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.


  1. says

    There’s a lot of good food for thought here. I’ve had a fairly privileged life, so I don’t really require trigger warnings in that people with PTSD or specific histories might. (I remember watching a Family Guy episode that triggered a friend who had been molested as a child: he had a physical response of a kind I’ll never have, regardless of how disturbing content is.) That being said, I still like having the heads-up that I’m about to read something disturbing, just to get myself in the right frame of mind for it. I do agree that specific trigger warnings are more useful than general ones. As for your movie comparison, I actually think the same logic applies there. If a movie is going to have a sexual assault on-screen, I’d rather know that going into it. A rating doesn’t tell me anything useful, but specific content notes do.

  2. says

    I generally only give trigger warnings when I am posting someone else’s words that are horrible and I don’t actually agree with or if I am posting details of assault or rape.

    I also offer heads up when I am talking about details of my personal sex life to give people outs if they don’t want to read about my sex life.

    Beyond I am relatively lax about trigger warnings. I am interested in hearing more opinions on this as well.

  3. karmakin says


    Ok, I guess it’s bad form to just say that. Although to be honest it’s weird because you’re saying EVERYTHING that I think about this particular subject.

    Trigger Warning: Irony.

    Trigger warnings trigger me. I wish I was being sarcastic. They make me extremely self-conscious (which in some circumstances is a good thing, but in others, like myself, I’m overboard self-conscious anyway…) and they’re sometimes inherently overtly into “social politics” (a phobia of mine). I’ve seen the “Mildreds” of the world as well. Do. Not Want.

    It’s not a huge thing. I’m not saying that there shouldn’t be trigger warnings anywhere because of it. It’s just something that makes me angry and either defensive or self-loathing, depending on the context. (As an aside, that’s why while I fully support feminism, sometimes dealing with individual feminists can be a minefield)

    They’re a good thing to have, exactly when you mention. When the general tone/content of a given work is different than the norm. I fully agree. Especially when there is graphic or detailed content. 100%. However, just because it’s a good thing, I do not think makes it a moral imperative. And that’s the difference. Well-meaning people might not see things in that light, or they might not think the tone/content is THAT different from what they’re normally writing about.

    Anyway. I agree with everything you wrote. There might be some slight differences, but the general gist is perfectly put.

    • ako says

      Trigger warnings trigger me. I wish I was being sarcastic. They make me extremely self-conscious (which in some circumstances is a good thing, but in others, like myself, I’m overboard self-conscious anyway…) and they’re sometimes inherently overtly into “social politics” (a phobia of mine).

      I have a somewhat similar reaction. I wouldn’t call myself triggered by trigger warnings (I don’t have PTSD, and the unpleasant anxiety stomachaches I get don’t strike me as serious enough to categorize as being triggered), but when I encounter them I tend to get self-conscious and either defensive or self-loathing, and it’s much stronger in environments where there’s a strong emphasis on trigger warnings as a moral imperative.

      I’ve actually dropped out of a lot of online social environments because they have strong pro-trigger warning standards. It’s kind of a relief to see I’m not the only one who feels this way.

      • karmakin says

        There’s actually quite a few people who feel this way, it’s just not something that’s talked about very often, mainly because it’s the nature of them that places with that sort of thing tend to be self-isolating environments by their very nature. This is the first time I’ve seen this particular issue brought up or discussed since what..the big PZ/Slacktivist community pie fight?

        As well, people with social anxieties tend to not really talk about them (for obvious reasons) so it tends to be more invisible than most other issues.

        • Caravelle says

          I think it’s also a subject that tends to divide between, let’s say, the people who flip out at the word “privilege” and those who don’t. And it’s easy for those in the latter camp that are made uncomfortable by trigger warnings not to speak up about it, either because they are checking their privilege and want to be sensitive in regards to those who ask for them, or because they don’t want to be lumped with the former camp.

          As someone who really doesn’t need trigger warnings but isn’t bothered by them I tend to be for them in general, but I am grateful for the discussion that’s going on here. It does strike me as very nuanced compared to the usual course such discussions take.

          • karmakin says

            Indeed. I would give credit to our gracious host for, I think, for setting a great tone for this sort of discussion. *applause* (For some reason *Kermit applause* comes to mind)

            I think “privilege” in and of itself is a particularly hard nut to crack as I think that there are two different concepts that get rolled into one. There’s privilege, which are “positive” assumptions over a baseline that other people make towards oneself depending on things such as race, sex, gender, class, religion etc. And then there’s claiming privilege, which is using that privilege in an unfair way to directly achieve more power, influence, etc.

            They’re related, but the two concepts should be separated a bit and not put under the same banner. I’m privileged in a lot of ways, (and not privileged in others) but on a micro-basis there’s nothing I can do to change that. I can’t change how other people treat me. I can try to change the culture, and I do. But the ways that I’m privileged do not make me a bad person. But if I were to CLAIM privilege, yes, that would make me a bad person, or at least those actions would be bad.

            I find that these two topics are often conflated, and as such really do send the wrong impression about the nature of privilege, or at least passive privilege.

            TL;DR:There’s a lot of people who have the (incorrect) impression out there that being “privileged” is an attack on your worth as a person.

      • Stephen Gomez says

        I inhabit much of the same space here. This is a new topic for me so when I criticized a groups use of this term I was made to seem as an ignorant monger. I tried to be polite about the discourse but things quickly dissolved into name calling and I was deemed unsuited or uninformed for discussion without much attempt to engage my critiques. My question is though how does one proceed in an active forum of discussion where anyone can come in and say potentially triggering things and thus rejected or banned.

  4. Cipher, OM, Fighting Fucktoy says

    I use trigger warnings in a variety of different ways depending on my state. Usually, I sort of stop, think, then read on, the way you describe yourself doing. I can usually “handle” being triggered, in some way – I do end up shaking and crying, but I do not feel that my well-being is significantly endangered by the experience in a way I need to avoid. Recently, though, I began to experience a lot of anger toxicity, self-destructive episodes, and thoughts of suicide with respect to my abuse history. Under these circumstances, I have been taking trigger warnings much more seriously. I have dropped several readings as soon as I read the trigger warning.

    One thing that I tend to appreciate about trigger warnings over the good introduction approach is that they function as kind of a pause button for me. Stop for a second – evaluate. Can I handle this? Even if the answer is usually yes, it’s good to take that moment and look at my state. With a good introduction, I am already reading. I have trouble stopping before I’m done. I can only recall once stopping reading something because I was being triggered too severely, and that was an unusual situation – I don’t know how to be any clearer about that without going into unnecessary detail, but I’ll just say that I was afraid that I was literally in imminent danger of vomiting if I stayed at the computer.

  5. Mara says

    Thanks for writing this. I’ve used excessive trigger warnings before just because I also have a trigger that is usually not assumed to be a trigger, and it’s impossible for me to avoid. I was thinking that it’s better to err on the side of using too many trigger warnings labeled by subject matter. I didn’t think of the possibility that so many warnings could be patronizing or that it might trivialize the experience of being triggered. These are good things to consider.

    I’ve also been triggered by an SMBC comic, knowing that it was a possibility. I don’t read that comic anymore because of that one time, which is too bad because it’s hilarious, but I also think of it as my responsibility to avoid the trigger in that particular case. I haven’t thought about it very much, though.

  6. Tikvah says

    It’s likely part of the PTSD that I am drawn, like a moth to flame, to trigger warnings. Part of my psyche insists that the more I am exposed to the graphic and triggering, the less it will affect me. There’s really little scientific correlation, but I still do it. In fact, it’s what brought me to this article.

    As far as triggers go, however, in the right context, they can be incredibly helpful in learning where the gaps are in one’s recovery. I’m in a support group. It’s really fucking triggering. I know that when I start spacing out or feeling nauseous, something has shined a bright light on a dark space and I could use more focused work there.

    Thanks for bringing this topic up Natalie.

