Occasionally the subject of Trigger Warnings comes up, and more often than not it seems like people who disapprove of (or outright have contempt for) trigger warnings employ the same arguments for why trigger warnings are silly, useless, or ridiculous things to use in a post. So here's another primer for cross-linking the next time this comes up. (For previous posts on this topic, I've also written why I like trigger warnings, what I think about triggering jokes, and how I think we can deal with triggering language in classic literature.)
I will be quoting actual people in this post, some of whom I disagree with, some of whom I agree with strenuously, and some of whom raise interesting points worthy of discussion. If it's not clear which is which, ask.
1. Trigger Warnings Are Condescending! [Content Note: Rape]
So let's say you're on board with trigger warnings or content notes or whatever the cool kids are calling them these days. After all, maybe you don't have any trigger issues to speak of, but you sort of accept the idea that, say, Rape Survivors might have PTSD and might need some heads-up before heading into a discussion of rape. You're conscientious that way. But then you may have noticed that some of these TWs are really freaking obscure! What's up here? Does the author think that her readership is so delicate that they can't handle anything?
I feel pretty confident speaking to this one, since those "ridiculous" content notes were, in fact, ones that I came up with. Those were in reference to this thread and this one. So let's dive into the immediate question: Do I think my readers are all precious porcelain dolls?
What I do think is that I put my words on the internet for anyone on earth to read and access. That's a potential 7 billion readers, whittled down from there in accordance with who has internet access and can speak English (or has access to a reasonably good translation engine). I also think that the internet is largely forever, and that with an increase of 200,000 people daily on this planet, the number of potential readers for anything I write on a forever-timeline is pretty high. And I absolutely do think that one person out of however many million people might read my site might want a heads-up before they venture into a post that might graphically remind them of last night's food poisoning, that one abusive friendship they had in high school, various ableism slurs, and/or a heated and possibly triggering discussion revolving around reading people's minds without their consent. Go figure.
I also think -- and this is just me -- that a number of my readers are very busy people who prefer not to spend their time on things that don't interest them. So some of them may eyeball the header for a Twilight post and go "meh, another post about rape. Not interested." That's what makes content notes so nice: they're not just for avoiding triggering people; they're also useful for helping people manage their time wisely. As an entertainment-provider, I consider that to be an important part of my job.And then, of course, as Chris points out, there is community context that you may well be missing:
|@ Chris the Cynic|
Context! It changes everything.
2. That Trigger Isn't Possible! [CN: Rape, Abuse, Burning, Deer Collisions, Depression]
Alright, so maybe content notes and trigger warnings for broad or obscure things are acceptable. Gods know you didn't want to spend a lot of time reading about Ana's adventures in food poisoning to begin with. But "ethics of mind-reading"? That can't possibly be a trigger for anyone! Mind-reading doesn't, as we all know*, exist. How could someone be triggered by something that doesn't exist?
* Well, okay, some people believe in it. But those people are clearly Very Wrong because you don't believe in it. And the best part about this argument is that the "it" can be anything! As long as you don't believe it exists, it's not worthy of a trigger notice!
There's a lot to unpack here, and we'll save the "liberal credentials" argument for further down the page, but let's start with the obvious-and-immediate Compassion Fail.
First and foremost, people cannot control their triggers. Some people get panicky, anxious, or even outright PTSD triggered over odd things. Some people are triggered over imaginary things. The human mind is strange that way, and there's still a lot about triggers that we simply don't understand and maybe never will. Or as Coleslaw eloquently puts it:
Arguing with another person about the appropriateness of their trigger is incredibly rude and astonishingly abusive behavior. (It frankly smacks of the guy who told me that I, a rape survivor, couldn't possibly have PTSD from my rape because "rape is so common". Fancy people getting their hair knotted over a common little thing like rape!) A person's triggers aren't going to change as a result of an argument, and you're just going to very likely trigger them further by forcing them to dwell on their trigger and why they shouldn't have it. So go you, Mr. Compassion.
When people state (or strongly indicate) that they have a trigger, even if it's in regards to something impossible, we tend to believe them. What we don't do is hassle them to repeatedly justify their trigger, nor do we imply that their trigger is ridiculous, silly, or frivolous. Not even if the trigger in question is potentially impossible. We do this because we aren't assholes. Or as Ross nicely puts it:
And, really, I call this a "Compassion Fail" very deliberately. Because no matter how much you might say you're "sorry" for questioning the appropriateness of a trigger, you really probably aren't, as evidenced here by the 'hilarious' follow-up opinion that a person with such a ridiculous trigger surely cannot "[engage] in any conversation with anyone, ever, without bursting into tears".
