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Trigger Warning

A couple days ago I was mindlessly killing some time and unboredifying myself by clicking the random button at Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal. After awhile of this, a certain comic pulled up. The caption read “Who says money can’t buy happiness?” and, in the panel, an enthusiastic, smiling man was handing a syringe over to another man, raising his fists in joy, while saying “here’s your heroin!”.

It was, to put it mildly, a little bit triggering.

This is something I’ve had on my mind lately… the idea of triggers and trigger warnings, what about them is or is not justified, when they are or are not appropriate, how much good they actually do, how sincere our motives really are in either using or requesting them, what is legitimate to regard as triggering and who gets to decide which triggers are or are not deserving of warning and when is it reasonable or unreasonable to hold an author or speaker accountable for whether or not another person is triggered and who gets to decide that, and….well… a bazigajigglion other murky difficult questions that’s murky difficulty has me seriously wondering why there doesn’t seem to be much conversation going on in regards to the subject, why internet social justice communities are treating the issue as though it is wholly clear-cut and resolved, and why we’ve been so quick to simply accept that the practice, and more so how we engage in this practice, is a wholly good thing, to the extent of being unquestioningly treated as such (which is not to say no one is questioning it, but that generally the people questioning it are trolls and jerks from outside the social justice community who aren’t really invested or interested in the practice anyway, rather than those of us who are engaged with it and sincere in that engagement).

At the very least, I think the practice warrants a bit more critical discussion of its relative merits, within the community that engages that practice, than its yet received.

Should there have been a trigger warning on that SMBC comic? Or was I, as an adult in control of her own choices, fully aware of the often dark subject matter of that comic, responsible for my own decision to take of the risk of coming across something that hit a little close to home? What was unique about that trigger and that context that might make it distinct from other contexts, such as non-fictional blogs and essays, or non-fictional blogs and essays that are true accounts of individual, personal experiences in contrast to those that deal with abstracted general concepts, or non-internet media like print-books, movies, music and TV shows, or real life interactions?

One of the first questions I feel we need to ask is about the relative usefulness of trigger warnings, and whether or not they genuinely accomplish what they purport to accomplish. There’s another personal experience I had that got me thinking about this particular question recently (I’m going to cite a lot of personal experiences in this post, to help establish a variety of contexts that readers, and anyone wanting to discuss the issue in the comments, can use as touchstones for contrasting and comparing how the various questions might be answered in differing circumstances). There is one particular subject, which I don’t even wish to invoke by name, that is extremely triggering for me, due to extremely traumatic personal experiences that I never really “got over” in any meaningful way at all. I still carry a huge amount of hurt, shame and self-hatred about those experiences, and can’t engage with that issue with any degree of detachment at all. It’s a subject that’s difficult for me to even think about, no matter how removed from my own experience (which is to say, emotionally and intellectually, I can’t remove it from my own experience). It gets much more triggering, too, the closer the particulars come to the specifics of my own trauma. Anyway, one of my twitter followers had recommended a blog to me that happened to both be written by someone who’d been through similar experiences and dealt rather explicitly with them. This blog had very clear, unambiguous trigger warnings, stating what the subject matter of each post was and what the trigger warnings were in regards to. I found myself, as I always do, reading the trigger warning, acknowledging that the warning specifically noted my particular Big Red Do-Not-Push Button, and reading through anyway. Or rather, reading through until I was far too fucked up, shaking and crying and having an all-out anxiety attack, to continue.

What got me thinking, later, after I’d calmed down and collected myself, was how that isn’t an at all uncommon way for things to happen with me. I have my little collection of triggers, with the mild ones, the bad ones, and the really fucking bad ones, and I know how they affect me. However, I tend to just go about reading or watching or listening to things without really worrying too much about them until they’ve already been triggering. I guess I try to live as though they’re not there, or not a problem for me (which I guess means the same thing), because I don’t want them to limit what I allow myself to experience, confront, think about, etc. And even when my really fucking bad one was explicitly acknowledged beforehand, the one that never ever isn’t a problem, I still went ahead and read the thing anyway.