    • Cipher, OM, Fighting Fucktoy says

      Oh no, is that true? I have this stupid word in my nym because it is such a trigger that reading it unexpectedly can feel like a physical blow, and I figured that it would eventually start to become sort of invisible to me if I saw it often enough… 🙁

      • Cipher, OM, Fighting Fucktoy says

        “Is that true?” I mean about there not being evidence that exposure to triggers makes them affect you less.

        • Dan Audy says

          What I was taught in my Cognitive Behaviour Therapy was that when you experience something that causes you distress you often end up focusing on it and reinforcing the neural connections between *thing that is distressing* and *anxiety attack* (or whatever your particular response is). That is why a lot of CBT is about analyzing your triggers intellectually to recognize what is and is not a reasonable response to it and then exposing yourself in controlled ways to it, recognizing that it wasn’t actually as bad as your mind told you it would be, and then gradually increasing the intensity and length of exposures. In theory the end goal is to not be ‘triggered’ at all by your distress but in practice it seems that most people can achieve ‘I find this uncomfortable but I know why and I can deal with my discomfort without escalating into a panic attack’.

      • Ysanne says

        I have no idea if repeated self-imposed exposure to one’s triggers helps, but it seems to be a very typical approach:
        I recently spoke to a psychology/literature researcher who studies extreme disgust. She says that people deal with something that grosses them out to the point of scaring them by an approach/retreat strategy, which first involves putting considerable distance between themselves and the problematic object, then letting it enter their perception slowly until their discomfort becomes too much to continue, and repeating this process, each time getting a little closer. The initial “retreat” can be very strong and seem irrational, e.g. in the case of seeing a big spider in a book, a combination of dropping the book, leaving the room and blocking one’s ears. The “approach” part also has some interesting techniques of limiting sensory input of the bad object, e.g. looking only with one eye, taking quick peeks from behind a corner, or covering parts of the object.

        Now comes a bit of a jump: Horses do exactly the same with stuff that scares them, including the “look with one eye only” bits. Experiments suggest that they overcome the fear most efficiently when they alternate many (as in dozens to hundreds) short periods of engaging with the object in their “slight discomfort” zone and finding some relaxation/comfort there, with processing their experience in the “safe and comfortable” zone. Even though the steps are tiny, they become fairly short after the first few, and give lasting results. In contrast, going into the “strong discomfort” zone where they are too busy being scared to explore doesn’t help, and entering “too bad, must run away” zone leads to large setbacks.

        I don’t know how much of this applies to humans, but seeing the similarities between the instinctive approaches, some of the results (particularly: tiny steps, lots of repetitions, waiting to find the comfort, avoiding shocks) could be useful.

          • Ysanne says

            Depends on the horse, but generally speaking: Everything they don’t expect. The difference is all in how a horse is capable of handling the freak-out: Batting an eyelash, snort, looking more closely, little jump, run away a little, all out panicked flight. Nice spectrum there, and since it makes everybody’s life longer and less painful to give the horse the mental strategies to stay on the “look and deal with it calmly” end, there’s been a lot of research into how you would do that. 🙂

      • nms says

        I don’t know about PTSD but that is sort of how some anxiety disorders (phobias especially) can be treated. As Ysanne says, though, the desensitization has to be controlled enough that the person/horse isn’t overwhelmed.

  7. Ainuvande says

    Personally, I find trigger warnings most helpful if they’re on a blog I’m newly perusing, or a website with multiple writers where I might not already know the tone of the individual I’m reading. And I will forgo reading something that has a trigger warning if I know I’m not in the right frame of mind to handle the topic. (I’ve also spend multiple years learning how to be self-aware enough to know what I can and can’t handle at a given time, and own “I’m not up for that right now” without shame.)

    That said, once I’m familiar with a writer or a blog, I find well-written titles and intro paragraphs a much more comfortable way of warning. There are, for example, whole weeks where I’ll either avoid your blog or only read the titles of posts because I’m in a headspace where my gender self-concept (or my feminist self-concept, or my concept of self as a whole) are too fragile to handle the scrutiny you prompt.

    By the same token, I found myself avoiding all the comments on the sexual harassment at cons conversations because I knew that would be really triggering to incidences in my own past.

    I guess what I’m dancing around is that I view trigger warnings as a form of politeness. A way of saying “here there be dragons” that people can listen to or not. Not a requirement, but not a bad thing if you’re going to leap right in to a potentially disturbing topic without warning.

  8. says

    An interesting read. It’s something I’ve been struggling with myself, though of course in a different way, as I rarely if ever post my own thoughts outside of 140 characters.

    Sometimes I wonder whether or not I should be trigger warning people with the links I post. Sometimes, it seems obvious to me, like graphic rape descriptions. But even then I’m wondering if I should do that. Should I leave the trigger warnings to the link I’m posting? But, if I do that, and post, say a fox news link about another funeral protest, I know for a fact there won’t be a warning on the site.

    There’s also the fact that, when I’m posting links, usually it’s on twitter. Trigger warnings take precious characters, which could go into describing the article in a useful way. This is less of a problem on Facebook, but I rarely post things strictly on facebook (using twitter to auto link). Then there’s the fact that facebook will take my twitter links, pull an image from the link and post it on my wall. This was really uncomfortable for me, when I posted about the “beating up Anita Sarkeesian” game, and facebook automatically posted the photo of Anita covered in bruises and scars. I was not happy with that… took it down.

    I’m glad to see this. It’s interesting to think about.

  9. says

    I personally think the most useful trigger warnings are those used like HTML- [tw] followed by [/tw]. That way it’s possible to just skip the specific content you’re not interested in. Kate Bornstein did this particularly well in her memoir, giving the reader explicit information on how to skip a violent BDSM scene. I actually do use these warnings when they’re given for images of insects, particularly spiders, or if a conversation I’m otherwise engaged in delves into details of childbirth or something else I find disturbing. But like Eskeptrical Engineer, I don’t have any particularly disabling triggers- while I skip if given the opportunity, encountering such materials won’t usual invoke a deep seated response. Well, maybe nightmares with the spiders.

    As for your primary question, I would say that as long as there’s a set of people who appreciate the presence of trigger warnings, it’s appropriate for writers to use them as they see fit. I agree with your sentiment about tone and written lead ins, given that readers should be able to differentiate between a safe space blog (where trigger warnings would be the norm) and a standard blog that wouldn’t use devices.

    Early in the year, Shakesville dealt with the issue of over/misuse by switching from ‘trigger warning’ to ‘content note’. If you’re interested, the conversation explaining the change is spread out in this thread:

  10. besomyka says

    I guess I agree most closely with the notion that trigger warnings are a sort of ‘heads up’ to let people know that you’re about to cover something that has a decent chance to be a no-go for a portion of your readers, and which isn’t a common topic.

    On the topic of other ways to communicate, I think post titles are the best spot, and after that then first paragraph. I generally see the posts either from your tweeting or from an RSS feed, so I’ll be able to tell if it’s something I should skip over or at least brace myself.

    I’m lucky in that I don’t have a background which provides too many landmines, but there are still topics that have deeper emotional resonance to me, and being aware that something could dramatically affect me, is good to know.

    I can, for instance, not read it at work and wait until I get home so I can avoid crying at my desk while my code compiles.

  11. tarian says

    I appreciate trigger warnings, especially for links that head off to particular kinds of video. (Ex: some of the things that’ve gotten linked in the Tosh.0 fiasco I’ve opted out of.) You’re right, specificity helps. TW:rape does not tell me “somebody is discussing rape statistics” vs. “here is a video DEPICTING AN ACTUAL RAPE”. Text I’m usually fine with, or at least can figure out it’s headed sideways fast enough to back out. If I know I’m having a particularly bad day, I will either skip the media dive in the morning, or confine it to websites already flagged as safe spaces (shakesville!). And I don’t usually even think of myself as having it particularly bad; I function in society, mostly. The occasional panic attacks and night sweats and throwing up because you have to leave the house? Those are normal, right?

