If you’ve spent any time in feminist social media circles over the last years, you will have come across trigger warnings. Essentially user-driven content warnings for the unmoderated internet, trigger warnings are tags giving succinct summaries of articles, videos, Facebook posts, and any other media that may contain depictions or discussions of potentially distressing content. A nod to the debilitating effects of flashbacks experienced by sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), trigger warnings (posted with hyperlinks and status updates and such) provide an informal framework for giving people a heads up to look away if they’re likely to be upset.
Recently, however, trigger warnings have migrated off Tumblr and Twitter and into some university classrooms in the United States, prompting a flurry of discussion. Within days of each other, the New Republic, the Guardian, Salon and even BBC News published articles and explainers about trigger warnings.
In my own corner of social media, a friend reprimanded me on Facebook for posting an article without using a trigger warning. And then, lurking in a feminist forum, I came across a detailed discussion of the kind of content that warranted a trigger warning (obesity, yes; abortion, no ‘because it’s a medical procedure’).
According to one view, trigger warnings are an enabling tool: a method of informal classification that allows readers (and they are usually readers) to somewhat safely negotiate the online spaces they frequent. From another perspective, they’re absurd, slippery, and ineffective, because, as one writer put it, ‘There is no standard for trigger warnings, no universal guidelines. Once you start, where do you stop?’
For me, the terrain is fraught with contradiction. I understand that some people find trigger warnings useful negotiating tools, even if the resulting blanket classification-by-trauma seems highly problematic. I have sympathy for sufferers of PTSD and have seen first-hand how debilitating it can be, but I can’t help but question how many people out there are actually sufferers of the clinical condition, and how many simply find the language of trauma-induced anxiety and distress a convenient way of shutting down difficult discussion.
I appreciate the argument that trigger warnings have a rightful place in feminist spaces because the first place in which we should do right by each other is in our own spaces. But I believe their growing presence within the movement is indicative of a real problem and that they are becoming increasingly counterproductive there, too.
Proponents of trigger warnings are effectively making a claim about how progressives should navigate a series of political issues, such as sexism and racism. (Whether or not they began there, trigger warnings also seem now to be inherently tied to the new intersectional feminism that reinforces privilege theory – a debate for another day, but worth noting that in spite of its current popularity, intersectionality theory is not the only formula for analysing the multiple ways in which oppression manifests in the world.) In her Guardian piece, Jill Filopovic argues that trigger warnings are less about survivor assistance than they are a kind of righteous performance by the poster:
It’s perfectly reasonable for a survivor of violence to ask a professor for a heads up if the reading list includes a piece with graphic descriptions of rape or violence, for example. But generalized trigger warnings aren’t so much about helping people with PTSD as they are about a certain kind of performative feminism: they’re a low-stakes way to use the right language to identify yourself as conscious of social justice issues. Even better is demanding a trigger warning – that identifies you as even more aware, even more feminist, even more solicitous than the person who failed to adequately provide such a warning.
Cynical as her argument may be, Filopovic hits on something important. Trigger warnings originated on fanfiction forums and feminist message boards — some of the first forms of social media. Social media depends on a deliberate cultivation of a persona, on the construction of an online self, in which posts about political opinions become as much about the marking of identity as communicating anything. In this context, emotive responses (transient, individual) become interchangeable for political positioning, and emotion – rather than a practical, enduring formulation for how the world should be organised fairly – begins to steer the political agenda. Individualism — conveniently compatible with capitalism — thrives on this increasing personalisation of politics in place of collective struggle.
The spread of trigger warnings to news sites like The Huffington Post and some universities is evidence that they are universalising.
I don’t, however, expect the right-wing media to adopt the practice any time soon – not simply out of insensitivity, but because many of the issues on the long list of things that are now considered potentially ‘triggering’ (‘misogyny, the death penalty, calories in a food item, terrorism, drunk driving, how much a person weighs, racism, gun violence, Stand Your Ground laws, drones, homophobia, PTSD, slavery, victim-blaming, abuse, swearing, child abuse, self-injury, suicide, talk of drug use, descriptions of medical procedures, corpses, skulls, skeletons, needles, discussion of “isms,” neuroatypical shaming, slurs (including “stupid” or “dumb”), kidnapping, dental trauma, discussions of sex (even consensual), death or dying, spiders, insects, snakes, vomit, pregnancy, childbirth, blood, scarification, Nazi paraphernalia, slimy things, holes and “anything that might inspire intrusive thoughts in people with OCD”’) have become concerns directly or indirectly because of policies advocated or tolerated by the Right.
And it’s this that concerns me.
People retreat into private life when they feel like they cannot change the world. We avoid engagement, we wrap ourselves in cotton wool and try not to think about the hurt and hate that we cannot alter. We focus on living our own lives ethically, responsibly, and try to believe that this will do what activism has not. But the idea that if we are Good People the world will change is symptomatic of a sense of loss of political efficacy. For all our intentions, it has the perverse effect of entrenching the spaces between us.
A political space, an activist space, a space in which people attempt to change the injustices of the world is, almost by definition, not a safe space. It’s never going to be a safe space. It is precisely because the world is full of systems that engender hatred and oppression and people who use them to hate and hurt that activist spaces need to exist. But in order to change those systems we are required to confront them. The reality of that is ugly – but it does no good to pretend we can eliminate that ugliness while simultaneously protecting ourselves from engaging with it.
To me, that is the crux of the problem. The trigger warning as a political tool pushes against the necessity of actually engaging with the world. But if we want to change the world, we can’t just tiptoe around it, hoping to somehow create the best while avoiding the worst: in spite of how much it hurts, we have to open our eyes and face up to what’s in front of us.