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.


Things I read

Welcome to the link round-up! A lot of it is Lemonade-focused, and if you haven’t experienced Lemonade yet, GTFO and watch it.

 

The UN’s Good vs. Bad Narrative Clears the Way for Sexual Violence and Impunity (Maya Goodfellow)- UN soldiers are raping the people they are supposed to protect. If you’re outraged, sign the #PredatoryPeacekeepers petition.

A Lemonade Reader (What’s Good)- Collating articles from black women about Lemonade.

Beyonce’s Lemonade exposed the truth about who’s really leading the cause for racial justice today (Wail Qasim)- An emotional piece about the work black women are doing.

Hillsborough disaster: deadly mistakes and lies that lasted decades (David Conn)- A thorough overview of the events and context that led to the police killing 96 people, and the subsequent coverup.

Solitary confinement is ‘no touch’ torture, and it must be abolished (Chelsea E. Manning)- Manning talks about her experience of solitary confinement and how the practice must end.

The government cited my research in its campaign against porn and anal sex – here’s why I disagree (Cicely Marston)- An academic outlines how the government misrepresented her research to fit their own agenda.

Bodyhackers are all around you, they’re called women (Rose Eveleth)- Analysing the gendered assumptions in what is and is not classed as bodyhacking. Uses cissexist language.

Sadiq Khan may not represent a win for all Muslims, nor should he (Chimene Suleyman)- Analysing Khan’s win and what it means for Muslims.

Be A Better Bystander: How Third Parties Can Help Targets Of Online Abuse (Zoe Quinn)- A model for constructive intervention.


Aphantasia, possibly? TIL that most people don’t mean “mental image” as a metaphor

Content note: this post describes in detail the Prime Minister having sex with a dead animal, and relates an encounter in therapy

There’s been a Facebook post by Blake Ross going around which hit me quite hard. In it, a person talks about their experience with aphantasia, where you lack a “mind’s eye”.

It hit me because I realised I probably have aphantasia.

I’ve gone for thirty years of my life, gladly ticking along, thinking about things, writing about things, describing and remembering things, without ever having questioned that maybe I wasn’t doing it in the same way as everyone else. When I think about things, it’s never visual. I’d sort of assumed it was much like this for everybody else.

For my entire life, I’ve thought that phrases such as “mental image” or “visualisation” were metaphorical, and it was absolutely fascinating to learn that not only was this not true, but this is not true for the majority of people. After all, how can one describe one’s own chatter of thoughts outside of the realms of analogy and metaphor? To me, “mental image” has always meant something that you’re thinking about a lot, while “visualise” meant “think really hard about doing this”. It’s hard to even express how my own thinking works, because language is so set up–as I now understand it–to reflect thinking in images.

To me, my thoughts mostly come in the form of words, feelings and sounds. I can “think out loud”: an inner monologue, often in my own voice. There’s also more passive stuff going on, almost like reading a book that you don’t need to concentrate on–except I don’t see the words, and I don’t exactly “hear” it like a muffled radio–it’s just, I don’t know, kind of background processes which I could concentrate on if I wanted to and I cannot really articulate them how I perceive them, but it’s definitely a mush of words, feelings and sometimes even music. Maybe a little bit like people chatting in a coffee shop, and you occasionally pick up snatches of the conversation going on?

If pushed–for example, by tests checking your ability to visualise–I can bring up a picture in my mind to some extent. For example, the test in this article starts with asking you to picture someone you see frequently. I concentrated hard on visualising my friend, A, and I could eventually bring up something. But it was almost useless to me, not telling me much about what A really looks like. What I conjured up was like a passport picture: it’s arguably a decent likeness, but impersonal and ultimately looking not much like the person really looks. A dim and useless picture, devoid of any connection with the actual person. Instead, when I think about what A looks like without being forced to visualise it, I’d think of it almost as though it were a description of a character in a novel, with little personal quirks like the way A always walks with purpose, like she has to be somewhere very important.

The same is true for, say, visualising somewhere I’ve been before. It takes a lot of effort, though, like I’m squinting with my brain. I can call up a picture, but it is static and flawed, like a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy of an already-blurry photograph. Again, though, this information is mostly useless to me. If I wanted to remember somewhere I’d been, it’s far more vivid for me to remember specific incidents that happened in that place, as though they were scenes in a script that I was reading. It also helps a hell of a lot to create a mental image if I’m thinking about a photo I’ve seen of the place, ideally a photo that I myself took.

It explains a lot, if I have difficulties in visualisation, that a round of therapy that used visualisation heavily did not work for me. We did a lot of guided visualisation: my therapist would encourage me to visualise my anxiety as though it were a display in a museum, to visualise taking my anxiety and unknotting it. During these sessions, I would write these scenes in my head, describing in detail what I could “see”, even though I could not see anything. I would add set dressing: the whole thing read like Stieg Larsson in its levels of unnecessary detail. Nonetheless, I actually saw nothing, and didn’t find that therapy particularly helpful.

