What if books contained health warnings?


Over the last few decades governments and organisations around the world have adopted a strange compulsion to teach humans what is good or bad for them. If you pay attention you’ll see warning signs all around you, from the dangers of smoking and drinking to song lyrics, how to sit at a desk and the correct way to open a door.

We need these because we’re too dumb to make our own decisions.

Some of these I’m in favour of, film classification for example, though I wonder how this worrying trend will look in a hundred years time. Will the Orwellian concept of Big Brother become so acute that humans will essentially be unthinking unquestioning drones incapable of independent thought or the ability to express opinions without fear of persecution?

You could argue that we’re already living in that age, or at least on the path toward it.

Preamble to my main point.

In a recent post on her blog, Something Wicked This Way Comes & Why Writers Could Be in Great Danger, Kristen Lamb wrote about the dangers of telling everyone they’re winners.

It’s a thought-provoking post and I recommend you go take a look.

It inspired me to write about a worrying trend in our culture where there should be no winners or losers and that everyone should be rewarded simply for taking part.

I call bullshit on that right there.

If there are no winners or losers in life then why should anyone bother trying at all?

Not everyone is special. Not everyone can win.

Losing is a very important aspect of life because it can enforce that desire to try harder, try to different things, to explore our abilities and see what we are capable of achieving.

Little Jimmy.

Society will have a lot to answer for in the future, if it doesn’t already, because of the “praise for nothing” ethos we’re encouraged to employ every day.

At school little Jimmy makes a painting of his mum and dad. It’s bright, garish and has little similarity to his real life parents, save for what his imagination tells him. He likes his painting. His teacher also likes his painting and heaps praise on him, thus instilling the notion that he is special.

Jimmy takes no notice that the teacher showers the same praise on every kid in the class.

They’re all special. They’re all winners. And all on the same path to believing they’re special.

When Jimmy shows his painting to his mum he receives more praise.

She’s very proud of her son’s achievement and rightly so. Her son has shown he has the ability to choose a colour and the ability of hand to eye coordination to drag the pain brush across the paper to make recognisable shapes.

Based on the growing trends of “something for nothing” and “I am entitled to…” and “I’m a winner because I am alive” the response is as follows:

“Well done Jimmy! That’s amazing! It’s the best painting in the world! It should be in an art gallery!”

It’s at this point that the shaping of little Jimmy’s view of how life will turn out for him starts to warp. The continuation of praise for every tiny achievement will ensure Jimmy grows up with an over inflated sense of accomplishment, misplaced confidence and, worst of all, the lack of experience in the lessons of losing.

Jimmy will grow up with a sense of entitlement that comes from years of brainwashing via education, parents and society. And when faced with rejection of any kind he may not have the ability to understand that he isn’t a winner 100% of the time, that others are better than him in different areas of life and that he has limitations.

To help little Jimmy become a morally balanced person with a realistic view of the world, his mum should say this:

“Well done Jimmy, that’s a very nice painting. Let’s stick it on the fridge then tidy up before we have dinner.”

Praise for achievement yet kept in balance with the real world.

Sadly it seems we want everyone to feel special so no one has to feel discomfort or anything vaguely negative.

Can you imagine a world where basic (and indeed necessary) emotions like sadness, discomfort, anger, loss, fear and rejection are longer experienced?

I don’t want to live in that world.

Without balance we cannot hope to live rich and fulfilling lives.

Trigger warnings.

In her post, Kristen references another post by Karen Swallow Prior, Empathetic Correctness, regarding how people are sheltered from things that may cause discomfort, she quotes:

While political correctness seeks to cultivate sensitivity outwardly on behalf of those historically marginalized and oppressed groups, empathetic correctness focuses inwardly toward the protection of individual sensitivities. Now, instead of challenging the status quo by demanding texts that question the comfort of the Western canon, students are demanding the status quo by refusing to read texts that challenge their own personal comfort.

Extending the lessons learned by Jimmy – being protected from anything negative, it now seems that our sense of “being special” is shifting up a gear to include books. The idea is that trigger warnings should be placed on texts to give the reader the chance not to read them just in case they don’t like what they read.

In essence our brainwashed mental model of the world has taught us that it’s perfectly okay to reject something because “we’re special” and that “we’re too sensitive” to read certain texts.

By follow that train of thought to Crazy Central Station will all books soon require a health warning on them?

And does that mean that society will eventually become akin to Veronica Roth’s book, Divergent, where the population is split into various groups because people either don’t have the ability to process every human emotion or, through a prolonged health and safety battle, people are conditioned to behave by strict codes?

Or perhaps a bastardised version of Orwell’s 1984 and Roth’s Divergent?

My main point.

Age ratings on films are a good idea as they inform the potential viewer the film contain things they don’t like. A good idea because in theory it can help prevent a child from watching something with adult themes that they don’t yet have the knowledge and experience to understand.

Yet the notion of claiming oneself to be too sensitive to read something makes me laugh.

One reply on Kristen’s post prompted me to shake my head.

