Category Archives: media bollocks

If 38 Degrees were even mildly competent, their Kuenssberg campaign would’ve been effective

Content note: discusses misogynistic abuse

Yesterday, I discussed misogyny and dead cat politics: a tendency for media and political narratives to use the very real problem of misogynists being dicks to distract away from their own wrongdoing. I concluded that the best defence against this tactic is probably to avoid being misogynists. Today, I offer a more constructive, practical example on this topic, and will provide campaign site 38 Degrees with some free advice to avoid another incident like the current Laura Kuenssberg clusterfuck. If they want any further advice, they can bloody well pay me, god knows they rake in enough.

A little background to the current hot mess: a lot of people are quite concerned about the questionable impartiality exhibited by the BBC’s political editor, Laura Kuenssberg, and do not think it is befitting for a political editor of a publicly-funded news outlet to display bias towards certain political parties and against others. A petition went up on their website, and garnered over 35,000 signatures, but thrown into this mix was a hive of seething misogyny. This handily provided those who might benefit from the direction of bias at the BBC with a distraction from actually having to respond to the issues raised. The petition was taken down, and the organisation’s CEO, David Babbs, donned a hair shirt.

None of this needed to happen, had 38 Degrees displayed even an iota of competence and understanding of issues of misogyny. A great degree of the abject failure of this campaign can be chalked up to failures from 38 Degrees themselves. It could have all been avoided if they’d have just taken some proactive measures.

1. Moderate your own online spaces properly

38 Degrees is primarily an online campaigning forum, and it is startling that they failed so much to moderate their own online spaces on which they rely: comment threads, and Facebook. If they had removed misogynistic comments in their own spaces over which they have direct control, a rally of terrible people probably wouldn’t have picked up the same level of steam as it did. An organisation the size of 38 Degrees ought to have ample resources to put towards moderating out misogyny, and that they did not is probably their biggest failure.

I suspect this lack of moderation was due to two problems inherent to the organisation: their brand, and a desire for engagement. First, the brand: 38 Degrees goes on like it’s open-for-all, and so on–so of course they’ll let dreadful misogynists have their special snowflake say. As for a desire for engagement, in today’s digital world, the more “engagement” you have, the more money you end up making at the end of the day. Engagement can be good, bad, or ugly: a comment is a comment, and the more the better, because that’ll likely result in more clicks, more signs, more email addresses collected, more donations… it doesn’t matter what they’re saying, because they’re engaging. Sadly for them, they’re probably losing potential supporters through not moderating out misogyny: it makes their spaces less welcoming to half the population, and therefore half the population is actually less likely to give them that engagement cash cow.

2. Have a moderation policy

A moderation policy is a powerful tool. It easily and accessibly helps those who moderate the spaces, spelling out what they should delete or not, rather than simply leaving them to make up their mind. It’s also great when your moderation policy is transparent, not just because transparency is good, but because it clearly states what is and is not acceptable in the community. It’s the sort of thing 38 Degrees should have clearly in places where you can leave comments: a link to it above places to leave comments, a pinned post on Facebook.

38 Degrees did not have any such policy that I could find, which in combination with the Kuenssberg mess makes me suspect they never had one in the first place. Maybe they didn’t do one because it was too hard. Building and publicising moderation policy inevitably pisses off a fair few awful people who will squawk their war cry of FREEZE PEACH. If 38 Degrees are worried about losing the vital whiney wankstain demographic, then they oughtn’t to–if they go, they were probably never particularly valuable supporters in the first place; if they stay, then hoo-fucking-ray. Whatever the reason they don’t have a comment policy, if they want to recover after this trash fire, they’re going to need to sort one out, stat.

So, that’s the online spaces 38 Degrees have control over sorted in two easy steps. But what about the spaces they don’t control? After all, wasn’t at least some of the problem down to people sharing it?