  12. leftwingfox says

    I feel like the idea of “responsibility” is probably too strong a word, since it implies that if a person fails to successfully label a trigger, then they should somehow be held accountable. This hasn’t been the first discussion I’ve seen of triggers that pointed out the randomness of some of these triggers. The brain can seize on tangentially related details during trauma, and those sort of triggers can be intensely powerful, but also impossible to predict.

    To that end, I always saw trigger warnings as a welcome courtesy, rather than an obligation.

    • says

      And yet I’ve seen them consistently treated as an obligation, and I’ve been reprimanded many times, often with extreme hostility, for not choosing to use them very often.

      • Bia says

        Not to sound unsympathetic but I’m pretty certain those people lashing out at you are in the wrong in my opinion because they’re scapegoating you. They can’t or won’t handle their own trauma and because of that they have decided to project all of that on to you.

        Really they’re mad at themselves because they haven’t effectively worked through their own issues. Which isn’t necessarily their fault, it just is what it is.

  13. rascalfemininista says

    Thanks for this post Natalie, I’m personally appreciative because I too find trigger warnings make me feel deeply uncomfortable at times. I’ve written about this elsewhere so I’m glad there is some debate – but I agree that social justice types seem to be norming towards a trigger warning orthodoxy without much reflection.

    I’m going to list some of my concerns and would be happy to discuss further if people want. I think you have covered a lot of this ground in a thorough post:

    PTSD: I think ‘trigger’ might be best reserved to refer to complex trauma type reactions and not simpler/ everyday discomfort, rage, empathy-pain etc. In my experience people with PTSD or similar are triggered by things that can seem random to others i.e. I know a sexual abuse survivor triggered to deep panic by a certain colour of child’s bicycle and some war survivors triggered by loud noises like a car exhaust backfiring.
    These experiences are very re-traumatising but trigger warnings wouldn’t usually be used about them,

    Rape and sexual violence: I think a healthy and congruent response to posts about these topics is fear, disgust, rage, helplessness, discomfort, pain. I don’t think this is ‘triggering’ as in the PTSD context (though of course it will be for some)
    . I think there are useful tools for making it possible to avoid these topics or particular representations of these topics without naming them ‘triggers’ which I feel expropriates PTSD and associated responses whilst pathologising useful, congruent responses i.e. when an account of rape is deeply upsetting and inspires the reader to support an rape crisis centre, or vent to a feminist friend, or weep and grieve.

    responsibility: I hold dear the the idea that social justice communities could teach-learn skills to allow us to be open to traumatic narratives/information so we can fight back. I think this involves learning tactics about how to ‘discharge/vent’ our feelings, look after each other, look after ourselves and avoid numbness. My deepest discomfort with trigger warnings is the implicit expectation that someone else marks what I will and will not find traumatic and when. I know there is good will here but it pains me in a real way.

    things I find of use & suggestions:

    listing content neutrally i.e contains ‘such and such’ ‘contains such and such with pictoral content’ ‘contains detailed personal account of such’ – perhaps using #tags

    skip links: i.e. “readers who wish to skip detail of the incident involving such and such slur click here”

    links to conceal pictures / audio so making them opt in content
    as I find that I might read about, say, pornography, but not wish to see actual pornography. Or be happy to read a poem account of a rape but feel unable, at this time, to hear the author read it.

    thanks again Natalie for raising this topic and kicking of the discussion with such a considered post and sharing personal information – after all, personal examples and how we feel is moot.

    In sisterhood, Anywavewilldo

    • Cipher, OM, Fighting Fucktoy says

      I think there are useful tools for making it possible to avoid these topics or particular representations of these topics without naming them ‘triggers’ which I feel expropriates PTSD and associated responses whilst pathologising useful, congruent responses i.e. when an account of rape is deeply upsetting and inspires the reader to support an rape crisis centre, or vent to a feminist friend, or weep and grieve.

      But frequently these topics and representations thereof are triggers. Not in the “I am sad now because people rape other people” way, in the “I am now experiencing hypervigilance and nightmares because of my PTSD from being raped” way. I don’t think it’s appropriate to say that labeling these things triggers is somehow appropriating PTSD, when they frequently are PTSD triggers!

        • says

          Thirded. Plenty of people suffer from PTSD as a result of rape or sexual assault.

          That said, I have been wondering about the appropriate of the word ‘trigger’ and when it’s appropriate to use it. It has a very specific meaning in relation to PTSD, but I feel like people often use it to refer to simply being upset by something. Maybe that’s okay, because I think it might be difficult to draw a clear line between the two in any meaningful way, but I also can’t help but feel that sometimes it might belittle the experiences of people who really do suffer from PTSD.

          • says

            I worry about this too, and I think because I have read so many things with TWs that made me feel awful but did not trigger me, I have at least mentally broadened the definition of “trigger” in a way that would trivialize PTSD if I used it out loud. But I’ve also realized recently that since some forms of PTSD are milder or just subtler than others, it can be hard to make the distinctions even for myself. And we could use the word “trigger” to mean, to set off an emotional chain reaction that forces one to revisit a previous very unpleasant state.

            For example, it took a full year after I declared myself atheist, for words like “you’re going to hell” to stop making me afraid, and words like “Jesus loves you” to stop making me feel guilty or unworthy. I didn’t realize that *would* get better until it did. Did I have PTSD? I don’t know but probably not; I usually just call this an instilled guilt complex which is often mentally paralyzing. But I would say that those words, spoken or shouted in earnest when I was off my guard, did trigger my guilt complex and I would have to work quite hard to readjust, especially if I had stayed to argue. And for many, this stuff would be clearly PTSD triggering.

          • says

            Also I meant to say, emotional abuse (thinking here of individuals) causes PTSD but at least when I’ve experienced it, has been very hard to identify for a long time.

      • A 'Nym Too says

        OMG, this. I’m not “appropriating” PTSD, I’m suffering from it.

        Someone upthread trotted out the old “Trigger warnings trigger me” canard, which is just as offensive.

        PTSD isn’t restricted to ex-military personnel or CSA survivors, and being triggered isn’t about feeling bad or “self-conscious” about discussing certain things.

        Of course nobody can warn for everything. I have a unique, impossible to warn for, everyday-item trigger. I don’t use it, my partner is aware of it and shields me where possible. Doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate a heads-up about my common ones.

        To anyone claiming/believing that “being triggered” means feeling sad or angry, feeling flushed or nauseous, or getting self-conscious or feeling awkward, I’ll say the following:

        Imagine this, it’s a beautiful sunny day. You’ve decided to go out for the day,. You have your e-reader with you, and you’re going to go to the park and read in the sun.

        You pop into your favourite cake shop, and buy a lovely thick wedge of cherry clafoutis, wave goodbye to the person beside the counter, and head for the park. It’s one of those days where everyone seems happy and you’re glad to be alive.

        As you’re walking, the ground suddenly gives way. You’re surrounded by pitch blackness, you’re freefalling, and suddenly you hit icy cold water.

        You try to swim but you can’t. Your legs and arms hang uselessly, you’re a dead weight, you’re freezing and sinking fast. You’re terrified, shaking, your mouth full of icy, filthy water. You know you’re about to die..

        As your heart races out of control, as your lungs fill, you thrash and panic with that last rush of animal instinct, and then everything goes black.

        Suddenly you’re back on the sunny street, soaking and cold, you don’t know what’s happened. People are staring, you’re shaking and crying, you feel naked and exposed. Cake and park forgotten, you try to stay conscious so you can run home, but it’s so far away… Easier to curl up, close your eyes, give in to unconsciousness.

        That’s what it’s like for me. It’s not about feeling awkward, or fucking self-conscious, or wary. It ruins my entire day, sometimes my week. It breaks me.

        • karmakin says

          I’m the one that said it, and I’m not minimizing anything. Things I link to strongly socially aggressive behavior result in symptoms that most people would classify as a panic attack. Shortness of breath, dizziness, confusion, etc. I just happen to link trigger warnings to this sort of thing due to personal experiences. That part of it is pretty unique, probably, but I have no doubt that the threat of strongly socially aggressive/exclusionary behavior is a trigger for some people. We just tend to be quiet about it.

