The value of trigger warnings

Oh dear, Vagenda. This week, one of the authors has come out against trigger warnings. Her reasoning? She had PTSD, and doesn’t like them because she prefers to confront her problems, and also the internet isn’t a safe space.

For the first point, good for her. Seriously, good for Rhiannon, and I’m glad that she’s fairly on top of her mental health problems and has found a way to live with them and deal with them. She’s one of the fortunate ones: many others are not in this position. There are many who would rather avoid seeing things which remind them of trauma, many who would like to be able to close the tab and get on with their day, instead of inadvertently reliving horrors.

And it’s these people who I’m thinking about when I put trigger warnings at the top of things I have written. If I’ve helped even one person avoid pain, then I am glad. It’s a little thing for me to do, which can make the all the difference for some people.

Trigger warnings are not for yourself; they’re for others. And if Rhiannon from Vagenda prefers not to avoid things, she can use the trigger warnings to seek out content to expose herself to as part of her own personal healing.

Rhiannon uses the metaphor of epilepsy to illustrate her point that the internet isn’t a safe space: that, for all the warnings about strobe lights, epilepsy can be triggered by light flickering through the trees. It’s worth noting here only a very small fraction of people with epilepsy are triggered by strobing effects. I’m not, and I’ve had several hours of being hooked up to gooey electrodes staring into a flashing light to prove it. When I was younger and newly-diagnosed, I used to hate that they would put the “epilepsy warning” up before films and plays and so forth, because I had epilepsy and didn’t have a problem with flashing lights. It annoyed the fuck out of me. Then I started thinking of other people, and I realised these warnings weren’t for me, but were hugely valuable for others. The same is true of trigger warnings.

And yes, they’re imperfect. Everything is, at the moment. I’ve sat in meetings riddled with manarchists complaining about the need for safer spaces policies, because there’s no such thing as a safe space.

No. There isn’t. But that doesn’t mean we should use that as an excuse to stop trying and stop using these interim measures which do help.

If you read the comments on the Vagenda piece, you will see people who find trigger warnings a vastly helpful resource in mitigating effects of mental health problems and being able to make decisions. These are the people I am thinking about when I defend trigger warnings, even as my own personal abuse triggers are never covered in trigger warnings.

The Vagenda piece begins with a dog-whistle complaint about people being mean to Julie Bindel and Suzanne Moore, who joked about trigger warnings after both of them exhibited startling levels of transphobia. In the last paragraph is another point:

 Often, it is coupled with a sense of passive aggressive glee (“um. You should have put a trigger warning on that”).

This, perhaps, betrays more of the backlash from the privileged over being called out, and I do wonder how much of it was the motivating factor behind the commissioning, writing and existence of the piece. Trigger warnings are hardly complicated. Think of common scenarios that might fuck someone up, and if you write about it, stick a line at the top that you’ll be talking about this. If you’ve missed something which is triggering and someone says so, you lose nothing by doing popping in that simple little line.

It astounds me that people are kicking and screaming against something so simple which can make the difference between suffering and being all right. It astounds me that some are being flippant about it, laughing and joking over something which is easy, yet so important.

Yes, trigger warnings aren’t the magic bullet. But they’re an interim demand which can help make many feel ever so slightly safer in a fundamentally unsafe world.

27 thoughts on “The value of trigger warnings”

  1. Word. I don’t get the argument that because it doesn’t work/isn’t need for everyone, we should therefore do away with it altogether, especially since trigger warnings are a voluntary thing designed to be compassionate to those readers who might not be as lucky as you (or, in some cases, those readers whose position you understand very well.) Why police that? It makes no sense until you start suspecting that there is, somewhere at the heart of it, some smidgen of guilt or offence at being asked to be considerate rather than randomly act.

    We put warning labels on foods that contain allergens, and no one says that that’s nannying language. But when some people apply the same to content while being considerate of a mental health problem, we should “get over it”. It’s the same old thing all over again.

    1. Giving call-outs is tremendously stressful, and often the steps we take to make them seem LESS aggressive (using less formal language, prefacing with a compliment, trying to sound less confident, more deferential) are precisely the aspects a defensive privileged person will seize on as indicating precisely that “passive aggressive glee”.

  2. I don’t always remember trigger warnings because I’m human and fallible, but if someone complains that I forgot or the warning was ineffective (eg a forum mod once asked if she could edit a comment to put the TW in bold because she’d read right past it) I’ll take it as friendly criticism and a request to do better.

    Not using a TW isn’t a major sin in my book, but Moore’s “TW: stairs” bullshit, and some trolls who used TWs like “TW: I have a different opinion to you” to imply that we were upset because they disagreed rather than because they threw slurs and descriptions of rape around casually, are indefensible. It’s actively standing up for the concept of making a space less safe.

