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Tuesday, March 18, 2014

I'm Triggered By Your Triggers

Posted by on Tue, Mar 18, 2014 at 10:13 AM

shutterstock_155209307.jpg

I’ve been watching this conversation about trigger warnings take shape for a while. Trigger warnings are used to warn others that there might be something you're about to say or post could cause a negative reaction. I first heard the phrase in a college classroom when I was an undergrad. Then I started seeing it on feminist blogs a lot; it really came from feminist spaces as a way to have tough conversations without alienating people, and it was always a useful way to be inclusive while still talking about intense topics like rape, abuse, and trauma. It’s difficult to comment on trigger warnings—too little interest in them means you’re being insensitive, too much interest means you’re overreacting and being absurd. Trigger warnings are used as weapons against individuals (did you know people have argued that mentioning Dan Savage should be preceded by a trigger warning?) and now, entire universities.

At my core, I think trigger warnings are weird. It’s strange to go through life assuming every space is suitable for you, and if it isn’t then you can do something to change it so that it is. That’s just fundamentally untrue, and a new level of privilege I can’t even comprehend. It’s also strange to me that people want to be shielded from pain not by changing themselves, but by influencing everything around them.

But I also have personal experience with trauma, and I often think about what a more compassionate world would look like. I was sexually and physically abused as a child over a period of years. No one knew about it (threatening children is still a remarkably effective way to ensure silence), and by the time I was able to drag myself to therapy in my 20s I’d already been suicidal, depressed, and sort of dead inside. Aside from wishing it never happened, I wished that I would be able to find a way to get through it, to not live with the pain of assault every single day. It seemed impossible—for the first few sessions I just sat on my therapist’s couch and paid $45 an hour to sob. But then my therapist, knowing I liked to read, gave me a few books that she thought would help, things like Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina and The Courage to Heal. And it did—reading about survivors helped me survive. I could finally see a way through to talking about it, then putting in the work to do something about it, and finally becoming the badass motherfucker you’re reading right now.

Imagine if those books were deemed too triggering, and I never had a chance to read them.

I know that my experience is specific to me, but I think there’s something to be said for learning about trauma without experiencing it all over again. The only way I figured out how to do that was with therapy. When I see people who require trigger warnings, my first thought is to pay attention to what they’re saying, but my second thought is “Are they getting the help they need?” I think we’re missing a bigger point here, because trigger warnings are really about mental health. The world is shitty and unyielding and not likely to bend to your will, and your best offense is a good defense. With the right tools, it’s possible to live in a sea of assholes and thrive.

But we’re not giving people the right tools with trigger warnings—we’re giving them a way out of their pain by avoidance and deflection. Having a way out isn’t enough when it’s situational, because you never know what’s going to bring up your issues again. Is it easier to step into a suit of armor, or cover the world in bubble wrap?

Trigger warnings in the classroom are trickier. I used to teach gender studies, and difficult topics are likely to come up because women are treated like garbage the world over. I didn’t want my students to feel like they had to suffer through something that made them feel terrible, but learning about the world was their job, and teaching them about it was mine. I tried to walk the line—I told students one semester that if they had any difficulty with the topics we were covering to please come and see me so we can get them the help they need, but that I would also come up with a different assignment for them. That quickly backfired, as I was suddenly writing up tailor-made assignments for 50 individuals. I was also taken advantage of completely—one student who hadn’t read the book I assigned told me that she couldn’t even start it because she was told there was a character in it who had bulimia. She admitted that she didn’t have bulimia herself—she just didn’t want to read about it.

I empathize with people who have experienced trauma. I’m compassionate, and I want them to get help to feel better. But I think the path to healing is not avoidance, and trigger warnings have gone way off the rails.

 

Comments (57) RSS

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1
"It’s strange to go through life assuming every space is suitable for you"
Not if you're a dude.
Posted by couchetard on March 18, 2014 at 10:22 AM · Report this
douchus 2
I'm a dude and I definitely feel uncomfortable in lots of places because I figure I don't belong. I'm sure that applies to at least 30% of other dudes.
Posted by douchus on March 18, 2014 at 10:25 AM · Report this
guerre 3
Allison Kilkenny put it best, IMHO(paraphrasing): "We live in a world where people flip out over spoilers in reviews of movies and TV, where critics have for years put spoiler warnings at the start of their work, yet to extend that basic 30 second worth of effort to victims and survivors is considered the end of all journalism and composition."
Posted by guerre on March 18, 2014 at 10:34 AM · Report this
fletc3her 4
It's important for people to realize what kind of discussion they are in. I remember discussing views on child pornography in one class in college. The professor introduced the topic and invited anyone who was uncomfortable to go for the day. It wasn't so much a trigger warning, but a warning that it might be an emotionally charged discussion. I think that was completely appropriate.

