Lately I’ve found that we American evangelicals, bless our hearts, may have managed to set a cultural trend. Unfortunately I’m not sure we can take pride in this accomplishment.
I’m referring to the phenomenon of including content disclaimers called “trigger warnings” or “content warnings” before a story, article, or other bit of culture that has words, ideas, or other elements that an individual or group—real or imaginary—may find objectionable.
From what I’ve read, content warnings are becoming quite the fad, not just among authors who want to show compassion to victims of abuse but among groups, institutions and writers who are merely finding a hipper-sounding way to enforce what was once called “political correctness.” It’s not just therapists doing this, but believers in progressivism.1
How do I cast tongue-in-cheek blame on Christians for this? Because if I didn’t know better I would say that some of our movie-review sites, with their well-meant yet infamous counts of cusswords and other Objectionable Content, started this whole notion in the first place.
Evangelical content warnings are based on popular-culture stories and songs, usually TV and movies. We send out specially trained reviewers (sometimes assuming their level of spiritual maturity is unattainable by Average Joe Christian) to analyze movies’ worldviews, count cusswords, and determine whether the film is age-appropriate or “family friendly.” Reviewers at sites like Plugged In are much better at this. Reviewers at MovieGuide will sometimes surprise you with their astuteness, but still reduce a movie’s “worldview” and content to a series of literal engineering-like secret code letters like “EvEv” and “AcapAcap.”
Progressivist content warnings are found in more nonfiction contexts such as articles, speeches, and now apparently academic transcripts of panel discussions about free speech. While evangelicals say things like “[includes] many references to mother nature and environmentalism,” progressivist believers warn impressionable readers against “ableist slurs” or even cautionary references to violence against particular ethnic groups.
What do these two different styles of content warnings have in common?
Here I must be careful, not to avoid “triggering” readers but to avoid alarmist conclusions.
First, it may be the case that the silliest instances of these “warnings” are rare and overblown by often-alarmist clickbait websites that have often-political profit motives.
Second, many people intend content/trigger warnings for good reasons. For example, in the Christian community I’ve seen articles that describe in some detail instances of sexual or spiritual abuse. These are absolutely necessary to root out potential abusers, but also require disclaimers because true victims should absolutely take care before reading.
Assuming the best, both are intended to keep weak people from getting hurt. That’s good.
Evangelical application: We do need help within the church (local church first, and then organizations) to help us honor God and pursue holiness in our story and song choices. Usually we’re weak in certain areas. Children should not know about sex before certain (variable) ages. You may be able to watch Game of Thrones and fast-forward past the porn parts, while I don’t want to go near the thing because I would be tempted to gaze. By all means, let’s have content warnings for these stories and songs to keep us from stumbling into temptations we’re not yet mature enough to handle. That’s part of being Christ’s body.
Progressivist application: Why assume we’ve nothing to learn here? I think it’s fine to respect some of the impulse behind non-evangelical content warnings. We do need to be aware of how our words (or certain symbols, like flags) can hurt others. Who do need to take care lest we “trigger” people who have suffered abuse or violence. If that seems odd to us, we can consider (this is a very tame example) being afflicted by nausea and having to listen to someone discuss greasy Philadelphia cheesesteak sub sandwiches or something.
But we cannot stop after only saying content warnings are “well-intended.” We must be firmer about the purpose of content warnings—and flagrant deviations from that purpose.
Content warnings are at best temporary safeguards for those who may be hurt by content. So why in the world does anyone—Christians and progressivists alike—pretend that our content warnings are a permanent solution? Why do we delude ourselves into believing we can create “safe spaces” either in our evangelical homes or in cultural common areas?
For evangelicals, we act like content warnings about pop culture apply to all Christians at every age of maturity, especially children, without even bothering to ask about whether a certain word or content would actually tempt a person to sin and thus actually hurt them.
For progressivists, they also act like content warnings are a permanent safeguard against sins such as racism (or non-sins like certain disagreeable competing religious faiths).
In neither case is the chronically-permanent content-warner actually trying to help a victim or weak person grow beyond the need for the warning in the first place—for actual victims, to help them clean out the wound, fight infection, stimulate new cell growth, heal the deep gash, and finally remove all the bandages—and for (I’m afraid this will be very unpopular) “victim” wannabes, to politely tell them it’s time to quit picking at their own shallow scabs.
That’s my diagnosis: Content warnings serve a purpose, but they are not permanent. And if we delude ourselves into pretending they can fix culture or victims, we’re under a delusion.
So at the risk of repeating a “slur” myself, how can we resolve the madness?
More, next time.
- Careful culture participants should drop the term “political correctness” because this term does not connote these kinds of religious legalism that are not primarily political. Similarly, I use the term “progressivism” to refer not to any particular political group but to refer to a fast-growing religion in Western culture. Other outdated terms such as “liberalism,” “secularism” or even “moral relativism” do not rightly describe this religion, for it is often censorious, rabidly religious, and is based on a distinct kind of moral outrage that is anything but “morally relative.” ↩