The thing is, pretty much all of the friends I had talked to about these kinds of things had thus far expressed having a very similar approach. That even in regards to the Ultra-Triggers, they generally read through, and didn’t stop until things got too bad to continue. So the question it left me thinking about was how often any of us, even in full self-awareness of our trouble topics, actually decide to take a trigger warning as a cue to not read the post in question, and if not, are trigger warnings actually accomplishing anything.

Posing the question to twitter, however, I got a much more varied range of responses and strategies than I’d heard from the friends I had previously talked to about it. Some people admitted to, yes, deciding not to read things on account of trigger warnings… especially when the trigger warnings cited the specific topics they have a hard time handling (which provides valuable information about how trigger warnings that explicitly cite the reason for their presence are far more useful than a generic “trigger warning”). Also what was interesting to me about the responses was people mentioning that even though they typically read ahead anyway, the trigger warning lets them know to be emotionally prepared for the subject matter, rather than being blind-sided by it out of left-field, with the emotional difficulty often being far worse when unexpected. That suggests that the potential merit of trigger warnings lies in something much more subtle and nuanced than just giving someone an opportunity to opt out. Something like how one has a much better chance of catching a thrown object when they get a quick “heads up!” first.

But one thing that is clear the responses, and rendered quite explicit in the fact of how trigger warnings work best when they specifically warn someone of what is for them a particularly difficult subject, is that what is or is not a meaningful trigger is a highly individual thing, and determined primarily by our individual histories with the topics. Both the SMBC topic, and the blog post I couldn’t finish, were triggering for me because of my history with heroin addiction (and my very recent close-calls with relapse… something I’m still currently struggling to avoid, actually) and that unspecified trauma in my past. In fact, the blog post went from “very difficult” to “unreadable” because the specifics, which vary amongst individuals who’ve dealt with this trauma, ended up matching my own far more than they usually do, which is something that I couldn’t know until I’d gotten past the warning that it dealt with the topic and into the actually dealing-with-the-topic, and something that wouldn’t necessarily be true of someone else for whom this subject is also a majour trigger.

The problem that arises from the individuality of what is or is not triggering is the question of what ultimately ends up meriting a warning. A “trigger” is pretty much by definition a subject, image or word that has very powerful, negative associations for an individual. But what might be triggering can be near infinitely broad.

To cite another personal example, baby robins, and the image or idea of children taking birds out of their nest (even people simply citing the “its mother won’t take it back” factoid/myth), can be a trigger for me. When I was a kid growing up in a little village in Nova Scotia, I think I was about 10 or 11 years old, me and my little brother were playing in the back yard, and he found a robin’s nest up in the rafters of the wooden “gazebo” that extended off the porch. (This story, by the way, might deserve a trigger warning: animal cruelty, in and of itself). He found a baby robin in the nest, and took it out. After telling him to put it back, for some reason I hope I never understand, he placed the bird under the tire of his bicycle, and then ran the wheel over it. The bird split, in a way I wish I didn’t remember, and died instantly. My brother wasn’t, and isn’t, a sociopath (though perhaps, in a sense, he was experimenting with his own conscience), and I think he was even more horrified by what he’d done than I was. The look on his face is something I can’t really forget, and I remember knowing in that instant that this was something I didn’t need to tell my parents about, or something for which he required any more punishment or reprimand than he was already giving himself. I think he took the bird’s body out into the woods and hid it under a rock, and we never ever talked about it again.

So… yeah. Baby robins are a bit of a trigger for me.

Given how individual our histories can be, and how individually these associations can form, the range of things that may or may not be triggers for someone is almost as broad as the range of subjects, images and words we’re capable of invoking. This means we can’t possibly account for every possible trigger. I can’t, for instance, expect there to be “trigger warning: children finding a birds’ nest” ahead of any blog post dealing with that.

Obviously, though, those aren’t the kinds of triggers we end up building our trigger warnings around. If we did, the practice of trigger warnings would quickly lose any meaning… the list of warnings would be as long as the post itself, and we’d all collectively gloss over them. Trigger warnings, even if overused in a realistic way rather than ad absurdum hypothetical, could easily end up becoming as meaningless and white-noisy as the FBI Warning at the beginning of a DVD, or the terms-of-use on some little one-time software or wi-fi hotspot you want to use. It genuinely is my belief that the more sparing we are in the use of trigger warnings, the more seriously readers will take them.