I actually don’t mind trigger warnings. I work designing mental health facilities, and sometimes the warnings are justified. PTSD is a very real phenomenon. But the catch is, there are triggers everywhere. Smells, images, buildings can trigger PTSD. Having said that, the reason I appreciate trigger warnings at the university level, is for the same reason I appreciate reading back-covers. I like knowing what’s being taught. If it’s something I disagree with (like having to stomach Freud) at least I know in advance he has a particularly disagreeable point of view on women. I like being warned in advance that there are graphic images for things being shown, because then I don’t have to go through the shock of revulsion, I can simply be educated on that particular topic, without feeling like I have to leave the room to regain control of my emotions. And besides, it’s really so the professors won’t be sued by showing anything that might be uncomfortable.

Okay, reading back covers for the subject matter is a healthy way of figuring out if you want to read it or not. That makes sense.

But the fact that anyone would want to hide away from feelings of revulsion seems very strange to me.

Isn’t that a basic human emotion?

Don’t we need that to function?

I find it hard to believe a person would need to leave a room to regain their emotions. Is that due to brainwashed over sensitivity and again that feeling of “I’m special” that is spreading like a plague?

And what’s wrong with feeling a sudden unexpected emotional shift in one way or another? Without these changes and challenges to our mind, body or spirit how can we hope to be a well-rounded human being?

Denying one set of emotions over another doesn’t seem right to me.

I prefer to embrace all emotions states in order to enjoy life and the world around me. If you experience negative aspects of life, doesn’t it make sense that the positive ones will be appreciated more?

The fact is that all humans are sensitive. It’s in our nature to sense things. Declaring oneself to be sensitive is as pointless as saying the sky is up.

What if we look at this in reverse?

What if a person refuses to read a text because it makes them happy?

In same way someone can refuse to read something because it makes them feel uncomfortable, can another person insist they don’t read it because they don’t like to feel good? Surely that’s the same argument if you look at this from a politically correct point of view?

Why discriminate against those who don’t want to feel joy, elation, pleasure or any other supposedly positive emotion?

Can you imagine the warnings on books if we take into account the possible emotional or mental state of every single reader?

bookhealthwarningBased on those warning pages alone what percentage of people would choose not to read that book?

I question the reasoning behind the need to place trigger warnings on books. If we extend the health and safety and political correctness beyond what is already there, where will it stop?

Warnings on the following may appear:

  • Apples: This item may be green or red or some other colour. Do not look at it if these colours offend you.
  • Clothing: If you are naturist and feel distress when looking at clothes, close your eyes and move away.
  • Talking: You may be offended by people talking in public. You can ask people to stop but until the law changes to state talking is illegal you’ll have to deal with it.
  • Ideas and opinions: If you hear, see or read an idea or opinion that differs from your own “special” view-point, and as a result you become distressed, well, too bad, that’s life. Get over it.
  • Keyboards: This keyboard lets you make words. Do not use it if you find it makes you uncomfortable or distressed in any.
  • Colours: You may not like some colours. That’s your problem and no one else’s.
  • Every day objects: Keys, kettles, shoes, lights, phones, food, door handles and other every day objects may offend you. Oh well.

Empathetically correct. WTF?

At the end of her post, Kristen asks: What do you think about this trend of being “empathetically correct”?

I think it’s bullshit.

I don’t think it possible to safeguard against every single type of emotional or mental state. Sure, political correctness has valid points, to a degree, such as slurs against gender, race, sexuality, religion and so on. If society panders to every concern there would be no variety, no colour, no culture, no achievements, no progression, no debate. Nothing.

Simply being offended or thinking you might be offended/disturbed/distressed/made slightly uncomfortable by something does not mean anyone has an automatic right to ban or sensitise it unless it refers to the point made above.

If I write a book that contains a plethora of ideas and concepts that may encourage a range of emotional and mental states in the reader, why should it carry a warning on it stating those issues?

Packs of cigarettes carry warnings and rightly so because they’re bad for you and may eventually lead to your death.

Text in books does neither.

From my experience reading books I’ve come across things that have repulsed me, frightened me, made me laugh, cry, whoop with joy, inspire my own writing, inspire me to discuss the subject matter with others, prompted me to think about the world, along with countless other reactions too.

I don’t deny myself the opportunity to enrich my life because I might be special or that I’m sensitive, because I’m not.

I’m the same as everyone else.

You know, a human being. And that means experiencing every possible mental, emotional, physical and spiritual aspect of life I can.




4 thoughts on “What if books contained health warnings?

    1. Gosh! Yes indeed. Wish I’d have put it such clear and concise words! Worrying trend though and I won’t be surprised to find warning signs on every objects like kettles and apples and such like.

      1. But didn’t you know that apples are very dangerous to children. They might stuff pips up their noses, or some other orifice, choke on peel, suffer the trauma of a baby tooth lodging in the fruit’s flesh, or cause psychological trauma to anyone who’s sick of being preached to about “5-a-day” and wants to only eat pizza.

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