3. Control the message, and control the share text

I cannot fucking believe that an organisation as big as 38 Degrees never thought about how the message itself was presented, and how maybe, just maybe, that might attract misogynists like flies to shit. The petition screeched the name Laura Kuenssberg–a very feminine name–and had a big honking picture of her at the top. This was all there whenever anyone shared the petition on social media sites. Any godawful man who just hates women will see this as “petition to fucking destroy this harpy”. Ultimately, like those who have something to hide and play dead cat politics with misogyny, misogynists do not care about the message either: they just hate women.

The goal of this petition was to raise concerns about bias from a senior figure at the BBC. Why not lead with that, then? Why not title the petition “Sack the biased BBC Political Editor” or “End bias at the BBC”, or “The BBC Political Editor should be impartial”. I honestly did not even know the BBC Political Editor was called Laura Kuenssberg until this–for all I knew, she might have been some reporter who doorstepped a politician aggressively, or a someone who works in the BBC canteen and wrote “Jeremy Corbyn is a poo” in the foam on a latte. Referring to the job title is much clearer. It’s also not necessary to use a picture of the person as the image that will pop up whenever it gets shared. Why use that, when you could use some sort of simple visual graphic presenting facts about bias at the BBC, if it really is such a problem.

Some may argue that if the Beeb’s political editor was a man, a “Sack Bob McDickface” petition name with a picture of him looking like a prick would be fine. And yes, that’s true. What’s also true, though, is that we live in a patriarchal culture, and in a patriarchal culture, different reactions happen because of women than because of men. A picture of a man probably isn’t going to cause discussions of how hideously ugly he is where it is shared, for example. Focus on the role, not the woman, if the subject of your campaign is a woman.

38 Degrees have control over this when it comes to sharing. They write and edit the campaign copy, and they choose the images and accompanying share text. Had they given the climate they were releasing this campaign into five minutes of thought, they probably could have staved off the catastrophe that ensued.

4. Challenge any remaining misogynists

Even with all of this, there’s still likely to be the odd misogynist pop up with their misogyny. For a big organisation that doesn’t want their new brand to be Enablers Of Misogyny™, even at this juncture there is something that can be done. Challenge that shit. Say “You are sharing this petition calling the subject a bitch. That’s misogynistic and unacceptable.”

It’s not like 38 Degrees don’t have the resources to see who is sharing their campaigns, and what they’re saying about it. It is also not like they don’t have the resources to challenge this with their own social media channels. If there’s a large amount of misogynists sharing your campaign, put out a statement clarifying that you do not condone their behaviour, that it is putrid, and send it to them. Hell, 38 Degrees will likely have access their email addresses: send them an email telling them they’re being a prick, because nothing puts off a horrible flamer like tearing off their comfortable veil of anonymity. Send an email round to everyone who signed, addressing the issue with misogyny and making how the campaign should be shared clear.

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These four simple steps are well within the realms of 38 Degrees’s capacity, and if they want to recover from this, they’ll need to think about implementing this in the future, or giving themselves over to just being a hive of misogynists.

The best way to avoid dead cat politics is to keep all nearby cats alive and well. When you are a large campaigning organisation, this becomes all the more important.

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When misogyny is a dead cat

Content warning: this post discusses rape threats and misogynistic abuse

A pattern has developed in mainstream political discourse: white woman politicians and paid hacks keep experiencing misogyny.

Oh, and there’s other things going on in the background: legitimate criticisms, indefensible actions, racism, literal wars… I could go on, but hey, let’s focus on the fact some egg on twitter called the subject a bitch.

There are approximately 800 million examples of this going on, from the decision to bomb Syria (which led to some of those who decided it was cool to kill loads of children with expensive missiles to receive rape threats) to a petition to sack an incredibly biased boss at the BBC being shared with accompanying misogynistic comments.

I suspect what’s going on here is something called “dead cat politics“, which floppy-haired twatbanana Boris Johnson–himself a heavy user of the tactic–explains:

“The facts are overwhelmingly against you, and the more people focus on the reality the worse it is for you and your case.

