Safe Spaces, Free Speech, and the Internet: On Your Right Not To Be Triggered

triggerwarningI should start this probably by saying that I am a big supporter of free speech (the Constitutional concept) and also a fan of the trigger warning, when used by people who are trying to create a safe space.  Trigger Warnings are actually a great way to enhance free speech and allow yourself space not to self-censor certain topics, while also making it easy for those who are bothered by the subject to avoid it.  That said, that doesn’t mean that every space gets absolute free speech nor does it mean that every trigger gets a warning.

I am, personally, not a big user of the Trigger Warning in my own work.  Not because I think people shouldn’t use it if they’d like, but because I rarely talk about subjects that traditionally require them, I find them bulkier than tags, and don’t really think they work for Facebook/Twitter, which is where I do most of my textual interaction.  They are, to my mind, most useful when linking to something else that someone might not want to click on because it is graphic, like a NSFW warning.  I generally don’t have a problem with the idea that people are, at times, disturbed by my content.  Many are disturbed by my atheist content, some by my language, I don’t feel the need to warn people that I am going to talk about religion disparagingly and with bad words.

This post was inspired by two separate events that happened in the last couple weeks on Facebook.  The first was a post that someone made in response to MRAs trying to hurt rape victims in which the poster said in anger that they wanted to hurt the MRAs for doing that and, in the comments below, said that some people need killin’.  Some people then got angry at him for talking about violence in hyperbolic fashion about people he doesn’t know without self-censoring, because any reference to death made people “uncomfortable” and suicidal people could be triggered by it and immoderate words could lead to immoderate actions.  (It was unclear if anyone was being triggered themselves, or just concerned that it was possible; since distancing language is common when trauma is involved, I don’t make any conclusions.)  The argument escalated to basically an insistence that, to be a good person, one should be willing to self-censor anything that might be triggering.  Not to simply warn that there was content, but to completely bar yourself from speaking on the topic in shared spaces, like Facebook.

Now, to me, my Facebook page is not a safe space for other people; it’s a space where I talk without self-censorship to my friends and followers and they can tune in or shut me off, either is fine with me.  No one is obligated to listen.  It is my space to rant and complain and cope with horrible things and share exciting things and get angry at things that are terrible and happy about things that are adorable.  That doesn’t mean that what I say there is beyond criticism in comments, but I am not going to NOT talk about something because someone finds it triggering, in the same way that I don’t always avoid spoilers.  Facebook is therapeutic for me; it is how I process anxieties and questions and my own struggles with mental illness and trauma of many kinds.  There are some things that are for my gratification, and it took me a very long time to understand that that’s OK, I get to do things for myself sometimes.  I balk at the idea that who I am, the experiences of being me, require a content warning every time I open my mouth to talk about surviving them.

On top of that, I’m not going to try to stay on top of every possible thing that could trigger someone that follows me, because it’s just not possible.   I do not advertise any of the spaces in which I write to be universal safe spaces, because they aren’t.  Which leads me to the second incident.

I am a member of a Facebook group that claims to be a “Safe Space” and has a very long list of Content Warnings that anything to do with the subjects in question has to be hidden behind many returns so that people can avoid the content if they’d like.  One of the things on that list is the word “trigger,” which is apparently a trigger for people; hence, CW rather than TW.  Another thing on that list is People in Drag — there are to be no pictures of people in drag in this forum.

This made me very angry.  I expressed this anger in a constructive form, simply saying that I thought it was inappropriate for drag to be on the list, because it was creating an unsafe space for other individuals for whom drag was a part of their identity.  Would it be OK to put “black people” or “women” in your list of content warnings?  “Sorry, any pictures of someone who is not a white heterosexual male must go behind a cut.”

The person who’d asked for the warning to be added responded, saying that they were traumatized by the sight of people in drag and the moderators defended it saying that there doesn’t have to be a reason for a trigger, it just is one.  Except this person wasn’t *triggered* into having PTSD symptoms and flashbacks, they were just grossed out by it.

The result is that, in this community, because the list of triggers is so long, everyone just hides every post and tries to come up with a CW for them, often in vague useless ways or ways that are far more disturbing than the sentence long update.

This is, of course, this particular group’s right, and they can create a safe space for whomever they want, whether it includes me or not.  And it is my right to feel mildly horrified that people are equating seeing a picture of a drag queen and being grossed out with people seeing graphic depictions of rape and having flashbacks to their own trauma.

I want to be very clear here, being upset at something is not the same as being triggered by it.  I am deeply upset by many gruesome images and I dislike seeing them, but they don’t trigger me.  Almost all of my triggers are really mundane, and they happen inconsistently and without warning — I can’t ask the number 864 to suddenly stop existing, right?  I don’t have an expectation that people generally avoid anything that might trigger me, I just have strategies with coping with what it’s like to have a brain that isn’t always my friend.

In much the same way that you don’t have a right not to be offended, you don’t have a right not to be triggered.  You have a right to feel your feelings and express those feelings.  You even have a right to ask for certain spaces to be different.  But I also think it is unfair to expect friends to self-censor every public thought for your benefit and that it is insulting to equate being grossed out or upset by something to being triggered by it.  I get to ask for consideration of my needs, but I also have to accept that other people have needs as well and, sometimes, they are in conflict — and while my need to not have flashbacks does seem, on the face of it, like a greater need than someone else’s need to vent, it’s not really my place to decide that for them.  I get to decide what spaces I expose myself to and how to respond if someone else can’t make a safe space for me, but someone needing to talk about things that might trigger someone else doesn’t make them a bad person.