Trigger Warnings at the Theater: Should This Be a Thing?

Isn't the whole idea of art to trigger something emotional?

Warning: this is Trigger, Roy Rogers' horse.

I recently went to Seattle Public Theatre to see Fade, a two-character, one-act 2016 drama by Tanya Saracho. This column is not about Fade. It concerns the trigger warning posted at the house door.

Fade concerns the dissimilarities in racial and ethnic identities between two Americans of differing Mexican heritage. The characters swear a little bit. They use racial epithets now and then, but only in context — not gratuitously. There is a brief discussion about domestic violence. The company felt it necessary to warn sensitive theatergoers that these words might trigger a negative emotion. Or at least an unwelcome emotion that might cause the audience member to feel traumatized.

Trigger warnings at theaters and schools may not be happening in your town, but among academicians and young artists they are front-of-mind. Should they be?

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Warning: The Following Words May Not Surprise You

In 2016 in The Huffington Post, Tyler Kingkade wrote in the Huffington Post wrote about a “nonscientific survey conducted by the National Coalition Against Censorship…the first of its kind to gather data on the actual use of trigger warnings in college classes.” Current prevailing wisdom on trigger warnings suggests they’re used everywhere, and insisted upon by everyone; this nonscientific survey concluded that they’re not such a big deal.

When does academia use trigger warnings? As Kingkade noted:

One instructor said trigger warnings are used for ‘foul or sexual language, sexual content, or violence in order to allow our very conservative students to feel more in control of the material.’ Another said requests for warnings about ‘homoerotic content in art history’ had come from presumably conservative students. Sometimes, survey respondents said, students want warnings about bloody scenes in horror movies, images of dead bodies or spiders.

Fade to Fade, which, in this audience member’s point of view, was neither provocative nor vulgar in any way. No violence, nudity, homoerotic content or spiders. The play contained a series of episodic and reasonable discussions between two characters. Nothing seemed out of context or unwarranted.

And yet, a trigger warning.

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Warning: The Following Words May Surprise You After All

There is also non-nonscientific research that would seem to indicate that trigger warnings are neither negative nor neutral, but possibly harmful. It’s a Harvard study — the first randomized, controlled experiment designed to examine the effects of trigger warnings on individual resilience. It points to trigger warnings as exacerbating, not diminishing, trauma:

Campus protective practices appear to interfere with students’ ability to get along with each other. Moreover, they could even be having a deleterious effect on their mental health. Among those practices: training students to identify ‘micro-aggressions’ (things people say or do, often unintentionally, that are interpreted as expressions of bigotry) and turning classrooms and lecture halls into intellectual safe spaces (where students are protected from words and ideas they might find upsetting).

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Richard Bach: “Avoid Problems and You’ll Never Be the One Who Overcame Them.”

In fact, in the same study, according to Harvard psychology professor Dr. Richard McNally, successful therapies that promote recovery from PTSD need to “involve gradual, systematic exposure to traumatic memories until [the capacity of those memories] to trigger distress diminishes.” McNally urges the use of trigger warnings for PTSD patients nonetheless, but he draws the line there. For non-PTSD sufferers, he says, trigger warnings constitute avoidance therapy rather than mitigating therapy. They can accelerate anxiety, even when intended to diffuse it.

And we all know what happens when we continually try to avoid something that we fear. Too often, that something morphs into a Godzilla of anxiety.

Fans Want What They Paid For

How is putting a trigger warning at the entrance to a professional theater any different from putting a violence warning at the tunnel entrance at a professional football game? In neither case is such a posting neutral or harmless. Theater audiences and football fans expect high-stakes conflict in their entertainment: a trigger warning may offer a potentially tempering factor to a product whose patrons reject tempering. The former artistic director of Pittsburgh Public Theater, Edward Gilbert, once defined theater as “a place for mischief.” Gilbert also famously noted that only two types of businesses are consistently awash in red velvet: theaters and brothels. Mischief links these industries.

Photo: Voice of Reason Enterprises. No bunny rabbits were harmed to create this image. Because, you know, it’s an image.

Finally, because it remains impossible to precisely and reliably define generic word triggers, they remain elusive at best and ineffective at worst. Racial epithets might incur my ire, but they do not trigger trauma for me. On the other hand, words such as “potential” and “can’t” do trigger trauma for me. For others, photos of Donald Trump may activate the same impulses. For still others, it might be photos of guns. Or bunny rabbits. Or both.

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Which brings us back to the initial question: Should trigger warnings in theaters be a thing? The Harvard study concluded that the “it can’t hurt” argument is faulty: trigger warnings do harm. But here’s the bigger question: How can we trigger action, emotion, ideas and progress through art if we tell our audiences that what we do may traumatize them?

Physical issues? Absolutely: we should warn about strobe lights, gun shots, high decibels, smoke (cigarettes or otherwise), and other stage effects that could cause an audience member to have a seizure, to suffer hearing loss, or to experience other physical ailments. But emotional issues? Isn’t the whole idea of art to trigger something emotional?