“Your best bet in these circumstances is to perform a manoeuvre that a great campaigner describes as ‘throwing a dead cat on the table, mate’.”

Going on to describe the manoeuvre he explains: “The key point, says my Australian friend, is that everyone will shout ‘Jeez, mate, there’s a dead cat on the table!’; in other words they will be talking about the dead cat, the thing you want them to talk about, and they will not be talking about the issue that has been causing you so much grief.”

In this situation, the misogyny is the dead cat. And let us be clear: the dead cat is actually present. There is misogyny going on. It is just that the misogyny is levelled as a distraction from issues they don’t want you talking about. Receiving rape threats doesn’t change the fact that it is wrong to choose to drop bombs on children, it simply shifts the discussion away from the inherent wrongness of dropping bombs on children. Using misogynistic language does not change the important discussion about bias from a public broadcaster, it merely deflects away from what we ought to be talking about.

It is worth noting at this juncture that the dead cat tactic only works for some people–in my first sentence, I mentioned that it is white women who use this. This is perhaps linked to the white woman tears phenomenon, an example of privilege that white women hold under white supremacy. They are also invariably cis, and middle-class.

Very frequently, when the misogyny dead cat is thrown at the table, a particular name comes up, condemning it: a Labour MP called Jess Phillips. Now, Phillips herself clearly has an agenda at play: as a Blairite, her vicious politics are slowly dying on their arse, and she’d rather we didn’t notice, so tends to fall down on the wrong side. She also demonstrably does not care about misogyny when it is not afflicting white women with whom she agrees. Phillips remains notoriously tight-lipped whenever misogynoir (the intersections of misogyny and antiblack racism) is thrown at her colleague Diane Abbott, and in fact has gleefully perpetrated it herself.

I use Phillips as an example of this problem, not the sole source: if I went into every single example of white women having an incredibly specific model of misogyny we’d all grow old and die. What matters is that misogyny is more than just a white woman receiving misogynistic tweets: but the dead cat always looks like the Angry Trolls On Twitter, Poor White Women.

There are ultimately three tactics for dealing with dead cat politics, of varying functionality. Some may be more effective for dealing with the dead cat of misogyny than others.

1. Drop the dead cat under the table: In this scenario, where the distraction tactic is attempted, just ignore it and attempt to steer the conversation back to what it was. Unfortunately, this has limited use, with an unsympathetic media who are profoundly fond of pushing the Online Spaces Are Misogynistic narratives because the internet is kind of killing their filthy industry. They will continue yelling that there is still a dead cat under the table, and they’re right about that.

2. Throw the dead cat right back at them: This can work under very specific situations, especially with politicians. Look at their voting records: did they, for example, vote for laws which would make abortions harder to access, or to cut domestic violence services? Fucking throw that right back at them, and show that they are using misogyny as a distraction rather than something they truly care about. This tactic, again, is a difficult one to wield, though. One needs direct ammunition–it doesn’t matter if they are the sort of politician who votes repeatedly in favour of austerity, and austerity hits women the hardest: sadly, while this is entirely true, the link is not direct, and dead cat politics is a very simple, blunt-force instrument. The dead cat you’re flinging back needs to be so obvious a three-year old could understand it’s bad.

The other downside to this approach, you’ll have probably noticed, is that the real issue has got lost in among a dead cat-flinging fight. You may be able to drag things back on course. You probably won’t.

3. Keep all the cats alive: The easiest way to avoid a dead cat attack is to avoid any cats dying nearby. As a cat person, an idealist, and a stone-cold pragmatist, I like this strategy the best, but it is the one that requires the most long-term work. The only way we can truly stop seeing misogyny being used as a dead cat is to stop with the fucking misogyny. Don’t give them anything, and they cannot use it against you.

