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