My own approach has been very, very sparing. I consider this blog to be, as a whole, something that should be understood as a “potentially triggering space”. Whether or not I wish to make this explicit somewhere on the front page is something I’ve been mulling over, and having a bit of difficulty in deciding where to put that statement such that it would actually be useful and meaningful rather than just an after-the-fact gesture with the sole purpose of shielding myself from criticism. I routinely deal with subjects like transphobia, violence, addiction, and a negative, critical approach to religion, and I believe readers should be able to easily understand, from context, that this is an aspect of what I do. If I began using “trigger warning: descriptions of transphobia / cissexism”, for example, that could end up appearing over a good 25% of ALL my posts, at least, to the point that it just becomes background noise.

I have, however, used trigger warnings twice (I think?), when I dealt with subjects that were sensitive and potentially triggering well beyond what I usually deal with. One was a link to my friend Erica’s post about her being a lobotomy-survivor, and the other was before a post dealing with intense discussion of rape, including an uncomfortable interrogation of how we define and frame different forms of rape and sexual assault.

My approach, however, is relatively rare amongst social justice blogs, which is something about this blog with which readers may have legitimate concerns and criticisms. Generally speaking, the approach is a bit more liberal and based not on contrast to usual tone, but instead primarily by subject-matter (that is, whether or not Subject X is dealt with). We base them on what, by a sort of a intuitive, common-sense sort of approach, seem like the things that are either or both likely to trigger a significant number of readers, or likely to trigger someone in a particularly severe way. That certain things are going to frequently function as significant triggers is often quite easily apparent: rape, sexual abuse or assault, graphic descriptions of violence, drug use, incest, discriminatory slurs, overt or graphic bigotry, descriptions of hate-crimes, etc.

Often, however, it isn’t quite so apparent, and even the aforementioned examples of things that are obviously potential triggers for a significant number of people with significant severity have very large gray areas and ambiguities in their definitions and boundaries. What does or does not qualify as a graphic description? Where do things become slurs, and how do we negotiate the degree to which slurs are so often contextually dependent? How elaborate or in-depth does the discussion of these subjects need to be before the trigger warning is necessitated? Do “mild” examples of sexual assault, like an anecdote about a creepy man on the bus apparently-intentionally brushing his hand across your leg, warrant the warnings, and if not, where do we draw that line, and what does or does not make either the event or the description of the event a significantly potential trigger? These ambiguities lead into more ambiguities, and we very quickly get into very dangerous, difficult, uncomfortable questions that need to be asked.

Such as, for instance, who is deciding what is or is not a legitimate trigger, why, and what might affect or distort the perceptions of something as either deserving or not deserving of a trigger warning. What is it we’re communicating when we assign a trigger warning to one issue and neglect it in another? How do we keep our individual biases (and privileges and blind-spots and all that) from effecting how we assign warnings? How do we keep where we assign a trigger warning, or don’t assign one, from being a delegitimization of other people’s experiences and traumas, those that might differ from the obvious, differ from a sort of “normative” trauma? And how do we simultaneously prevent ourselves from becoming excessive in the assignment of things as triggering… both to prevent rendering the warnings meaningless and ineffectual, and to prevent placing an absurd or unfair burden upon authors in terms of accountability for the decisions of the readers?

Those questions could perhaps be resolved by basing the assignment of trigger warnings on how much a given post departs from an author’s usual tone and subject matter in the direction of the sensitive, dark and difficult. This would, in fact, be a highly workable and useful structure in the sense of trigger warnings coming to mean “this post is more intense than this particular blog usually is”… but then we nonetheless end up running up against the issue of generalizing what is a highly individual matter (for instance, how do we create some universalized spectrum of “intensity” given how much it may vary from reader to reader), as well as the issue of how trigger warnings seem to be only particularly effective when employed to warn readers of specific subjects. Maybe there’s some kind of balanced middle-ground approach, where trigger warnings are assigned on the basis of a variety of factors? But then, again, the same questions of who is doing the assignment of legitimacy arise, only mildly mitigated by the consideration of contrast against usual subject matter, tone or intensity.