Why say “horrible woman” when you can say “horrible person”? Why say “shrill” when you can say “odious”? Why say “bitch” when you can say “butcher”? This is all commonsense things we should be striving to do anyway, and yes, it still matters when it’s someone we dislike. This also requires keeping our own house in order–taking steps to deal with misogyny where we see it, as a means to keep the conversation on track (as well as it being fucking vital anyway).

Any cat owner will know that when there’s a live cat on the table, you kind of get on with it: it’s only the dead ones that need dealing with.

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I find it deeply unpleasant that there are certain quarters who are deploying the very real and expansive issue of misogyny as a little curtain to draw in front of their own messes. Much of the time, these are women who do not bat an eyelid at playing an active role in making the material conditions of other women far worse: transmisogyny, supporting the Nordic model, supporting austerity and playing to misogynoir.

They are able to use the power they have because they can, steering the very definition of misogyny to centre only themselves.

It is for this reason that the rest of us have so much more work to do, to educate about the intersections, to support marginalised women, to oppose the violent structures of overlapping and intersecting oppressions.

In an ideal world, these women would not throw the dead cat on the table–as many of us do not, because we must pick our battles–it ought to be their responsibility to stop with the dead cat politics. Unfortunately, the political system is not built for people to behave like mature adults. And for this reason, hopefully that, too, will die out with all of the violences it props up.

Update: There is now a sequel, including a worked example of what campaigners should be doing in the face of dead cat misogyny.


Advance knowledge is power: A strange hill to die on

This is the final piece in a short series on engagement, avoidance and trigger warnings.
Part 1: A trip to the dentist
Part 2: The banality of trigger warnings
Part 3: Exposing the true nature of exposure therapy

Content note: this post mentions food and eating disorders.

I’ve gone on, for thousands of words, about trigger warnings, but I have not yet addressed a very salient point: that I am a massive raging hypocrite.

I often don’t put trigger warnings where they’re necessary.

I want to say it’s because I forget, and at least in part, that is completely true. But there’s a reason I forget: because I am not thinking about my audience, only about myself.

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A few months ago, I baked some cuntroversial bread for the first time (yes, I’m still doing it; the starter’s still alive and well, and I have a batch in the oven as I write). This provoked rather a strong outpouring of the entire internet telling me I’m disgusting, and so, for my part, I got a little bit defensive. Not really thinking of anything but my own emotional defences, I went off on one about food hygiene generally.

I probably should have included some content warnings somewhere along the way.

I did lose a fair few followers over that, and it was only from some kind pal doing something they needn’t have done and asking me to please pop up content warnings on the various food rants I was off on that I realised I was being a bit of a dick.

I’d been thinking about myself rather than thinking about other people. And because of that, a bunch of people who had been previously engaged with me on a personal and a political level, disengaged.

I had not been considerate of people with eating disorders, and therefore I had lost some of my audience.

And that was nobody’s fault but my own.

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I had, once upon a time, been of the school of thought that trigger warnings might perhaps reduce engagement. I didn’t use them at all. For the most part, I didn’t see much of a necessity: I myself seldom needed them, and only under very specific circumstances.

I only began using trigger warnings because people asked me to, and I like a quiet life.

It was close to zero effort on my part to include a little warning at the top of a post. Just typing a couple of key words, briefly summarising content.

Incidentally, having looked at my own stats, I haven’t lost any traffic on posts that include a trigger warning: in fact, if anything, engagement goes up. 

Here’s a funny thing that happened as I started to incorporate trigger warnings onto my own writing: I myself became more conscious. I thought more about how my writing would be received by certain groups of people, I thought more about people who previously had barely been on my radar.

I had sleepwalked along for much of my life, and the doors opened up and I began to think of other people who have historically been swept under the carpet.

Perhaps this is what those who resist trigger warnings fear most: ending up shifting, ever so slightly, away from dominant narratives centring people who were born lucky and stayed lucky.

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You may have noticed I tend to use “content note” or “content warning” rather than “trigger warning” on my own writing. This is once again due to my desire for a quiet life.

