An Argument in Support of the Principles of Content Warnings and a Philosophical Approval of Censorship

In this article I will give an analysis of what I believe to be sound principles in the advocacy of content warnings. I will be focusing on the core ideas and rationale behind content warnings, as well as the benefits that they may have to creators, by placing responsibility on consumers for the media that they consume.

[Ed.: this article is a companion piece to our recent point/counterpoint articles looking at trigger warnings and safe spaces within furry, Trigger Warnings, Safe Spaces, and Fandom and Of course trigger warnings and safe spaces are a good thing….]

Content warnings and appropriate behaviour

Imagine that I jumped out in front of you shouting “AH!” in order to surprise you. If we were friends, and I knew you were disposed towards laughing-off jokes such as this, then such an act would likely be deemed as acceptable.

Now, imagine that I am a complete stranger, and you are walking down the street, minding your own business. If I were to jump out and scare you, your reaction would most likely be less than positive. You may feel angry, annoyed, or genuinely frightened. If you were very elderly or feeble, you may even have a heart attack. Hence, this sort of behaviour is not acceptable towards people we do not know, people who have not expressed a willingness, or people who’s likely reactions we do not have knowledge of.

Thus, in the first example, if you know somebody very well, and you can reasonably assume that they will be alright with the joke, there is nothing wrong with it. In the second example, this sort of behaviour is wrong, due the consequences being unknown, and potentially very negative.

To take this further, imagine you are reading something I have written, and, without warning, a graphic scene of something hideous is presented; rape, for example. I do not know you, nor do I know your disposition towards such a thing. It is, in my mind, akin to jumping out and scaring a stranger, in that it is an unexpected event that may lead to negative consequences for them. If somebody has had an experience with rape, from which they are recovering, this unexpected scare could lead to a lot of trauma. For this reason, it is usually important to give people some idea of what they are going to experience, if they read/watch/play a piece of media.

Responsibility

Assuming you have given an adequate picture of what the work will involve, there is no longer any responsibility on the part of the creator for the potentially traumatic or dangerous content. The responsibility is passed to the consumer; if rape is involved in a work, and this has been adequately indicated, then it becomes the responsibility of the audience to know whether they are able to consume it. Think of it like an allergy warning: If, on food packaging, an allergy warning is displayed, then anybody with that allergy can be considered at fault if they eat it (assuming the warning is adequate).

In my mind, a content warning is not a shifting of a discussion, but a way of putting responsibility on the audience. To take an example that I am very passionate about; when thinking philosophically, ideas and opinions are sometimes passed around that are going to make some people uncomfortable. A content warning is, in effect, saying, “If you cannot handle this material, you have no place here”. For example, if somebody is easily offended by topics of religion, then they really have no place participating in any serious discussion on the philosophy of religion. This is, in my view, the best use for content warnings; but also as an indication of where they ought to be, and where they ought not to be.

To go back to my allergy example: If you are allergic to peanuts, you have no right to complain if you eat a clearly labelled bag of peanuts and end up in the hospital.

Why on earth would you want somebody in a discussion who is unable to properly handle that discussion? In this way, a content creator ought not to be held accountable for somebody being offended. If an appropriate warning is provided, the creator allows for more open discussion within the agreed upon space.

The under-appreciated value of common-sense

When it comes to content warnings, there’s a simple principle that I feel is severely lacking: Common sense.

It’s reasonable to expect people to know what may or may not be considered offensive. If it is entirely within the realm of common sense that something might be traumatic, then not much effort is required to put a brief, clear, warning onto it.

Similarly, on the other side of the debate, it should also be a matter of common sense as to what it is reasonable to expect people to put content warnings on. If somebody was terrified of bananas, for example, whilst this may be traumatic, it is such an uncommon and irregular fear that it would be unreasonable to expect people to cater to it, not least of all since, logically, if we warned people of bananas just because somebody might be afraid of them, would we then not need to list every fruit that shows up in a work?

There therefore ought to be a general principle of common sense as to what ought to and ought not to have a content warning.

The limits of freedom, and why censorship is not just acceptable, but occasionally morally required

My final point will immediately smack people the wrong way. The word “freedom,” is tossed around so liberally these days, and people are so willing to fight for this vague concept, that few will recognise its limits.

You do not have complete freedom of speech and you are not free to spread any information you wish. This is a fact. It is illegal and wrong to give out the names of a suspected criminal in a certain case, due to the fact that, if it later turns out that they are innocent, their life will still be negatively effected.

A second example of this is that you cannot openly give people instructions of how to make certain explosive devices. Even if you know such a thing, you are not at liberty to share that information. Most people will agree that this is a sensible limit to freedom.

However, this can be taken further, in my mind. Some pieces of media exist purely to spread hate, or to disrupt society. I will give two examples of pieces of media which I feel ought to be censored, followed by reasons as to why:

“Kill the Faggot,” was a game put up on Steam, which was nothing more than a homophobic murder simulator. Eventually, due to its nature, the game was removed from the service. This game’s entire purpose was to be hateful and offensive.