The question of accountability for triggers is one that also begs far more exploration than it has yet received. I had a friend, “Mildred”, who is very much no longer a friend. She had a habit of using the term “trigger” to exert a highly controlling force on everyone around her. It was, for instance, “triggering” to fail to praise her in certain situations, “triggering” to not consistently give her your full devoted attention, “triggering” to not allow her to unfairly dictate the terms of shared discourse, “triggering” to object to her taking credit for other people’s work, “triggering” to call her out on her shitty behaviour towards her friends, and even “triggering” for someone with whom she was infatuated (in a really possessive, controlling, creepy way) to end up interested in somebody else and not her. This was all very clearly a selfish appropriation of the term as a means for maintaining an abusive level of control over the people around her. Initially, I thought of what made that misuse so clear is that she was willing to claim as “triggering” our failure to do things she wanted us to do, not simply applying it to someone having done something that created a negative association, and also that it was being applied to any instance of someone else being connected (“causing”) any negative emotions of her own, thus “triggered” became synonymous with “didn’t get exactly what I wanted”.

The unfortunate truth is that the terms and concepts employed in social justice can and are misused, often with selfish, malicious, petty or vindictive motives. Not only does this have the immediate, obvious harm of one person using those concepts to gain control or leverage over another, but it also has the long-term, cumulative effect of discrediting the terms and concepts, and fostering distrust. As such, we can’t simply accept at face value that the application of such a term or concept is necessarily valid, justified or sincere its motives, and we need to be able to understand when they’re being justifiably used, and when they’re being misused.

Investigating those facets of her misuse, though, it became apparent that it was almost impossible to locate the exact lines separating what she was doing from the usual, reasonable use of the term. What, for instance, is the precise difference between a negative association with a personal history and experiencing a negative emotion “because” of someone else? And the most difficult question there was the issue of accountability… when was it appropriate, and when was it inappropriate, to hold someone else as responsible for the negative associations or negative emotions that you’re experiencing in association with them, their actions, or their inactions? If that question is meaningful in her use of the term “triggering”, how meaningful is it in relation to the conventional use: when is a writer, for instance, responsible or not for a negative experience on the part of their reader?

To use a very clear example of a situation where the person “triggering” someone else isn’t responsible, I can use another of my own recent experiences. A few nights ago I ran into a young trans friend of mine. She’s a very, very sweet, compassionate, bubbly, fun, friendly person, but she also happens to be extremely pretty (in a normative sense) and extremely “passable” (that is, very unlikely to be read as trans by people who don’t know), despite not having yet begun HRT. Her youth, and the seeming existence of her getting to live a very “normal” life as a girl, compounds that into a very petty, very shallow sense of resentment and jealousy on my part. Being around her, I often end up feeling ugly, gross and mannish, with a strong sense of loss, having not gotten to live my youth the way I would have wished, and end up very unfairly resenting her for those feelings. I am, in short, “triggered by” her.

However, to frame it that way, to say she’s triggering me, would be an enormous of the term, and extremely unfair to her. She’s not accountable for those negative associations I feel. In fact, she has never done anything to make me feel in any way lesser than her, and has always been exceptionally kind and accepting towards me, and often says and does the kinds of things a friend says or does to make someone feel good about themselves. I am acutely aware of the fact that it’s only my own baggage, shame, and internalized transphobia that result in my feeling “triggered” by her. It’s not her fault. If it’s anyone’s fault, it would be the cissexist culture as a whole that has saddled me with that baggage.

Most of the time, however, things aren’t nearly as clear. When is a writer responsible for the associations and feelings of the reader, and when is she not? When does she need to take on accountability for what associations and feelings might occur? Are there situations where it may be admirable for a writer to do so, but in which the writer can’t really be negatively judged for not doing so? What about the degree to which it is often part of a writer’s job to, arguably, “manipulate” the feelings of her readers? How do we answer any of those questions in a way that is consistent? How, again, do we cope with the subjectivity, individuality and unpredictability of how these things play out in real, lived consequence?

And when does it become the reader’s responsibility? When is it best to just accept, as I do in the case of my super-pretty friend, “well, that’s my weird, squishy, irrational, emotional human brain, just being human”?