A lot of tedious bores just love to weigh in when they even see a trigger warning: no wonder they think people disengage at trigger warnings, they themselves tend to use it as their excuse not to bother.

There are also legitimate criticisms of the term “trigger warning”: it’s loaded in assumptions, specifically about PTSD. “Content note” is both more neutral and more inclusive: it encompasses the many things which people might wish to engage with on their own terms, such as other mental illnesses, spoilers, and just generally things people might not want to deal without being forewarned.

A trigger warning, though, is another part of this family of textual warnings, and one where I simply find it bizarre that so many people are working themselves up into such a frenzy over.

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Trigger warnings seem like a strange hill to die on: doing something which takes all of fifteen seconds, probably won’t harm anyone and saves you a bit of strife. Even as I built a model for why one may resist trigger warnings, I still struggle to understand the visceral dislike of something so utterly banal.

When I adopted trigger warnings, I expected little to change, and for the most part the only thing that changed was within me: I became a slightly better writer and–I hope–a slightly better person.

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Advance knowledge is power: Exposing the true nature of exposure therapy

This is the third in a short series on engagement and trigger warnings.
Part 1: A trip to the dentist
Part 2: The banality of trigger warnings
Part 4: A strange hill to die on

Content note: this post discusses mental illness and psychiatry, PTSD, phobias and snakes, mentions rape.

A daytime chat show:  the topic is phobias. The host promises that his guest therapists will cure these phobias, right in front of our eyes, using exposure therapy. A guest, a young woman, talks about her phobia of snakes, and how it prevents her going outside.

The host then calls a man to the stage. He enters from the back, walking up the aisle between the audience for maximum effect. They whoop and cheer, because he is carrying a large snake on his shoulders. The woman on stage pales and begins to shake as she sees him coming towards her. As he gets closer, she vibrates more and more.

The man plonks the snake around her shoulders and she screams and cries, because she has a phobia of snakes. The audience is delighted by this spectacle. Their whooping intensifies with her screaming: there is something almost medieval about it. She screams until she can scream no longer. I turn off the TV, disgusted.

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The scene described above is what too many people think is meant by the term “exposure therapy”, which is usually the justification given to lend a scientific veneer to the argument against trigger warnings.

Trigger warnings, it is argued, are unhealthy. The main source for this argument is the infamous Atlantic article, which was written by a psychologist. Which, yes, it was written by a psychologist, but not one who specialises in anything clinical–or even one who fully understands the behavioural model on which exposure therapy is based. He’s a “moral psychologist”, who naturally therefore views these things throw a moral lens, rather than anything else. As the old saying goes, when all you’ve got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Exposure therapy forms the core of the supposedly scientific argument against trigger warnings, but everyone putting this across is wrong. 

Exposure therapy isn’t simply randomly exposing people with anxiety disorders to their anxiety triggers, and assuming they’ll eventually get better and grow some resilience. Exposure therapy is a wide term for a number of different approaches which all involve exposing the client to the thing that causes their anxiety under controlled circumstances. In some approaches, the person might be trained in coping mechanisms before being exposed to their trigger in a safe space. In others, there might be a stepped exposure to the trigger with the support of the therapist–using the example of snakes, that might be first looking at a picture of a snake, then touching a bit of snake skin, eventually working up to holding a snake over the course of the therapy. Some approaches might even use virtual reality or visualising the trigger, and so forth. Crucially, though, exposure therapy isn’t just exposing someone to their trigger and assuming they’ll just get over it and become a stronger person: the exposure happens in controlled circumstances–and usually in a manner which the person controls (indeed, in PTSD, exposure therapy is more effective when it’s self-controlled rather than therapist-controlled).

Exposure therapy is more commonly-used in treating phobias: when used for PTSD, the most common form involves a combination of visualising and processing traumatic memories with the help of a therapist, and taking a hierarchical approach to exposing oneself to triggers in real life. Again, trigger warnings are not at odds with this: hell, providing information about content could help someone undergoing exposure therapy undertake their week’s task of, say, watching a rape scene in a film, by having been told in advance that the rape scene is there!