Similarly, on news sites there will be warnings about graphic pictures. When something like the Abu Ghraib photos appear on a news site, so graphic in their depiction of torture, it is appropriate to include a warning. They were very important for us to see, but I can understand some people not wanting to confront such inhumanity.

You want to stay one one side of the line where politeness turns into political correctness.
Posted by fletc3her on March 18, 2014 at 10:36 AM · Report this
AFinch 5
Indeed...someone needed to say the emporer has no clothes.

Well written.
Posted by AFinch on March 18, 2014 at 10:36 AM · Report this
6
Thanks Danielle; very cogent. A lot of material discussed in college classrooms is traumatic and brings up painful emotions; not only stories of rape and personal violence, but the holocaust, atomic bombing, factory farming, current events in Syria, the history of American slavery, genocide of Native Americans... We desperately need adults to learn about history and live in the real world that arises in the context of that history. Slapping "trigger" warnings on stories related to personal abuse begs the question; what about the big picture? If you can't read about bulimia or domestic violence, how do you deal with information about Hiroshima or Sand Creek or our prison system? People need to get appropriate support, and classroom cultures need to include supportive relationships and human acknowledgement that yes, this shit is hard to take, and yes, we all need to know about it.
Posted by MsBoyer on March 18, 2014 at 10:39 AM · Report this
7
Trigger warnings wouldn't have kept you from the books that helped you. Trigger warnings don't make content less available. They give people a choice. And it's kind of obnoxious to assume that people use them just because they aren't getting help. Sometimes you just don't want to deal with a topic that's going to upset you in some way. Maybe it's a bad day for it. Maybe you're currently visiting your parents and it'd be incredibly awkward to also deal with some sort of heavy emotional topic that you don't have to.

I used a warning just today. I saw a video that described itself as a lion killing two cheetahs. I decided that as much as that is a part of nature and the reminder that non-humans also kill for reasons other than food is a true point, I really didn't want to watch something that gory, especially knowing it was real. I didn't want to watch two animals die. So, I didn't. If there hadn't been a good description in advance, who knows, I might have watched the animal video.

Trigger warnings let you know what you're getting into in advance. And often you decide, you don't want to. I wish more people would avoid things that will upset them and create no benefit. If you already have various positive views, do what you can to help, etc. reading the details of one more case of child abuse isn't likely to make you a better person, but it is likely to make you feel worse. Which also is likely to make you less pleasant to others around you. It's good to moderate your doses of these topics. This is what healthy people do. This is what trigger warnings help people to do.
Posted by uncreative on March 18, 2014 at 10:41 AM · Report this
seandr 8
Your description of what goes on in Women's Studies classrooms reads like a dystopian nightmare.
Posted by seandr on March 18, 2014 at 10:45 AM · Report this
guerre 9
@6 because we don't have victims of Hiroshima attending our universities. Trigger warnings are for the people who have been traumatized by the event you are talking about, so they already have a personal understanding of rape etc. We don't force victims to go watch their attacker testify. I really don't understand why this is so hard for people to do.
Posted by guerre on March 18, 2014 at 10:46 AM · Report this
delirian 10
How about we don't focus on a generic discussion of trigger warnings with strawman arguments on how they are misused. Let's just make a short and concise definition that is easy to use. Make it something like the (NSFW) tag that we see without anybody objecting. Here's my criteria:

1. Graphic descriptions of abuse, sexual assault, self-injury, or other conditions that people who are having issues with would like to have a "heads up" before they read it. For example: Warning: graphic images, description of rape, description of suicide, etc. Don't make it a big deal, and use it sparingly. You don't have to write "trigger warning". All that should be done is to give a notice of the content.

That's it. I have no #2. It should be as easy as NSFW tags. Nothing is censored and nobody should be offended. And if people misuse trigger warnings, call them out on it.
Posted by delirian on March 18, 2014 at 10:51 AM · Report this
11
Avoidance yields a placebo effect in mental illness that actually prolongs and ultimately intensifies suffering.

When you help someone avoid processing, addressing and managing their illness you aren't helping, you're enabling.