          I’ll be honest. I’m tired of being quiet about it.

          • says

            It would make sense for people who experience strong anxiety, or traumatic memories, in relation to aggressive, controlling behaviour on the part of a group to generally be quiet about it, because speaking up about it tends to result in an increase in exactly that aggressive, controlling behaviour. So the ONLY strategy that would make sense for someone with that trigger is keep their head down.

            And yeah, I can definitely see it being a legitimate trigger, given the extent to which bullying and coercive attempts to bring someone in line with the group mentality can become very, very violent and traumatizing.

  14. SimonB says

    “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.”

    …go on.

  15. says

    I agree about the randomness. Around Christmas, I tried to watch Tim Minchin’s White Wine in the Sun. There nothing theoretically triggering about this. It’s a song about how you don’t need to be religious to enjoy Christmas because it’s really about spending time with friends and family. However, my best friend had died two days before Christmas and this just drilled home for me that I had no one to see on the holidays anymore (except my family, but they are Republican bigots). I’ve never been able to listen to that whole song.

  16. says

    Natalie, you’re one of my favorite writers because you say all the things I should have been thinking, if I was smarter.

    One other thought that I’ve been tossing around in my head about trigger warnings is that in addition to their direct informational content, they also can function as a sort of shibboleth. Trigger warnings aren’t universal communication devices. The idea of trigger warnings and the term “trigger warning” emerged out of a specific (albeit loosely defined) online social justice community. Giving a trigger warning signals your affiliation with that community. So when someone writes, say, “TW: sexual assault,” they’re not just communicating the fact that the post contains descriptions of a particular activity that some readers may want to skip. They’re also saying “I’m the kind of person who you would expect to find on a blog of the type that gives trigger warnings.” That, in turn, can be useful information about the norms and customs and outlook you’d expect to find in the blog. And it can be a good affirmation of solidarity with people who may need trigger warnings — an explicit “look, I’m on your side” even if the particular trigger being warned about is not triggering for you.

    The thing about the shibboleth function is that it depends on explicitness. You have to use the formulation “TW: X” or similar. So that is one thing that differentiates a trigger warning from a carefully written title and intro that communicate the same content information without calling attention to the fact that you’re doing so.

    • says

      I don’t much care for TWs as an indicator of community, or think they are needed for that. This blog is clearly in some sort of social justice community, but you can see that from how Natalie writes pretty quickly, and from her comment policy.

      I do think TWs are an indication that the author wishes to acknowledge and respect that others have had terrible life experiences, and intends not to make fun of trauma survivors but rather has a useful reason for discussing traumatic subjects. Those are community standards of many social justice communities, but anyone might use them, and one can communicate this commitment to respect, without TWs.

  17. LicoriceAllsort says

    Like some others above, I lean more toward dropping enough clues about content up front so that readers can decide for themselves what might be triggering and whether they should continue reading. To that end, I think something fairly simple, like placing tags right below the title–kind of like the (more helpful) content descriptions under movie ratings–might be helpful. e.g.,

    “Title of Post”
    tags: drug use, sexual assault, transphobia, animal abuse

    Or possibly even more helpful but increasingly clunky:
    “Title of Post”
    tags: quick reference to drug use, description of PTSD resulting from sexual assault, reference to transphobia, and detailed description of animal abuse

    But perhaps a compromise using some sort of star rating to indicate how in-depth a discussion might be? Where maybe * = quick reference to its existence, **** = detailed description about a specific event. e.g.,
    “Title of Post”
    tags: drug use*, sexual assault**, transphobia*, animal abuse****

  18. says

    I don’t have a lot of triggers, and I don’t write a lot of stuff, but I also put “content notes” when things are violent, and specific TWs when I think someone may likely have their PTSD triggered. So I have put TWs when I talk graphically about rape, or explicitly get into the mindset of the victim or the abuser.

    That said, I am so grateful about the TW you put, and said was serious, about Erica’s post. Her post literally made me feel afraid, and feel a deep sense of horror. I went past the TW armed but not prepared enough; but afterwards I was glad to know I wasn’t the only one with that reaction. It’s probably the only post I can think of that I’m glad I read, would recommend to others, probably will not read again at least for quite a while.

    Also in an IRL discussion I wished the speaker had said she was going to recite many many transphobic violence stats and descriptions, ones already familiar to me, so I could have walked out of the room for a few minutes. It just got worse for me as it went on, and that’s not PTSD of mine, simply well-founded fears for someone I love. But then, that speaker is a cis academic who Others trans people, as became clear to me later, so it probably never occurred to her.

  19. says

    I have really serious issues with the enforcement of a trigger warning. On my own blog for example I talk about very personal details of my life that could very much trigger certain people, and for some of the worst ones I might include a trigger warning as a courtesy but I would certainly not want someone to enforce that on me.

    To me having a trigger warning put on my life would be like telling me that my life is somehow a problem for other people. It almost feels like shaming me for my experiences.

    I also see a future where net nanny software might filter trigger warnings and young people might not be able to read blogs and posts that could really help them because of trigger warnings.

  20. Chirico says

    I think I know the blog you’re referring to(because I found it through someone linking it to you), and while I wouldn’t dream of conflating our experiences as being the same, I also had an extremely painful reaction. I don’t know how I feel about the word “triggering,” or if it can even apply to me, but there are certain subjects which will leave me utterly drained and unable to function. But more often than not, I will engage them anyway, even knowing that it’s a bad idea. This is probably an extension of self-loathing and self-destructive behavior compelling me to hurt myself, and maybe it’s the same for others. There do seem to be people who have that “can’t look away even though I should” reaction and I don’t know how to deal with that. For me at least, a trigger warning, or even the sprinkled “hints” method you describe would, depending on my mood coming into the subject, only serve to draw me in; I can’t explain it well, and it makes me feel like an idiot, doing things I know will hurt me. But I guess part of what I’m trying to say is that, like you suggest, trigger warnings will help certain kinds of people but their use is so heavily subjective that their overall effectiveness is suspect.

  21. says

    I’ve been wanting to write about this subject for awhile now and I just couldn’t articulate all of the angles. I’m happy you’ve tackled it. It’s a complex topic with no easy solutions.

    Some of my examples below may well be triggering. Sexual assault and death by fire to be specific. I’ll keep it to a minimum though.

    I think an important point for discussion is what exactly “triggering” means. The Mildreds of the world think it means “upsetting”, but I’ve always assumed it means provoking extreme negative psychological reactions – equivalent to panic attacks, depressive incidents or re-living an incident ala PTSD. Since these things are all subjective, coming up with a perfect criteria is impossible. On the scale of “this upsets me” to “this traps me on a roller coaster of bad memories from my childhood”, I think we can say that the former doesn’t deserve a trigger warning, but the latter might. The problem is one person’s upsetting is another person’s flashback.

    I do think that a lot of websites err on the side of being too thin-skinned. Fred Clark’s old website has fallen prey to that now that it’s been taken over by his former regulars. You’ll see the main page is salt-and-peppered with trigger warnings. A Livejournal group I used to subscribe to was much the same, though they were both too thin-skinned and also clueless about what the triggering parts of a story might be. I remember a link to a news story that included a trigger warning for rape. The story mentioned that a woman ran into her daughter’s (convicted, punished and now released) rapist. She murdered him by setting him on fire. The news story mentioned that a rape had occurred, but did not go into any details about it. The death-by-immolation OTOH was well-detailed.

    Now rape is generally agreed to be topic to warn about. But the really upsetting details in the news article wasn’t the statement of rape, it was the depiction of the immolation. I think that gives a good rule-of-thumb for trigger warnings. It’s certainly the one that I use personally on my LJ:

    A statement relating to an upsetting topic doesn’t justify a trigger warning, but the depiction of an upsetting topic might. “Sally was raped”, while upsetting probably isn’t going to trigger anyone unless they’re exceptionally fragile (certainly beyond the level of anyone who personally knows me and would therefore be reading my LJ). If I go into details about how it happened, then I probably should issue a warning, since visualizing it is the most likely way to trigger someone.