The fundamental lack of understanding of exposure therapy is perhaps a driving force in the peculiar belief that not allowing survivors control over their engagement with triggering material is somehow for their own good.

Far from being at odds with various therapeutic models, trigger warnings can be congruent. It means that exposure occurs in circumstances which are controlled by the person rather than just at random. Exposure therapy is hardly the only model for treating PTSD, and may not necessarily be the best: however, I have not managed to identify a treatment for PTSD which is incompatible with trigger warnings.

Of course, the other primary conjecture used against trigger warnings is that they cause avoidance. The only attempt to systematically research it I’ve found is an abstract for an unpublished undergraduate dissertation with a tiny sample size of twenty and rather a lot of tests run on that very small data set (including dividing it into subsets!).  If there’s any evidence of the effect of trigger warnings on avoidant behaviour, I’d love to see it. Note exactly what I asked for. I am not asking for you to leave a screed in the comments about how your feelings suggest this is so (you can call it “common sense” if you like, but it isn’t).

If warnings about content were actually harmful, we would expect to see psychologists coming out against the banal, everyday content warnings that you see on TV, or before films. We don’t.

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So, trigger warnings aren’t going to harm anyone. Are they actually helping anyone?

Sadly, we don’t know, because there is an unwillingness to provide the data which could identify whether they’re effective. Given how politically-charged the issue is though, there sadly aren’t any large-scale studies on the impact of using trigger warnings in higher education, which is a primary battleground in this debate. There don’t seem to be any quality studies at all.

This is likely because very few institutions have tried, despite it being fairly easy to pilot. What we do know is that dropping out of college happens more if you’ve experienced violence. We also know that a frighteningly large portion of the population has experienced sexual violence. With this happening, what exactly do lecturers have to lose by piloting whether trigger warnings improve retention rates?

Of course, some may wonder how this all fits into practice, while teaching traumatic content. An article in The Criminologist, the American Society of Criminology’s newsletter offers some evidence-based suggestions. Criminology, of course, necessarily features teaching subject matter which can be heavily traumatic. Trigger warnings are recommended as one aspect in teaching about victimisation:

Warning early and often via multiple mediums provides students maximum opportunity to engage in informed decision-making and feel that they are in control. The first trigger warning should be on the first day of any course that includes information with the potential to emotionally trigger students. Trigger warnings should be given in at least the two classes before the presentation of potentially triggering material (or engagement with it outside of class, if that is the case), as well as at the beginning of the day when the material is presented. If an assignment is going to be shared with others, include that detail ahead of time (e.g., Hollander, 2000), so students can control how much of their experiences they share. These steps allow students time to think about what they need to do for self-care (see below) and give them an opportunity to talk to the instructor about their concerns and possible alternate arrangements.

Meanwhile, an article in the American Psychological Association’s Monitor on Psychology, suggests the following guidance, emphasising the point about how trigger warnings actually involve taking responsibility on the part of those who require trigger warnings:

Some professors, including Zurbriggen, encourage their psychology students to start doing so by taking responsibility for their reactions at the beginning of a course. She asks students to create a list of coping practices and people they can consult if they are affected by course material.

“The way the story is framed [in the media] sometimes is that students are so vulnerable or that they need to toughen up, and that’s not the issue,” says Zurbriggen. “Most trauma survivors have a lot of resilience. Providing information to students always makes the class a better experience and prepares them to dive into the material in a way that promotes learning.”

Despite all this, the evidence is sparse: the question becomes political, and therefore the objections, too, are political, and largely driven by emotion. It’s therefore only fitting that tomorrow’s conclusion to this series will also be political and largely driven by emotion and my own experiences.

Part 4: A strange hill to die on

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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.


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.

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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.

*

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.