Compassion is what is required, not help in avoidance.
Posted by Trigger Happy on March 18, 2014 at 10:55 AM · Report this
delirian 12
@11: Bullshit. If that were true, then repeated rape would be a treatment for PTSD brought on by rape. It is obvious that people are not able to heal during certain times and that controlling the level of trauma is essential. As such, trigger warnings are useful in that they allow the individual to determine if they are ready instead of viewing traumatic content in an uncontrolled setting.

I don't know where you learned psychology, but throwing an arachnophobic person into a room full of spiders is not a helpful treatment. Controlled exposure is the key.
Posted by delirian on March 18, 2014 at 11:02 AM · Report this
douchus 13
#12 No, it is not obvious.
Posted by douchus on March 18, 2014 at 11:11 AM · Report this
sikandro 14
Personally, I don't like the way that trigger warnings condition readers or potential readers to what they're about to encounter. Once you put in a trigger warning, you've turned that subject matter into the most important thing in the piece, and the thing that everyone is waiting for. It seems humane to give people warning, but is it really humane to tell people that something which horrifies them is just around the corner? I don't feel like I have the expertise to tell someone how to respond to their own trauma, which is what I think trigger warnings do.
Posted by sikandro on March 18, 2014 at 11:13 AM · Report this
15
@12

So, is that your rationale for avoiding anger management counseling?

Nothing that I said is in any extreme of the imagination related to your interpretation of what I said.

Have you considered the possibility that the Slog is enabling you in a very negative emotional way?

Perhaps, a walk outside or some deep breathing exercises would be a healthier use of your day.
Posted by Trigger Happy on March 18, 2014 at 11:14 AM · Report this
16
@10, recently on jezebel some people wanted a trigger warning for a story that had sex slave in the headline.

Which led to a lot of people being dissatisfied with the idea that people who want trigger warnings are incapable of inferencing certain things for themselves or that the world is collectively is able to mind read what is upsetting.

Trigger warnings are polite and thats as far as I think they're useful.
Posted by No Excuses on March 18, 2014 at 11:16 AM · Report this
hermann_hermann 17
Excellent column, Danielle.
Posted by hermann_hermann on March 18, 2014 at 11:19 AM · Report this
18
I really wish people wouldn't use trigger warnings. My brother died that way.
Posted by GermanSausage on March 18, 2014 at 11:21 AM · Report this
Theodore Gorath 19
Nothing wrong with offering trigger warnings, but to demand them is to assert that the world must stop and conform to your specific needs everytime you engage with media, or simply the world at large.

Which is why they piss so many people off in general.
Posted by Theodore Gorath on March 18, 2014 at 11:22 AM · Report this
delirian 20
@16: Great strawman. Did you miss the entire point of my post discussing the limitation and focused use of trigger warnings?
Posted by delirian on March 18, 2014 at 11:23 AM · Report this
21
This feels like a misuse and misunderstanding of what trigger warnings are for. It's not about warning people that there is going to be something uncomfortable or generally upsetting; it's about giving people advance notice so they can take personal steps to prepare to confront the material that might tap into a strongly negative personal experience.

The comparison to warnings about graphic content on a particular news story is apt. I see it as a courtesy to someone to let them know that I'm about to talk about or show them something that might be incongruent with reasonable expectations coming into it. Likewise, a "NSFW" tag is a courtesy to let someone know ahead of time that if they are at work or in another place where something edgy, graphic, or overly sexual would be inappropriate, they probably should wait until later to check it out.

I learned to use trigger warnings in similar ways; of course, my knowledge won't be perfect about everything that could trigger severe PTSD or other types of traumatic responses, but I can take a reasonable guess that talking about sexual assault, child abuse, and other horrendous acts in a conversation that had no reference to such disturbing things would catch someone unawares. For me, it is a way to respect the agency of others and to hope that they would be willing to engage in the conversation with adequate notice.

I also teach a gender studies course, and I've run into the "I don't like that the women's suffrage music video showed men as being bad guys" comment; that's just superficial whining. When we get onto the inevitable FGM/circumcision discussion, I am going to preface the talk with, "we're going to talk about some uncomfortable topics; it is valuable to engage in a conversation so we can learn how to talk about it, but if it becomes too upsetting, we can take a break for a bit."