If you actually care to understand what triggers are, you would think such a sentence very strange since, after all, "the ethics of mind-reading" don't come up frequently in conversation. But this sentiment makes perfect sense if you think that merely having a trigger like "ethics of mind-reading" makes you so 'oversensitive' that you can't handle anything on earth without tearing up. And now we're back to #1: I certainly don't think trigger warnings imply delicateness on the part of the readership, but the detractors of trigger warnings certainly seem to.
Incidentally, there are people who have difficulty engaging in conversation without crying. We call them "severely depressed" and, for myself, I try to make life easier on them rather than mocking them relentlessly. But that's just me!
But if you want to question the validity of triggers without being known as Compassion Fail, take heart: there is another fail here that you can cling to, and that is Imagination Fail. And instead of having to walk you through all the reasons why mind-reading could genuinely be a trigger for someone, I'll just let Dave do it:
Thank you, Dave! Since that is actually in fact what we were talking about with regards to Edward Cullen (he who reprimands Bella incessantly for 'not thinking the correct things' and who polices her behavior like whoa), you've hit the nail on the head precisely by using intelligence, imagination, and a touch of inference. Nicely done!
3. Trigger Warnings Are For Liberal Bragging! [CN: Ableism]
You've already seen this one before, but it deserves its own space: the idea that obscure trigger warnings couldn't possibly be posted in good faith or as a content note for people who might not want to read the morning's post, but rather must be a liberal in search of some bragging rights. Those dastardly liberals and their sanctimony!
And, um, I guess you could choose to see it that way. I mean, I can't stop you, nor can I prove that I have good faith motives behind the trigger warnings that I use. If you're determined to see life as a competition and everyone around you as dastardly competitors in a one-up-manship game of Who Is The Better Person, I reckon you'll find plenty of data to mold into your theory.
But, you know what, I often see this "holier than thou" argument employed against basic accommodation for disabled people. [CN: Ableism, Swearing] Who are these sanctimonious shits who decided to install a wheelchair ramp in their store? Who are these moderator assholes to tell us that we can't use words like "mad", "insane", "crazy", "lame", and "idiot" in their space or that the onus is on us to find better, more accurate ways to express ourselves? Who are these jerkwads on the internet who think that their pictures need alt-text for blind readers? Where will it all end?
The thing you need to understand, if you're employing this argument, is that most of us using non-ableist language and putting alt text on pictures and employing trigger warnings for people with triggers aren't judging you. Seriously. I'm not. I don't have the time or spoons to judge you. Do what you like in your space. I probably won't visit your space, because it doesn't sound safe for me, but it doesn't sound like you'd much like my space either. That's okay. I don't begrudge you having a space that accommodates you, any more than I begrudge the corner store having mostly Spanish-speaking employees for their Spanish-speaking clientele. Different atmospheres and different spaces for different people, and there's a big enough world and internet for us both.
But! Aren't I judging you implicitly by calling your language "ableist"? Well, I call it that because that's the only term I have readily available for "uses terms associated with disabilities and/or mental illness in order to discuss things that are not explicitly disability and/or mental illness related". If you think the word is inherently negative instead of descriptive of a behavior that demonstrably harms other people, that's your opinion that you're welcome to. But more relevantly: Why do you care if someone else out there thinks you're behaving badly? We're back to the idea that this is all a game with one winner as The Best Liberal Ever. I don't play that game. Why are you?
4. Trigger Warnings Stifle Conversation! [CN: Deer Collisions, Rape]
But surely if we accept that all triggers are valid and that if someone brings into a conversation that they're triggered by deer collisions, we have to respect that and remember to warn for it and omg where does it end, doesn't that mean that we can never have a free-flowing conversation again? Doesn't it mean that eventually we won't be able to talk about anything because someone might be triggered?
Well, there's a lot there to unpack. First, let's excise the "even when it's completely inoffensive" because what that really means is "even when it's not a trigger for me". See the point earlier about no one being able to choose or modify their own triggers. But the list of impossibly long things to remember is a valid point, I guess. Except that -- in most trigger-aware communities -- if the topic was trigger-warned for in the Opening Post, it's usually implied to trickle down to all the comments. So if you're staying relatively on topic, you shouldn't need to trigger warn for anything. Seriously. Stay on the topic of the post, and you never have to even think about putting up a trigger warning.
But! What if you want to Argue By Analogy! What if you want to back up your points by dragging into the thread a whole host of triggery things that are only tangentially related to the actual point at hand? What then! Well, then I would say you should possibly think about using another method of arguing. Because if you're dragging in analogies of things you have no immediate experience with then you are in danger of appropriating someone's actual experience and you're also very likely to say something terribly foolish. And if you're dragging in analogies of things you, personally, have actually experienced happening to your person, then you probably know in advance that there's a trigger potential there. In which case I would imagine that it would not be hard to slap up a warning.
