Trigger Warnings: Are We Too Snowflake, or is Preventing Trauma right?

Trigger Warnings

I keep hearing about my generation, Generation Snowflake. We’re all very easily offended, supposedly. We get “triggered”. We can’t cope with the harsh realities of the real world. Or so it would seem, according to the general media. I’m a twenty five year old woman. Collins dictionary defines Snowflake Generation as “the generation of people who became adults in the 2010s, viewed as being less resilient and more prone to taking offence than previous generations”. I turned 18 in September 2009, so I would probably fit in just fine in there. But what is it about our generation that makes us so put-downable, so talked down to and spoken about in negative terms?

Trigger Warnings

In some ways, the entire Generation Snowflake thing is simply an extension of “Children Should Be Seen and Not Heard”. It comes from older generations, those who feel like they faced their own hardships and got on with it, so we should too. Should we? In Ireland over the last couple of years we have seen incredible changes in economy, in politics, in human rights. Changes both good and bad, and attitude changes to match. A decade ago, if you’d told someone in 2017 it would be legal to be married to the person you love regardless of your sexual orientation it would have seemed impossible. We made that possible. However, the same progressive society which has allowed love to be love, not defined by any rules, also imprisons women’s rights and allows people to live in inhumane conditions.

In the past, Ireland has been a “seen and not heard” country. We allowed terrible atrocities to happen without saying a word. We bowed to the steeple and the state without any question. A country who speaks of 800 years of oppression, carrying on the tradition by itself with the Catholic Church for many years after their independence. None of this is news. We all know of the scandals of the Magdalene Laundries, the Symphisiotomy Patients who were made to suffer so unnecessarily, the state schools, the abuses. People knew and stayed silent. That is not our generation.

Perhaps social media has allowed us the freedom, or the feeling of a freedom that we can say whatever we feel and SOMEONE will listen. The very act of writing this post is in the hopes that someone will read it, that it will make them think, perhaps start a conversation. We’re a generation who get pissed off, and we say something. Every service in existence (phone companies, tech support, fast food delivery) has a review system at the end of it – we’re encouraged to speak out about our experience. For certain political issues, there is a similar forum, through conversations online and in person. It’s there we hit the limit though. How much is too much? Just how much can we get away with saying “Eh, that’s really not acceptable?”.

In an ideal world, this wouldn’t be an issue, but as the political situation of the last year has shown us, this is far from an ideal world. This is an argument that’s been hashed out a lot over the last few months, so I deign to repeat the words of so many others. “Generation Snowflake” may well be in the dictionary, but it doesn’t mean it’s not a put-down. The impetus for this post was a quick clip I heard on the radio while stuck in traffic on Friday evening, about theatres and trigger warnings. Instantly, the term “Generation Snowflake” came into play, and the idea of trigger warnings limiting art was waved around like an all-blanketing flag.

I have thoughts on trigger warnings in art, both from things I’ve read and my own personal experiences. In life, we are given warnings for many experiences. When I went to Funderland with my partner last year, I discovered there were little to no rides I was able to go on, as it was advised that those with back injuries avoid them. Television and Cinema have for years disclosed flashing lights and strobe lights for those sensitive to such things. Supermarkets, cinemas and soft play areas have begun to adapt to the needs of their customers who may be on the Autism Spectrum with lowered sensory hours. So, should theatre be any different?

The issue came up as an announcement from the Royal Court theatre company on their website stated that they would be providing special advice to customers wanting to talk about a play’s content before watching it, to prevent “extreme distress.” 

Trigger Warnings Generation Snowflake

This announcement has been greeted with mixed reactions. Some (probably those of us G.S folk) have been in support, others have used it as a stick to beat our delicate temperaments with.

Theatre is a visceral art. I studied it for a year in University, having spent my youth and teenage years in Youth Theatres and drama courses and loving and living for the stage. It’s a powerful medium, much more intimately personal than film or other mediums as it is as in-person as it gets. The job of the actor is to embody the role they are playing; to play the emotions and actions as raw as they would if it were actually happening to themselves. Unsurprisingly, this can lead to upsetting scenes if the actors are convincing and have drawn their audience in. Dependent on the script and the director, the tone of the show can vary and may present some issues for members of the audience.