More recently, a photo of a man holding an iPad was edited to make it appear as if he were holding a Quran, with bombs strapped to him. This imagine is, obviously, Islamophobic, and its intent is to generate hate.

To formulate this in a more philosophical way: The question is whether the benefits of free-speech to a society are enough to justify the existence of extreme forms of hate-speech. Famously, Mill’s advocacy of free-speech has been challenged as being contradictory to his “Harm Principle.”

Put simply, the Harm Principle allows government authority to intervene in the freedom of citizens when they are likely to cause harm to one another. It is unclear what exactly Mill meant by “harm”, but, if somebody was exercising their free-speech to persuade others to commit violent crimes against another group of people within society, then it would seem that there is a contradiction between allowing for complete freedom of speech, and censoring certain opinions in order to prevent harm being done to others within society.

Thus, we must all ask the question of whether we want completely free speech, even if it allows for extreme hate speech, and for media which may cause a great deal of harm to others.

In my mind, the ethics of belief play an important role in answering this question.
When we believe something, we take it to be true. Philosophically, it is stated that “belief aims at truth,” vis. Believing P means that P is taken to be true. You cannot simultaneously believe something, yet also think it to be untrue.

If we take something to be true, it is likely that we will act in an appropriate manner. For example, if I believe that it is raining, I am more likely to wear a coat. In the case of these two pieces of media, if people believe that Muslims are more likely to commit acts of terrorism, they are more likely to act in discriminatory ways.

Media alters beliefs. Beliefs inform behaviour. Behaviour effects everybody. The media that others consume, and the beliefs that others hold, are therefore in the interest of everybody. If a piece of media is likely to form untrue beliefs that will lead to severely negative consequences then it ought to be censored. For example, a piece of media that is designed to recruit young people into terrorist organisations by making them believe it is the right thing to do may have severely negative effects for others, and should therefore, be censored.

Ergo, in certain cases, when the effects will be severely negative, it is in the best interest of everyone that certain things be censored. To argue against this is a very difficult challenge, as either one of the two things would need to be show: Either, there is no scenario under which it is more desirable for everyone that somebody be allowed to say something, and that banning that something would cause society more severe harm than the suspension of free-speech. Or, it would have to be shown that a) Free speech has intrinsic worth, and b) that intrinsic worth is always worth more than any consequences it could bring. There is no deontological maxim for free-speech, nor is there a maxim that says content warnings are always bad. Sometimes certain things need to be censored, and, at other times, certain things within various pieces of media require content warnings.

In closing

I’ll close by clarifying where I stand: Content warnings are in the interest of everybody, though they ought not to be treated unreasonably by those who are for or against them. Certain media has no “right” to exist, and other media ought to be properly labelled. Responsibility ought to lay with the consumer where appropriate warnings are provided.

About Corgi W.

Corgi is currently studying for a degree in philosophy. She enjoys writing and writing anthropomorphic fiction, and has a passion for philosophical debate.

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8 thoughts on “An Argument in Support of the Principles of Content Warnings and a Philosophical Approval of Censorship

  1. Interesting and well constructed article! I’d like to add a couple of thoughts though, as I think it’s important to ask what and when these principles should be applied.

    For trigger warnings, I found myself thinking of one of the few mediums that can give warning, but refuses to do so. Fiction. A lot of stories genuinely are constructed in ways to provoke extremes of emotion, and these can of course sometimes be fear, revulsion, etc. I remember reading “Disgrace” by J.M. Coetzee in my second year of university, and while it signaled the rape on the blurb, I would like to consider a hypothetical. If a book has a surprise (though the word feels crude) that is meant to be shocking, should that event be revealed? Does it impact on the fiction to have extreme moments, meant to generate some sort of response, clearly signalled? I think fiction is a problematic place, as while it’s not real, the events it can relate can evoke very real fears if the reader has suffered the same traumatic experience in real life. It’s a bit of a can of worms to open perhaps – if the blurb tells everything that happens in the story, does that impact on reading experience? To what extent is the ‘shocking’ also the ‘surprising’? And theoretically, if fiction was not allowed to surprise us in negative ways, does that harm literary practice itself?

    Whilst I am in agreement with the article, I find myself throwing hypothetical situations at its proposals. In some instances the article is right, in others, it can be wrong. For example, whilst it can be right for a benevolent government to prevent its citizens from harming each other, it is problematic, lets say, if that government is an authority that negatively impacts on the lives of its citizens – where it’s not trying to actually prevent citizens from harming each other, but citizens from harming the government. In that case, we yes, arrive at familiar ground. In short yes, I agree, and the concepts of liberty and freedom need to the articulated for given context. I agree, simply advocating freedom doesn’t work – it needs to have defined limits. After all, that’s at the core of some key political treatises here in the UK about government – Hobbes, if memory serves correctly.

    1. Good response! I go back and forth on this idea a lot. I think something that is often overlooked is the difference between government censorship and private censorship. I think there are very few cases where it is appropriate for a governing body to censor speech. Incitement to commit hate crimes might be one example of an appropriate time. However, I think it is entirely reasonable for a private entity to be more broad in what it considers inappropriate speech. If someone is holding a panel on medical research for example, they aren’t expected to tolerate some yahoo jumping on stage to talk about dogs for a half hour.