  3. Thanks for this.

    I’ve been blogging for a while, and only recently got called out myself about not putting trigger warnings on posts about rape. My first instinct wasn’t to get all defensive about it, but rather, to listen to people who made legitimate criticism that was constructive and important. And the people who made this criticism were my friends, one of whom is a rape counsellor. I accepted this criticism, and I don’t expect a medal for it – it’s part of being an adult; making a mistake, admitting it, and trying to be better. So I don’t understand why it’s so hard for some high profile feminists to just accept valid criticism like adults. I keep wondering whether the “Passive aggressive glee” comment is basically an inability to recognise constructive criticism, and dismissing it as snideness.

    1. Sort of. There’s a thing called the seizure threshold, and people with epilepsy (not “epileptics”) have a particularly low one.

      Also worth noting that many people without epilepsy get occasional bursts of deja vu, which is thought to be the temporal lobe misfiring, and also, that jerk before you go to sleep is spike in activity similar to epilepsy. Again, people with epilepsy tend to get these to a greater degree, and that’s what makes it distinct.

      1. A difference in terminology, perhaps. The eminent neurosurgeon who taught us had been asked for his opinion on a young anaesthetist who had had a couple of fits, bringing his ability to do the job safely into question. it turned out that he only had seizures when hung over, and as long as he moderated his intake, there was no risk that he would be a danger to patients. The conclusion to the story (and his experience) was that anyone could, with appropriate stimulus could have a fit. But this was state of the art many decades ago — things might be subtly different now.

  4. Those tweets just struck me as a bit pathetic. It was like someone storming out of the room after losing an argument and turning round to bark : “And another thing,.. you always made a shit, cup of tea.”

    I can see why some people don’t like trigger warnings, sometimes their use seems a bit melodramatic and self-indulgent to me, but I can’t think of anything more trivial to be upset about. If I’m blogging about something sensitive, I’ll make sure the title makes clear what it is about and that seems to work. If I’m linking to something sensitive from Twitter I’ll make sure people know what it is they’re clicking through to. Seems just common decency to me, and even if you can’t be arsed doing it yourself, I can’t conceive of any reason to object to others doing it.

    1. I quite often read something with a trigger warning and wonder why it was included. Sometimes it’s just for a mention – no description – of rape, which was mentioned in the link anyway, so it seems pretty pointless.

      But I would much rather have it that way round than read something with no trigger warning and wonder why the fuck they hadn’t included one.

  5. Why argue this complaint about the overuse of trigger warnings is related to the privileged getting upset about being called out? Trigger warnings aren’t there to call out privilege. No matter what a lot of privilege questionnaires might say, not having been victim to sexual violence is not a privilege; not finding ones own colour/sexuality/gender etc underrepresented in media and culture is not a privilege. Not getting beaten up for your mobile phone is not a privilege. Not getting put in a gifted and talented class at school is not a flipping privilege by it’s usual use in the parlance race, gender, sexuality and so on. A privilege in this forum is meant to mean, loosely, an advantage that someone gains at the expense of someone else, not any positive thing that we would hope everyone would a right to/access to in a perfect world. I’m not saying this is how you would describe privilege, but it does to seem to be going that way in its usage. This extension of the meaning is unhelpful, and often appears more designed to exclude interested and sympathetic parties who are not yet totally initiated in language ‘acceptable’ for use on blogs like this – decrying their supposedly ‘privileged’ ignorance if they dare to question a very narrow and often suffocating status quo regarding the policing of language. It grates down precisely the kind of valid opinions as this one person with PTSD

    1. If it were merely that, then the points about Bindel and Moore at the beginning and the “passive aggressive” comment would have been irrelevant to the writing. Particularly if you take it in the context of the rest of her ouevre, and examine who’s appreciating the piece. Wildly irresponsible.

  6. I get the feeling a lot of writers resent the idea of trigger warnings because they think they “spoil” the rest of the article or whatever. In other words, it’s all about power and controlling the reader. If you warn them ahead of time what you’re going to be writing about you’ve “ruined your punchline” and given the reader the power to not read what you’ve written. Can’t have that. (And readers who resent trigger warnings are participating in this power play, in essence saying they agree with it, in a way of currying favor for themselves with the author and being part of the exclusive circle of “proper” readers who “do it right.”)

    1. This is a really good point, and I imagine that that’s probably quite a motivating factor for this rejection of a very simple convention that can help a lot of people.

    2. Perhaps I’m the flip side of that coin. As an author who welcomes broad participation, and particularly that of the audience who benefit from a TW, my inclusion of them is intended to build trust. I don’t want to restrict my topics nor do I want susceptible persons to avoid my blog after an unpleasant read.

