Advance knowledge is power: The banality of trigger warnings

This is the second in a short series on engagement and trigger warnings.
Part 1: A trip to the dentist
Part 3: Exposing the true nature of exposure therapy
Part 4: A strange hill to die on

Content note: this post discusses mental illness and mentions potentially-triggering material including rape scenes, war, blood and violence.

I’m watching TV, and the announcer warns that in the upcoming show, there will be scenes of graphic violence of a sexual nature. I don’t go off on one, screeching about censorship or coddled millennials.

I’m at the cinema, and just before the film starts, a little card comes up saying that the film will include blood and violence. I don’t go off on one, screeching about censorship or coddled millennials.

Just before I click through to a website, a little message pops up saying there will be nudity. I don’t go off on one, screeching about censorship or coddled millennials.

I’m loading up a video game for the first time. It gives me an epilepsy warning. I don’t go off on one, screeching about censorship or coddled millennials.

I’m a kid, visiting my great-uncle who had nearly died during the Second World War. My mum frantically tells me not to make loud noises or sudden movements near him. I don’t go off on one, screeching about censorship or coddled millennials.

*

It would be deeply unreasonable in any of the above scenarios for me–or anyone else–to start loudly grinding axes over something perfectly mundane, everyday. And yet, it’s considered a perfectly normal response if you put the name “trigger warning” in front of these trivial messages.

These messages have been there, though, for a very long time. Often, they’re ignored, but sometimes people appreciate them.

I cannot emphasise enough how this is all that a trigger warning is. Unfortunately, the meaning has been twisted for political ends, conflated with all sorts of other things, with a big old heap of straw men tossed on top.

A trigger warning, or content note is simply a note about content which may provoke a strong negative response in some people: just like when the TV announcer says there’s going to be a rape scene in EastEnders.

How did something so neutral become so politically-charged and maligned? I suspect a number of factors which combine and interact to produce a distaste for a common practice under a different name.

Disablism and mental health: Mental health concerns, compared to physical health concerns, are often dismissed. They’re dismissed because people cannot see them, so they assume some sort of fakery must be involved. It is often just about comprehensible that someone who cannot hear will need a sign language interpreter, for example. However, the notion that someone with PTSD might appreciate an advance warning about something which could potentially trigger a flashback so they can prepare themselves is harder to understand in a society wherein the disablism levelled at people with mental illness is so often rooted in the assumption of faking.

I introduced this blog series with a story about a physical procedure I had done on an observable part of my body because of how differently mental and physical health problems are treated.

This is not to say that disablism does not exist in the realms of physical disability: god knows, it does. And the presence of disablism in the “trigger warnings” debate stinks strongly.

Privilege projection: The thing about a lot of the people weighing in about trigger warnings is that they’ve seldom encountered much difficult in their lives. They’ve been kept, all tucked away, in comfortable lives. It might come as no surprise, then, that they have very little understanding of what it’s like to experience a strong negative reaction to a traumatic stimulus. At worst, perhaps they’ll feel uncomfortable.

And then they go and project that feeling of discomfort onto those who appreciate a heads-up about content. They assume because that’s the thing they feel, surely that’s what everyone else feels. And as this combines with disablism and the trivialisation of disability, we end up with a ridiculous “feeling uncomfortable” narrative, neatly eliding the true purpose of trigger warnings.

I also wonder whether the immediate assumption that people will disengage from material if they’re given a trigger warning is a form of projection. For example, some parents, upon seeing a content warning on a film, won’t let their kids watch it. Other parents will watch with their children, addressing and answering any questions their kids have. Do those who object to trigger warnings fall into the former category?

Anti-feminism: It will not have escaped anyone’s notice that perhaps the most vocal proponents of trigger warnings often come from a feminist background and are therefore not men. This is not a coincidence. Patriarchy likes for us to not be taken seriously. Distaste for feminist demands is as old as feminism itself. Ridicule of feminist demands is as old as feminism itself. Outright disgust at anything suggested by a feminist is as old as feminism itself. Same large floating turd, but this time the stench is eggy rather than cabbagey.

Rape culture: There are certain types of PTSD which are dismissed more readily than others. Many of the narratives against trigger warnings focus in particular on rape survivors, and these commentators would never say similar things about military veterans. This is likely due to rape culture, the way society is set up to enable rape. If rape itself isn’t real, then neither can be the resulting trauma.

