Oh dear, Vagenda. This week, one of the authors has come out against trigger warnings. Her reasoning? She had PTSD, and doesn’t like them because she prefers to confront her problems, and also the internet isn’t a safe space.
For the first point, good for her. Seriously, good for Rhiannon, and I’m glad that she’s fairly on top of her mental health problems and has found a way to live with them and deal with them. She’s one of the fortunate ones: many others are not in this position. There are many who would rather avoid seeing things which remind them of trauma, many who would like to be able to close the tab and get on with their day, instead of inadvertently reliving horrors.
And it’s these people who I’m thinking about when I put trigger warnings at the top of things I have written. If I’ve helped even one person avoid pain, then I am glad. It’s a little thing for me to do, which can make the all the difference for some people.
Trigger warnings are not for yourself; they’re for others. And if Rhiannon from Vagenda prefers not to avoid things, she can use the trigger warnings to seek out content to expose herself to as part of her own personal healing.
Rhiannon uses the metaphor of epilepsy to illustrate her point that the internet isn’t a safe space: that, for all the warnings about strobe lights, epilepsy can be triggered by light flickering through the trees. It’s worth noting here only a very small fraction of people with epilepsy are triggered by strobing effects. I’m not, and I’ve had several hours of being hooked up to gooey electrodes staring into a flashing light to prove it. When I was younger and newly-diagnosed, I used to hate that they would put the “epilepsy warning” up before films and plays and so forth, because I had epilepsy and didn’t have a problem with flashing lights. It annoyed the fuck out of me. Then I started thinking of other people, and I realised these warnings weren’t for me, but were hugely valuable for others. The same is true of trigger warnings.
And yes, they’re imperfect. Everything is, at the moment. I’ve sat in meetings riddled with manarchists complaining about the need for safer spaces policies, because there’s no such thing as a safe space.
No. There isn’t. But that doesn’t mean we should use that as an excuse to stop trying and stop using these interim measures which do help.
If you read the comments on the Vagenda piece, you will see people who find trigger warnings a vastly helpful resource in mitigating effects of mental health problems and being able to make decisions. These are the people I am thinking about when I defend trigger warnings, even as my own personal abuse triggers are never covered in trigger warnings.
The Vagenda piece begins with a dog-whistle complaint about people being mean to Julie Bindel and Suzanne Moore, who joked about trigger warnings after both of them exhibited startling levels of transphobia. In the last paragraph is another point:
Often, it is coupled with a sense of passive aggressive glee (“um. You should have put a trigger warning on that”).
This, perhaps, betrays more of the backlash from the privileged over being called out, and I do wonder how much of it was the motivating factor behind the commissioning, writing and existence of the piece. Trigger warnings are hardly complicated. Think of common scenarios that might fuck someone up, and if you write about it, stick a line at the top that you’ll be talking about this. If you’ve missed something which is triggering and someone says so, you lose nothing by doing popping in that simple little line.
It astounds me that people are kicking and screaming against something so simple which can make the difference between suffering and being all right. It astounds me that some are being flippant about it, laughing and joking over something which is easy, yet so important.
Yes, trigger warnings aren’t the magic bullet. But they’re an interim demand which can help make many feel ever so slightly safer in a fundamentally unsafe world.