Trigger Space


I’ve been lumped in the Social Justice Warrior category a few times, and I don’t mind it because the lumping lumps are usually Men’s Rights Activists, and they are terrible nonsense people, so I can assume I won’t mind being anything they accuse me of being. But all such general-purpose groupings with a handy label suffer the same fate: opponents trot out the craziest people claiming the label and say, “Look at this crazy person who calls themselves an Xist. Clearly, Xism is crazy.” Since the crazies are so loud and easy to find now that we have internets, the dialogue shifts towards crazy people shouting at each other, and when crazy people shout at each other for being crazy, they’re not wrong, but they create a misrepresentation of the debate because they drown out the much larger portion of the population that isn’t crazy and doesn’t go ranting around the internets all day.

So I’m a feminist even though there are feminists who will tell me men can’t be feminists, and even a few who say all heterosexual sex is rape. Sexism sucks for everybody, and food shortages are going to end the GMO debate right quick. As far as social justice goes, it’s not going to take many more rich people getting love taps from the justice system for sexual assault and murder. It’s not going to take many more black children shot on sight. It’s not going to take many more banks savaging economies, funding terrorists, and running drugs without consequences. I don’t know if “not many” is the distance between now and revolution or now and irreversible apathy. I would prefer to fix the engine before we hit the mountain, but we need to sober up the crew and feed the passengers first, so I won’t be surprised when we burn.

Why I brought all that up

I’m a proponent of respecting and addressing systemic and sometimes hidden problems. Racism, sexism, economic disparity, perplexingly poor understanding of science, and a host of other ills that some would prefer to be declared imaginary — or at least taken someplace quiet and strangled — are real and terrible things scraping away the human bonds that the our species requires.

This extends to giving due respect to non-obvious personal problems. Social anxiety doesn’t look like a missing leg, so it’s tempting to think the socially anxious person should get over it, because look at that guy, he’s got no legs and he’s running marathons. In the moment, it seems like an uplifting anecdote about the human something, but to the non-visibly disabled, it’s just a more cutting variation of quips like “What’s wrong with you?” and “Why can’t you get over it?” and, a personal favorite, “You just need to relax,” all of which compound the core problem, in much the same way you would force someone to eat fish hooks then ask why they keep bleeding over your table. There are a lot of mental problems besides schizophrenia that people have to deal with, and people who suffer from them can have just as much difficulty getting through a crowded room as someone in a wheelchair.

Encoded in a thousand cultures is the idea that a hardship you can theoretically hide isn’t a hardship at all. Because somebody else with the same number of functioning senses and limbs is doing okay, you have no excuse not be fine, you’re just losing because you’re not strong enough. So you can’t stop the voice in your head from telling you you’re worthless every thirty seconds? Guess you must be worthless. Why not just stop listening to your own brain? What, you can’t? I clearly can.

On the other hand

I’m a big fuzzy wad of non-stop anxiety and despair. Glancing at the news tosses a roulette ball that may land on anything from “close browser tab” to “run screaming into the street hitting self in face.” The brief description of certain creatures with more legs than anyone should need will generate a tactile hallucination that has me slapping at my pant legs. Reading my own work often sends me into a spiral of depression as my obvious mediocrity becomes apparent in things I did five years ago, where I used the wrong “it[’]s” and realize I should never be allowed to touch a keyboard again, even as I tell other people not to worry so much about the occasional typo.

In the morning my mind, for lack of anything better to do, will slowly drift toward death and I’ll have to punch the headboard again to stave off the terror. Something similar but less violent happens every single time the subject of death comes up. Even writing this. Death. Death death death. Deathity death death DEEEEEATH. In a multilayered irony, I now need a cigarette before I can continue.

Everything is a potential trigger for me. Wiggling my toes carries a small inherent risk of hyperventilating panic. It amazes me that I function at all, and about 20 percent of the time, I don’t. I sit a ball of self-hatred and guilt and fear, flipping through Netflix and wondering why I never get anything done and why nobody would have sex with me in high school. My problems are significantly less severe than people with things like bipolar disorder. I’m not looking for sympathy: I function despite my handful of issues because I learned how to deal with them in an unsympathetic world. Some reminders of trauma are much worse than others, and I avoid them, but a lot of them are unavoidable. I have not, and will never, get over them, but I can deal with them, 80 percent of the time, because I have to if I’m going to get through another weekday.

The point

This trigger thing is unbelievably, embarrassingly out of control.

When a vet comes home from war and tends to put his kids in chokeholds when a car backfires, that’s a trigger everyone needs to know about. Does the mere mention of rape start someone sobbing uncontrollably? Trigger. Do confined spaces make little Joey pass out? Maybe give him a pass on the submarine tour.

Does reading about slavery make you uncomfortable? Good. It’s supposed to. You should be alarmed if it doesn’t. If being exposed to the historical non-stop parade of injustice and violence doesn’t make you feel unsafe and disgusted, you’re a psychopath.

“Safe spaces” as we know them are ideological safe spaces, and ideological safe spaces are bad. Emotional safe spaces are good, and they are comprised of whatever you can find when you’re alone or with people you’re 95 percent sure like you, but these spaces should not be institutionally provided. If they are institutionally provided, they are ideological safe spaces. If you intend to interact with the world outside your door, you do not get emotional safe spaces, because the world is not even a remotely physical safe space, and demanding that it provide an emotional safe space is a form of extremist privilege. At best, it is denial and avoidance; at worst, it is political chicanery, trying to shut down the discussion before it’s begun.

You are not safe. You were doomed the moment you were conceived. And you’re not going to feel safe or happy for all of the time you have left, be it eighty years or eighty seconds. The idea that you could is absurd; the idea that you should is offensive. It might be a salvageable concept if you’ve spent your life waging total war against every injustice served to every other human. You have not. You cannot even meaningfully try.

I’m all for a world where nobody has to be uncomfortable. That world involves lots of friendly nanobots and zero-point energy. We’re not there yet. Odds are, we won’t get there. We definitely won’t get there if we pretend we live in a world where emotional comfort is a right. We won’t get there if we demand to be protected from the things that make us sad, or afraid, or angry. Nobody is safe, most people are unhappy, and everybody dies. If you have to pretend otherwise to get out of bed, try to stay out of the way of the people trying to make the situation better. Pursuing legal or bureaucratic actions against people who accidentally made you uncomfortable is a salad bar of dictionary definitions for hypocrisy and cowardice. It also trivializes the mentally traumatized part of the population that ceases to function when presented with certain stimuli.

If you have compulsive reactions to things that render you non-functional or dangerous to yourself or others, you get to ask for trigger warnings. If you can’t deal with the horror that comes with a modest investigation of history or a cursory experience of current events, stay home. You’re in the way.