Fail Better: Trigger Warnings — Use Them, Believe in Them

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Trigger Warning: This post discusses sexual abuse, depression, and state violence.

When I was younger and a much bigger asshole than I am now, I used to scratch my head at trigger warnings. I don’t now. It’s not a complicated issue — be kind, use trigger warnings; no downside. 

One of my first experiences with online community was as a member of a sprawling forum attached to a Tori Amos fansite. I’m not, as it happens, a big fan of Tori Amos but there were enough subforums that anyone could enjoy the community. But it had some then rather unusual rules. Trigger warnings were mandatory. Suicidal ideation and discussion of sexual assault and self-injury had to be confined to certain subforums, or clearly marked in the thread’s subject line. If you’re not familiar with Amos, she’s long been an advocate for survivors of rape and incest and often deals with heavy issues like these and mental illness in her work and her public advocacy. Her fan base tends to skew to feminists, to LGBTQ, and to survivors. And knowing that so many members of the forum were vulnerable and hurting for one reason or another, the administrators took special care to make that space a little safer for them and everyone else. Not a safe space, but a little less likely to revictimize anyone or to trigger anyone into doing something dangerous.

Before becoming a member there I’d mostly posted to anon debate boards and intensely trolly comics forums, so it was a bit of a culture shock. But as much as I scoffed at all this cotton wadding were supposed to be cushioning everyone in — trigger warnings? seriously? how do people function!? — I couldn’t scoff for long. It’s harder to sneer about the usefulness of trigger warnings and other minor, daily courtesies when you see them in action for people who need them the most.

Why use trigger warnings? Because discussion of self-injury can send cutters down a bad road. Because discussion of PTSD itself and the events that cause it — war, mass police actions, assault, abuse — can start a spiral that’s hard to get out of.

Later, when I struggled with major depression, losing several years of my life to it, I saw the other side of things — I was all of a sudden the person who needed those minor daily kindnesses, instead of the so generous, so patient person who went out of her way to label everything for those who couldn’t function (scoff) without trigger warnings. It took me a long time to dismantle whatever structure I had operating internally that told me I was weak for needing help; disgusting. Much longer than it took me to take on the practice of using trigger warnings. Slap a “TW” on a message board post or essay? Easy enough. Believe that they’re both vitally important and not vaguely sad? That’s harder. That’s so much harder.

But holding on to your cynicism about mental illness and injury, hanging on to a hierarchy of mental fitness — that’s only going to hurt you in the end and the people you love. And what’s it for? So you can feel better than someone who’s hurting? Like you’re doing them a special favour? I moderated a large comics fan community for years, one that, like that Tori Amos forum, tried to be a safer space for fans. And even while writing and enforcing rules designed to make life a little less terrible for others, fielding complaints about abuse, finding emergency resources for members, and being a shoulder to cry on, there was still a voice in the back of my head saying, “at least I’m not her. At least I’m not as fucked up as her.”

cat gifThere’s been a lot of hard news this summer. From Ukraine, to Gaza, to Ferguson, to the ghoulishly over-covered suicide of Robin Williams, the news has been all hazard signals, not enough cat GIFs. Life is of course always full of terrible and wonderful happenings, but there are moments when the media seems stuck in a vortex of helpless tragedy and impending doom(s) — this is one of those moments. Bad news, bad news, change the channel, switch from Twitter to Instagram, bad news. “No offense, but Robin Williams made a stupid mistake.” “No offense, but Mike Brown shouldn’t have provoked the police.” Oh, I’m sorry. You’re clearly sensitive. Did that hurt? It’s never a good time to prove how edgy you are by questioning the usefulness of trigger warnings, or by making an inappropriate joke aimed where we’re tender, but now, least of all. Media frenzy, an atmosphere of pervasive tension, violence, and terrible potential — these put all of us on edge. But remember, trigger warning doubter, that heavily reporting on suicides can increase suicide rates, that negative representations of people of colour can increase racism, violent racism, and that media bias and pseudo-science kills. Stop the gaslighting and devil’s advocating — what’s it gain you?

Since trigger warnings became the primary way that feminists and other weaksauce progressives are destroying the world — this past spring, thanks to students at UC Santa Barbara in the US requesting a trigger warning policy — the argument has gone: trigger warnings will destroy academic and press freedom, create a class of permanent and professional victims, and destroy the vibrant, freewheeling pop culture we know and love. This is some chicken little bullshit. It’s a fantasy, a conflation of content warnings with censorship, of tools for mental health and well-being with the perpetuation of illness, of vulnerability with weakness, of basic human kindness with weakness. And ultimately, it’s cruelly condescending and abusive.

What is a trigger warning? Simply, a notice to take care if you need to. They’re a tool for people to better manage their mental health. Are they a crutch? What the hell is wrong with needing and using a crutch? In a perfect fantasy world, everyone who now needs a trigger warning — or we could call them content labels, SEO best practices, if that sits with you bit better — wouldn’t need them tomorrow. We all want to work through our trauma, get over our depression, and lead harder-faster-stronger(more productive) lives. But not all trauma can be gotten over, least of all when you’re being constantly revictimized, and not all depression ends. Clinical depression and bipolar disorder never ends. Violent structural racism and rape culture is here for the long haul. There’s no thinking your way out of it.

Right now, today, be courteous, be sensible. Label your content clearly and effectively. And do so knowing that you aren’t throwing someone a bone, that you aren’t superior to her. Rather, you are helping people to take better care of themselves and you are limiting the ways in which you personally might harm them. Believe that everyone is worthwhile, worth listening to, your equal.

Megan Purdy

Megan Purdy

Publisher of all this. Megan was born in Toronto. She's still there. Philosopher, space vampire, heart of a killer.

6 thoughts on “Fail Better: Trigger Warnings — Use Them, Believe in Them

  1. Wow Basey, so storming the beaches of Normandy makes you a worthy American? I’m 40-ish (Gen X I guess?) and didn’t feel noble about going to Kuwait in 90, but I did it–what you’re willing to do for your country has ZERO to do with your identity as a citizen of the country—nor does it have anything to do with the need for trigger-warnings (aka, respect of others feelings on the internet).

    The internet has connected the current generation (and us) to cultures and people in ways like no other before it – and it does so on a massively anonymous scale. There should be rules, there should be triggers. It has nothing to do with national-identity, it has to do with self-policing the social interactions of the current pan-human experience that is, the internet-age.

  2. Americans are weird. Very, very, very weird and very, very weak. It’s lucky that nobody needs this generation to storm the beaches of Normandy or we’d be screwed.

    1. 1) I’m not American. 2) Many soldiers suffer from extremely debilitating PTSD and have flashbacks. Maaaaybe they’d benefit from accurate labels (AKA trigger warnings) on activities and fiction.

    2. “Storming the beaches of Normandy” wasn’t a self-stimulating task. D-Day was a show of force in response to political decisions that impacted many people very cruelly and threatened a lot of other governments. So when you say it’s lucky that particular action doesn’t currently need to be taken, what you’re saying is that it’s bad when people dehumanise others… Because that leads to widespread death. Coincidence: that’s also the gist of the OP.

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