      As I ponder my potential audience I see a large pool of general readers, then subsets who either actively benefit from or actively dislike TW’s. My philosophy is that of inclusion so I see those two subsets as one that is repelled due to being harmed and the other is repelled by choice. The choice of which to accommodate is clear.

      Not that I am upset if someone doesn’t want to use them on their own content for the reasons mentioned. However, if it’s an issue we might just need to invent a meta-rating system where trigger warnings can be crowd-sourced.

  7. I have some problems with trigger warnings, but really it comes down to two things (a) the word “trigger” and (b) when they seem to be there in order to stir an emotional response. The latter is quite rare, but it’s something I feel very angry about when I see it..

    However, in the absence of a title which makes it clear what’s coming, content warnings are quite obviously a good idea whenever you’re writing about anything which has the potential to upset other people. Mental health stuff may be the most serious (“upset” doesn’t really cover it), but it isn’t the only legitimate reason that a person may have for not wishing to read about a difficult subject. Similarly, we have responsibilities as writers not to be gratuitous in what we write about. It’s manners. The internet is not a safe place, but as with the rest of the world, we each strive to make our own corners of it as safe and comfortable as possible for the folks passing through.

    The word “trigger” is a problem because it can feel paternalistic and manipulative. And I’m being quite serious when I say that that, in itself, can be triggering. It can make you feel damaged, in need of special protection or like you’re even less sane if you find you can read quite distressing material without symptoms but fall apart because of a phrase you read in a recipe book. If it’s a plain warning, that’s fine, you’re mixed in with folk who are easily offended or squeamish or who have a birthday today and don’t want to spend their lunchtime reading anything too heavy. You don’t necessarily have to think about your mental health before choosing to click away. Which is nice.

    1. Someone else on Twitter mentioned to me that “content note” might be more appropriate, and I’m going to start using it from this point on for the reasons you outlined.

  8. Are “trigger warnings” not just putting a name to the normal act of having the title/sub-title relevant to the content, which is in most instances good practice anyway?

    I know it is intended to give people advance warning of specific potentially traumatic material but I can’t help but think its a renaming of good manners, which folk should be doing anyway. Personally, I wouldn’t put the words “trigger warning” at the top of a post but I do always try to make the title/sub-title/headings relevant to the content that will follow… serves the same purpose.

    1. Sometimes, it’s good practice to make it very clear that there will be detailed discussions of common traumatic events.

      Like they do on the telly.

  9. I agree completely. It’s interesting, as you’ve pointed out about epilepsy, and has been pointed out in the comments about allergens that no one seems to complain about warnings for physical health issues, and Rhiannon mentions warnings on TV (though they also exist elsewhere, CD and DVD cases for instance) for stuff that might offend people (usually, that might provoke pearl-clutching, rather than might be really deeply offensive and problematic) but people cannot stand the idea they might be expected to consider someone else’s mental health. I feel like it’s just one more way of stigmatising mental health problems. Rhiannon’s piece very much smacked of “I pulled myself up by my bootstraps, why can’t you?”.

  10. I’ve mostly tried to sidestep the matter of debating “triggers” and what legitimately needs warning for and whether it even makes sense to warn for them at all when they are so varied. Mine relate to people looking like my attackers, wearing similar clothes, for instance and whilst many depictions of violence even similar to the type I experienced may make me feel quite distressed or contribute to broader feelings of depression around various issues (and be kinda harmful in a difficult to measure sort of way), there are weird peculiar things that will literally put me in a position where I feel physically in danger and in need to defending myself physically *regardless* of the lack of any meaningful threat nearby whatsoever. So for me also, this language around trigger warnings is problematic — it often feels from my point of view like the priority is stigmatising depictions of violence or hate as intrinsically dangerous, rather than dealing with the broader issue of psychological trauma people have experienced and the ongoing harm experienced.

    But this is all a distraction. The issue isn’t getting into a debate about what a trigger is or isn’t, whose triggers are legitimate and what we should advise for or ppl with PTSD vs people who want to go about talking about whatever nasty shit they feel like.

    The issue is that a lot of us, particularly those of us who have lived with, around, and been subject to hate and violence on an ongoing long term basis in our homes or in our communities, but even people who just don’t feel like subjecting themselves to it, should be given a good faith chance to avoid looking at hateful or violent content. It might help to use the term “content advisory” instead of “trigger warning” because I think at root, the issue isn’t just a mental health one, but a broader matter of not going around being an asshole. It’s not generally socially acceptable to go around making people deeply uncomfortable in general. The classic mantra of Free Speech advocates is “if you don’t like it don’t read it” — the flipside of which should be give people a chance not to bloody read it!

    So anyway, I use the terms “Content Warning” or “Content advisory” these days after struggling for ages with resenting the issues around “trigger warning”. It cuts through the shit and brings it back to being plainly about good style and manners giving people a chance to make some simplistic decisions about what they’re up for reading.

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