Trigger warnings, an intellectual flashpoint, a source of clashes, debates and countless furious Twitter spats. Almost universally associated with the more liberal wing of the political world, there is, however, an argument that trigger warnings – far from being the next step in some liberal conspiracy by the “remoaners” to “kill Pepe” – are in fact the natural successor to a conservative history of social protection. Surely trigger warnings are a facet of life across much of society? From age restrictions on films, warnings on computer games and the watershed, content warnings (as “trigger warnings” should be known) are part and parcel of life, pointing out to the world that this piece of work contains something deemed to be outside of the normal bounds of everyday taste.
But no, cries out the Twittersphere, trigger warnings are censorship. Yet this simply isn’t true, trigger warnings do not remove any words, they do not cover up scenes nor do they attempt to remove ideas from the public sphere. Instead they offer a warning, a heads-up to the potential reader that the text they’re about to read contains specific images, descriptions or scenarios which they may not be comfortable with. You would expect nothing less from the cinema, from TV or from gaming. Achievements, from the watershed to the restrictions on so called “video nasties” have all become part and parcel of our culture, something we expect and, as conservatives, would be appalled by if it went away. All trigger warnings add to this is that they extend pre-existing protections. By all means, if you aren’t triggered by the scenes then read them but their very presence does not inhibit your intellectual development. Instead trigger warnings place helpful signposts, a cultural “here lies dragons”, to protect people. And you can disparage the reasoning behind some people’s “triggering” but at least be aware that most protections are valid. Why should it be right that a child is unable to watch Fifty Shades of Grey in the cinema, yet can walk into any bookshop and pick up the book with no warning as to what it contains or restrictions on their consumption of it? Trigger warnings should be supported, enthusiastically, by conservatives, we should not engage in censorship or banning of books, but in terms of signposting that which we would restrict access to in TV or cinema, we should be supporters.
As conservatives, we should be looking to clean up our society, to build a better culture, one which protects our national discourse from vice, from graphic violence and from scenes which gratuitously dramatize sexual acts, both violent and non. This has always been a conservative cause, from Mary Whitehouse to the culture wars, protecting those who wish to be protected, especially our national discourse. Our leaders now are making great strides, recognising that particular conservative impulse to protect social discourse, with the recent steps to ban “non-conventional” porn by expanding the remit of the British Board of Film Classification. Much of this “non-conventional” porn is simply giving in to base desires, glorifying violence against women and exposing children, already exposed to porn at too young an age, to material that will warp not just their view of sex but of the very roles of men and women. Years ago, the great conservative battle was on campuses again, but this time against what was seen as a tide of filth, of corrosive portrayals of violence, of sexual acts verging on the pornographic, all of which were corrupting society. Yet now conservatives seem more than willing to let this sort of thing flow freely and indeed, in the case of some, take pleasure in creating the most shocking and extreme forms of provocation. This is not conservatism, conservatism is about preserving community, protecting the innocence of children and the family, upholding self-restraint and decency, both public and private, and making sure that those protections for society are not just upheld but expanded. In the case of trigger warnings this ticks all the boxes, it protects people who wish to be protected, it highlights cases of lack of decency and it ensures that literature, that key stream into our national discourse, has some check placed on it, reminding us that obscenity does not equal culture. Are trigger warnings the perfect solution? No, in many areas we need to go further and this government is doing so, but they serve a purpose. Trigger warnings, if by another name, are the descendent of decades of campaigns, conservative campaigns, to protect and to preserve our culture.