To use another example, I see trigger warnings (whatever their form) as being similar to checking with dinner guests about allergies or other food sensitivities (such as to spicy food or cilantro). "Just to let you know, the curry is very spicy today, and it has cilantro." "I wanted to check: does anyone have a nut allergy? I used peanut oil for the kebabs." Maybe I won't know about a specific person's food sensitivity at that time, but opening up the conversation makes it easier for them to bring it up so we can avoid something bad happening.
More...
Posted by MemeGene on March 18, 2014 at 11:29 AM · Report this
Will in Seattle 22
@8 depends on the class. My SFU Women's Studies class was like that, but a later Women's History class at Capilano University was fun. Learned a lot!
Posted by Will in Seattle http://www.facebook.com/WillSeattle on March 18, 2014 at 11:36 AM · Report this
23
@16, its not a strawman, its a relation of events told by me to you with no implicit point about how reasonable or unreasonable trigger warnings are in general. It was just surprising to see a place you would see as sympathetic actually being fed up with trigger warnings that seem redundant or seemingly require a lack of comprehension.
Posted by No Excuses on March 18, 2014 at 11:37 AM · Report this
24
@delirian: Glad we're on the same page on this.

The linked article - "The Trigger Warned Syllabus" - has two great points that are relevant:

"Instead, trigger warnings are being encouraged for sites of resistance, not mechanisms of oppression." - this is part of that misuse I mentioned. It is being used to compound recognition of difference and discomfort for a majority (ie: talking about slavery in an American historical context makes the white students feel uncomfortable) rather than to support recognition of minority voices (whether LGBT, queer, intersectional, poor, etc).

"Trigger warnings make sense on platforms where troubling information can be foisted upon you without prior knowledge, as in the case of retweets." - this is the incongruity part I mentioned. If you are in an ongoing relationship with people, such as teaching a classroom of students, then there should be ample opportunity to have the meta/structuring talk beforehand. If you are reposting a link on a blog, then it's harder for a reader to know what's on the other side of that link, so you do the courtesy of marking it for them.

A syllabus should serve as the entire "NSFW" tag: if a student can't handle seeing topics listed on the syllabus, then that is their time to drop the class and move to something else.
Posted by MemeGene on March 18, 2014 at 11:39 AM · Report this
Womyn2me 25
TRIGGER WARNING: I'm going to talk about abuse

I have triggers. One is the smell of lavender. Can you imagine what it's like, living a lesbian life and hating with a passion the smell of lavender. Being raped by your father in a room that smells like lavender potpourri is a gift that keeps on giving.
I know I cannot go thru life without smelling my trigger. Hell, I want to retire in Sequim... what I can do and did was to recognize the smell as a trigger and then do my usual tricks to help me cope. JUST THE SORT OF THING WE ARE HOPING FOR HERE.
My coping is my responsibility. I don't make people stop smelling of lavender. I learn to deal with the smell and realize that I am 53 years old and the abuse is over and never happening again. My friends have, by their choice and out of their love for me, stopped having that scent in their houses for years. But I would not have asked them to do it.
Posted by Womyn2me http://http:\\www.shelleyandlaura.com on March 18, 2014 at 11:52 AM · Report this
26
Great post, Danielle.

@9 I teach history and about a third of my students are international students. I usually have one or two Japanese students and several Vietnamese, Chinese, and Middle Eastern students in every classroom. I do not give trigger warnings, but I am careful when discussing Hiroshima, My Lai, and any atrocity involving the U.S. and elsewhere, and I encourage voices from those countries directly effected by these events, even if they were born after the fact. Same with discussing Civil Rights and women's and gay liberation. As @6 said, it's tough shit to hear, but it must be discussed. I can't give nonstop trigger warnings in world history but I am empathetic to the wounded.
Posted by mitten on March 18, 2014 at 11:55 AM · Report this
27
I've always been stringently against trigger warnings. It's the absolute worst extension of the "everybody needs to be concerned about my problems" mindset. As others have said here, dealing with your shit is your responsibility.
Posted by The CHZA on March 18, 2014 at 12:26 PM · Report this
Garrett 28
I concur with Professor Henderson on this one (and also for reasons I've stated elsewhere on slog recently that I don't feel like rehashing). I would like to think the gender studies course work I've gone through was actually pretty well put together... but then again it also did a fair job of recognizing the multiplicity of views within the genre so-to-speak.

Maybe it is just me, but I get the impression from the recent crop of undergrads (in Seattle/Western Washington/Ecotopia at least) that more and more there is less well-rounded academic perspective going on and more sermonizing of people like Catherine MacKinnon (or MacKinnon-esque figures that seem to employ their own metaphysics and special definitions) and you wind up with heavy in-group/out-group dynamics using subtle and not-so-subtle kinds of thought policing. Granted part of that is clearly baked into the theory in books like CM's Towards a Feminist Theory of State, where it's explicit about the appropriation of Marxist concepts to frame non-economic things. Except that I don't necessarily get the impression that it comes from reading books so much as is almost subculture related? If that makes sense.