Luckily for me, my brain seems to do a lot of stuff without me knowing it that helps me function. I don’t know how I’m capable of recognising familiar faces without necessarily being able to visualise them, but I usually am.

I am aware, after reading Blake Ross’s account, that I am less impaired than him: I may not have a mind’s eye, but I have a mind’s ear and can hear music or noises or the sound of someone’s voice. I have the other senses, too, and can summon up a smell or a taste, or a brush against the skin. I also don’t have issues with memory: I can remember incidents, and so forth: they come up almost like diary entries but richer, accompanied by a host of feelings. I also don’t skip the bits in books where there’s lots of description of the setting, because I find it nice to know what a character looks like or the colour of the wallpaper in a cafe, even if I can’t see it myself.

I can appreciate visual art, but I unsurprisingly suck at creating it it. Absolutely fucking suck at it, and I always have. At school, I was asked not to do GCSE Art because I am so fucking shit at art. I didn’t really mind: I always hated drawing and sculpting anyway. I knew it was something I couldn’t do and others could, but I never realised that could be due to my inadequate visualisation ability, because I am dyspraxic and also crap at things like learning sequences of movements (which meant PE was also an unmitigated nightmare) and fine motor skills (handwriting was fucking dreadful, too).

I know I do have visuals without the effort of the mental squint, under certain circumstances. When I dream, I dream with vision as well as the other things that happen in my head. I can even experience visual thoughts when I am on the brink of sleep, and mix it in with my conscious thought.

Sadly, I am not necessarily spared the horror of a bad “mental image”: I may not see anything, but it’s nonetheless horrible. Take, for example, that time David Cameron fucked a pig. I thought about it, almost as if it were a particularly unpleasant scene in a book. I could think about the braying of the crowd, wonder about whose lap the pig whose head he fucked was in, ask endless questions, like was it to completion, and generally feel a sense of utter disgust.

Even as I write this, I realise I am probably doing a godawful job of explaining how things happen in my mind without images, because it’s very difficult in the first place to explain what thought feels like. So what does thinking with pictures feel like? I’m kind of imagining, if my own thought processes are like a bunch of cue cards with salient information on them, that yours are like a Buzzfeed article: mostly pictures, with a couple of words around them.

For me, basically, mental images are not something I find particularly useful, even if I can access them under certain circumstances. I suppose I must have learned to work around not visualising very early on in my life, and it’s something I just don’t rely on at all. As far as I’m aware, this hasn’t affected me adversely particularly. In fact, I wonder if it was a gift all along: I find it quite easy to put things into words, most of the time. A lot of my writing practically writes itself, words tripping from me. Perhaps it’s so easy for me because that’s how my thoughts always looked anyway.


Things I read recently that I found interesting

Hello everyone, it’s round-up time!

Dyspraxia and Femininity (Screaming Violets)- I found a lot to relate to in this short piece on femininity, unfemininity, and living with a brain that makes you fucking drop things all the time.

I’m on the Kill List. This is what it feels like to be hunted by drones (Malik Jalal)- The very real, human consequences of drone strikes.

Dear Home Office, please don’t deport me to my death (Luqman Onikosi)- Theresa May seems to genuinely be trying to kill a lot of people.

Hollywood’s upcoming films prove it loves Asian culture – as long as it comes without Asians (Kelly Kanayama)- Looking at films coming out which will be erasing Asian characters, and why.

The ‘Human Computer’ Behind the Moon Landing Was a Black Woman (Nathan Place)- Celebrating Katherine Johnson, who sent men to the moon and brought them back safely.

Periods in Space Are Not That Different, Though a Bit More Complicated (Pam Belluck)- Everything you ever wanted to know about menstruating in space, and options for stopping it.

How Trans Women Are Reclaiming Their Orgasms (Kai Cheng Thom)- A beautiful article on trans women, sexuality and moving past the obstacles created.

Aphantasia: How It Feels To Be Blind In Your Mind (Blake Ross)- I read this this morning and it kind of surprised me, because my own experience is similar to the author’s, and I’d gone through my whole life thinking phrases like “mental image” or “visualise” were metaphorical.

A Trafficking Survivor Shares Why She’s Anti-Criminalization (Kitty Stryker interviews Mercedes)- Content warning for CSA. Listen to a voice so often silenced or instrumentalised.

Germaine Greer: transphobe. Homophobe. Misogynist. (Aiofe O’Riordan)- Why we should stop even pretending that GG is a feminist.

‘Sex is fine… as long as it’s with The One’: why too little sex education is a dangerous thing (Justin Hancock)- Exploring the dangers of how sex education is provided when the curriculum is rushed.

UC Davis trying to hide online proof of abuse– UCD are spending rather a lot of money on covering this up, don’t let them!

Fictional Cops I Love, Ranked By How Guilty I, As An Anarchist, Feel For Loving Them (Sadie the Goat)- Not gonna lie, I related to this so goddamn hard.

Guardian Cryptic, 15th April (Arachne)- If you like puzzles and hate the police, you might enjoy this cryptic.

And finally, my lovely pal needs surgery to get rid of their breasts. Can you help by sharing or donating?


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.


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