One play in particular was mentioned as an example in support of the Trigger Warning plan was “Cleansed” by Sarah Kane. It’s not a play I’ve seen in it’s entirety, my experience of it is merely a glimpse at four scenes as part of Culture Night. That said, four scenes was more than enough for me. Shown in the black box theatre setting of the Granary Theatre, we were close to the action – and it felt as if we were all part of the traumatic scenes which were ongoing.

I watch my fair share (and more) of crime dramas, murder thrillers, Law and Order SVU, but the content of this play was different. We were onlookers to what can only be (in it’s mildest terms) described as abuse. The actors were incredible, there wasn’t an option to go “This is just a play, this is not real”. People walked out throughout the performance. Personally, I felt the need to leave after the third scene, but opted to stay because of my knowledge that it was theatre, it was visceral, this is how it’s meant to be.

I am not a victim of any form of abuse, I consider myself extremely lucky in this regard. I walked out of that performance traumatised, unable to forget what I had just witnessed. Again, kudos to the cast for an extremely convincing performance. Had I been a victim or someone who was dealing with issues related to the topics though, I’m not sure just how that would have had me react.

For students, the question is as to whether there is a place for trigger warnings in the classroom. In a university setting, it is a melting pot of people from all different circumstances and backgrounds. While the mind is indeed opened by what we learn in lectures and in reading, there is a question as to just how aware we should be of the content before diving right in. Sexual assault aside, though it is a prevalent issue in colleges around the world, there are many topics which can potentially exacerbate anxiety or feelings of distress in students. As academic policy, is this something we should just “suck it up and get on with it”, or should we consider the needs of the students in planning of academic programmes?

When I was a drama student, I suffered a bereavement of a close friend mid way through the year. It was a shock, and one which I wasn’t dealing particularly well with. Just after Christmas, our class started to study “Everyman”, the morality play from the 15th century which basically discusses how God will judge you after death. It’s a brilliant piece of work, one which I later focused on as a case study, but at that time I simply was unable. In the efforts to make a group of mostly 18 year olds realise the gravitas of the situations being invoked in the piece, the lecturer went full on with “This is the reality of death, there is no coming back” etc.

I left the class and spent the rest of the day unable to focus or partake. I skipped necessary lectures because the words he was using kept repeating in my head and my grief was hitting me all over again. Thankfully, having spoken to students in later years of the course, I was advised to speak up. I asked for a meeting with the lecturer who was at the time the head of the course, and explained my situation. Not only was he very understanding, he advised that I should sit out the next two lectures, as they would be dealing with the same topics, and that he would let me know when we were moving on. In no way was this to infringe my academic progress, but the department took my mental health needs into account as they would for any other student.

So, we must look at what is considered to be “molly-coddling” and what is called basic care when it looks at how we make students of academia, and in fact anyone who partakes in watching performances, reading literature or enjoying other forms of culture, be subject to topics which may indeed cause distress or trauma. The true art of such things is to invoke feelings; that much is not being disputed, but I don’t think it would be considered molly-coddling to have in place a system where people who are aware of their triggers can check to ensure the performance does not negatively impact their mental state.

I’m a great believer and supporter of the importance of the arts and of sharing works which tell stories which invoke every emotion possible. I’m also a staunch believer of self care, and the right to the individual to maintain their own self care. As such, I see no reason that this should be considered a slur on either. And if that makes me a snowflake, then so be it.


This piece about Trigger Warnings originally appeared in print and online in UCC Express in March 2017.
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  1. I come from a generation where a trigger warning was unheard of so maybe that influences my views, but personally, I think life throws stuff at you that you have to deal with, and if we all get to used to being able to avoid harsh realities because of trigger warnings, then we won’t be able to learn how to deal with hard things, which can actually make it harder if something does happen.

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