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.


  1. I enjoyed Gay's piece because she says a lot of things that I have been thinking much more eloquently than I could have.

    Your defense of trigger warnings is maybe the clearest I have read, but neither you nor Gay address something that has always bugged me about them: do they actually work?

    I'm not someone with a lot of triggers, aside from a few political things that piss me off, so I can't really speak from personal experience, but I've never been able to understand how trigger warnings are supposed to work. If being reminded of a topic triggers a conditioned response, wouldn't the warning itself set that off? It seems like you'd run into the "don't think of a pink elephant" problem. I can see it working in cases where there's a graphic description of something unpleasant, but most of the trigger warnings I see precede mere mentions of unpleasant subjects.

    1. My experience (certainly not everyone's) is that folks will post awesome potentially triggering articles to twitter often, if there is no trigger warning and it's explicitly about topic that will give me FEELINGS I want to know because hey, if I am at a party/with folks I'm not totally comfortable around, or about to leave my house soon, or even reading in my phone @ work it can throw off my plans for the day. Whether those plans are to get comfy with new folks at a party or get out and about, I planned to use my energy for those activities NOT for dealing with triggered feelings.

      I don't think trigger warnings should be used or viewed as censors but more of a sorting/queuing assist. There are some who will not ever want to read certain triggering things but trigger warnings are less for them I think (cause they'll do the equivalent of changing the channel) and more for folks who want to engage in a triggering topic but want to meet that topic from a place of comfort and well being (this is actually why I wrote about this today and not yesterday because I wanted to be comfortable).

      Think of it as the equivalent of asking someone "hey can we talk about your the death of your recently deceased friend/family member?" The information or interaction the asker might be seeking is probably important but the courteous thing to do is let the person with the trigger/trauma set the time/place for that exchange of information.

      In this sense trigger warnings work for me.

    2. Hrm, that makes sense to me. I guess I have more often seen them promoted as a way to prevent people from having to be reminded of trauma (which I have my doubts about the efficacy of) than as a way to better allow people to manage their mental resources. But I guess they would work for that purpose.

  2. So, as luck would have it, the Internet provided me with a case in point shortly after I wrote that comment. While it wasn't a trigger warning per se, I think it illustrates the problem I was talking about fairly well.

    So one of the very few things that I do have an uncontrollable, visceral reaction to is eyes. Anything bad happening to eyes, especially pointy objects going into them, wigs me out. I have no idea where this comes from; it predates any eye-related trauma I've experienced in my life. Thankfully this is not a thing that comes up very often.

    I was going about my usual web surfing when I was presented with a video (which, needless to say, I did not watch) of a Polish rapper getting his eyeballs tattooed. (Let me pause here to say JESUS CHRIST WHAT THE FUCK?!) The thing is, I didn't have to look at the video to be triggered. All it took was seeing the title for my stomach to flip-flop and my hands to get sweaty. I feel a little queasy just writing about it. I closed the tab and didn't look back, but my body didn't know the difference.

    Would a trigger warning have helped? I doubt it, because a trigger warning would have conveyed the same information that freaked me out: somewhere, somebody in the world was crazy enough to voluntarily get needles stuck in his eyes, repeatedly. Knowing that is all it takes. My traitorous mind does the rest.

    1. Distinction: the words "eye tattoo" evoke a clearly yucky sensation for you. Probably less so than the actual images/video/explicit description. Maybe not. But for most folks this distinction is present. For me the words "sexual assault" get a much less dramatic/visceral reaction than the actual explicit portrayal (in text/video/audio/image) of sexual harassment.

      The distinction can be as minor as "the below includes depictions of eye tattoos/sexual harassment" and "I have been tattooed in the eye/sexually harassed." One describes the information the other an experience (which humans identify with MUCH faster).

      My take: the trigger warning ruins your day/feelings much less than the full content of what it's warning you about.