    Anyway, just wanted to add another point of view. Incidentally, I’m like you in that I will often see warnings for my own red-button topics, and continue reading anyway. As for your personal demons, I hope you recover quickly and well.

    • says

      I do think that a lot of websites err on the side of being too thin-skinned. Fred Clark’s old website has fallen prey to that now that it’s been taken over by his former regulars. Youl’ll see the main page is salt-and-peppered with trigger warnings.

      That’s actually why I stopped reading the book “deconstructions” in that corner of the Internets. When someone is blogging their way through Twilight, for example, and seemingly every post starts with a trigger warning (“TW: Stalking” or “TW: Gaslighting”, let’s say), the atmosphere becomes stifling, in a good-idea-gone-awry sort of way. Warnings about big things and little things and things for which reader responses will be widely varying all blur together, and the whole scheme becomes rather useless, however well-intentioned it was to begin with. When everything gets the same kind of label, regardless of how many people have what severity reaction to the content, doesn’t it legitimise the “Mildreds” of the world who use “triggering” as synonymous with “upsetting” or “frustrating”? I started to wonder if the “trigger warning” idea was becoming an in-group/out-group signalling thing—this is what we do, because we are concerned with social justice, and if you do not preface your blog posts in just this manner, we are justified in rejecting you as ethically backward and Not With It. And if you are concerned with the practical implementation of the trigger warning idea, we can label you as unconcerned with the plight of the suffering.

      (“Mildred” is one of us, of course.)

      I started to wonder if ubiquitous trigger-warning was creating an ethos in which laying out everything unpleasant—or everything on some list of Officially Unpleasant Topics—in advance is ethically mandatory. As an aspiring hack paperback novelist myself, I found the spectre of a Thou Shalt Spoil commandment rather unsettling. Laying out everything unhappy in advance and creating suspense are pretty much opposites, aren’t they? Sure, there’s a difference between a novel and a blog post about it. . . but how many writers will have to deal with the irritation of being labelled one of the out-group, for the crime of not having their characters wear all past and future traumas on their sleeve in their first appearance?

      Better people being Very Disappointed in books than burning them, I guess, but it’s still not a happy scenario to imagine.

      • karmakin says

        As I’ve said above, actual trigger warnings themselves literally trigger me, for the reason you mentioned. It can very well foster an in-group/out-group dynamic that, as someone with social anxiety, is like horrible. It’s not that I’m against the idea of content warnings. It’s just a pattern that I’ve seen throughout my life that results in bad things in my mind.

        Which isn’t much different from any other triggers.

        When I see it used frequently or commonly on a blog or forum, I instantly know that it is not a safe space for me. So maybe that’s a good thing. But it’s not something I want to see everywhere. Again, I have no problem with content notifications for graphic or potentially troubling content. But the pattern for me remains. It’s my problem, I have to get over it, but again, I don’t see how it’s that much different from other things.

        (I should add that there are certain things…rape/sexual abuse is a big one…that really does deserve some additional consideration, although I disagree that it’s absolute.)

  22. says

    I’m surprised there are so many people who are saying they simply see a trigger warning and skip over it…sometimes I do that, but there are a fair amount of days where I see “Trigger warning: rape description,” and I go, “Nope, can’t deal with that today. *close.*” Not saying that it’s bad or wrong of people to ignore trigger warnings, just surprised.

    I appreciate it when people put trigger warnings, but if I’m triggered by something someone else has written, I don’t put the blame on them. I think that’s an unfair burden to place on a writer, to account for all possible triggers (not to mention impossible, anyway). Granted, if someone runs “Cutest Kittens blog!” and in the middle of it throws up a video of some graphic mutilation…then yes, I would blame them. But in general, there should be enough exposition before the graphic stuff to warn me what is coming (although, like I said earlier, some days I just know I can’t deal with it, so if a title is somewhat ambiguous and I see “TW: Rape” at the top, I may just click off of it, rather than try to deal with it at that moment).

    “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”…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.”

    The only reason why I’d advocate for you putting a general TW on your sidebar of your blog is because sometimes people may link to you without any context or just happen across your blog for other reasons. Someone may link to a post of yours on twitter by saying, “Read this great article by Natalie Reed!” So if Random Reader comes by, I don’t think they can be reasonably expected to automatically know that you’ll be talking about transphobia or something else potentially difficult to deal with. Having said that, I will reiterate that it’s courtesy and not a responsibility of yours.

    Excellent post though.

    • AylaSophia says

      I’m surprised there are so many people who are saying they simply see a trigger warning and skip over it
      See, and I was reading this post and wondering if there’s anyone who sees a trigger warning and doesn’t decided to read on anyway. Because I’m exactly like Natalie in that; I see a TW before a post on a subject that is extremely likely to trigger an anxiety attack, and I read on anyway.

      Of course, I think that seeing “trigger warning” at the top of something has the effect of making me more prepared to see upsetting things. It lets me steel myself, in a way. I see “Trigger warning: graphic description of rape,” and rather than skip the post like a sensible person I take a metaphorical deep breath, mentally brace myself, and read on. I’ll probably end up getting upset anyway, but it’s much less of a shock to my system than when I accidentally stumble across some MRAs callously talking about how women are asking for it, or whatever.

      I originally started going into the subject of blame and obligation w/r/t trigger warnings here as well. But then I found myself writing about people who intentionally say awful things (rape jokes, violent racism, etc) and whether they should be expected to moderate or label their language for the sake of others. And then I just started confusing myself, because I can’t see any clear conclusions there. I mean, obviously, it’s Not Ok to intentionally say heinous shit on the internet. But people who do say those kinds of things probably either don’t know or don’t care about the concept of trigger warnings. Should they be scolded? Educated? Condemned? I’m not sure!

      • says

        If you haven’t read the Jezebel article about “how to make a rape joke,” I highly recommend it. (am on mobile so no link sorry) I know Jezebel publishes some problematic stuff but this is on point. In the context of making fun of rape victims vs making fun of rape *culture*, it gets at the point that there’s a mile-wide gap between talking about something because it’s bad and you want to fix it, vs because you don’t care that it’s bad and you want a laugh.

      • CT says

        I don’t read it if it has a trigger warning for certain things. If I do, I’ve learned that there will be splash damage when I enter my own personal hell of feedback loop. That feedback loop thing is pretty hard to conquer and everybody around me gets hit with it so I try to minimize. while I appreciate trigger warnings, I don’t expect anyone to add them if they don’t want. It’s not their fault I’m broken.

  23. says

    Wow this is the best post I’ve seen about trigger warnings and all the different nuances of when to use them, and who has what responsibility. I was actually just thinking about trigger warnings today, because I heard someone mention that “more people are putting them on their blog posts” and I wondered if I need to consider that when I write blog posts.

    It seems like it would be impossible to have completely clear-cut rules on all this. There’s no way to make a list of “things that are triggering” and “things that are not triggering” and have everyone agree on the entire list. So my take on it would be, let’s have the discussion about when to use trigger warnings, but don’t get angry at a writer when they don’t have one- they probably just didn’t realize they needed it on that particular post. In the same way, the writers should listen to their readers if concerns are brought up about needing a trigger warning. Unless someone’s an obvious troll, we can assume that they’re trying to do the right thing, right? We can give people the benefit of the doubt, and try to listen/understand each other.

  24. says

    Great questions.

    One issue that I haven’t seen mentioned (forgive me if I missed it) is the issue of surprise in works of art. This came to mind because of the cartoon that Natalie mentioned at the start: the heroin use was the punch line, and telegraphing that would have spoiled the joke. Sure, that particular joke was so quick that perhaps telegraphing is the wrong word — but it’s easy to imagine other jokes in which a surprise element is essential. And of course movies, books, etc, often rely on surprise too.