Advance knowledge is power: A trip to the dentist

This is the first post in a short series on engagement and trigger warnings/content notes.
Part 2: The banality of trigger warnings
Part 3: Exposing the true nature of exposure therapy
Part 4: A strange hill to die on

Content note: this post talks about dentists and dental procedures in detail, as well as PTSD and rape.

“It’s going to have to come out,” the dentist said, and my brain squawked fuckfuckfuckfuckfuck.

One of my wisdom teeth had done what wisdom teeth tend to do, and grown in at a decidedly funny angle, meaning that whenever I chewed, talked or smiled, it would scrape against the inside of my mouth, causing regular mouth ulcers. I’d sucked it up and dealt with the pain, because, to be quite blunt, I was quite terrified of having to have the thing taken out. I’d heard horror stories about wisdom tooth extractions, and had hoped against hope that maybe my own gob would behave itself.

The dentist couldn’t just yank it there and then, because he didn’t have his instruments of torture to hand, so I had a week to prepare myself.

I read everything I could on wisdom tooth extraction in that week. I learned about exactly what the procedure would entail, what each step would feel like. I swotted up on aftercare, and what I might end up doing wrong and how to do it right. I looked at pictures of all the tools that would be used and where exactly they would be rammed into my poor fucked-up mouth, because I knew there was no way I’d be able to ask the questions I had during the procedure itself.

When the day came, I was prepared, and I went through with something I’d thought I might not be able to. I wasn’t even particularly scared. It all went exactly to the script. Afterwards, it healed perfectly, because I knew what I needed to do–and more importantly, why.

It’s not an experience I’d care to repeat, and I hope anything else that decides to grow in my mouth has the decency to point in the right direction. But it wasn’t traumatic.

*

When I was old enough to have my adult teeth, but still young enough to think strange things, I had my first scale and polish at the dentist. I’d had no idea he was going to do that to me, and I assumed it was some sort of punishment for me not flossing diligently enough.

The scale and polish was a huge factor in me going to the dentist as infrequently as possible, just about often enough to maintain my NHS patient status.

A few years ago, my old dentist–the uncommunicative grump who pulled my wonky wisdom tooth–retired and I got a new one. He was about my age, so must have been quite recently-qualified, with his patient sensitivity training still fresh in his mind. Every single thing he did throughout the dental checkup, he told me in advance what he was going to do, and how it might feel. He told me that if I wanted him to stop, I should raise my hand.

Just the knowledge that I could ask him to stop if it hurt, and knowing what he was going to do and when, was enough. I’m a little less dentist-avoidant now. It’s not exactly something I relish, but it’s not traumatic.

*

I’ve spent 500 words talking about dentists because people find the principles of giving a warning in advance far easier to agree with when one talks about matters of the body–even the body as it interacts with the mind. There’s no objections when you talk about getting a week to prepare yourself before you have a tooth pulled. So why are there objections over giving people who have survived trauma a little bit of a heads-up so they can better ready themselves?

Ultimately, that is all the trigger warning/content note is. It’s a flag which says, be prepared. There’s an asteroid field ahead, captain, engage coping mechanisms!

For me, when I see a trigger warning, sometimes it’s not particularly relevant to me, so I ignore it. Sometimes it is relevant to me, but that doesn’t mean I’ll disengage completely: I’ll make sure I’m in a place to engage. For me, this involves making sure I’m not caffeinated, because a kick of anxiety in combination with caffeine easily translates into a full-blown panic response. If I’ve had a coffee, I might wait an hour before engaging.

That’s the thing with trigger warnings: most survivors don’t simply avoid–they have the advance knowledge to do what they have to do. One survivor might open up a tab with a game they find distracting to play after they’ve read a blog post with a trigger warning. Another survivor might make sure she watches a television show in the strong, comforting arms of her girlfriend after hearing it contains a rape scene. One survivor might start practicing the resilience building affirmations he learned in therapy on a daily basis once again before throwing himself into the rape scene in the set text. Another survivor might steel zerself by taking a beta blocker before ze goes to a class that ze has been warned will be discussing rape.