      I think in the specific case of fiction it should really be up to the author. If an author feels that a content warning would harm his or her work they are free to leave it off, but they should be ready for a certain amount of backlash if they do. After all, free speech includes the right to criticise decisions.

    2. Hi Televassi, I love your response as well, and your use of Disgrace as an example is a good one. The rape in Disgrace is central to the novel, both in terms of plot and metaphor. To warn the reader potentially harms the heft of the story; the absence of a warning potentially harms the reader. The author needs to make a judgement call.

      To use a more extreme example, it’s fair that the reader should be warned about the content of Samuel Delaney’s Hogg before reading the book. So I don’t think it’s a one size fits all situation. Sometimes it’s best if the reader is warned, sometimes it’s best if they aren’t. And while Corgi doesn’t explicitly deal with this case, I think it fits into her conclusions on common sense.

      The obvious question is: who decides? Different people are going to have different standards (and different levels of common sense for that matter). And Sam makes a good point about the differences between public and private censorship.

      Corgi doesn’t answer these questions, and I don’t think she intends to. The piece, for me, stands as a terrific defence of the use of trigger warnings and censorship, when applied in reasonable circumstances. The real question is what is “reasonable”.

  2. I agree with the point given here about people not complaining about experiencing things they’ve been warned about. However, I’m not quite sure what the basis is for this statement:
    “It is illegal and wrong to give out the names of a suspected criminal in a certain case, due to the fact that, if it later turns out that they are innocent, their life will still be negatively effected.”

    Aside from the right word in this context being “affected”… it is common in many countries, including my own, for the names of accused to be reported by the media. The second example given about explosives is also questionable. Some countries may have laws against some speech, but they are far from universal, as implied here. Perhaps the author could clarify which laws they were referring to, and which jurisdiction?

    1. I may have been wrong on that being the case everywhere, but, it is universally considered to be unethical journalism. Just look at the Rolling Stone incident for what happens when suspects are publically revealed.

      1. Also not the case. It will depend on the crime and the people involved. Nearly every time a criminal story is reported on it is before a decision is made. That’s the case now with the Martin Shkreli case, Bill Cosby, Oscar Pistorius, all those accused of plotting 9/11 and countless others. The Rolling Stone incident was not just about naming suspects. That were a number of problems, starting with the way those accused of rape are treated as guilty unless proved innocent, multiple journalistic failures on the part of Rolling Stone and the author and a complete lack of skepticism with regard to the accusations out of misguided sensitivity to the supposed victim.

  3. While one should probably take precautions in who they are jumping out at, it’s not an unacceptable behaviour. It’s not something one should do all the time but there are plenty of people that do it as part of a prank (there are countless videos on Youtube) and it’s also something that is done by comedians, many hidden camera shows will have aspect.

    I’m not against all warnings. Age recommendations, warnings of explicit violence or language are perfectly fine and are good things. But those are also things that we know are likely to be disturbing and are material that are not suitable for all people. There is no need to make warnings about religious discussion because that is not something that should be disturbing or that is unsuitable for some. If someone can’t handle a religious discussion then the problem is that they are immature.

    So common sense would be great. But I doubt you’ll find many people complaining about warnings of sex, violence or language. Those just aren’t the topics that are coming up now with the trigger warnings that lead to these discussions. The problem is trigger warnings have become broad and nonsensical and are appearing in places, like universities, where they have no place. I believe there was one case with a woman complaining about no warning given in a law course where they discussed rape law. That is not a place one should have to place a warning. That’s part of the job and if you can’t handle that then you should not be studying law. It would be like a doctor requiring a warning that there will be images of blood during a lecture.

    As for your part of free speech, it feels like you’re out of your depth here. I know of few that support completely free speech but I am definitely in the camp that puts very few limits, specifically I support all speech except that which is deliberately untrue and that which incites imminent violence. There might have been one or two other cases but I can’t think of them right now and hate speech is not one of them.

    You’re right about belief and behaviour but then you neglect all the cases where your arguments would break down. For example you talk about untrue media leading to negative consequences but what true media that leads to negative consequences? You want to ban terrorist recruiting speech but is that necessarily that different to military recruiting and speech? The effect of military is negative as well, resulting in deaths that we would normally consider unacceptable.

    Secondly your entire argument on speech is that it has to agree with your own moral standards. The actual point of free speech is that we have different ideas of what is right and wrong and the best position is to allow those different positions to be stated and to try to form a consensus in discussion, not through government repression.

    Lastly and it’s something you don’t address, is the more insidious side of censorship and why we should defend free speech even if it sometimes leads to negative consequences. Free speech is the most important right for the simple reason that without free speech we can not even guarantee the ability to articulate any other right. When we lose that we stand to lose everything, and not even realise it. When something is censored we do not know about it, so the possibility of any checks and balances is remote. The question you then have to ask is who you would trust to decide what you may and may not know. If censorship had been effective then any movement for racial or sexual equality would not have happened. Social change can only come about through free speech. That’s the irony of watching people try to remove it, they’re removing the one thing that allows them to say that they want to remove it.

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