I lost my lactase enzymes—the ones responsible for breaking down milk products—when I was still in high school. It was a bumpy road figuring out what had milk in it, and what didn’t. Things with cheese and ice cream were obvious, but less obvious was where there might be butter. In restaurants, the answer was almost everything. At home, it took some time too. Eventually—probably too long after—I noticed that at the end of every list of ingredients there was a bolded sublist that had all of the potential allergens.
There’s good news: this list doesn’t affect anyone who doesn’t need it. The lactose was still there. And even better, no one was forced to read it that didn’t want to.
I look at trigger warnings and content warnings, the same way. They should be available to those people who want or need them. The people who don’t want them can continue to ignore them, because most things already have some form of warning.
For example, the Motion Picture Association of America is already in the business of providing content warnings for films. They give virtually every movie released in the U.S. a rating of G through NC-17. Since 1990 for R-rated films and since 1996 for PG and PG-13 films, the MPAA has provided a brief explanation of why the movie received that rating. The MPAA warns viewers that Get Out has “Violence, Bloody Images, and Language Including Sexual References” while Green Room has “Strong Brutal Graphic Violence, Gory Images, Language, and Some Drug Content.” It wouldn’t take much for the MPAA to piggyback warnings for common triggers into these ratings. And the people who didn’t want content warnings in the first place could continue to ignore them.
The Library of Congress does something similar to content warnings when it classifies books. For example, it writes that Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad is about: “1. Punk rock musicians — Fiction. 2. Sound recording executives and producers — Fiction. 3.Older men — Fiction. 4. Young women— Fiction. 5. Psychological fiction.” Again, since the genre classifications are already happening, it doesn’t seem like a big ask to want publishers to include that information on the publishing information page.
I’ve never suffered the kind of trauma that makes me worry that something in a work of fiction might trigger me.The people who have aren’t weak and they’re not making a big request when they ask to be warned if the terrible things that happened to them are going to be portrayed in a story they’re about to consume. If my air conditioner needs a sticker that warns that its heavy and could cause serious damage if dropped, the organizations that are already telling consumers what a story is about should add warnings for the more common triggers.