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Why Do Trigger Warnings Make People So Cross?

Trigger warnings are not the same as censorship, but the media uses them to stoke division in the culture war. Nathan O’Hagan argues for some nuance in the debate

Actor Ralph Fiennes. Photo: Karl Black/Alamy

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During a recent interview for Laura Kuenssberg’s Sunday morning BBC show, Ralph Fiennes – esteemed actor, director, and producer of both film and theatre – currently starring in a production of Macbeth, was asked about trigger warnings and whether he felt audiences have gone “too soft”.

“I think they have, yes,” he responded.

“There are very disturbing scenes in Macbeth, terrible murders and things,” he said, with Kuenssberg pointing out that their use had been ‘banned’ from the current production, “but I think the impact of theatre should be that you’re shocked and you should be disturbed. I don’t think you should be prepared for these things. And when I was young, we never had trigger warnings.”

A week later on Kuenssberg’s Sunday morning show, actor Matt Smith was asked for his take and enthusiastically agreed. “I worry sometimes that we’re moving towards a sort of sanitised version of everything and we’re stripping the danger and the invention and the ingenuity out of everything,” said Smith, himself currently starring in the West End in An Enemy of the People. “Isn’t art meant to be dangerous?”

It is tempting to dismiss Fiennes’ comments as simply those of another grumpy, entitled older white man feeling threatened by something which barely affects him, particularly when they appear to invoke the idea that simply because something didn’t happen when he was young, that it must be innately bad. But does he and Smith have a point?

Clearly, on the face of it, they do.

Their points about the need, and the right, of art to challenge its audience are perfectly valid and, as high-profile performers, they may feel duty-bound to use their platforms to defend the right of the arts to do this.

But are trigger warnings really the thing the arts need protecting from?


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Firstly, we need to be clear what it is we’re actually talking about here.

There seems to be a conflation in many people’s minds between trigger warnings and censorship. Of course censorship is the enemy of art, but this is not what we’re talking about.

A trigger warning doesn’t dictate or censor the content of any play, film or exhibit. Nobody is sitting at the side of a stage with a red felt tip and putting a giant X through huge swathes of dialogue because they might upset members of the audience. They are simply there to make the audience aware of anything that may otherwise have forced them to unexpectedly relive a past trauma.

As an example, I’ve never been the victim of sexual assault, but someone sat with or near me may have been, and if that is depicted on stage, then I’d want them to have been able to have had the opportunity to make an informed decision about whether to view such content beforehand.

Surely any reasonable person would want the same? In this instance, the trigger warning isn’t aimed at me and its presence has absolutely no impact on me. But it may have proved helpful to someone else.

Fiennes and Smith’s points about theatre, and art in general, having the right to be confrontational and dangerous, and to make its audience uncomfortable, are indisputable. But trigger warnings aren’t there to prevent this. If anything, they provide performers with more freedom to tackle difficult and challenging subject matter, in the full knowledge that the audience has been forewarned.

In real terms, it is hard to discern any meaningful difference between trigger warnings and the British Board of Film Classification certificates we’ve all been used to for decades.

Broadening the issue beyond the theatre into a wider cultural context, there is a genuine, grown-up discussion to be had around this.

A recent screening of Mel Brooks’ classic comedy Blazing Saddles on HBO Max drew ire due to a lengthy pre-screening content warning in which film expert Jacqueline Stewart described not only the frequent racist language in the script, but also the film’s plot and themes, even some spoilers.

While the reaction to this in some quarters was predictably hysterical, it was hard to watch without feeling talked down to. No audience wants to feel like they are being lectured or, worse, infantilised.

But examples like this are the exception rather than the norm.

An A4 sign in the lobby of a theatre describing any potentially triggering content isn’t going to hamper the enjoyment of anyone. In fact, most people probably won’t even notice it, because they aren’t actively on the lookout for it. But they may prove to be a useful tool for the small number of people who are actively looking for such a sign.

That’s all they really are, a useful tool, one which most people probably won’t feel the need to use.

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Being upset about the presence of trigger warnings is a bit like being upset by the presence of disabled toilets – if you don’t need them, then they’re not aimed at you. Ignore them, and enjoy the rest of your evening, and let those that need them make use of them as they see fit.

Fiennes spoke for barely a minute about trigger warnings over the course of his nine-minute interview on Kuenssberg’s show. Aside from that topic, he talked about his anger over plans to build an energy hub in the Suffolk countryside for twice as long, and became far more animated and impassioned, almost jumping out of his seat to make his point. If you watched the interview, you got the impression that this issue was far more important to him than the one that has been generating the most headlines.

Their brief remarks about trigger warnings have been almost the only things reported that they said – and it’s hard to surmise that this is for any other reason than the fact that they can be portrayed as divisive.

Comments about energy hubs or underfunding of the arts and rocketing ticket prices – the latter two both far more pressing issues which Fiennes also spoke about – simply don’t give as good copy, and can’t be used to stoke the culture war.

An update to Arts Council England’s policies warning organisations it funds to be wary of “overtly political or activist statements”, which came just days after Fiennes’ interview, is likely to be of far more concern to artists and patrons.

There are many things threatening the future of the arts in the UK, but trigger warnings are not one of them.

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