A History Of Trigger Warnings, And The Price And Diversity Of Pain

The Vocal
The Vocal
Mar 17, 2016 · 10 min read
Image via truthrevolt.org

I don’t remember how old I was when I first heard a speaker give a content warning at the beginning of a speech, but I can hazard a guess that it was probably when I was in primary school. In these years it feels like our understanding of social responsibility and community are coming to the forefront of our minds and seem to be most poignant. I have distinctive memories of a woman, probably in her late 20s, in our middle school gym talking about bullying and harassment and the trauma that can stem from abuse. I remember how solemn she was when she spoke of the subject matter, how I stood to attention in that moment, but I also remember how she took the opportunity to create tenets for fairness and respectability before her speech. She made it possible for those directly affected by those things to leave the hall if they weren’t in the right place to do so.

It was a powerful memory and was the first of many that really began to make me think about power dynamics in conversation and how they can be directly assessed for the benefit of everyone. Years later, I remember hosting an event called queercaucas, part of the National Young Writers Festival. It was the first time I had been given an opportunity like that, and I felt a strong compulsion to mimic that first memory and to precede the conversations with some notes of advice.

Immediately upon setting this example I noticed a sense of engagement with the people involved, a wave of calm excitement, and quickly realised that I had done the right thing and seen the results. It was perhaps most interesting noting that although I knew many of the people in that event probably had been the victim of some traumatic, homophobic hatred or harassment at some point, (many of the participants self-identified as either transgender or lgbq in some way) they all felt strong enough and comfortable enough in that time to participate in discussion at some point, and no one left the hall we were in.

This goes against what a lot of detractors believe about the “young people of today” — that they just can’t handle difficult conversations, that they have to consistently reference their shortcomings in social environments. In fact, it was nothing like that. I felt encouraged by how we all took the effort to make sure it was a space that encouraged less confident people to speak, too. By prefacing the conversation with those kinds of warnings, it meant I was attempting to be conscientious, that I was trying to be fair, giving people the option and ability to prepare themselves for the kind of discussion that was yet to come. It allowed the mood to shift in a way that let people know: “I know some of these things can be uncomfortable to talk about it, that you’re not given the opportunity to do that in an understanding space, but you’re in a safe environment. And what you say will be respected.” It’s a shame that this seems so idealistic in our present world.

The Precedent Set By PTSD

Trigger Warnings were introduced into our public consciousness initially around the year 1960. This was apparently when we got a grasp on the complexities of PTSD, and when our cultural understanding of PTSD stemmed mainly from the experiences of mentally ill war veterans, who came back from combat experiencing dissociation, “shell-shock”, flashbacks, as well as severe depression and anxiety. Trigger warnings and safe spaces may not have been named as such in that time, but they were the products of group therapy meetings for returned soldiers, where they could find support and share their experience. “Like the consciousness-raising sessions of feminists and the emerging gay rights movement, these meetings were sites of deeper politicization and self-education.” says Jeet Heer, a writer for The New Republic. As time has evolved, we’ve come to know that survivors of sexual assault, mostly women, queer men and non-men, experience the most dramatic and intense symptoms of PTSD, dramatically more so than the after-effects of warfare. And as time has passed and dialogues around sexual assault have becomes less taboo, people from these “fringe groups” have found stake in these conversations.

In the same piece about PTSD Jeet Heer states: “The explosion of trigger warnings and the growth of safe spaces is best understood as a consequence of the expanded social and cultural role that PTSD has assumed in our society. The concept of PTSD rests on the importance of buried memories — memory traces — which can be reignited as flashbacks. PTSD is, in a crucial sense, a theory of memory: It posits that for certain people the memory of a trauma always exists, lying just below the surface of consciousness, ready to be triggered. A theory of this sort will naturally lead to a heightened vigilance. In his path-breaking research, Shatan said we have to confront “the unconsummated grief of soldiers — impacted grief, in which an encapsulated, never-­ending past deprives the present of meaning.” As silly as trigger warnings and safe spaces may seem, they are rooted in genuine, widely accepted science.” It’s comforting that we can acknowledge them in this way, even though we shouldn’t have to provide layers upon layers of mental health history to justify what we’re feeling. The odds are not often stacked in our favour.

And yet, in 2016, we still have both right wing commentators and lefty politicians making grand statements about how these sort of concepts and environments are “killing free speech.” The current mode of dialogue around TWs and CWs (trigger warnings and content warnings), as they are commonly abbreviated, looks down on people who use certain terms and who engage in specific forms of activism, vilifying them for daring to care for themselves in these contemporary settings. It’s so new age to incorporate genuine love into your politics, they cry from the cheap seats. Yet these therapeutic modes of thinking really do enact care and love within community discussion and are backed up by research, concepts that are apparently very far from the lexicon of political figures, media spokespeople and shock jocks.

How Trigger Warnings Have Developed Into Their Current Meaning

Content warnings and trigger warnings often appear before posts on the internet that touch on subjects like abuse, racism, homophobia, harassment, violence and death. Far from being just about PTSD now, they have become used in areas of identity politics to discuss more specific cases of harassment or oppression, microaggressions, and small traumas that enact themselves in the everyday. They may be used in regards to those who self harm, or those with eating disorders. But the way we honour the feelings and emotions of black women, trans people, young people or disabled people clearly doesn’t come close to the respect we give to ageing white men with PTSD. “Trigger warnings aren’t much help in actually overcoming trauma,” Jonathan Chait rightly notes in his essay “Not a Very P.C. Thing to Say,” published earlier this year in New York magazine. “An analysis by the Institute of Medicine has found that the best approach is controlled exposure to it, and experts say avoidance can reinforce suffering.” But in many ways, this misses the point — that often we’re not in positions where we can safely confront these harrowing emotions, nor do we always have the resources. This would be obvious if you’ve come in contact with the state of mental health systems in Australia at the moment.

