Another god damn trigger warning & safe space debate

Content Notice: Trigger warnings. /snark

More serious content notice: I’ll use transphobia to make my point.

Imagine for a moment you’re in a class where today’s topic is “Freedom of Movement.” The professor introduces the concept and states today’s lecture is specifically about the contexts in which it is appropriate to restrict freedom of movement. They go over things like “a building is on fire and the fire department needs you to get out the way,” or “it’s one way to punish lawbreakers without causing permanent injury.”

Now imagine someone interrupts the professor to make an argument about how it’s wrong to expect them to get off of someone’s toes because it restricts freedom of movement. “I have a right to stand on Sally’s toes,” he says, ignoring Sally’s numerous protestations.

That is how fucking absurd this debate is. Every time it comes up–and this isn’t the first–you get a whole lot of talking past each other, because one side of the debate thinks they have a right to stand on Sally’s toes.

Problem #1: I don’t think that means what you think it means.

“Safe space” does not mean ideas are never discussed. “Safe space” does not constitute “coddling.” Safe space does not mean “deny reality.” These are all characterizations of safe spaces by people who are generally safe everywhere they go, which is perhaps why they don’t “get it.” Overwhelmingly the anti-TW crowd is usually pro-“marketplace of ideas” and they see safe spaces as a threat to that.

I would hazard a guess they’ve never had their lived experiences turned into a political football to be tossed between corners of the marketplace.

Let’s take some of my safe spaces as an example.

I’m trans. What this means is that I am routinely confronted, every single time I leave the house or open the internet, with opinions from people who are not trans, about how I am some mixture of dangerous, perverted, or crazy. Now if it were just one guy soapboxing on the corner while no one paid him heed, it would be a lot easier to ignore him. But that is not the case. The guy soapboxing isn’t some ordinary citizen–he’s a lawmaker.

He’s a lawmaker trying to criminalize my washroom use, which if successful would effectively eliminate my ability to exist publicly by forcing me to choose between dehydration or breaking the law or risking assault in order to leave the house. He’s a doctor trying to encode healthcare models that increase my likelihood of suicide. He’s a school administrator drafting policies that require me to wear a bright green bracelet so security “knows I’m using the right washroom.” And whispering in the ear of these policymakers is inevitably a fake goth of one variety or another, a certain type of radical feminist, who will give these policies the weight of legitimacy by producing labyrinthine academic arguments that look intelligent to support the soapboxers.

Don’t get me started on organized religion’s role in all this.

Most pro-“market place of ideas” types wouldn’t agree with most or all of these policies. But the point they overlook is that when they enter the marketplace, they see things that at best indirectly affect them being discussed.

When enter the marketplace, I am stripped of my humanity and turned into pigskin to be tossed back and forth. am the idea that’s been haggled with. You cannot separate the idea of gender variance from my humanity, they are sewn together–permanently. And so perhaps what the pro-marketplace anti-TW types overlook is the psychological impact of people who aren’t you, talking about you, as if you only existed in the abstract, as if you were an envelope full of anthrax and that opening you is deadly.

Here’s the plot twist: The marketplace is everywhere. I don’t get a break from it. When I start doing research for an FtB post, many of my most common sources–The Advocate, The Humanist, Think Progress, Raw Story, Medium, The Orbit, The Middle Eastern Feminist, A Woman on the Internet, A Canadian Government for All, Latina Rebels–will have comments sections filled to the brim with footballers kicking my life around.

It. Is. Exhausting. And frankly I don’t give a shit if you, personally, do not contribute to this footballing. By advocating for universal marketplace of ideas, you are giving tacit permission to those who do contribute to this constant footballing to continue doing so.

Don’t try to argue I don’t engage with transphobic material. You’ll be banned faster than you can say “fuckhead.” Take a cursory glance through my posts. Probably a third of my writing is challenging transphobic arguments. The difference is that I’m doing it on my terms, on my time, meaning I have invested the emotional spoons necessary to engage in order to engage. That still means I’ve lost emotional spoons in doing these activities, and that at some point, I need to break away from the god damn marketplace to hang out somewhere that isn’t footballing me.

And here’s the big gaping hole in the pro-marketplace anti-TW argument: If I go to a trans support group, people aren’t in universal agreement about everything. The difference is that when two trans people disagree with each other, neither will use the other’s transness as a god damn football.

That’s all a safe space is. It’s three hours a month where I can smoke a cigar without some fucking TERF spewing off a bunch of psychobabble about how the cigar is a cock therefore Freud something something “YOU’RE A DUDE!!!”

Problem #2: Content Notice vs Trigger Warning — same shit, different pile

I don’t like the word trigger warning, mostly because few people understand that “trigger” is a legit psychological concept that doesn’t just refer to brutally traumatic experiences.

My grandma smoked a lot, to the point where the very wood in her house smelled like tobacco. I don’t have particularly bad (or good) memories of her but when I smell tobacco I can remember everything from the carpet to the wallpaper.

Tobacco triggers that. In other words, triggers are not necessarily crippling. They are domino-effects, where the other side of the domino can be the layout of a room or the anticipation of an apple pie or the warm glow of your first kiss. It’s only when the other side of that domino train is a life-altering event that you start getting the thousand yard stares.

So it’s hard to anticipate what will trigger people. I don’t say “trigger warning” to my guests when I’m baking an apple pie. I have no god damn idea if they have any memories associated with apple pie. That’s why, instead of trying to anticipate what could trigger someone–and damn near everything can potentially become a trigger–I simply give content notices for topics, and let my audience decide for themselves if it is potentially triggering and whether or not they can deal with that right now.

At the end of the day, though, either word serves the same function. One presumes it is likely to be triggering, the other considers the possibility it might be triggering. If that semantic difference is really that offensive to you, please, reconsider your priorities.

The idea is not to avoid the material altogether. I like content notices for so-called “gender critical” material, for example, because I have to invest a tremendous amount of emotional labour beforehand in order not to blow my casket. Without being given a heads up, as little as 5 seconds to give me a moment to pre-emptively breathe, I just can’t engage. The content notice does not serve as a means for me to avoid the material forever. Once again, a substantial portion of my writing is addressing “gender critical” arguments. It simply gives me an opportunity to decide if, right now, I have enough spoons to have this debate.

Again, if you’ve never been turned into a football at the marketplace, you might not understand why this is so stressful. If you still don’t get it, read my colleague Trav where he argued that cishet men should be banned from public washrooms, and just imagine that like 80 million people in the USA agree with him, and many of them are lawmakers and teachers and nurses and doctors and administrators and cops and land lords and that accessing any public service is suddenly a fucking minefield and that any article discussing the banning of cishet men from public washrooms is flooded with comments that find this argument to be perfectly reasonable.

If you still don’t get it, look at the comments of the same article! In a post that demonstrated the absurdity of trans bathroom panic, people are STILL ADVOCATING FOR THE BAN OF TRANS WOMEN FROM WOMEN’S FACILITIES.

The marketplace is literally everywhere.

In Conclusion

This shouldn’t be a difficult concept. If you’re antagonizing me because I need to set boundaries over something that is both stressful and happening daily to me, I don’t have much to say to you except:

You’re a privileged asshole.



  1. says

    I’m so with you.
    I want every single person who is against “trigger warnings” or “content notes” to have their flu shot administered by blowpipe instead of being able to make and appointment with their GP and the GP telling them what will happen next.