A List of Ways I Have Used Trigger Warnings

[Content note: mentions of sexual assault]

These are some ways I have mentally responded to encountering a trigger warning/content note on the internet:

  1. [ignores, continues reading]
  2. “Oh, yikes, this is going to be pretty serious. Ok, I’m ready. Let’s do it.”
  3. “I think I need to take a few minutes to mentally prepare myself before reading this.”
  4. “Welp, that’s just too much right now. I’m going to wait a few hours or days until I’m in a better brainspace and then engage with this.”
  5. “Ok, this is totally fine for me, but it’s nice to know what I’m getting into.”
  6. “I can do this. But I’m going to message a friend and talk to them while I read it, or maybe pet the purring kitty.”
  7. “I’m going to read this, but I already know I’m going to be a wreck afterwards, so I’m going to set up some hot tea/some time with a friend/Chinese food/a fun TV show to help me afterwards.”
  8. “You know what? I don’t need to read this. I’ve lived this. I know this. There’s no reason to make myself think about it again.”

I’ve been hearing a lot about how trigger warnings are nothing but a way for trauma survivors to “avoid challenging material.” I present this list in order to show some more typical ways that people use trigger warnings, such as mentally preparing themselves for the material, choosing the best time to engage with it, and setting up self-care practices that will help.

As you see from #8, yes, sometimes people choose not to engage with triggering material at all. In that latter (and not extremely common) case, it’s useful to remember that people who are triggered by something are usually triggered by it because they have lived it. I’ve sat through many classroom discussions about sexual assault, suicide, eating disorders, sexism, and other things that I have lived through, and while I occasionally did learn from these discussions, more often I learned little or nothing, because I have lived through it. And yes, everyone’s experiences are different, which is why it can be useful for survivors of trauma to share their experiences with fellow survivors and learn from each other. But that’s usually not what the classroom space is.

I’m also a bit fed up, to be honest, with this deceptive word “challenging.” What is a challenge? Here are some things that I find challenging:

  • applied math problems
  • recipes that involve very precise timing
  • coping with depression
  • keeping my apartment clean when I’m very fatigued all the time
  • wrapping my head around dense and difficult literature or philosophy
  • persuading myself to make the effort to go out and see friends even when I’m wiped out from work, because I know that it’ll be good for me
  • sitting through a very boring class or meeting
  • saying goodbye to people I love after a visit
  • shooting in low-light conditions without a tripod
  • telling someone that I love them
  • addressing situations where I feel like someone is communicating passive-aggressively and we need to get things out into the open and talk about them
  • dentist appointments
  • arguing with someone who thinks that rape victims ever deserve what happened to them
  • economics
  • climbing up four sets of stairs while carrying several bags of groceries
  • figuring out how to properly manage my enormous student debt
  • relationships where I feel like I’m more invested in the person than they are in me

You might notice that many of the things on this list seem to have absolutely nothing to do with each other because “challenging” is a very ambiguous word!

There are intellectual challenges, like solving a difficult math problem or understanding a difficult text. There are interpersonal challenges, like figuring out the right way to address a conflict with a partner. There are physical challenges, like climbing a lot of stairs while carrying a heavy load. There are emotional challenges, like coping with depression or with dentist appointments. Some challenges involve combinations of these things. For instance, shooting in low-light conditions without a tripod involves an intellectual challenge (knowing what all those manual settings on the DSLR mean and how to set them) and a physical challenge (holding the camera as still as possible). Telling someone that they have hurt my feelings involves an interpersonal challenge (figuring out the right way to say what I need to say in a way that’ll be effective) and an emotional challenge (dealing with my hurt feelings as I do this).