But maybe it is hard! I really don't know what is hard for you. That's one of the funny things about individuals -- it's hard for me to make phone calls, for example, when email is so astonishingly simple in comparison. Other people tell me that phone calls are super-easy for them, but emails give them lots of trouble. Different people, different things that are easy and hard. So it's entirely possible that trigger warnings stifle conversation for you. But that's why trigger-aware communities have policies in place explaining what triggers are, how to use them, and why people must use them to be a member of the community. If that means you're left out of the community, that's a shame -- seriously -- but that's the bargain that we make in order to have safe spaces on the internet for people who need trigger warnings.
And this goes for specific triggers, as well. I tentatively believe that no site on the internet can be truly safe for *everyone*. Some people who are especially triggered by mentions of rape simply cannot read or post here because it comes up in a lot of my posts. I'm sorry for that, but it is what it is: no one blog can be all things to all people. So it's entirely possible that a blog's moderators may say "here is the trigger list" and enforce only that list and nothing more; that's their right to do so. Or it's possible that a blog may say "listen to others when they say they have a trigger and remember it". Or any number of other things. Every "safe space" blog has to make decisions like this on a regular basis, and the decisions usually aren't easy or clear-cut. A free-for-all may be simpler to regulate, but that doesn't necessarily make it better for the person creating the actual blog content.
Also. You know what stifles conversation more than trigger warnings? Complaints about some other site that uses trigger warnings. That can be very conversation-stifling. Requests for justification of trigger warnings can also shut down conversation. As can demands that everyone cover the same 101 ground over-and-over-and-over-and-over again. Here is the excellent EllieMurasaki:
5. Trigger Warnings Aren't Really Triggers! [CN: Homophobia, Transhumanism]
Worth discussing (with hat-tip to Rowen and Dave for the stepping-off point for the following ramble):
There's a reason why a lot of trigger-aware communities have moved to the term "content note", and part of that reason is to bypass (potentially-legitimate-but-frequently-abused-by-trolls) arguments about what a 'trigger' actually is and how it has to make someone feel before it can be acknowledged as such. I've actually seen well-meaning commenters disavow 'triggers' that gave them actual panic attacks because, hey, after the attack passed, they were mostly alright so despite being disturbing or debilitating it wasn't 'really' a trigger. And that kind of "I have to buck up and be stronger or else" mentality that our society pushes on us (and depression and PTSD can push even harder) is not helpful for individuals and is not (in my opinion) helpful for communities. Appropriation is important and should be conscientiously avoided, but anything that edges over into Disability Olympics is (again, in my opinion as a disabled person) deeply harmful.
So now, thanks to a lot of intra-community good faith concern and some deliberate bad faith trolling over the Very Precise Definition of Trigger Warnings, a lot of bloggers call trigger warnings "content notes", myself included. But others feel (with good reason) that the term "trigger warning" was staked out over a long period of time, after a hard fight against ableism and PTSD-denialism, and aren't inclined to change terms just because they perceive a few bullies trying to chip away at the right to put a goddamn trigger warning on a goddamn post without the whole thing derailing into another fight about trigger warnings. And I respect that; a very common tactic of bullies is to try to force constant name changes on people (See #5 here).
So if you happen to be the kind of person -- and I've seen this online before -- who decides to argue until the day is done that the term "trigger warning" should not be used because X makes Bob deeply uncomfortable or gives him a moderate panic attack rather than a full-blown PTSD episode, but you're totally okay with people using "content note" in place of the same thing, then good news: that fight is pretty much over and done and you've gotten your way save for a few hold-outs on the internet. However! I reserve the right to personally hold the opinion that this level of word-lawyering can be in danger of missing the point. There is always someone out there who can be 'triggered' worse than everyone else; that doesn't mean people with mild trigger responses should be made to feel guilty for owning that term.
6. Trigger Warnings Are Used As An Excuse To Banhammer! [CN: Rape]
|@ Chris the Cynic|
I've been Reading Stuff On The Internet for, oh, at least a decade now. Probably closer to two. I've been on feminist boards and safe space communities for at least seven years. I have never, ever, not even once, seen someone yelled at for missing a non-obvious trigger warning in a comment. Really. Honest-to-god.
I have seen people yelled at for questioning trigger warnings, or for mocking them, or for bullying people who claim that trigger as their own. I've seen people banned from communities for flat-out refusing to warn for specific triggers after being requested, multiple times, to do so. Or, to put it another way, I've seen people removed from communities for deliberately causing harm.
