Tuesday, August 28, 2012

On Trigger Warnings

Roxane Gay has written a beautiful article on the futility of trigger warnings:

Many feminist communities use trigger warnings, particularly when discussing rape, sexual abuse, and violence. By using these warnings, these communities are saying, “This is a safe space. We will protect you from unexpected reminders of your history.” Members of these communities are given the illusion they can be protected.
There are a great many potential trigger warnings. Over the years, I have seen trigger warnings for eating disorders, poverty, self-injury, bullying, heteronormativity, suicide, sizeism, genocide, slavery, mental illness, explicit fiction, explicit discussions of sexuality, homosexuality, homophobia, addiction, alcoholism, racism, the Holocaust, ableism, and Dan Savage.
Life, apparently, requires a trigger warning.
This is the uncomfortable truth—everything is a trigger for someone. There are things you cannot tell just by looking at her or him.
And she has a point.  More than one point, because trigger warnings cannot guarantee a safe space and because almost everything can trigger a flood of memories in some reader.  She also makes a related point later in the article:

It all seems so futile, so impotent and, at times, belittling. When I see trigger warnings, I think, “How dare you presume what I need to be protected from?”
Trigger warnings also, when used in excess, start to feel like censorship. They suggest that there are experiences or perspectives too inappropriate, too explicit, too bare to be voiced publicly. As a writer, I bristle when people say, “This should have had a trigger warning.” I think, “For what?”
I do not understand the unspoken rules of trigger warnings. I cannot write the way I want to write and consider using trigger warnings. After a while, I would second guess myself, temper the intensity of what I have to say. I don’t want to do that. I don’t intend to ever do that.
Writers cannot protect their readers for themselves nor should they be expected to.
There is also this: maybe trigger warnings allow people to avoid learning how to deal with triggers, getting help. I say this with the understanding that having access to professional resources for getting help is a privilege. I say this with the understanding that sometimes there is not enough help in the world. That said, there is value in learning, where possible,  how to deal with and respond to the triggers that cut you open, the triggers that put you back in terrible places, that remind you of painful history.

These points all carry their own kind of truth.  It's a partial truth and a subjective truth but a truth.

My own use of trigger warnings is also partial.  It's based on trying not to set up sneaky assassin triggers for anybody, the kinds of triggers which could open up a flood of flashbacks in a PTSD sufferer, without any warning, without any time for her or him to set up the brick walls or to take up the defensive weaponry.

Thus, I use them when the topic of a blog is different from what readers might usually expect from this site.  I often (always?) write about hate and loathing and disgusting behaviors, and to label all those topics would require permanent trigger warnings.  But when a post describes human evil and human suffering in such detail that it can provoke flashbacks, that's when I put up the warning.

I don't know if it works, and I worry over the fact that I don't know which posts truly deserve those warnings.  My own history is not the same as the history of others, and I may happily skip across a topic of dire importance to someone else.  I know this because this has happened to me in other places and at other times.

But marking everything is not a feasible approach.  The general contents of this blog provide information about whether reading me is ever recommended (!).

No place can ultimately be a safe space, in the sense of being impermeable, of being able to take any attack.  People die in their own bedrooms, friends and family  can take us down.  But what I have tried to do with this blog  is to create a space of respect, a space where the fighting is fair when it happens.

I have failed miserably and frequently, of course.  Still, I think the conversations we have here are closer to that feeling of respect than they would have been without any such choices.