I dunno... was curious if you (Henderson, or anyone else really) had similar impressions with current trends. I don't want to put too much on academic faculty either because it does seem fueled as much from the outside from echo-chambers on the Internet devoid of academic rigor than anyplace else. Where you probably wind up with the more peculiar, what I think could be deemed anti-intellectual or pseudo-scientific strains.
Posted by Garrett on March 18, 2014 at 12:46 PM · Report this
wilbur@work 29
the necessity for trigger warnings means the end of meaningful conversations. Congrats to the fools who introduced this concept -- welcome to your new dishonest and cloistered world.
Posted by wilbur@work on March 18, 2014 at 12:56 PM · Report this
30
@20 Focused use? From when to use warnings from your post above:

"Graphic descriptions of abuse, sexual assault, self-injury, or other conditions that people who are having issues with..."

Oh, very focused - just conditions that people are having issues with. That narrows it down.
Posted by deign_to_say on March 18, 2014 at 1:06 PM · Report this
31
Thank you. I've been trying to figure out for a while how to explain exactly what bothers me about trigger warnings. This is pretty much it.
Posted by J from Oregon on March 18, 2014 at 1:19 PM · Report this
32
#25 is exactly right. Most people who post "trigger warnings" have no clue what a real PTSD trigger is, or the difference between being triggered and being upset. A PTSD trigger is sensory - the smell of lavender, the color of someone's shirt, a particular sound. Experiencing that trigger makes the person re-experience - not just remember, but actively and vividly re-experience - the trauma. That's a trigger.

Yes, reading about rape and abuse and all sorts of other upsetting stuff is upsetting - whether you've experienced trauma or not. I can get terribly upset reading about child abuse or prison maltreatment even though I've never experienced it myself. But that's not a trigger, and the world does not owe me protection from upsetting experience. Insisting that everything that can possibly upset you be stamped with a "trigger warning" smacks of drama-queenery, as you're basically claiming to have a much more severe condition than what you actually have.
It's like claiming to have cancer when what you've actually got is a cold.

It's impossible to protect people from actual PTSD triggers unless you know them. I have a friend whose trigger is red or orange clothing (guess where that one originated). We know not to wear red or orange around him. But would your average Women's Studies professor be aware enough, or sensitive enough, to put a "trigger warning" on a book she assigns because the cover of the book has a person in a red shirt on it? Probably not, right?

I'd be fine with a "graphic violence" warning, or something like that - but leave the word "trigger" out of it. It's not the same thing.
Posted by larisa_m on March 18, 2014 at 1:36 PM · Report this
33
Even after hurtling through the hyperlink vortex, I still haven't been able to figure out for the life of me what "Chinua Achebe colonialism trigger" could possible mean.

Things Fall Apart is a story of colonialism. There is no way that one could wind up holding the book in one's hands and not realize that. And there is no valid reason that anyone taking a class on African history or 20th century English-language literature should be able to -- or should desire to -- "opt out" of engaging with the human outcomes of colonialism.

Thanks to Danielle for sharing her own experience with trauma and her path to working through it, but thanks as well for sharing her classroom experiences. The "trigger warning" phenomenon appears to have snowballed from a desire to make "safe" spaces to an excuse to avoid any inkling of discomfort, to shirk the hard work of challenging one's constructed worldview in light of difficult realities. Intellectual growth is an often uncomfortable process.
Posted by d.p. on March 18, 2014 at 1:54 PM · Report this
sirkowski 34
My trigger is social science students.
Posted by sirkowski http://www.missdynamite.com on March 18, 2014 at 2:03 PM · Report this
lucida c. 35
i think of trigger warnings as more utilitarian versions of movie ratings. i would have liked to know there was going to be a graphic rape scene on camera in 'the girl with the dragon tattoo' before going into the the movie. although i do occasionally enjoy being challenged by media, that particular imagery takes a giant shit on my ability to have a good time. it may be true that calls for trigger warnings can be misused to silence uncomfortable discussions, but misuse of a tool doesn't make the tool useless.

i think anyone in a gender studies class who is so triggered by violence against women that they can't talk about the fact that rape or eating disorders exist is probably in the wrong class and should consider a course of study that doesn't rely on studying exercises of human power. and yeah, those undergrads took you for a fucking ride.
Posted by lucida c. on March 18, 2014 at 2:52 PM · Report this
36
I'm with @21 - "trigger warnings" are a tool that helps people who experience PTSD symptoms (not just some degree of discomfort) avoid spending hours or weeks in a non-functional state.