So this whole "but I could get banned by accident!" thing doesn't fly with me. Not when the people who throw it onto the pile are already on record as questioning, mocking, and bullying over trigger warnings as opposed to being reasonable, open, and compassionate in their interactions with other people. Or, to put it another way, if you act trollish in 9 out of 10 posts, I'm not inclined to give a benefit of the doubt for that 10% of the time where you might have made an innocent mistake. Quelle surprise.
Also a lot of hand-wringing over safe spaces frequently boils down to "I was yelled at by a blogger once". No kidding! I have been, too! I was once yelled at by a Very Prominent Feminist Blogger (years ago, under a different screen-name, for the record) over a total misunderstanding that I totally didn't deserve! o.0
I'm pretty sure everyone on the internet has been yelled at by a blogger once. Bloggers are people; we make mistakes. We work hard to communicate in a medium where at least half of the usual communication cues -- vocal inflection, facial expression, body language, etc. -- are completely absent. We misunderstand people! Frequently! And we're forced on a daily basis to try to decide if people are trolling or if we're misunderstanding what seems like Obvious Troll Behavior. And that decision? Is not easy to make. I've misunderstood very close friends in Real Life before; of course I'm going to misunderstand a stranger on the internet once in awhile.
Now I can't speak for anyone else, but I try not to bring out the CAPSLOCK key unless I feel very seriously provoked. But if you're really seriously concerned about this, here's a few tips for avoiding being yelled at by someone on the internet:
Remember that saying "sorry" in advance doesn't necessarily cover all sins. I can't walk up to someone and say "I'm sorry, but your face looks like a monkey's butt" and then expect them to not get a little huffy. If you're really genuinely sorry about what you're saying, find a better way to say it. What's less offensive: "I'm terribly sorry, trigger warnings all 'round, but *who* is such a delicate flower that they cannot handle a discussion of the *ethics* of mind-reading without prior warning?" or "I'm sorry if I'm missing something obvious, but can someone help me understand what is triggering about mind-reading, so that I can remember this for future discussions?" (Hint: In the former, you're demanding justification and a list of names; in the latter, you're making a good faith attempt to remember this for the future.)
Remember that you're putting one-fortieth of the time into your comment as the blogger put into their content. Most bloggers I know spend 40 hours a week writing; your average one-comment-per-post person puts in about an hour a week on their comments. If you blow past the carefully crafted content of a post to zip down-thread and make what sounds like a bad faith accusation against the blogger or the community, or to post a quick-and-dirty analogy about how you're right about X because of utterly unrelated [trigger material] Y, you're probably going to get yelled at. Not because you don't understand trigger warnings, but because you're a drive-by poster whose behavior is creating the impression that you care more about being listened to than listening. This impression is particularly sharp when you're slagging off Blog A on Blog B, while then later admitting that you, um, don't actually read Blog A and therefore don't know what you're talking about. People generally don't like that.
Remember that most people have reasons for what they do, and those reasons are not necessarily awful ones. People who speak up saying that they have a specific trigger are risking all kinds of internet backlash. Rarely are they celebrated or coddled for coming forward; usually the community just starts slapping that trigger up into place whenever the topic comes up and that's the end of that. In non-safe space communities, bullies can and do dig up those self-confessed triggers and use them against the commenter. Does that sound like fun to you? Ten-to-one, if someone says they are triggered by X, it's well and good to believe them and not assume that they're keying you up for a cheap thrill. Similarly, if a blogger is respectful of trigger X and incorporates that trigger into their safe space guidelines, that doesn't mean they're doing it in order to win The Best Liberal Ever award.
Remember that most people (including bloggers!) make mistakes. Sometimes bloggers will misunderstand you or unfairly lose their temper. Sometimes bloggers forget to warn for specific triggers and are asked by commenters to edit their posts retroactively. Sometimes bloggers are overly broad in their trigger warnings because they feel it's better to err on the safe side than to cause harm. Sometimes bloggers call things "trigger warnings" because the term is familiar, rather than trying to introduce the concept of "content note" to the community. It happens, and everyone has to make up their own minds about how much spoons they want to keep spending in order to stick with an imperfect blogger.
And if you're okay with a blogger being imperfect from time to time, then:
Remember that "I'm sorry, can we still be friends" isn't something confined to Real Life. I make mistakes. Probably you do, too. Can we still be friends? I'd like to be, even if this blog isn't the right, safe space for you. And if it can be a right, safe space for you, I'd like that even more. So while we're on the subject of bloggers making mistakes, I want to say that if I've hurt anyone in the past I'm genuinely sorry for the harm caused and I'd still like to be friends. Maybe you'll feel the same way.
...And I've run out of steam for tonight. Here's a big ol' rambly post while I go take my pain meds.