Accusations toward the “sensitivity” of the millennial generation are not new or revolutionary. In fact, top down criticisms from older generations towards younger generations have existed for what feels like millennia. They are not forward thinking or interesting arguments. Although, often the way they’re presented it makes it seem like they are, that they’re breakthroughs of thought in an apparently hyper self conscious generation of people. It’s very often that I see people rallying against the “idealistic youth” or some huge, coddled demographic of invisible people who never leave their house and exist solely online — which by the way, is sometimes the only option for a lot of people with mental and physical disabilities or illnesses. Shouldn’t we be celebrating that these people now have the ability to voice their own discrimination? And why are those voices so threatening to certain people? These are easy shots toward young people who are earnestly and sincerely invested in social justice, who seem initially idealistic but use psychologically and socially valid ways to negotiate the hardships they encounter every day.

This assumption that trigger warnings are a product of an emotionally incapable, “over-sensitive” generation rests on a few factors: that only young people are using trigger warnings on the internet, and that content warnings were only created in the last 5 to 10 years. And yet we now know that all of these accusations are markedly untrue. Technically, ratings on movies and television shows (G, PG13, M15 etc.) are “content warnings” of their own kind, but to hear people say that these things are products of a culture that is “too sensitive” is kind of ridiculous in comparison. The war against trigger warnings is less one about free speech, as many would have you believe, as much as it is about skillfully attacking some of the most vulnerable people in our country. The disenchantment with the concept of trigger warnings seems to be more a way to target and demonise young people particularly and continue to portray them as weak, helpless, and unproductive, than it does to actually create legitimate conversation about censorship. It’s a very calculated way to reduce our self esteem as individuals and to destroy solidarity, to make us feel that the things we’re talking about (and the way we talk about them) are irrelevant. It’s a clever way to take away our legitimacy while those with more capital hold on to theirs.

How Trigger Warnings Enable Free Speech

Another criticism of “trigger warnings” often equates them to a form of censorship, which would probably be completely legitimate if trigger warnings stopped the dissemination of information, but they don’t. The kind of content that is shown online in these situations (say on Facebook, Tumblr or Medium) and even in person is never silenced, but what a trigger warning does is just that: it gives a warning. It doesn’t stop the conversation, nor does it heavily moderate it…in fact, it actually seeks to include people. People with trauma or particularly oppressive histories associated with race, sexuality or gendered violence already know that their experiences and memories are inescapable. We know that we’ll be exposed to “triggering” content on a day to day basis. We’re actually vividly aware of all of these things. However, if we are told beforehand that we are going to view it, we have adequate time to prepare ourselves emotionally for the kind of material we’re going to see, and then perhaps respond to it in a capable way, in a way that actually does justice to what we’re thinking.

The existence of trigger warnings are an acknowledgement of how often POC, trans people, women and queer people are assaulted or harassed personally and institutionally. It’s a way to create precedents about equity. To freely engage in open conversations about the Hard Issues isn’t a privilege we’re often given because the engagement with our trauma, our past, is crippling. It’s hard enough finding the energy to engage at all. We’re reminded of our trauma and/or oppression pretty much on a day to day basis.

Separating politics from the personal experiences of human beings is, in my opinion, detrimental to our progress as a human race. These issues aren’t so easily divided, and in fact it makes little sense to do that. Dry, law-like debates about human rights that don’t take into account personal testimony only seek to further serve people who benefit from the exploitation of other people, who have institutional benefits, by reducing them to theoretical concepts. Can we actually acknowledge that we’re all living, breathing human beings for once? It’s not that hard.

Of course, there have been cases when people have used trigger warnings and content warnings to actually opt out of discussions that confront their own privilege, or that are simply “too hard” to confront for no real reason, but this is a very small minority. And those reactions need to be addressed within a completely different conversation altogether.

In addition to this, the perception of teenagers using trigger warnings too liberally on the internet (using content warnings for as absurd things like “eels” “bears”) is just a misunderstanding. And it’s important to remember that these bored, middle class teenagers using them in that way shouldn’t be seen as indicative of a large majority that genuinely need support groups, and therapeutic language, to deal with their own demons. It’s not like this is the first radical movement to be derailed by the actions of its minority. And it’s our job to separate that and discuss that instead of taking the chance to change the subject, demonising everyone who relies on warnings to engage in different spaces.

The world we live in values the pain of different people in different ways, and that’s hardly a controversial statement to make. As soon as safe spaces for damaged men shifted over to LGBTQIA spaces, race politics and feminist movements, is the only time people began to take issue with it. Trigger warnings and content warnings are marks of respect. They’re symbols of the diversity of human knowledge and experience, and a small symbolic step towards understanding for everyone.

It’s so important that we learn about the history of these concepts we decry, and try not to throw the most vulnerable people in our country under the bus. Young people with mental illness particularly are easy targets, because they pose a threat to our productivity-obsessed capitalist society, but it’s time we took a look at neurodiversity in our culture. We need to open up a dialogue about content warnings that is productive and fair, as opposed to continually talking down to each other. Let’s start addressing issues from the basis of context instead of making blanket statements about the “sensitivity” of a current generation.

This was originally published at The Vocal by Jonno Revanche

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The Vocal

action-oriented. social-first. radically positive