Content warning: death

(Content warning: death)

People often use trigger and content warnings to tell readers about content that might be costly to read, before they are already reading it. I have seen warnings about a large variety of upsetting contents, but I have seen very few about death (I thought it was none, but after waiting a while I noticed a couple). And more generally, outside of the sphere where things like content warnings are common, people also seem totally ok talking about horrific deaths in a way that would seem totally inappropriate for topics that might be upsetting. I continue to find this strange. Isn’t death one of the canonical things that is awful? And it’s not some abstract or unemotional awfulness that might not traumatize people, like ‘costs’ or ‘taxes’. Usually in life, I think death is one of the most upsetting things that ever happens.

I for one find death upsetting, and would generally much prefer not to read about it [edit: or did at time of writing—I currently find almost nothing upsetting]. However it is clear that I’m at least somewhat unusual, and so not surprising that others’ preferences diverge from mine here. But still, isn’t death a usual thing to be bothered by in other ways? Isn’t there this whole academic area of terror management, about how bothered people are by death? According to Wikipedia, the theory is derived from Ernest Becker‘s 1973 Pulitzer Prize-winning The Denial of Death, “in which Becker argues most human action is taken to ignore or avoid the inevitability of death”. If it is at all plausible that most of human action is taken to ignore or avoid the inevitability of death, aren’t there at least a minority of people who would get value out of not accidentally reading about some heartbreaking and horrific familial manslaughter over breakfast on a regular basis? This really seems like low hanging fruit, before you get to reworking your relation to religious symbolism or whatever to bolster your sense of permanence.

Yet I read about death all the time, all over the place. For instance on Facebook sometimes there are even pictures of dead people and nobody else seems to find this costly (ok, apparently many of my friends find actual photographs of recent corpses bad, but it seems more decayed human remains are ok with people). I’ve tried asking Facebook not to show me such content, and sometimes try to tell Facebook why, but Facebook is like ‘is this violent?’ ‘does it depict breasts?’ and gives me no option for ‘it depicts the actual bad thing that violence is bad in large part because of’. One time the first ten posts or so in my Facebook were about death, broadly construed. I’ve mostly fixed this now, with F.B Purity, which lets you filter out posts which contain specific words. But I’m still confused about why this doesn’t bother other people, even though other people are distressed by reading about a bunch of other things.

Some theories:

  1. There is just so much death around that avoiding it is totally infeasible, so nobody thinks anybody else might be trying to.
  2. Avoiding learning about bad things in the world is looked down upon, because it suggests that you are not tough, and prioritize your own freedom from discomfort over being able to be an informed citizen. So it is only in particular cultures that content warnings are popular, and those cultures come with specific idiosyncratic concerns, which happen to not include death.
  3. People put content warnings on things (or speak about them carefully in other ways) when they think other people might be upset with them, which only happens when they post unusually bad things, and death is a usual thing to write about.
  4. Death is distressing, but people basically always experience a countervailing fascination that makes reading about it worthwhile.
  5. People are upset to the point they benefit from warnings or the like by things that remind them of their own terrible experiences, and almost all deaths don’t remind any particular person of a death that personally bothered them. To be useful, such warnings would have to be things like ‘death by kidney disease’.
  6. Maybe death causes some different kind of distress from other topics (e.g. something other than ‘being triggered’), which perhaps people don’t mind as much.

Related: Katla on death as entertainment.

10 responses to “Content warning: death

  1. Trigger warnings aren’t about distress. They represent claims to victimhood. They serve to raise the status of a victimized group. Since death befalls all of us, it doesn’t help define a group than can make individious demands.

  2. Among people who use trigger warnings I think it’s pretty common to warn for death. (I, for instance, have a “#death cw” tag on my tumblr. Among other things it includes some funny comics and a picture of me next to Sojourner Truth’s grave. I probably would not use it to tag a “Spooky Scary Skeletons” video, though I maybe could be convinced otherwise.)

    I’m curious about this: “did at time of writing—I currently find almost nothing upsetting”. Has this post been sitting in your drafts folder for a while?

  3. I mostly agree with Stephen here. I think you are mistaken to take content warnings at face value, at least on the part of the people who want them.

    • Since arundelo had already pointed out that people warn about death pretty often, I have to speculate about your own motives. I suspect you have no interest in knowing the truth, nor do you want other people to know, since this would interfere with sneering at your political opponents. Though I suppose you could simply be a poor reader.

  4. Being triggered by a topic is largely a political strategy for control of discourse in domains where one isn’t satisfied by the cultural default Overton Window to be unsatisfactory. Most people are OK with where the Overton Window is on death, but you and I are not, so we get annoyed here.

  5. Some people think death is not such a bad thing, or think that they need to strongly profess to themselves and others that death is not such a bad thing, because there is an afterlife or because death is natural.

  6. Death is as healthy and natural as birth. To misconstrue this as an innate evil in the world is fundamentally cynical. It is the one great inevitability of life and continually perplexes me how people STILL view it as a negative thing.

  7. I don’t like reading about death either, but I did not always feel this way. In the past, I did not connect anything at all to my inevitable demise, in that way teenagers do.

    Eventually I did start to connect “other people/things dying” to the inevitablilty of precious ME dying. I ended up feeling horror and anxiety about a great many things, even things such as “101 films to see before you die”.

    In order to cope, I now “allow” myself to slide conscious/not-consciously back into that “not connecting things with my death, even blatant death things” self-delusion I had going. I think one has to do this in a broad, sweeping, blanket fashion or else almost eveything can remind you of death and break the spell.

    I assume this is what everyone else is doing too?


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