Author's Note: Do not do a Google image search for "Trigger Warning" while on a work- or shared-computer. Or even at all, really.
While doing a link walk the other day, I stumbled upon someone mildly railing against trigger warnings, and since I'm all about random navel gazing, I thought I'd take an opportunity to talk about trigger warnings, especially since I try to use them in posts and comments.
So what is a trigger warning? A trigger warning usually takes the form of a header before a piece of text that could be considered to be distinctly unpleasant to the point of possibly triggering (hence the name) intense flashbacks for the reader. The point of the trigger warning is to serve as a sort of advance notice: Hey, this post is going to be talking about X and if you don't want to read about X, you might want to skip over the post. If you want to be really zealous in hiding the potentially triggering material, you can use post breaks or ROT13 so that the reader has to really choose to read more and there won't be any accidental triggering.
The main criticisms I hear against trigger warnings -- and please tell me if I strawman here, because that is not helpful to constructive conversation -- is one of the following:
- It infantilizes survivors.
- It's a hassle (and you can't label everything).
- It's a form of censorship.
However, the point of trigger warnings is not to shield all survivors, but rather to shield the ones who genuinely want the trigger warning and want to be able to decide whether or not to read the material. A trigger warning provides a choice: this post is about X, read or don't read. Treating all survivors as a monolithic groups would mean taking away choice: either posts about X are the norm and no warnings will be given and survivors can "deal with it" or posts about X are expressly forbidden in every possible form and people who want to talk about X can "deal with it". Trigger warnings bridge that gap by letting a variety of people interact in a shared space without having to wonder "do I have the emotional fortitude today to deal with anything that might pop up on that site?"
And, indeed, I also appreciate trigger warnings for things I find deeply disturbing and yet have not experienced. I don't usually find rape discussions triggering at all, but discussions of certain types of violence against children distress me deeply, regardless of the fact that I wasn't abused as a child. So I don't even see trigger warnings as For The Survivors -- I see them as For Everyone.
To #2, I'm sympathetic towards the sentiment that trigger warnings are a hassle, are highly subjective, and really end up being applied to certain obvious types of triggers and less so for others. For instance, something I currently find a touch triggering right now are stories of infertility, particularly if they end Happily Ever After because I myself have recently been through a bout of infertility and our story didn't have a babyful ending. I've even taken to trying to mention in my reviews of books if things like this occur, on the grounds that I figure the author can't possibly highlight every trigger in the book, but the reviews can mention a few and people can look for their own trigger warning before reading, as it were. It's not a perfect solution, but nothing ever is.
But it's true that trigger warnings can't be applied correctly 100% of the time -- you're going to miss things, and you're probably going to miss things a lot. Look at me! I accidentally drop "abusive marriage" comments into Twilight comment threads and give readers heart attacks. *facepalm* I have a lot to learn about when and how to use trigger warnings, and for what. But having said that, I'm not bothered by the fact that perfect trigger warnings are an ideal and not a possible goal. For me, it's about trying your best to be sensitive to ways that words can hurt people, and learning more about people and their hurts in the process. The point where I think "THAT was triggering for someone?" isn't a reflection on their super-sensitiveness, but rather a reflection on the fact that there are a lot of different people in the world and I just learned something. I'll see if I can't work that knowledge into a better trigger warning next time.
To #3, the censorship response is one I find most interesting. On the one hand, it seems easily dismissible: trigger warnings aren't censorship because you're still allowed to talk about X, you're just being asked to label X as "X" so that other people can choose whether or not to read you. (Being asked to discuss X in a certain way might be censorial, but trigger warnings by themselves are not about content -- they're about labeling content.)
On the other hand, I do think that trigger warnings cause me to self-censor... but I also think that's a good thing. Embracing the concept of trigger warnings means reading back over your writing (or keeping an eye on it while you're composing it) and keeping in mind what it might contain in the way of triggers. Did my rambling comment just touch on X? Maybe I should zip back up to the top before I post and add a trigger warning for X. No reason not to be extra-safe.
The thing is, once I realize that my post comment touched on X and that I might want to add a trigger warning, the next obvious question my mind leaps to is: was X needed here? Did I really need to bring up rape or violence against children or infertility or any number of other painful things in order to make my point? If yes, then trigger warning ahoy! But if not... maybe I could tweak my post to make the same point using different words. For instance, maybe we don't need to boil everything on earth down to an analogy about rape and/or the Holocaust. Maybe we could make our points about DRM and piracy and Lucas sequels without using rape as an example. (Is there a Godwin's law for rape analogies? Because if I had a nickel...)
An unwillingness to examine our language is perfectly understandable. We're very busy people, discussing things on the internet to no real effect, and everyone is going to know what we mean, and why does everyone have to be so sensitive all the time? I'm not going to condemn anyone for feeling that way, because I think it's a perfectly natural reaction to, say, learning about trigger warnings for the first time. But... I also accept that some of my words are powerful enough to hurt others. And I don't really want to hurt others. I go out of my way to donate money and clothes to charity, so can I go a little more out of my way to examine my language? I already edit for errors... can I edit for sensitivity fail?
Thanks to Mark at MarkReads, I've learned not to say "crazy Ana" because "crazy" can be a very hurtful word for people dealing with mental illness in their lives or in the lives of their loved ones. (I say "zany Ana".) I was surprised and even a little resistant to changing my language -- I'd always used "crazy" in a neutral sense, it was taught to me by people who used it in a neutral sense, and surely I shouldn't have to suffer having to relearn my own vocabulary just because a bunch of assholes somewhere had and were using the word in a pejorative sense and causing people who had the term used on them pain when they heard me using it in a neutral context.
Eventually I came to accept that my "pain" at having to relearn my vocabulary is significantly less than other people's pain at having to hear me use the word in my vocabulary, and I adjusted my vocabulary accordingly. Was this self-censorship? I feel like it was. Am I glad that it happened? Yes! I don't want to accidentally hurt people when I talk, and I don't want readers to feel like they have to leave my blog because as much as they love the discussions, they can't deal with the emotional shrapnel from some of the triggering words and statements I make.
I like trigger warnings and I do want to hear if my language causes anyone pain. I want to be able to host a space where people feel free to visit in the morning without having to weigh whether or not they can deal with whatever might be on the top page. And I want everyone here to be able to speak up and say if they find something triggering or hurtful so that I can work on finding better ways to express myself. And I thank you all.