Content-based ratings are a step or two below outright bans on the censorship spectrum. These types of ratings purport to inform consumers, particularly parents, about controversial content, but they are often no better than a ban.
Earlier this year, in an article published in Mass Communication & Society, overly sensitive researchers tried to make the case for such content-based warnings on the covers of books on the grounds that many books marketed for adolescents and teenagers contain profanity. I wrote about this study over the summer, concluding that these researchers made a stronger case for how arbitrary and meaningless age ratings are. Are words like “crap” and “dammit” really enough to trigger a warning? How many f-yous would it take? That’s the problem: it’s all subjective and highly dependent on each family’s standards. The researchers suggest that ratings would merely empower parents, but meaningless ratings are not empowering, they’re misleading. The end result of meaningless ratings would be an inevitable progression to the most prudish possible standard, upon which parents and school districts would rely to prohibit children from reading appropriate books.
Theme-based warnings that don’t claim to assert an “appropriate age” could be more helpful for consumers, if the warnings are tailored to the book and specific about the type of controversial content it contains: sexual violence, domestic abuse, hate crimes, child death, etc. However, specific theme-based warnings could include spoilers and, more importantly, might not help parents or readers distinguish between books that depict such controversial content gratuitously and those that depict it for an important pedagogical purpose. Placing too much emphasis on a warning could turn people away from thought-provoking material that could expose them to life lessons they otherwise would not experience.
The internet may mitigate the effects of such content warnings by making it harder for censorship-fanatics to “protect” young minds from colorful language and diverse viewpoints because it is much harder to monitor it. Unless the material is pornographic, few website or blogs display content warnings, even when they contain profanity, graphic images, or graphic descriptions of sexual situations or violence.
Along the same lines as content ratings, some blogs use “trigger warnings” to caution readers about emotionally sensitive material that could exacerbate trauma. While I appreciate the importance of these warnings, particularly in materials related to abuse and sexual violence, I wonder about how helpful they are for readers when they are too often used, applying to virtually any situation someone could find unpleasant (as opposed to truly traumatic experiences). Does such overuse stifle honest discussion in online communities by deterring people from making comments they fear others may misunderstand? It’s important to be mindful of others’ feelings, but not to the point that we stop having valuable discussions about difficult subjects.
In the end, I think that warnings about controversial content may do more harm than good. Protecting children and highly sensitive people from non-obscene content serves little purpose, and the warnings have a tendency to be arbitrary and overused to the point that they might silence legitimate discussion and restrict the circulation of thought-provoking material. An arbitrary or meaningless content warning on a book or on a website will not empower consumers. Rather, it will more likely embolden those who are looking to justify their desire to control what others read.
Do you think books or blogs should have warnings? If so, under what circumstances?