(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.
- There is just so much death around that avoiding it is totally infeasible, so nobody thinks anybody else might be trying to.
- 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.
- 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.
- Death is distressing, but people basically always experience a countervailing fascination that makes reading about it worthwhile.
- 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’.
- 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.