When people condescendingly claim that college students who ask for trigger warnings are trying to “avoid challenging material,” they are–perhaps intentionally–conflating two meanings of the word “challenging.” Triggering material is emotionally challenging. The challenge is that you feel like you’re about to start screaming and crying in front of your classmates and professor. The challenge is that suddenly you’re back in that bar or that dorm room or wherever it happened, and you’re trying to get away but you can’t get away and you’re trying to scream but nothing comes out. The challenge is that suddenly you’re floating somewhere high above the classroom looking down at yourself sitting there unable to move. The challenge is that you forget who or where you are. The challenge is that your brain starts to empty out like a glass with a crack in it, and no matter what you do you just can’t fill it up again and they’re all looking at you because the professor asked you a question and you have no idea what any of those words meant or how to even make words.

Do we really go to college to encounter this type of “challenge”? No, college coursework is intellectually challenging. The challenge is understanding the nuances of complicated arguments or literary devices. The challenge is connecting ideas together in a way that flows and makes sense, finding patterns in the texts, defending your opinions using evidence from the book. The challenge is being willing to entertain an argument that you personally disagree with, to examine it from all sides. Sometimes, the challenge is memorizing facts, though that’s not so common in college. Sometimes the challenge is writing code that works, or designing a study that effectively examines a particular research question.

You know who would be pretty bad at those types of challenges? Someone who, in their mind, is currently stuck reliving the worst thing that ever happened to them.

Yes, those who insist that trigger warnings are no substitute for professional mental healthcare and that it’s not a professor’s job to heal their student’s personal trauma are absolutely correct. Trigger warnings will not heal trauma. However, they will also not “prevent people from healing” or whatever’s getting thrown out as the latest justification for not using them. What they do is allow people to engage with triggering content in a way that works for them. Only sometimes will they cause people to choose not to engage at all, and remember, the absence of the trigger warning wouldn’t have made them engage with it anyway. It would’ve made them try, get triggered, and fail to engage. It’s such a creepy “Gotcha!” sort of thing to insist on tricking people into trying to engage with triggering content by not including a trigger warning when they asked for one.

In my experience, most survivors of serious trauma–the ones that get triggered by things–are either already accessing mental healthcare, are unable to access mental healthcare, or have tried it and found it unhelpful. Please stop with the condescending advice to students to seek mental healthcare “instead” of asking for trigger warnings. Engaging with triggering content in a thoughtful, intentional, and controlled way is often part of someone’s healing process and has been recommended by plenty of mental healthcare professionals.

Trauma survivors know best what they need. They don’t know perfectly, but they know better than someone with no experience or knowledge of that trauma. If you don’t want to use trigger warnings, then don’t, and say so. But don’t cloak that unwillingness in a patronizing concern for the survivor’s well-being. We see past that stuff. You’re not the ultimate authority on what we need and what’s best for us. Just say it’s too much of an inconvenience for you and you won’t do it.

How Rolling Stone Failed Rape Survivors

[Content note: sexual assault]

My new Daily Dot piece discusses the Rolling Stone mess.

Last month’s groundbreaking Rolling Stone piece about sexual assault at the University of Virginia recently came under scrutiny from reporters at Slate and the Washington Post, leading Rolling Stone to retract the piece on Friday.

Unfortunately, many are taking this to mean that “Jackie,” the college student who described her brutal gang rape in the original piece, was lying about her ordeal. Based on everything I have read about this story, however, I find that exceedingly unlikely.

One major criticism of the original Rolling Stone piece has centered on the fact that the reporter, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, did not reach out to the students Jackie accused of rape or to the fraternity where she claimed the assault happened. In the retraction piece, the editors wrote, “Because of the sensitive nature of Jackie’s story, we decided to honor her request not to contact the man who she claimed orchestrated the attack on her nor any of the men who she claimed participated in the attack for fear of retaliation against her.”

I understand this decision, and I understand how difficult it must’ve been for Erdely to try to keep Jackie comfortable enough to speak publicly about such a traumatic experience. But this goes against journalistic ethics and leaves the journalist, the publication, the readers, and the subject of the piece—Jackie—vulnerable. Since Jackie was already going on the record with her accusation, refusing to try to interview the men she accused would not have helped prevent retribution against her. Unfortunately, that is a risk any time a rape survivor goes public—in fact, any time anyone publicly accuses anybody of anything.

