The Case for Content Warnings

TAwhile back, my younger brother was required to watch some educational videos on issues of sexual violence, because his university required it of all incoming first-year students. As supportive as I am of my younger brother and his educational pursuits, I had a problem while I overheard these videos—I’ve heard enough stories of sexual violence, especially from people I care deeply about, that I just couldn’t stand to hear the video my brother was listening to in the background.

My brother felt guilty about playing this video when I was in the room, and he repeatedly apologized. Not only did I accept the apology, but I also respected and admired the fact that he was understanding of my emotions.

Regardless of what happened, this situation provided a teachable moment for my brother and me, and hopefully a teachable moment for all of us. The thing I want to teach all of us is that content warnings are extremely important and are essential to our well-being and that of our friends.

A content warning is a statement cautioning that content may be disturbing, upsetting, or otherwise hurtful. By giving such a statement, you are giving the warning that it might not be in the best interests of a person’s mental health to see the content. Such a warning is often given on the news when it is going to show badly injured, dying, or dead bodies. Some outlets also give content warnings when there’s content which may revive horrid memories of the past, such as stories about sexual violence or other forms of abuse.

These content warnings can and sometimes do save people from disturbing images that would be detrimental to a person’s mental health. They save people from getting upset about dead bodies or having flashbacks to violence they experienced in their lives, for example. Additionally, even in cases where we can’t avoid the content, at least we’re warned that what we’re about to see may be difficult to take.

Without a content warning, you end up like me that one time—deeply disturbed and feeling the need to go to a room where I couldn’t hear the video my brother was required to play. Or worse. And I’m sure other readers can speak to situations when they didn’t receive content warnings, and then walked into situations where they were triggered and therefore deeply hurt.

And yet, in spite of the negative experiences so many of us have when we don’t get content warnings, it is still a debate whether there should be content warnings. The University of Chicago, for example, refuses to allow them.[1] It has even lamentably become a political debate, where the “liberal” side advocates for content warnings while some on the “conservative” side call advocates of content warnings “liberal snowflakes.”[2]

I call the politicizing of content warnings lamentable because content warnings should not be a liberal issue or a conservative issue. It is an issue of mental health. It is such a big issue of mental health that I resent the fact that I feel like I have to make a “case” for content warnings to convince people that they are important. If we care about the mental well-being of people, we should look past the politics and give others content warnings when there is a statement, article, or news story which may be disturbing or upsetting for large groups of people.  

Note: Since it is just to give content warnings, this is a “Blindly Just” post.


[1] The University of Chicago said that they do not support trigger warnings, which is the same thing as a content warning. Here’s the story on the University’s rejection of trigger warnings: https://www.npr.org/2016/08/26/491531869/university-of-chicago-tells-freshmen-it-does-not-support-trigger-warnings

[2] People viewed as “fragile” enough to need these warnings are indeed often viewed as “snowflakes.” I know this is an opinion piece, but this opinion piece does add insight to how people who need these warnings are often viewed: https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2018/10/18/way-handle-trigger-warnings-develop-one-time-only-one-opinion

Looking to Share Emotional Burdens with a Friend? Before Sharing, Let’s Seek Consent

Consent matters.

That two-word phrase is used often these days when sexual consent is discussed. Those two words are right: consent matters, when it comes to sexual consent.

However, when you are hoping to possibly vent about a bad day at work or share something emotional or burdensome with something else, it’s also important to seek consent for doing that with the person you’re hoping to discuss with/vent to. In other words, another form of consent, that I call emotional consent, is important.

Emotional consent is when you seek someone else’s permission to tell them something(s) involving deep emotions or burdens. Through exercising this form of consent, you can share emotional, burdensome things only when the listener is physically, mentally, and emotionally able to handle it.

At this point, some of you might be thinking this: “Okay, emotional consent sounds great, but how can I exercise this?” I have four answers to that question:

  1. Ask yourself whether your friend will need to invest something significant in order to help you (whether it be time, emotional labor, or something else). If the answer is “yes,” I recommend seeking consent before sharing your burdens. If the answer is no, then chat away with your friend!
  2. Ask your friends questions along the lines of: “Can I share something heavy?” or “Can I vent about something?” if it turns out your friend does need to invest in you in some way. By asking these types of questions before moving a conversation further along, you give your friend the opportunity to say “yes” or “no,” depending on how your friend is doing. If your friend is happy to let you share, then you can share. HOWEVER, if there is an absence of an enthusiastic “yes,” ranging from “ummm…okay,” to “I guess,” to no response at all, to the straight-up “no,” then please do not think that you have emotional consent to share your burdens with your friend.
  3. If you’re going to talk about a specific type of issue or event that may bring emotions with someone (examples include sexual assault, divorce, and mental illness), make sure you give the content warning that your sharing will involve something with that specific topic. It’s important to do that because, without a content warning, you might jump right into an issue or story that reminds your friend of a traumatic event or set of events in their lives (and friends, of course, don’t want to put other friends in that type of situation).
  4. Make it clear that it’s okay if your friend does not want you to share the burden. A friend might worry that it would negatively affect the friendship if the friend is unable or unwilling to give emotional consent. However, if you reassure your friend that there is no such thing as a bad answer, even if your friend says “no,” then your friend doesn’t feel the need to listen to burdens without being emotionally ready for them.

Hopefully, what I said above gives a pretty good overview of what emotional consent is and why it’s important. However, I think it’s also extremely important to discuss what happens without that emotional consent. In my experiences of being on both the giving and receiving end of a lack of emotional consent, one or more of the following things often happens without it, none of them good:

  1. You dump burdens on the friend, and the friend doesn’t respond back because the friend just can’t emotionally deal with or consider the message, let alone respond to it.
  2. Your friend does respond, but does not give a wholehearted response because your friend just can’t handle your burdens fully at that time.
  3. Your friend just says that “I can’t handle this right now.” Or worse—your friend tells you that what you said has brought back bad memories.
  4. Your friend ends up being hurt emotionally by what you shared (whether that’s said or not), even if you didn’t intend it.

Instead of experiencing one or more of these potential events, my advice is to just seek emotional consent for heavy topics. Seek emotional consent from someone if you need to talk about your bad day at work, or something much deeper than that. If your friend consents to your talking about something(s) burdening you, then great! If not, then you will want to find someone else to talk to, as finding someone else to talk to would be in the best interests of you and your friend.

Indeed, consent matters.

Note: As emotional consent is something I consider “blindly just,” this is a “blindly just” post.