Generally you encounter these warnings in dedicated forums and domains focused on sexual assault, child sexual abuse, domestic violence, and trauma associated with accidents and military service etc.. In those places, these warnings tend to be used in cases of very strong language or very strong triggers - likely because everyone visiting already knows what they are likely to see and were mentally and emotionally prepared for it before they arrived. Where it becomes a big deal is when these kinds of strong triggers appear in unexpected places in the wild.

During the coverage of the Jerry Sandusky case, survivors of child sexual abuse (CSA) found themselves getting triggered by the intense media coverage to the point where CSA service organizations recommended people just avoid the media altogether.

Danielle said, "But we’re not giving people the right tools with trigger warnings—we’re giving them a way out of their pain by avoidance and deflection. Having a way out isn’t enough when it’s situational, because you never know what’s going to bring up your issues again. Is it easier to step into a suit of armor, or cover the world in bubble wrap?"

Trigger warnings aren't about enabling "avoidance or deflection", they're about giving people information to help them manage their own mental health. They let people know they need to be prepared for the content and have the right emotional resources to deal with it. In many cases people will go ahead and read the content and will be fine, because they had the chance to self-check up front. In much fewer cases people will decide they don't have the resources and won't read the content. Trigger warnings just eliminate the element of surprise.

It's as unreasonable to expect people to wear a suit of armor 24x7, as it is to expect the whole world to be bubble wrapped 24x7. And there are always going to be people who are just way too early in their therapeutic journey to stumble onto triggering content for their trauma. I think there's a place for warnings about these kinds of strong content, but I think they need to be better defined and fairly rare.
More...
Posted by Brian Murphy on March 18, 2014 at 2:59 PM · Report this
brandon 37
There is something to be said for learning to adapt to your environment and desensitizing yourself to things that make you feel bad. It's the whole basis for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.
Posted by brandon on March 18, 2014 at 3:39 PM · Report this
38
Real talk: As a rape survivor, I pick my battles. I don't want to be treated with kid gloves, but sometimes it's just nice to know "hey, gurl. That series is rapier than Cards Against Humanity. Proceed with caution" so I can check my head and proceed accordingly. All things in moderation. Even trigger warnings. I have friends that really get off on rape fantasy, and still need warnings because getting punched in the fucking face isn't part of their fantasy. Everybody's mileage varies.
Posted by osscilatewildly on March 18, 2014 at 3:49 PM · Report this
39
You are literally stating that rape survivors are oversensitive and citing your own experience as proof positive that it's not that bad.

What a miserable opinion for you to have.
Posted by Oliver Bigler on March 18, 2014 at 3:54 PM · Report this
Sabotage 40
Fun fact: I actually have PTSD and have never been "triggered" by onomatopoeia of loud noises on the Internet.
Posted by Sabotage on March 18, 2014 at 4:39 PM · Report this
41
Trigger warnings aren't about avoiding a "negative reaction." Trigger warnings are about giving people a heads up before they run across something that will, literally, trigger an episode of PTSD. This is a visceral physical, mental, and emotional reaction- not just a vague feeling of "being upset" or "disgust." So, you know, trigger warnings are useful if you're reading a blog on your lunch hour, or on the bus, and you don't want to spend the next twenty minutes vomiting and dry heaving. Or you'd like to be able to sleep that night. Or not have a panic attack in public and have a stranger call an ambulance for you because you appear to be having a heart attack. This isn't about trying to keep people from writing whatever they want to write, it's about giving readers the opportunity to make informed decisions about what they're about to read. Most of the time I choose to read the pieces which have trigger warnings related to my particular triggers; but I get to choose when and where I read them. Trigger warnings are a part of respecting my right to make that choice, and a way of recognizing that people like me exist in the world. Your suggestion that springing triggering material on survivors will somehow help them get better is disgusting, reprehensible, and ultimately hostile to consent. You don't get to decide what's best for other survivors.