The power struggle: The context to the trigger warning debate is that a bunch of historically-privileged folk are really keen to cling on to the luxuries they didn’t earn. They don’t like it when the boat is rocked. They don’t like it when marginalised people organise together, and make a perfectly reasonable demand. Requesting trigger warnings (and the much-derided-but-also-pretty-innocuous things they’re conflated with, such as safer spaces or no-platforms) feels like a threat.

This is particularly apparent in one of the key battlegrounds, higher education. Traditionally, education has been fairly didactic: the lecturer lectures, and the students listen. This is fortunately changing–although in some quarters there’s resistance: most notably from those who have held the power and like it.

The thing about trigger warnings is they put some control into the hands of the survivor. They get to choose how they engage. This scares the absolute shit out of those who’d prefer things to stay the same, and they fall back on their own defence mechanisms: the sneering intellectual mask.

Imposing particular readings: I read an article by a lecturer who tried to use trigger warnings, and one part stuck out in particular. The students were shown the film 9 1/2 Weeks, a film where the lecturer believed a sex scene to be consensual:

When conversation began in class, a white male student started talking about the scene as one of consent. Four hands shot up. One said, “no—it is clearly not consensual.” Other students concurred. They argued that if someone is in an abusive relationship, they can never consent to sex because they are being manipulated…

What these students were essentially doing was stripping every person in an abusive relationship of all their agency. They were telling every survivor that they were raped, even when the survivor may have wanted to have sex with their abuser. They were claiming god like knowledge of every sexual encounter. And they were only 20. If that. Their frontal lobes haven’t even fully developed.

The lecturer had a particular reading of the text, a debate happened, and the lecturer responds with utmost contempt at students’ readings of the texts because it conflicted with her own. Note, also, that in this anecdote the students had had a trigger warning and were engaging with the text. Somehow, nonetheless, the anecdote shows that trigger warnings are bad.

One of the key issues raised against trigger warnings is that they reduce the impact of, say, a rape scene in a book, which is supposed to be shocking. 

In other words, you should be having the emotional reaction (they think) the author wanted you to have.

That is an absurd demand to make. It’s impossible. Some people might have that emotional response. Some will merely be bored, some will find it mawkishly hilarious, and, of course, some people will experience a PTSD response.

Basically, if popping a trigger warning on a text spoils what you think is the surprise then you should probably just whack off to M. Night Shyamalan films because if that’ll fit your main criteria for engaging with the text perfectly.

Ignorance: I saved this till last, because I often feel like “ignorance” is a lazy opt-out answer. However, there are still a lot of people who do exist in ignorance. If you don’t say “trigger warning” but put across the principles of it, they’ll agree. However, they’ve only heard of trigger warnings as some sort of issue on which they are required to have a hot-take, and the media does like to conflate it with other things they’re scared of.

I suspect a lot of people who think they’re against trigger warnings aren’t really, it’s just they don’t know what these warnings actually are.

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Factors combine to create a hostile climate against what is essentially something perfectly neutral. And then out comes the pop psychology and everyone thinks they’re an expert in anxiety disorders. Unfortunately, here’s another place where misunderstandings are rife. Tomorrow, we’ll be delving into what evidence actually exists.

Part 3: Exposing the true nature of exposure therapy

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This series was made possible by my patrons on Patreon, who give me the motivation to keep on writing. If you found this series helpful, please consider becoming a patron.


2 responses to “Advance knowledge is power: The banality of trigger warnings

  • Nienna

    Very well said.

  • jemima (@Waitingirl13)

    I believe the point about projection, and how others may respond is little discussed, but very relevant. I am that terrible type of parent who ignores (generally) ratings and decides after research and investigation what content might be suitable for my children. To give an example, they are not allowed to play GTA but are allowed to play fallout (both rated 18) Many people do see warnings as some form of forbidden, thou shall not enter here, laziness is I believe a huge part of this. An interesting comparison was the fuss about watership down at easter, by people who clearly put their kids in front of a picture about bunnies without even reading the synopsis.
    Another aspect of laziness, which I think is rarely discussed is that frankly lectures dont want to read over their notes and do the content warnings. Most HE tutors read the same notes year after year…if you want to know why so much of the kick back is coming from HE, consider that there is still too little idea they might actually teach.

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