Voices: I nearly died – but I can live without trigger warnings

·4-min read

Tim Minchin, who wrote the songs for Matilda the Musical, has another hit on his hands with the movie version. It knocked Black Panther: Wakanda Forever off the top of the UK box office charts with a £4m gross over its first weekend. But the Australian polymath is busy generating a bit of controversy, too. In a recent interview with the i, he said: “All the data shows us that trigger warnings are a bad idea.”

I don’t want to speak for anyone else’s trauma here, but he might have a point. As a trauma survivor, I have triggers. I came about as close to dying as you can possibly get when an accident left me underneath a lorry.

Being thrown back into that situation, and once again under those wheels, happens. It’s a gut punch when it does. I’ve had a lot of therapy, which I’ve had to pay for given the parlous state of what the NHS describes as “mental health services”.

It’s not always the accident itself that does me in, though. The thing that really skewers me is the memory of being in intensive care, pumped up to the eyeballs with high-strength pharmaceutical dope, and experiencing strange and sometimes violent hallucinations as a result.

I’m still not completely sure what is memory and what is not when I think back to that time. As a result, I approach medical dramas with caution, as I do with material involving road traffic accidents. But does this mean I need a trigger warning before I watch? Well, no. I’m actually not sure what that would achieve.

Let’s face it, traffic accidents aren’t exactly rarities in London. A short journey on the A406 makes you wonder why they aren’t even more common. Ambulances bombing down the highway, the screech of the siren at night, the flashing blue lights – we live in a veritable sea of emergency. I’ve had to get used to that. It’s not easy, even long after the event. But I mostly have.

That being the case, broadcasters and the like telling me that I may be “triggered” is actually rather insulting. I’ve lived through stuff they could only envisage in their worst nightmares, and I’ve come out the other side. I really don’t need them to hold my hand.

True, I’m not immune to being disturbed by some content, just as it sometimes sets my heart racing when I see a cement truck like the one that ran its wheels over me.

During lockdown, my wife and I finally got round to completing The Sopranos (I know, I know, I’m embarrassed it took me so long). But there were a couple of episodes I had to stop watching. At the beginning of the final season, James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano is in a hospital bed, hooked up to a ventilator with monitors gently beeping as he dives in and out of his own hallucinations.

As I watched those scenes, I was there. Initially I turned to Pokemon Go! on my phone, watching with half an eye. Then I had to turn away. Sky warns viewers about the language and violence, and sometimes sex and violence, before just about every episode. Pointlessly. It’s The Sopranos, duh. Yet there was nothing to warn me that I’d be tipped into a palpitating mess through Tony being in a hospital.

But would a warning have helped? No. Not in the slightest. I’d still have watched. Until I couldn’t. My wife would still have filled me in on the plot points before we moved on.

The academic research bears me out. A team of researchers from the University of Waikato in New Zealand, for example, conducted an exhaustive study into warnings, with six experiments involving 1,394 participants.

I found it particularly apposite to my situation. Some read a message about the content they were about to see, for example: “TRIGGER WARNING: The following video may contain graphic footage of a fatal car crash. You might find this content disturbing.” Others were exposed to the content without the alert. A small group of trauma survivors were also included.

To keep up to speed with all the latest opinions and comment, sign up to our free weekly Voices Dispatches newsletter by clicking here

The results across all six experiments were consistent: The warnings had little effect on participants’ distress, or lack of it. Participants responded to the content similarly, regardless of whether they saw a trigger warning.

“These results suggest a trigger warning is neither meaningfully helpful nor harmful,” said the lead researcher, Dr Mevagh Sanson. “Of course, that doesn’t mean trigger warnings are benign. We need to consider the idea that their repeated use encourages people to avoid negative material, and we already know that avoidance helps to maintain disorders such as PTSD.”

Of course, what I’ve avoided until now is the role trigger warnings play in our tiresome culture wars. Well-meaning types on the left use them, especially at universities, in a wide variety of settings. The right snarls about “coddling”. “They’ve gone mad,” scream the headlines when one is slapped on, say, a classic piece of literature. Frankly, this is ammo they don’t need to be given.