It is profoundly condescending of you to assume that someone still experiencing episodes of PTSD is somehow failing to confront their issues and that they should be doing more. Not everyone has the opportunity to access expensive mental health services. Not everyone who does access mental health services "gets better" and never experiences a PTSD episode again. Not everyone who has experienced trauma *wants* (or is in a place where it's safe) to take the route that you took towards healing, and that is their choice. It takes, maybe, thirty seconds to add a one sentence blurb at the top of an article or post that gives readers a heads up that you're going to be discussing rape, or gay-bashing, or child molestation, or torture. But, you know, why should you bother think about the fact that many people around you have experienced profound trauma and would appreciate a heads up before coming across graphic depictions of similar trauma? After all, you're just helping them toughen up, right? It is absolutely your right to refuse to use trigger warnings or content notes- but don't dare suggest that you're somehow being victimized by the request that you consider the existence of survivors for thirty seconds before you click post.
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Posted by BasicRespectforOthers on March 18, 2014 at 8:05 PM · Report this
Retrominx 42
"It’s strange to go through life assuming every space is suitable for you, and if it isn’t then you can do something to change it so that it is. That’s just fundamentally untrue, and a new level of privilege I can’t even comprehend. It’s also strange to me that people want to be shielded from pain not by changing themselves, but by influencing everything around them."

This makes it sound like don't really get trigger warnings or really give a shit at all. People process trauma differently and just cause you went through a traumatic event doesn't mean you can ipso facto tell everyone else that they are being too sensitive. You mentioned it took you a while to get into therapy. What if someone was abused last week?
Posted by Retrominx on March 18, 2014 at 9:09 PM · Report this
43
Please and thank you are also passe and indicators of privilege. Who the fuck are you to feel so entitled to simple courtesies?
Posted by stating the obvious on March 18, 2014 at 10:34 PM · Report this
mr. herriman 44
i am surprised to learn they actually work for some people. i assumed they were fairly useless, as in, if you are still in a fragile enough frame of mind to need them, how do you even internet? there's horrifying news all over the place. descriptive headlines or post intros would be more effective, with a "graphic content" or "disturbing images" tag on the really bad stuff - and i feel like those actually treat people like adults and not delicate little flowers. but then who decides what earns a tag? everybody, apparently, because it HAS gotten out of hand.

if i'm posting something that's overly graphic or emotional i try to give a little heads-up, "not for the squeamish" or "i cried" or some indicator of the potential for distress that might not be given away in the headline. I know this is in effect the same thing as "TRIGGER WARNING," but somehow just feels less like kid gloves to me.

i'm part of a grief support group on facebook and damn near every post starts with TRIGGER WARNING. well, yeah ...

i can see it for the really extreme stories - particularly the violent deaths and child suicides (and we've got them, lots of them) but i would think that any active member of the group knows not to go to the page and read posts until they're in a place where they know they can fall apart, because that IS what's going to happen. do we really need "TRIGGER WARNING: this post has a lot of swear words in it" on a grief site for adults?

short answer: a nice courtesy that's gotten out of hand to the point that it's lost its meaning.
Posted by mr. herriman on March 19, 2014 at 1:10 AM · Report this
45
The only place I've seen "trigger warnings" before is on pregnancy message/ bulletin boards. I completely understand the need for them there. Women who have had a miscarriage or lost a child have a really hard time hearing about miscarriages and stillbirths. A woman who is in the first few fragile months of a high-risk pregnancy could be upset to the point of health risk at some topics.
But that doesn't mean they should be everywhere- the reason they have trigger warnings is because one would have a reasonable assumption that a board about morning sickness won't be talking about child loss. Since the topic would be unexpected, the warning is useful.
However, anyone sensitive to topics like that would never visit an anti-abortion site that shows pictures of aborted fetuses, so a warning there would just be silly.
Likewise, I couldn't imagine going to a Women Studies class and not anticipating talk about rape. Or reading the "crime" section of a news site and not expecting news about rape, molestation, child abuse, and death. Trigger warnings are fine- where they belong, not everywhere.
Posted by nearng24 on March 19, 2014 at 3:20 AM · Report this
46 Comment Pulled (Spam) Comment Policy
47
@44: Sometimes people who have gone through trauma or are experiencing severe emotional distress turn to the internet for a more moderated form of social contact (because face-to-face is too difficult, transportation is hard, physical barriers, etc). So instead, they might hang out on a fandom or fanfic blog (so they can discuss a television show or book they're watching/reading to slowly work back into social interaction) that sometimes discusses very disturbing topics. Even if it is supposed to be recreational and oriented towards a fictitious (some say escapist) story, it's going to intersect with real-world and difficult subjects at times (actually part of the appeal of good young adult fiction is its connection to real world challenges faced by young people).