Reporting the story ethically and rigorously doesn’t have to mean disbelieving Jackie or treating her insensitively. There’s a difference between a reporter who says, “I’m going to interview whoever I want regardless of what you want” and a reporter who says, “I understand your concerns, but in order for this story to be as powerful as we want it to be, I need to reach out to the people you’re accusing.” If Jackie refused to speak given these terms, perhaps this was not the right time to try to write this piece. As Audrey White writes at Autostraddle:

Erdely’s job as a reporter required she create a bulletproof story to protect Jackie, avoid libel against the alleged assailants, and achieve her ostensible goal of revealing a culture at UVA and in Greek life that promotes and protects sexual assault. … If respecting Jackie’s wishes meant the reporter couldn’t contact anyone else related to the assault, even to confirm basic details like a person’s membership in the frat or the date of an event, she should have found a different source or approached the narrative from a different angle. As it stands, she put the integrity of her story and of Jackie’s search for resolution at risk.

Indeed, it’s now unclear how willing Jackie was to be a part of this story at all. The Washington Post reports: “Overwhelmed by sitting through interviews with the writer, Jackie said she asked Erdely to be taken out of the article. She said Erdely refused, and Jackie was told that the article would go forward regardless.”

While Jackie doesn’t specify exactly how or why she was overwhelmed by this process, the fact that there appear to be “inconsistencies” in her recollection of her gang rape gives a possible clue.

Read the rest here.

Online Bullying and Trauma: What’s At Stake?

[Content note: online bullying/harassment]

Since I wrote my last blog post, I’ve been treated to a number of enlightening debates about the issue of online bullying and PTSD. And by “enlightening,” I don’t mean that I changed my mind about anything or learned very much about online bullying or PTSD. Rather, I gained an understanding of just how desperately people will cling to the claim that online bullying cannot cause trauma (and therefore PTSD or other mental illnesses), or that even if it is in some way actually seriously damaging, we need to have some sort of different name for it to differentiate it from, you know, “real” trauma and psychological suffering.

This doesn’t seem to be that polarizing an issue, but it clearly has been (to wit: someone managed to compare me to a Fox News anchor and a fundamentalist Christian in the same paragraph because I claimed that both combat and online bullying can cause PTSD). Whenever people defend a view on an issue that does not impact them personally in any way with such gusto (and such incredible derision, contempt, and hatred), I get the sense that there’s more at stake here than the mere question of whether or not online bullying can cause trauma. Suppose it can, and does. What do we lose? How must we change the way we go about our lives online and off? What is so goddamn inconvenient about this idea that it must be defended so vigorously and, at times, so cruelly?

I can think of a few reasons why.

1. If online bullying can cause trauma, we must acknowledge that the internet is “real life.”

And there goes all the condescension about “surfing the web instead of going out into the ‘real world,'” all the snarking about people who meet their partners online (and perhaps don’t immediately follow that up by meeting in person), all the unsolicited advice about “don’t let it get to you, it’s just the internet,” all the ridicule of people whose primary social ties are through the internet, and all that.

2. If online bullying can cause trauma, we may have to be as careful with criticism and argument online as most of us are offline.

This is a lesson some writers learn the hard way. I remember the first time some public figure I criticized in a blog post actually read and responded to the thing, and I realized that I’m not just shouting into the void anymore. The person I criticized said that the criticism stung but that they learned a lot from it and that I was right. All the same, would I have written it differently if I’d expected them to read it? Absolutely. And these days I do.

I was a little bit horrified and dismayed to see how much power my words had, despite the fact that I had not been cruel or hateful at all. Criticism hurts, even when it’s justified and necessary, and even when the target of the criticism is ultimately glad to have received it. Offline we learn all sorts of techniques for criticizing someone effectively and fairly, like sandwiching the critique between two compliments. Online it’s easy to forget why we’re given that advice. It’s also easy to forget, especially when you’re not exactly internet famous, that the person you’re calling out might actually read it.

