on content warnings & courtesy


XKCD 1332

Earlier this week I read a blog post about content warnings, and what the author refers to as the Content Police, and I saw some agreement with its arguments in the comments  (although obviously that’s something of a self-selecting sample.) The main thrust of the post is that content warnings for written fiction are insidious, infantalising and a mark of amateurism. I basically disagree with all of it, and I thought I might take a little time out to explain why.

It fundamentally comes down to two things, the principle of charity, and a CS Lewis quote.

I’ll start with charity. It’s very easy to assume that if someone behaves in a way that you don’t understand that this means they’re weak, stupid or cowardly. I personally don’t pay much attention to content warnings on books, films, video games, or anything else. I’ve played Cards Against Humanity stone cold sober. I’m pretty much immune to gore. And I’ve watched enough shit alternative comedy and read enough grimdark fantasy to find people trying to shock me intensely dull. But none of this makes me a more adventurous, more open-minded or more discerning reader than someone who might be legitimately bothered by any of these things. It would be very easy for me to pretend the reason I’m comfortable reading about things that other people are not comfortable reading about is because I am somehow stronger or more emotionally mature than they are, but this is quite simply not my call to make.

Glitterland comes with a bucketload of content warnings (depression, self-harm, suicide, suicidal ideation) and while obviously they aren’t necessary for me because I wrote the damn book, it would be borderline hubristic of me to insist that they be removed because I didn’t like the idea of readers making an informed decision about my book on the basis of that information. Nor do I have any kind of right to assume that a person who decides not to read my book because of the content warnings is doing so because they’re too weak and cowardly to stray outside their comfort zone.

Amelia Gormley argues that content warnings are disrespectful because they pre-suppose that readers are:

delicate, fragile, easily-bruised flowers who might be alarmed by encountering something that has been nebulously dubbed “objectionable” for reasons which are largely arbitrary and prone to change with the social and political climate.

This is approximately equivalent to assuming that including lists of ingredients on food involves treating consumers as whiny, fussy, picky eaters. There are many good reasons you might want to know what’s inside something you’re purchasing, especially if you’re vegan or allergic to peanuts. Surely, the basis of a free market, the basis of adult life and, indeed, the basis of all professional relationships is clear communication and informed choices. Ms Gormley seems to believe that readers somehow have to be tricked into reading challenging literature, that if you make the mistake of telling people in advance that your books contains controversial content they will be too pathetic to try and read them, no matter how horizon-broadening they might be. I can’t quite see how this is more respectful than the alternative.

To lift the curtain for a moment, I should probably mention that the process of putting content warnings on books (and Riptide does use content warnings, although on the website rather than on the paper copies, not that more than twenty people have ever seen one of my books in print) involves filling out a short form that can be completed in approximately seven minutes. Again, I should probably point out that I’m a very small author, with a very small readership, but I consider seven minutes work to be worth doing even if only one potential reader ever finds it useful. The alternative involves mildly, or perhaps severely, upsetting another human being for no benefit to me or anybody else.

Being triggered is not fun, and many people like to avoid it. I am not so delusionally vain as to believe that my work possesses such merit that I would recommend a person read it, even knowing it would cause them extreme emotional distress, nor can I convince myself that a reader who makes that choice is doing out so on the basis of  some politically correct whim. I am certainly not so convinced of my own genius that I believe giving readers access to factual information about the contents of my books could possibly be doing them a disservice.

Some years ago, a British vicar was pilloried in the press for daring to say in church that there was no such thing as Santa Claus. We, as a culture, habitually lie to children. Giving people access to information and allowing them to make their own decisions is the exact opposite of infantalisation.

The second point made in the blog post is that content warnings come from fandom and that they are, therefore, a marker of amateur publishing, and this is where the CS Lewis quote comes in, the quote being:

When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.

I think might paraphrase this as follows: When I became a professionally published author, I put aside amateurish conceits, including the fear of looking amateurish and the desire to be very professional. I have, I will admit, always had something of an ambivalent relationship with professionalism. One of the things I am often reminded of in my study of seventeenth century swordsmanship is that it wasn’t very long ago that professional was an insult meaning, roughly speaking, “a person so ungentlemanly that they are obliged to do something for reasons as vulgar as money.” In my actual life in the twenty first century, it has usually been my experience that professionalism is the first refuge of the unprofessional: it’s the word your boss uses to try and make you do something that isn’t your job, or to persuade you to put up with inappropriate treatment. It’s the word pretentious undergraduates use to describe their terrible productions of As You Like It.

I think Ms Gormley’s concern is that content warnings are similar to fanfic (which is not professionally produced) and that therefore the use of content warnings is itself unprofessional. This strikes me as superstitious thinking. A professional is nothing more or less than a person who makes money at something, and part of the way you make money in an industry is by communicating clearly with your market. It is certainly true that Stephen King and Anne Rice did not put content warnings on their books. Stephen King and Anne Rice, when they were first published, also did not have websites. They certainly weren’t on Twitter. Times change, and an important feature of professional persons and professional organisations is adopting best practices, wherever those practices come from. A great many media do, in fact, come with some form of attached content information, the most obvious here being films which have a very clearly delineated set of ratings.

Indeed, pulling four random DVDs off my shelf, I would note that Troy contains “strong battle violence” and is “suitable only for persons 15 years and over”, LA Confidential contains “strong language and violence”, and is “suitable only for persons 18 years and over”, Princess Mononoke contains “infrequent mild language”, “some mild references” to sex and nudity, “frequent mild fantasy” violence, no problematic themes or content and “some scenes which may be unsuitable for young children” and An Education contains “moderate sex references” and is “not be supplied to any person below the age of 12”.

This clearly does not make the DVD industry a shoddy, amateurish affair, nor is film any less designed to “shake you up, to make you think, to push boundaries. In other words, to open up the world for the proliferation of IDEAS” than the novel. A book is a book is a book and whether it is good or not, or bad or not, or shakes you up, or makes you think or pushes boundaries or opens up the world for the proliferation of ideas or not, is a factor of its content, not of what you put on the cover.

Whenever a convention arises that is to the benefit of some people and no harm whatsoever to others, there are always cries of protest, and they are always completely unfounded. It is a simple matter of Pareto optimality: if you can do something that will make some people better off, and nobody worse off, you should do it, always. Content warnings are trivial to implement, easily ignored and genuinely important to some readers. I, personally, am lucky enough to be able to read a rape scene without experiencing traumatic flashbacks, but I know a great many people who are not. It is the bare minimum of common courtesy to give people enough information to make an informed decision about whether they want to read a book.


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