    Just raising the question — I don’t know how to deal with it. Spoiler warnings on trigger alerts seems a bit over the top…

    • Work in Progress says

      Spoiler warnings on trigger alerts seems a bit over the top…

      In the online fanfic community — which has been struggling with the issue of trigger warnings for many years now — this is actually sometimes done.

  25. Aliasalpha says

    When it comes to trigger warnings, aren’t they effectively trying to predict the reactions of people you don’t know? Whilst that would be effective some of the time (it’s fairly obvious that high res pictures of spiders would trigger people who are severely arachnophobic) there’s no way you could know the seemingly innocuous things that trigger people who have a fucked up history with something specific so at best it’ll be only marginally accurate. Its like you’re trying to describe your readers rather than describe your writing (if that makes sense).

    I think a better alternative might be to summarise the major content with indications as to it’s severity. Rather than cluttering up the opening paragraph with a long list of points, I’d go for icons, something akin to the PEGI ratings icons. For a post that deals with the basic everyday bigotry of some nutter saying gay people shouldn’t be allowed to get married because then it’ll cause the complete destruction of space time as we know it (kinda like Davros’ reality bomb), that could get a green bigotry icon since its the kind of annoying background shit that, sadly, goes on all the time so the chances are people would be merely annoyed or angry at it rather than seriously triggered. For a post dealing with extremely strong bigotry like a psychotic fuck torturing his 4 year old son to death trying to exorcise the gay out of him because the boy picked up a barbie doll and didn’t immediately break it like a ‘real man’ would, that could get a red bigotry icon because that’s clearly very graphic and it pisses me off to the point where I’m starting to think of using the pointy end of a claw hammer on that fucker so it’d clearly have a stronger effect on people more sensitive to it. Add in colour coded icons for all the major themes you’re likely write about like homophobia, transphobia, bananaphobia (possibly exclusive to any story about ray comfort) etc and you should be able to give fairly detailed information with a minimum of screen space. A system like this might also make it a bit faster to post so you don’t have to re-read your post carefully and look for potential triggers to alert people about, just list the major themes, decide on their severity & pick the appropriate icons to post.
    It seems safe to assume that most people would already know their triggers and being told what to expect before the post begins should be enough information to let them decide if they want to proceed.

  26. JP says

    Thanks, Natalie, for eloquently and thoughtfully addressing a lot of important issues surrounding this subject that are rarely taken into consideration.

    A personal anecdote:

    I’m part of a tightly-knit online community that genuinely tries to protect its members and to foster a sense of inclusivity and safety. The way we’ve traditionally handled triggering material on our forum is to use spoilers with content warnings, and initially that worked well. However, over time– and with the best of intentions– people began more and more to err on the side of caution about what might possibly be considered a trigger, and those spoilers proliferated to the point where entire pages were virtually unreadable because of them. In an open conversation about how to deal with that, and how to handle triggering material in general, it came to light that some members were actually getting triggered by having to give so many trigger warnings. Not in the sense you might expect; they weren’t objecting on the grounds that it was an imposition or that it was inconvenient to have to think about other people’s acute discomfort. Rather, they had grown up in extremely conservative religious homes where their views and opinions were routinely silenced and punished, and the unintended consequence of our over-vigilance was to make them feel effectively censored in the same way they had been as children. It was as distressing for them to have to spoiler much of what they said (since we do delve quite frequently into emotionally-fraught personal issues) as it was for people who suffered other traumas to read intense posts without any trigger warnings at all. In the ensuing discussion, we discovered that while most people had been gradually increasing their use of spoilers, they weren’t actually getting triggered by most of what everyone considered spoiler-worthy. We eventually arrived at the consensus that we would continue to warn for a short list of mutually agreed-upon triggers, and that any member could request additions if they required them (we ended up adding substance abuse to the list as a result); since having that conversation, our online space has, I hope, felt a lot more welcoming and open, especially to new members, while still being as safe as we can reasonably expect to make it.

    That’s how it’s worked digitally for me. My analog experience has been very different; life, unfortunately, doesn’t come with trigger warnings. I work as a peer counselor and public advocate for people dealing with the same mental health issues I’ve had my whole life, and there have been times when I’ve been working with someone or speaking to an audience and suddenly felt like I was underwater, with all sensory information rapidly receding, as I do when I’m on the verge of passing out. I have PTSD from several different things, and my reaction to triggers (often delayed by anything from an hour to a full day) is one of numbness, nausea, and retreat. I’m rarely able to predict when it will happen with my one-on-one work, but I’m getting to the point where I can, in a sense, incorporate trigger warnings for myself into my public presentations, by conveying the same information in a way that’s less personal and more general. Since sometimes the people to whom I’m speaking have similar triggers, I hope it’s an effective way of protecting them as well.

    This is an important subject with few if any answers that are clear-cut and universal. Thanks again for tackling a complex topic with appropriate nuance and grace.

  27. says

    Another anecdote on the unexpected impacts of trigger warnings – I wonder if anyone else has had a similar experience.

    For a long time I’ve read quite a lot of blogs and websites which have TWs. It was only through seeing TWs and looking up what they are that I came to understand the notion of triggering.

    Then I had an experience which, for many people, makes them sensitive to being triggered by mentions of the topic. But I wasn’t ever triggered by any of the things which had TWs for this topic. I therefore concluded that my experience wasn’t a big deal / wasn’t what I thought it was / wasn’t to be taken seriously etc. It can’t have been a big deal – if it was, I’d be triggered by at least some of these things with TWs, right? So I just dismissed the experience (part of a broader pattern of pretending it never happened).

    Eventually one day I was triggered by a film which depicted a scenario that was very similar to my experience in relevant ways. It was only at this point that I began to take my experience seriously and think that actually it was worth exploring after all. But for years I had dismissed it (in part) because I hadn’t been triggered by any of the things with TWs for this topic.

    Which also comes back to Natalie’s point about the things that trigger people sometimes being so specific that you couldn’t possibly expect people to give you a specific enough warning for them. I always carry on reading past TWs because the vast, vast majority of references don’t trigger me.

    • says

      Taking yourself seriously, for the win.

      As at least one person has mentioned, it seems that full descriptions of traumatic experiences are highly likely to trigger anyone with similar experiences, and are the places that most obviously call for TWs. Though I am with Natalie in that on this blog we can expected these descriptions from her, and thanks to her writing we see them coming without TWs.

      Ok, have I commented ten times on this entry yet (hope not)? Done for now, hope for more discussion.

  28. says

    A couple differences between trigger warnings (or “content advisories” on blog posts more generally) and MPAA ratings, maybe worth thinking over:

    1. MPAA ratings and warnings come from one cabal of basically unaccountable critics, whereas TWs are chosen by individual bloggers according to their own instincts and preferences. So, MPAA labels follow a rubric which is definitely not progressive (the President of the United States is more OK with same-sex marriage than the President of the MPAA is with a same-sex kiss), but is essentially uniform. When we go to the cinema, we have to deal with one stupid and very probably harmful standard, but when we read blogs, we get to deal with N different standards, overlapping in unclear and inconstant ways.

    2. MPAA edicts have an economic effect: a film will get edited down from NC-17 to R in order to play in more theaters. If I choose to put a strongly-worded TW on my blog post, what effect does that have on how widely it gets passed around, retweeted and so forth? I’m not sure.

  29. Alex SL says

    Found this very interesting, especially considering that I only recently became aware of the concept of trigger warnings. Full disclosure: I am not aware of any traumata I have and my first (silent) reaction was consequently but unfortunately somewhat dismissive.

    Upon reflection I now think that they are very sensible and considerate when writing about a topic that is (a), as you argued, beyond the scope of writing usually expected from the same author, and (b) related to severe accidents, violence or hate.

    It makes sense to have “trigger: hate speech” at the beginning of an exceptional rant about neo-nazis from a scientist who usually discusses creationism, but it does not make sense at the beginning of every single post of a blog whose primary purpose is to document and ridicule their utterings.