Also, how much of being an adult, and being a consumer, demands that we infer from things like context what we’re getting into, and accept responsibility for that in the act of pursuing particular media in the first place? How much responsibility for our feelings do we implicitly accept when we’ve decided to read, watch, or listen to something? With the SMBC comic, for example, I feel that was my own responsibility. I knew it was a typically darkly-comic comic, I knew that it freely dealt with potentially triggering subject matter, and I knew that I was clicking the “random” button rather than going for a strip that had been uniquely chosen. Therefore, I feel that I had tacitly accepted a certain degree of risk of coming across something triggering in deciding to keep pushing that “random” button. It would have been different if I’d been reading, say, “FuzzyFace Kitty-Kitty-Kitty-Kat Walks Down The Road (4 Kidz!)”, clicking the random button, and suddenly come across a graphic, photo-realistic rape scene, but as functional adults, accustomed to how media operate, we can infer a great deal about the tone and subject matter we’re likely to come across from the context, and in the case of SMBC, what I came across did not significantly differ from the overall tone and subject matter. It only differed in how much it personally affected me, as an individual with an individual history.

Another example worth considering: a month or two back I got in a debate on twitter for having used the word “tranny” without a trigger warning being used in advance. I was, if I remember correctly, paraphrasing or quoting a transphobic comment someone else had made. At the time, I argued that contextually speaking, occasional reference to transphobia and transphobic remarks should be expected in my tweets, given that I’m a trans-feminist who routinely deals with that subject matter, and that by following me, one is accepting responsibility for having my tweets, and the subject matter they deal with (often comic books and whiny personal drama), in their feed. I’m not sure I necessarily regard it as being quite so clear-cut at this point.

In terms of what we as an audience can infer, and should be expected to infer in accepting responsibility for consuming media, it’s worth considering what the tone and subject matter is being inferred from. Things like genre, cover art, title, opening paragraphs, website layout, style, form, the channel or publisher or network through which something is presented… all of these things present certain expectations. You don’t, for instance, open up a Harlequin romance expecting to read a story about a mighty fallen warrior from the planet Urgruhyak taking up the abandoned mecha of his legendary ancestor to battle the corrupt Nano-Lords of his star system.

What is worth considering in that, the elaborate system that forms reader expectation, is the question of whether trigger warnings are the only, or the best, or the most efficient, means of accomplishing the task of giving readers that “heads up”. Arguably, there’s nothing a trigger warning can accomplish that can’t be accomplished by a clear title, a lead-in, and good, careful writing. And one might imagine that this approach, simply providing your readers enough information on their own to infer where you’re heading, is a far better system of warning, in that it inherently accounts for the subjectivity, individuality, breadth and ambiguity of triggers. Instead of having to determine whether Subject X may be triggering to your readers, and thus necessitating a warning, one simply develops a good habit of consistently hinting at your subject matter before diving into the intense stuff, such that every reader gets a chance to understand what’s coming, emotionally prepare themselves, and decide whether or not they need to jump ship. In theory, a good writer should never have particularly graphic or intense subject matter just smack into their readers out-of-the-blue.

One final issue I feel is worth considering in this discussion, about which I really, honestly, haven’t arrived at any decisive conclusions, is the similarity to the NC-17 ratings, “parental advisory: explicit lyrics”, “The following program contains scenes of violence and sexuality. Viewer discretion is advised” and “intended for mature readers” thingies we’re all so accustomed to. Were these ever really a good idea, and do they accomplish what they purport to accomplish? Or are they ultimately just a gesture, designed to protect media companies from litigation? An act of covering their asses, basically? And what is really different about trigger warnings in contrast to these?

We can say that those were motivated by censorship. If so, how are trigger warnings not? We might say that those were based on a patronizing “protect the children” attitude. How is “protect the victims” different? We might say that they’re about maintaining normative moralities, not general compassion. Does the form the “good intentions” take have any bearing on the ultimate usefulness of a nearly-identical approach and policy?

And remember what I mentioned about who gets to decide what does or doesn’t deserve a trigger warning? I can’t help but think of how a same-sex kiss in a movie immediately bumps up the rating for being a presentation of “sexuality”, but a heterosexual kiss does not.

How do we keep ourselves from becoming…well… that?

Please feel free to discuss. I’d love to hear different outlooks on all this.