Wednesday, August 29, 2012
This is a response to Roxanne Gay's
AMAZING piece about trigger warnings. Please read it before you read my response. I agree with the point that trigger warnings can provide false utopian senses of security which need to be challenged. But I still think they have incredible value.
Trigger warnings are vitally useful in the age of the internet where there is no actual physical space to catalogue information. The inverse of "everything is a trigger for someone" is that no one is able/available to engage in (potentially triggering) information on disparate topics at all times. Context matters. Especially physical context (which the internet can't account for). I'd like to know if an article might make me cry or rage before I read it in the bathroom at a family reunion. (true story)
On the internet pics of kittens can be tabbed right next to a post about rape/rape culture. Sometimes even in reverse as an effort offer relief. The transition between these two hunks of information is sometimes helped immensely by a few words (a trigger warning). In other words a trigger warning is courteous to your audience because it considers their possible context/history. It acknowledges that, based on cultural trends, certain topics will probably be more triggering to certain populations others. This is not coddling, this is using assumptions based on cultural trends to allow others to make space for how they are likely to receive certain info. It's internet polite, if you will.
The information on the internet is very different from the information in a book/magazine/pamphlet. A book has a jacket/cover, a blurb, some imagery, a table of contents, and sometimes even an introduction or preface; a protestor or a promoter probably handed you a pamphlet at a specific location/event; magazines have tons of images and thoughtful layout. When it comes to analogue reading/viewing we're often much more primed for how to receive that content. Internet/digital content is usually sorely lacking in this sort of contextualizing information.
A trigger warning attempts to provide some of the same context-centering information. Maybe one day we won't need them, but while we're still transitioning from a print culture to a digital information one, they serve to make transitions between contexts smoother.
Trigger warnings provide a form of notation. They let folks know what sort of information they're about to access. If I think of the internet like a huge library of information I know there are sections of information/books I don't want to access at certain times (I would not go to the horror section in the middle of the night, or to the erotica section after being assaulted, or the sexual assault memoirs section at while trying to research marine biology).
I am a fan of trigger warnings as both a reader and a writer. They give me & my readers information that helps us decide when and where to read a text. As a writer I am always considering how an audience will receive a message. Trigger warnings help in this regard. They may be inelegant but they serve their function.
I don't think that trigger warnings make the internet (or any other space) "safer" but I do think they provide more information we can use to navigate tough information (like a map or table of contents). They're a tool for helping us switch contexts more smoothly.