Each survivor has a unique set of coping mechanisms, but each can only do these things with a bit of advance knowledge. It’s more than a simple choice of engaging or disengaging: it empowers people to choose how they engage.

The debate on trigger warnings has been absent of decent evidence: this is because there’s little to show they’re either helpful or harmful–instead, what we mostly have is anecdotes. Therefore, the question becomes mostly a political one.

Over the next few days, I’ll be looking a little bit more at both the politics and the extant evidence with trigger warnings, particularly looking at the conflation of random exposure with controlled exposure. Tomorrow, we’ll be looking at if it’s really so simple, why does everyone lose their shit?

Part 2: The banality of trigger warnings

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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.


3 current freedom of speech issues which the media neglect to cry over no-platforming

Content warning: this post mentions CSA and benefits

Freedom of speech is under threat. Like, really really badly under threat. Some teenagers aren’t interested in listening to what crusty old bigots have to say.

No-platforming is a pretty hot topic in the media at the moment, as it seems to be whenever some crusty old bigot gets offended that not everyone wants to listen to their special snowflake opinions. However, what’s more interesting is the things which aren’t hot topics, which don’t get endless opinion pieces churned out, nor ubiquitous Newsnight debates. Now, of course, I’ve said before (and I’m fucking sick of saying it), that no-platforming and censorship are wholly different things. This holds.

In fact, while everyone’s talking no-platforming , they’re helping draw the fire away from some genuine and real freedom of speech issues which are going on, and are current. Your Germaine Greers and Peter Tatchells and Julie Bindels are helping the government get away with instances of censorship and suppressing free speech by simply banging on about their hurt feelings and making that the big media issue. These issues are the ones which we need to look at, because these present a real danger.

Gagging scientists and charities

The Cabinet Office wants to “muzzle” scientists whose research conflicts with government policy. Say you’ve done some research where you found that disabled people are dying at a higher rate under Tory welfare, and the research clearly points to a change in policy. If you had any government grants contributing to your research (which most academic research does!) tough fucking titties. You can’t publicly state the conclusion you drew from your research. Best hope you concluded that Iain Duncan Smith is The Best, or your science will never see the light of day.

This clause to be added to all new grant applications also affects charities. Charities which receive public funds (for example, pretty much any charity that provides any service) also can’t criticise or lobby to change government policy. This could ultimately prevent charities from functioning at all, since there’s rather a lot of government policy which directly impacts their issues.

The Trade Union Bill

The Trade Union Bill will suppress the democratic rights of workers to organise and protest. This, obviously, benefits the government, bosses and very few real people. The right to strike is hugely important, and the government would like very much to take it away, because it makes them feel sad when they have to get a bus instead of a tube. They’re also aiming allow bosses cap the amount of time union reps can fulfill their role and represent union members–which, you may recognise as something which union reps do. 

This is an enormous freedom of speech and civil liberties issue, and sadly the government is trying to force it through as quickly as they can. Near-silence on the part of the mainstream media has probably helped. There’s little that remains in terms of doing much about it, save cross our fingers and desperately hope that the House of Lords–yep, those unelected oyster munchers–manage to halt it or take out the worst. In short, workers freedoms are about to be severely fucked over, with little fanfare.

Coverups, all the coverups!

From calls to stop naming perpetrators in historic CSA cases, to demanding a public investigation into undercover officers deceiving women into sex and relationships be mostly private, the police have been helping cover up rather a lot recently. It’s weird that this goes mostly unremarked, considering usually the media hate a coverup and will do their best to dig at the truth. However, peculiarly, these issues have not been treated as the free press and free information issues that they are.

The police are covering things up. And it’s fucking working.

Freedom of speech is under attack. Usually that sentence leads to some bullshit whining, but it is actually true. While the bores at the media continue to spill column ink about sad baby boomers being deemed irrelevant, let’s talk about what’s actually going on, because it’s more frightening than we think.

 


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