Trigger Warnings: An Argument Against

Ed Ramsey

Editor's Note: This piece was published in our "Voices" section. This section is reserved for opinions not only within the theatre community but outside of it as well. As art continues to imitate life, it's important to present topics and discussions that impact changes on our stages. While OnStage Blog might not subscribe to every opinion published here, we feel it's important to present these opinions to encourage discussion. 

I’m taking a stand. I’m taking a stand against trigger warnings. Or, I should say, undue trigger warnings. Let me be clear, this is not directed at those who implement trigger warnings, as that would be to demonstrate a certain naivety concerning the process of theatrical production. I am rather taking a stand against those who force people to issue and implement trigger warnings. And here is why.

Part 1 -”Gone Too Far”

I feel that firstly I should make it abundantly clear exactly what type of trigger warning I mean to discuss here. For instance, forewarnings about strobe lighting or loud noises are understandable for several reasons:

  • They could prevent someone from undergoing a stroke or seizure

  • They don’t necessarily hinder the performance or production for anyone else in the audience

  • They also don’t spoil anything in particular, usually.

However, trigger warnings specifically regarding content and themes of a piece of theatre, such as warnings of ‘trauma related scenes’ or ‘scenes of a sexual nature’, have started (in my experience anyway) to get entirely out of hand. I know this article may come across as if I don’t value or care about mental health and how someone who has gone through a specific trauma might find it difficult to watch a certain piece of theatre about said trauma; and I want to clarify that this is by no means the case. I simply side with the utilitarian perspective of theatrical experience, meaning I am for the most impactful theatrical experience for the most amount of people as taking precedence over (to put it maybe a little insensitively) ‘mildly offending people’. In fact, to go even further into insensitivity, because I also believe somebody has to in this new-fangled PC-mania, the term ‘snowflake’ has arisen for a reason.

What we have to understand about the popularisation of Political Correctness over the past few decades, is that it is a cyclical effect. Lots of people suffer/have suffered from PTSD, they do, that’s a fact, I’m not discrediting that; and to help some of these people (notice, not ‘all’ but ‘some’) cope with said trauma, we began issuing trigger warnings about certain extreme content. But here’s where it becomes a cycle: now that we’re two or three generations down the line, people who relatively speaking have not experienced a great deal of trauma, now expect not to have to face up to it when they’re watching theatre (or even any culture content), these people are who are holding us back from using theatre’s full potential. I remember describing this once to a friend of mine in a rather stilted and again quite insensitive way, saying: surely the people for whom the trigger warnings are issued, are the people who shouldn’t need, want, or receive them.

This I suppose would be an argument for the free use of theatre as therapy, to make use of theatre’s potential as a (yes, sometimes unsolicited- that’s life) therapeutic exercise. If I, for instance, wanted to use my piece of theatre to strongly advocate talking about things that normally people don’t want to talk about, then you could quite convincingly argue that the need to not tell the audience that we’re going to explore these things, is a very justifiable one. The shock effect of reeling a spectator unwittingly into an uncomfortable topic would be, in this case, the exact point of the piece. What’s more, another important element of the piece would be to not give the audience the opportunity to back out of difficult topics. That’s been a huge aim of political theatre for a very long time. Indeed, I could easily pose the question: where did all the fans of Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty go? I am not one myself, but they must be somewhere. I now find myself wishing they were here, and in greater numbers.

Now, when it comes to the efficacy of therapeutic theatre, you can either agree or disagree with me. After all, trauma and how we experience it is a largely subjective thing. However, nobody working in theatre should have to be suppressed into doing things a different way simply because some people might not like it otherwise.

There is also huge difference between the levels of intensity with which certain plays deal with trauma or difficult topics. And the ways in which as well as the reasons why these levels differ are often very tricky to discern. In other words, to use the ‘pro trigger warning’ argument against itself: it’s a very grey area. A play like ‘Punk Rock’ for example, does explore issues of mental health; but this is no means to the same level of intensity as the recent UK one-man show ‘Living with the Lights On’ performed by Mark Lokyer who delivers a very gripping and extremely moving autobiographical piece about his experience with Bipolar Disorder. Despite the fact that the former stages a school shooting, and the latter was at many points largely comedic; it was the latter I found more overwhelming. Similarly, a play like ‘Revolt, She Said, Revolt Again’ which explores quite explosively themes such as sexuality and exploitation, does not do so to the same extent ‘Many Moons’ a play by the same writer, Alice Birch, does. And again, this is despite the fact that in many categories ‘Revolt’ would seem to be the more extreme of the two. And we also forget that in many examples of this kind of thing, it very much comes down to performance and how the play is staged.

Part 2- “Pre-written Plays” or “take responsibility for goodness sake”

I also want to draw special attention to another important point. Much of the debate around this topic is all well and good when we’re talking about entirely new theatre. Not the case when it comes to pre-written plays. Plays publically (both on and off the internet) discussed, evaluated, reviewed and explored, all of which accessible to everyone. We forget for some reason, that trigger warnings first came about when we did not have this accessibility. Now that we do, in many cases, they are no longer necessary. If I am thinking about going to see a show like ‘Titus Andronicus’ for instance, and somehow haven’t been taught about Shakespeare anywhere from primary school to university or college, why on earth would I not give it a quick google? I find it incredibly difficult to believe that anyone would be able to legitimately resist such a free temptation in the world of today. And what would I find? Thousands upon thousands of sources detailing the varying degrees of intense, gory (or otherwise) content explored throughout the play. The same applies to a Tarantino film, or to bring it back to theatre, a play by aforementioned Alice Birch or Sarah Kane, where any quick bit of research or background knowledge would reveal exactly what kind of content to expect. In a lot of these cases, trigger warnings for any of us who take that initiative or have that background knowledge, patronise and annoy us, and can decrease the value of the piece we’re about to see.

What it does for everyone else is perhaps in the long run much worse, and has been going on for a good long while. It trains us to not take the initiative. It teaches us we don’t need to be responsible for what we do, say, think, want, feel, or watch. And this is damaging. It is causing us damage. If you need to contest that, then you’re part of the problem. But you don’t have to be. You can be part of the solution, so please let’s be that instead.

Part 3 - “There should be no such thing as PC Theatre”

Here is my final, and perhaps most extreme argument. And instead of diluting it down sensibly, I’m going to continue my legacy of irritating people for the simple sake of provoking debate that hasn’t been properly provoked enough yet (please be aware of this when commenting this time). There should be no such thing as Politically Correct Theatre. It shouldn’t exist, it shouldn’t have to exist; and the fact that it does makes me very very sad. It shouldn’t exist because in my opinion the purpose of theatre is many things, but one thing it is absolutely unequivocally not, is being submissive to the animalistic complacency of humanity.

This does not mean theatre cannot entertain, for it undoubtedly can do so without subscribing to extremist PC-ness. This does not mean theatre has to always be angry, or revolutionary, it doesn’t have to be those things to be interesting or original. PC theatre shouldn’t have to exist because at the heart of humanity, and I do believe this, is not complacency, it is a deep yearning to progress. Unfortunately, political correctness can very often hinder this- and something as liberated and essential as theatre must never be restricted by these barriers. No matter the cost.