To be clear, I’m not saying that all online criticism (or even most of it) qualifies as “bullying.” Negative comments towards other people exist on a continuum. But if online bullying can be traumatic, then online criticism can be needlessly hurtful if not done carefully. Note that I said “needlessly”: sometimes hurting people is unavoidable because, as I said, criticism hurts. But I consider it an ethical responsibility to try to minimize needless hurt.

3. If online bullying can cause trauma, we have to take it seriously.

No more “don’t feed the trolls” or “it’s just some asshole in his parents’ basement” or “don’t let it get to you” or “it’s not like they can do anything to you anyway.” Even if they can’t physically find you and hurt you, they have already “done something” to you: they bullied you.

Of course, even offline bullying isn’t taken as seriously as it should be; things like that are said to victims of offline bullying too. But it’s not dismissed quite as much. There’s an understanding among most people that if you’re taunted and teased and harassed all day long at school, then it’s going to seriously harm you and your experience at school, especially if physical violence is involved. With the internet, it’s usually “just stop going on Twitter,” ignoring the fact that for many people, being on Twitter or other parts of the internet is pretty much as necessary as it is for children to attend school.

But we don’t want to take online bullying seriously because we don’t want to take the internet seriously, and because it’s easier to just dismiss it and put the onus on victims to avoid it rather than on social sites to develop better safeguards against it and on bullies to stop fucking bullying. We’ve chosen to treat bullying much as we’ve chosen to treat rape: as some sort of amorphous force of nature that we can never stop, only try to avoid.

4. If online bullying can cause trauma, we must expand our understanding of mental illness beyond what we see in the media.

Seeing a friend blown up by an IED can cause trauma. Receiving a constant stream of slurs and graphic threats of violence, dozens a day for several years, can also cause trauma. The former is much easier to portray in film and literature, and it’s what people are familiar with. You can’t shoot an interesting scene in which someone’s terrified to leave the house because some creep on Twitter said he knows where they live and plans to come rape them.

And that scene isn’t the type of scene that persuades people to donate thousands to PTSD therapy research. It doesn’t inspire a lot of sympathy. But it should, because as I wrote in the last post, sympathy is not a zero-sum game.

People keep insisting that if we claim that both combat and online bullying can cause trauma/PTSD, we’re somehow saying that combat and online bullying are “the same.” They’re not. Nobody claimed this, ever, at any point. If you hypothetically asked a large sample of people if they’d rather go to war for six months or be bullied online for six months, the majority may well pick the latter. Who knows? Who cares?

A multiplicity of different stimuli and experiences may lead to the same symptoms. Those symptoms may vary in severity based on the original stimulus, or they may not. I’m sure there are people who had much more difficult lives than I have whose depression is much less severe, or who don’t have depression or any mental illness at all. So what?

5. If online bullying can cause trauma, we have to accept the ways in which people avoid it.

As I’ve said, it’s not the victim’s job to prevent their own victimization. Nevertheless, the same technology that makes bullying so easy also makes avoiding it easier at times.

And yet. The same people who declaim that anyone traumatized by the internet must remove themselves from it forthwith (which, as I’ve noted, is not realistic, fair, or ultimately helpful) are also usually the people who ridicule anyone who takes steps to limit their exposure to nastiness online. These are the people who whine about their free speech whenever their comments are deleted from a blog. Who complain when a blogger has no comments section at all, as though having one were mandated by some Internet Rule. Who consider the existence of the Block Bot to be some enormous personal slight. They think that either you must be willing to engage with any and every person who decides to show the fuck up in your Twitter mentions or your comments section, or you must shut down your Twitter account and your blog.

Look, if you believe that it’s the responsibility of someone who’s getting bullied to avoid the bullying, you cannot then condemn them for avoiding it by any means other than never going on the internet again. This all-or-nothing crap is silly.

In conclusion: accepting the claim that online bullying can be traumatic may involve a shift in how we think about internet interaction. Generally, this shift entails taking more responsibility for the way we treat people online, taking online communication more seriously, and letting go of some stereotypes and misconceptions about the internet and mental illness. That sounds like hard work. I’m not surprised people find it so inconvenient.

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