For example, in a Harry Potter fandom group someone might start discussing child abuse in the context of Harry's living situation with his aunt and uncle; that would warrant a trigger warning, both for the topic but also for the possibility that posters might be sharing their own stories of abuse and neglect there. A person who has survived such abuse could find it helpful as a way to start talking about their experience, but another person might not be in a place to do that, so being able to make an informed choice about whether to participate and read is helpful.
Posted by MemeGene on March 19, 2014 at 3:56 AM · Report this
48
I think this piece makes a good point but I think there are a couple very obvious pitfalls:

"Trigger warnings are used to warn others that there might be something you're about to say or post could cause a negative reaction." "Negative reaction" is diminishing. This isn't a negative reaction, it's a fucking panic attack.

"It’s also strange to me that people want to be shielded from pain not by changing themselves, but by influencing everything around them." This seems sort of victim blame-y to me in that it places a focus on victims changing themselves rather than society changing to be less abusive.

Finally, while I very much agree that EVERYONE needs to see a mental health professional regardless of the situation, I think the approach of "wondering if these people are getting the help they need" makes a great deal of assumptions about mental health, class, culture, socio-economics, and past therapy experiences if any.
Posted by patronsaint on March 19, 2014 at 7:33 AM · Report this
Bonefish 49
Guys, it's two little words. It's not a lot of effort on the blogger's part, and it doesn't literally block anyone from reading anything. It just lets you know what you're in for. This isn't PC censorship, here.

I'm not going to tell a trauma-sufferer what should and shouldn't trigger them or whether or not they should get a brief little warning now and then. Nor am I going to call them over-sensitive. Why? For the same reasons I wouldn't walk up to a paraplegic and call them "lazy" or tell them whether or not they really need a wheelchair ramp.

In general, telling someone how to handle something that you've never been through isn't "tough love." It's intellectually lazy, arrogant stupidity.

Sure, some trigger warnings are ridiculous (just like some spoiler alerts are ridiculous and dated). Oh well. I guess you read two extra words for nothing; you poor thing, you.
Posted by Bonefish http://5bmisc.blogspot.com/ on March 19, 2014 at 9:25 AM · Report this
50
The point of trigger warnings is to give people the *option* of whether or not to experience something. In forums with a lot of abuse victims (like feminist facebook groups, for example), it's a choice between not posting something for fear of triggering people's PTSD and giving them a heads up.
Posted by Tyro on March 19, 2014 at 1:36 PM · Report this
51
Thank you from a fellow feminist and Gender Studies professor. I'm sharing this with friends. I really appreciated this article.
Posted by Carol Guess on March 21, 2014 at 10:54 AM · Report this
52
America's Victim Train has run out of steam so folks are quickly shoveling some horseshit into the engine (trigger!) to get her fired back up and back to Victimville.
Posted by Victim of victimology on March 21, 2014 at 4:37 PM · Report this
53
#21 had this right. Trigger warnings are a good that are misused by both sides. Someone wanting to avoid something that don't have the tools to cope with right now aren't being 'weak' ,or 'running away from their problems'. At the same time you simply can't warn for everything that might trigger someone. And yes there are people who will misuse this to get out of work, but that's like saying because some people abuse the welfare system no one should get any help whatsoever.

I'd rather give a heads up so I don't ruin someone's day, something that really takes a few minutes, but at the same time you have to be willing to cut others some slack because they can't read your mind.
Posted by msanonymous on March 22, 2014 at 12:17 AM · Report this
sphericaltime 54
People that have been seriously hurt, physically, emotionally or mentally, and find the need for trigger warnings should be able to find places to exist where they can moderate the content that they are exposed to. That is, those places should be small, insular, and they should focus on getting that person healthy enough to deal with the world outside that space so that they can return to fully functional life.

But fully functional life can't be controlled. You are going to experience things, positive and negative, that you can't anticipate and most people will want to be able to deal with them. And you have no legal right to control what other people say around you. Someone walking down the street talking to their friend about child sexual slavery may be "triggering" but it's well within their right of free speech to have that conversation or to shout it from the rooftops.

I see triggers as valuable in those smaller protective communities, but in a big university for all of their classes? Useless. You can't teach about the world while providing a safe space that large. Those things are nearly perfectly at odds.
Posted by sphericaltime on May 20, 2014 at 7:57 PM · Report this
55
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Posted by sly123 on August 8, 2014 at 3:33 PM · Report this
56
Trigger Warning!

http://www.happytrailsforever.com/view/u…
Posted by Zyxomma on September 11, 2014 at 8:14 PM · Report this
Posted by Zyxomma on September 11, 2014 at 8:16 PM · Report this

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