    It makes sense for texts mentioning “obvious” triggers – but robin chicks? Who could anticipate that? One could just as well expect PZ Myers to write “trigger warning: hibiscus” at the beginning of one of his Botanical Wednesdays. Zero triggering is made impossible simply by the variety of human psychology.

  30. Ma Nonny says

    “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?”

    It had never occurred to me to hold the blogger responsible for my (potential) triggering … unless of course the blogger expressed a value judgment about the triggering act that could increase harm (“you DESERVE this” or “this is how it SHOULD be”).

    Trigger warnings help me emotionally detach enough that I’m not blindsided, as you mentioned in the post. But, if I am triggered, I would not hold the blogger responsible for my past (especially if they gave a warning). It is not their fault that I had a negative experience that haunts me. Therefore, “Mildred’s” behavior doesn’t make any sense to me … just because something IS TRIGGERING, does not mean that IT IS THIS PERSON’S FAULT IT IS TRIGGERING. I know my triggers are my baggage and not the responsibility of the person with which I’m communicating – they do not have the intention to hurt me (unless they do … which, in that case, you should run far away fast).

    I feel like it is a courtesy to have trigger warnings, but I don’t see them as something that should be mandated. I feel TWs show compassion for the audience, but mandated compassion = not necessarily genuine compassion. And being disingenuous is a strong repellent for me.

  31. Nobody says

    Now, I’m probably a horrible person for saying this, but it seems this (IMO somewhat peculiar) requirement of trigger warnings – which I admit I really don’t think I fully understand – is like saying you believe the world owes you something, that you should expect the world and everything in it to tiptoe around your sensibilities. Perhaps I haven’t a sufficiently traumatic life for my opinion to be of significance in this regard (because I really don’t know if I have any triggers), but I firmly believe that the onus should be entirely on oneself to be emotionally accomodating of what one encounters in life, not on other people to accomodate me emotionally. I don’t think it’s quite right for perfect strangers to accomodate my sensibilities. Admirable, perhaps, and certainly considerate, but not fair. Rather I have to be prepared to roll with the punches.

    Am I wrong to think this? I mean there is that whole “regular readers” consideration, but still…

    • says

      I think you’re approaching the question the wrong way: the issue is that writers want to create a certain kind of reading experience for their readers. If you don’t want that reading experience to include flashbacks, nausea, nightmares, etc. then you may want to provide a warning if you think your content is likely to have that effect on some of your readers.

      Also, see the discussion up at #13 about PTSD vs. just being “upset.” Without a doubt, some people are oversensitive and think they should get a trigger warning for anything that upsets them, but that doesn’t erase the reality of the more intense, debilitating responses trigger warnings were originally created for. It’s great that you don’t hold other people responsible for accommodating your sensibilities, but when you put it like that it sounds like you’re trivializing the experiences of people who get triggered way beyond “it made me sad for a while.” I’m going to assume you didn’t mean it that way, but it’s how it came across (at least to me.)

      • Nobody says

        Well that’s perfectly clear, thankyou. I suppose the discussion really does become “What do I consider a trigger?” rather than “Should I put up a trigger warning?”

        I’m certainly sorry if it seemed like I was trivialising. It’s just it seemed to me that people were using “trigger warning” in a highly trivial manner. Perhaps I’ve seen too many trivial uses of the phrase. I first thought it of course must be a warning for PTSD sufferers, but the more I read around the stronger the impression I got that people just used it to be emotionally accomodating. In my wanderings I even saw it used around rather innocuous things, like discussions on tax policies.

        • Caravelle says

          I think the problem is when a community starts using trigger warnings accounting for individual members who have specific triggers – which leads to the proliferation of TWs that people complain about, and I see why but I’m not convinced it’s the problem they say, though people here have made good points – and you end up with legitimate trigger warnings for subjects that actually trigger someone, but will seem absurd and idiosyncratic to 99.9% of the outsiders who aren’t aware of that specific person’s issue.

          I can accept that this proliferation of trigger warnings is bad for reasons that have been given here, but I wouldn’t go from there to suggest they’re illegitimate, or caused by people who translate triggers as “things that make me sad” instead of “things that induce a PTSD-like reaction”.

  32. says

    I really don’t have anything that triggers me, so I can’t exactly talk about the merits of trigger warning, but I do have a similar issue with ignoring trigger warnings (for things that are upsetting instead of triggering- for example, misogyny and such)

    Though that said, your mention of the trigger warnings you used reminded me of a way that I go about receiving trigger warnings. I I remember correctly, you trigger-warned them by linking to them, not prefacing a paragraph about them with a trigger (Though I could be wrong and thinking of another blog). I also remember much more easily saying “nope, not clicking that link” than I would say “Nope, not scrolling down.” Less temptation, I suppose, as the content being linked gives the implication that it’s something extra that I don’t need to read, whereas a trigger warning when I already opened the post or started reading makes me feel like I’ll miss something if I click away or try to scroll past.

  33. dogeared, spotted and foxed says

    Count me in as a “pause, sometimes skip” based on trigger warnings. There are days when I can not deal with certain subjects. There are also days when I am obsessed by those same topics. A TW takes me out of browsing mode and helps me assess where I am.

    More importantly, it lets me know that the author feels that the reaction of a minority of readers, those who may be triggered, is important.

    Adding a trigger warning is also adding a public declaration of support for victims. Unfortunately, we’ve all seen how well that works within the internet culture of victim-blaming. People who are not triggered are strangely opposed to trigger warnings. It makes them feel uncomfortable. Perhaps it reminds them that people have been harmed and they’d rather not deal with that. Or perhaps sites which include trigger warnings are not as willing to accept all the usual “Just get over it, already!” bullshit. To someone who is privileged, a trigger warning says “Victims are as important as you.” Which they tend to read as “Privileged people are less important than someone who has been victimized.” because they see trigger warnings as something special just for “them.” Those who are privileged truly loathe anything hasn’t been custom tailored to their needs.

    A trigger warning tells me that the author is willing to level the playing field. Given the inevitable backlash against trigger warnings, it’s a small act of bravery and one that I appreciate but don’t expect.

    • A 'Nym Too says

      Amazing, thank you!

      This is everything I could ever want to say. People who don’t have traumatic pasts that have caused certain triggers usually don’t see what the big deal is.

      I couldn’t engage with the person above and their “Ugh, get over it, why should you be protected?” attitude, because I wouldn’t know where to start, but it does seem that a certain segment of anti-TW crowd are putting out an attitude of “What makes you so special?” or “Stop spoiling my fun by reminding me. that [bad thing] exists”.

      Thank you again!

  34. Fickle Ibis says

    I have one subject that’s a trigger for me, but it’s a mega-trigger. I’ve had one-off references that caught me off guard fuck up entire days for me, while other times I can deal with the subject. I don’t expect trigger warnings anywhere outside of fanfic, but I appreciate them. It gives me a chance to stop and evaluate how I feel at the moment, to ask myself can I handle this subject right now? Sometimes the answer is a definite “no,” other days it’s a cautious “maybe,” even rarer still is a “yes” day. This is one blog where I know I should only check when I’m mostly sure I can handle the subject, but in places where it’s not commonly mentioned a trigger warning can be all the difference between having an okay night or a crying jag because I’m in the bad headspace and afraid I’ll hurt myself.

    • Caravelle says

      I’ve been pimping this post (and this comment thread) so hard over there they might be starting to think somebody’s paying me :p

    • karmakin says

      Well, the commentators are having a discussion, which in the end is the most important thing.

      For anybody who reads this at this late junction, it’s a lot easier dealing with this stuff head on (as it is for me) when you know that other people understand and agree somewhat with you. I give you my thanks.

      And one thing. I’m SHOCKED that the whole FTB/Atheistsphere Slacktiverse pie fight is STILL resonating as strong as it is. That was a long time ago.

      (Truth be told, I stopped reading Clark a long time ago because I think that his religious/theological beliefs are terra infirma. A full-throttled defense of “Faith over Works” where he just couldn’t understand why that was one of the keys to the things that he complains about within religion…it was kind of pointless)

  35. says

    I know I’m late to the discussion and I haven’t read all the posts, but to my mind the discussion happens here, and in other comment threads where the discussion is explicitly divorced from someone’s actual triggering. It is a conversation worth having, but not in the face of someone actually being triggered.

