educate. By that, I don't necessarily mean to impart information, but rather to expand the mind by introducing new concepts, ideas, experiences etc. This process necessitates change. Change of perception, of ideas, of preconceived notions etc. Even a deepening of compassion and understanding involves some degree of change. And change is often uncomfortable.

Even more uncomfortable is being faced with situations that directly challenges us - our beliefs, our morals, our sensibilities, our experiences. Sometimes these situations are more than uncomfortable and can be downright traumatic. Horror writing, for example, relies on that shock factor.

The issue I'm brought to today, is how far the author should go to warn potential readers of any content they might find to be uncomfortable, offensive or traumatic.

I've been seeing a lot of this about recently. I've read discussions and conversations, and kept out of them because I suspect my opinion is somewhat controversial.

Last week, I read an article that students at some universities in The States have asked the governing body to include content warnings on the books they are required to study, to highlight any possible triggers. Triggers to what?

First, what is a trigger? As I understand it, a trigger is an image or reference to something that provokes a negative reaction in the reader. As indicated above, this is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact if a writer is writing about anything with any weight there are going to be scenes that provoke 'negative' reactions in a their readers and sometimes that is a deliberate thing (again back to horror, also to 'dark' fiction) How many times have we winced, cried, gasped or even cursed the writer when we've read really good books.

But what about victims of abuse or trauma? The problem with this is that, if the psychologists I've read are correct, then absolutely anything can be a trigger, from an otherwise innocuous scent that was around during the incident, to a type of dog, to a colour or article of clothing. All of these can come upon the person unexpectedly and none of them carry a warning. Life does not carry a warning.

Whilst I have a lot of sympathy for people who have suffered trauma and/or abuse - I've been there myself, on more than one occasion, actually - I don't think trigger warnings on books, films etc are ever appropriate. For one thing, how far do we go. I read a trigger warning on a book yesterday that warned that one of the characters briefly mentions abuse that happened to someone else some time ago. That's ridiculous.

I've read warnings about dubious consent on BDSM books where the blurb clearly indicates that might be the case. Warning against the obvious is pointless in the extreme.

Everyone has triggers. Everyone gets offended. Everyone finds some things hard to read. Unless you're reading horror, situations of abuse etc are rarely sudden. There are forewarnings, set ups and indications in most books when something is about to happen. If you think this is going to be a trigger for you, don't read on.

Another thing I've seen warnings about are content that might be offensive. I find these even harder to swallow. Everyone is offended by something and there is WAY too much notice being taken about things that are offensive, or likely to be offensive to someone or other. My opinion is that if it's not deliberately offensive then suck it up and behave like an adult. If you don't like a photograph, don't look at it. If you don't like what someone is saying, stop reading. If you don't like how someone is living their life, keep away from them. Don't expect to be warned every time you pick up a book or log on to a website.

It was recently suggested that there be a warning that content might involve practices of a 'real' magic nature eg Wiccan/Pagan ritual etc. This is simply nonsense and I absolutely refuse to do anything of the like, at least I see a warning that a book may include matters of a Christian nature.

I think by now my views are clear. I don't think warnings are necessary or desirable. They are indication of a growing trend that we should be uber conscious of how our actions, words, photographs etc might upset others. Take this down the road and we're talking a restriction of freedom of speech, act and thought. Obviously, in 'real life' no one should go out of their way to hurt people, but writers should absolutely be free to shock, offend and traumatise their readers, that's part of our job and always has been.

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