    I’m “blessed” in that I’m mostly numb and my personal triggers are few and rare, but I’ve been triggered recently enough to remember what it feels like, and if someone had chosen that moment to decide to debate the validity of triggers/trigger warnings it might have sent me over the edge into self-destructive behavior. Instead, people were apologetic and kind and gave me a little space to flesh out my specific trigger and it let me move past it relatively quickly.

  36. says

    I do not have PTSD. I’ve actually had someone attempt to trigger me though, which was just bizarre. It even took me a second to realize what he was doing.

    He’s posting pictures of wrecked cars, why is he…oh, what a jerk.

    The only friend I have with PTSD has difficulty with things that would be hard to predict if he did not explain them. Once they are explained, I avoid triggering his PTSD. That’s a responsibility that any reasonable person would take on, if it is possible to do so.

    Simply extending that to the digital world makes sense, for close-knit on-line communities. The moderators should ask, as someone mentioned earlier, that seemed to work better than assuming by that account.

    Without knowing who might read my blog, and having an open blog, I can’t anticipate triggers (honest to goodness triggers of PTSD). However, I can anticipate the reaction of the mythological “average person”. I can imagine there is a lot of overlap between what has a high probability to upset someone and what might trigger someone. So, giving a head’s up for that sort of content makes sense all-around. I have not felt the need to do it yet, but if I do I would probably write a brief matter-of-fact preface, especially if the content was quite a bit different than what I usually write.

    I’m also a big fan of hiding disturbing pictures behind links. I don’t read “no country for women” because of the pictures she puts up sometimes. It is not triggering for me, but I can imagine it is for some. When I see pictures like that, I have a difficult time not staring at them (which is a common psychological reaction – it is essentially impossible not to fixate on violent and sexual imagery). Images and disturbing stories sometimes stay in my mind for weeks and are upsetting – yet I get pulled into reading about such things as well. I’m doing better at avoiding that – especially if it is a news story that doesn’t involve an actionable social justice angle or isn’t an illustrative personal account.

    With art – any warning becomes part of the art. It just does. So how that warning is given is an artistic decision. However, artistic license does not trump common decency. You should, at the very least, not be dishonest and lure people into situations that they reasonably believed they would not be subjected to, or have a high probability of being physically or psychologically harmful sans informed consent. If you can’t think of a way to do what you want to do without being a horrible person, you just aren’t very creative. This is a pretty hot topic among noise folks – you can imagine – since the whole point most of the time in upsetting people. (In fact, jerk face trying to trigger me unsuccessfully wasn’t unexpected behavior in that particular forum.)

  37. Pen says

    Just wanted to say I like this post. Too late to add much now, but I like to take responsibility for my own triggers. I also like other people to respect my decisions about where I choose not to go and not say things like ‘you need to face it’ and all that stuff.

  38. Dan Audy says

    Thanks for putting up the best look at how and why trigger warnings can and should be used that I’ve seen. I used to be quite dismissive of the concept because for me a trigger warning on the subjects that set me off is a giant neon sign that activates my compulsions and requires me to read it so that I can narrow the awful to a single defined incident of badness rather than having it be Schrodinger’s awfulness where it is simultaneously every possible badness I can imagine (and I have a really, really good imagination). I’ve come to understand that there are people who get value out of being able to choose to leave a discussion or brace themselves but for me personally they offer a greater negative impact on my mental health than a positive.

  39. left0ver1under says

    The defunct webcomic, The Parking Lot Is Full (1993-2002) had a similar one-off comic to the one mentioned. At a birthday party, a person was being held down by his “friends” who were injecting him with heroin. The caption read (IIRC), “The present that keeps on giving.”

    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?

    Unless someone is completely out of touch with popular culture, a person who goes to a Quentin Tarantino or a Saw movie knows he/she will be subjected to extreme profanity and extreme violence. And if the person isn’t familiar with it, how the hell would someone end up watching such things? The only way is to be shown out of the blue by someone else, out of context of the whole series.

    The same is true for any comic, literature, TV show or movie. If someone happens upon it not knowing what to expect, such images are going to shock. But how exactly are people going to encounter such things except by being shown it? Someone who reads SMBC regularly (or read PLIF regularly) likely knows or knew that something shocking is likely to appear.

    Things are really only inappropriate for a regular viewer or audience when things go too far beyond what has come before. For example, the title character of “House MD” did a lot of outrageous things over the run of the TV show, but his actions at the end of the season 7 finale went too far for a lot of fans, including me. Or how about Harvey Keitel’s nude/heroin-using scene in “Bad Lieutenant”? People tried to have that film banned because of it.

  40. says

    Thanks for writing this. One difficult situation for me, as a BDSM sex writer, is that I’ve found that a lot of things that I think really deserve open discussion are labeled “triggering” by some audiences. I’ve found that it’s almost impossible for me to predict what feminist audiences will find triggering, and although I’ve gotten slightly better at it with several years of feminist blogging, it’s actually a legitimately difficult task for me sometimes. I also feel that it’s sometimes used to shut down discussions that make people a little uncomfortable, but still need to be had.

    I’ve suggested multiple times and to multiple audiences that someone try creating a “trigger guide” that describes situations that might be commonly triggering, but no one has (“we don’t have to educate you,” dontchaknow? — which can be its own kind of blunt weapon).

  41. Thaniel says

    I admit to really not caring for trigger warnings. I’ve seen them, & the mindset that victims/survivors get to define parameters for all of us, mis used to a ridiculous extent. (The “Mildreds” are legion.) Ive seen folks try & shut down discussions, groups, & even other peoples’ blogs b/c they claimed these things were “triggering.” And this isn’t coming from someone who’s never experienced trauma, either; I’ve had a metric fuck-ton of it, thanks. It’s just that I don’t want my experience of anything curtailed b/c of me or anyone else being disturbed by it. I honestly feel that self-care is the responsibility of the individual. My pain, & my healing, is just that: mine. Should they stop playing love songs on the radio b/c people have had painful breakups? Or should people try & fight on through the pain? I opt for the latter; and sometimes I just turn the damn radio off.

  42. april says

    Super late to the party, but I’m very glad I found this post. I’ve had a lot of similar questions, and ultimately I decided I wouldn’t use trigger warnings on my blog at all. Not only is it impossible for me to give accurate, useful warnings for every possible trigger (Where do you draw the line on that? Whose pain doesn’t count?), I have found that the practice of trigger warnings brings with it a lot of baggage that I despise.

    I really don’t like the idea of promoting a culture of victimhood where everyone is eternally defined by the marks their trauma left on them, which is a tendency that is closely associated with the use of trigger warnings in my experience. Victims are somehow not adults anymore, who cannot be expected to take care of their own emotional well being by avoiding topics likely to hurt them, or leaving the conversation thread once the penny drops if the topic snuck up on them. The lobotomy survivor post, for instance, doesn’t need a trigger warning; everybody knows if that will trigger them, just by using the words ‘lobotomy survivor’. I know I haven’t read that post, although I knew about it for a long time, because I didn’t want to bring up shit for me.

    I also don’t like the sinister connotations of “accountability” that this conversation too frequently carries. Accountability for what? As a reader, the onus is on me to protect myself, not on the world to stop being full of painful realities. Trigger warnings, in my experience, are most frequently employed by a subset of the social justice community that wants to create a sanitized reality centered exclusively on themselves that they don’t ever have to leave, where they can simultaneously obsess about their trauma, and never be called to overcome it. A lot of instances of trigger warnings I see work as a de facto censorship* regime, warning writers and commenters who participate in a discussion that only certain socially approved narratives will be accepted, and then only if they are presented in the appropriate format.

    *yes, yes, I know that “censorship” formally only applies to government control of speech. We need a word to describe private coercive power used to shut down conversations to the point where it becomes toxic.


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