(Archived post, originally posted on loquaciouslolita, 11-9-14.)
After having a serious debate (argument) with someone in my seminar this week about causing offence and being mindful of speech in a group, I felt the need to lay out my opinion on something really close to my heart. It also has a complete anti-movement and backlash to it that I just can’t understand.
The research-y bit
When I searched ‘trigger warnings’ in order to find a fitting, agreeable definition I was faced with the top two responses that sum up the main opposing positions on their use.
#1. Geek Feminism Wiki, describes trigger warnings as: “customary in some feminist and other spaces. They are designed to prevent people who have an extremely strong and damaging emotional response (for example, post-traumatic flashbacks or urges to harm themselves) to certain subjects from encountering them unaware. Having these responses is called “being triggered”.”
#2. Urban Dictionary, calls them: “A phrase posted at the beginning of various posts, articles, or blogs. Its purpose is to warn weak minded people who are easily offended that they might find what is being posted offensive in some way due to its content, causing them to overreact or otherwise start acting like a dipshit. Popular on reddit SRS or other places that social justice warriors like to hang out.”
Firstly, it’s important to take into account the credibility of these websites.
What are they about?
Geek Feminism Wiki was founded in 2008 by LGBT-activist, body-positive, sex-positive social justice educator and anti-censorship feminist, Skud (Alex Bayley). It contains resources and responses, as well as advice to women in ‘geek’ communities and issues they face. It is administrated and moderated by staff, whose decision is final but they do not have a neutral point-of-view (NPOV) policy like Wikipedia does. Articles and edits must have a feminist perspective and those pieces not doing so will be removed.
Urban Dictionary is of course, a ‘dictionary’ containing over eight million definitions as of July 2014 (Wikipedia). It was launched in 1999 by Aaron Peckham when he was a freshman computer science major at California Polytechnic State University. In order to submit a definition, one must sign in via Facebook or Gmail. This submission will be regulated by ‘volunteer editors’ and then if it stays (which most do), it will be rated by visitors to the site.
So both of the top two definitions on Google for the phrase, ‘trigger warning‘ appear to have been contributed by a random individual and then moderated in some way by ‘editors’. The content has then been approved, and no member has challenged it or asked for it to be removed.
Ofcourse, Geek Feminism Wiki is focussing on trigger warnings as a positive, courteous and important procedure in order not just to avoid offence, but serious harm to a victim’s psychological wellbeing. Urban Dictionary, probably as a ‘joke’ sees this as something ‘social justice warriors’ do; something unnecessary that is being overly-cautious to a world of ‘political-correctness-gone-mad’.
Personally, I have to agree with the folks at Geek Feminism. Not simply because I am a ‘social justice warrior’ or “easily offended”, but because as someone who has been in recovery from mental health problems including (but not limited to) depression, anxiety and self-harm for a year and a half, I value trigger warnings with high regard. I have experienced several times where social media websites have thrown content at me and it has caused a serious, horrifying and emotional response.
You wouldn’t walk down the street holding these disturbing images, so that each person you walk past is exposed to it without warning, so why do it online?
“But I don’t know who’s out there?”
I understand that for many people, the internet age creates a safe distance between them and the other person. This desensitises a lot of us to that person’s thoughts, feelings, emotions and opinions and can create a sense of arrogance in us, whereby we feel entitled to share our content because other people must see it.
This has to stop.
When you write a comment, share a photograph, an article or even a video clip which contains material that someone else may find ‘offensive’, there is usually a good reason as to why that person is taking offence. Just because you are not personally affected by these images, it does not mean that it will not have a deep impact on someone on your friends list or who follows you.
How do I start using trigger warnings effectively?
I understand that it can be difficult to know where to stop with trigger warnings. By this I mean, if you have many acquaintances online that you do not know on a personal level, you cannot simply display warnings for every thing and every one all of the time as it would be impossible. There are two semi-solutions to this that I have seen so far.
#1. Use ‘common’ trigger warnings.
It goes without saying that a victim of any abuse, assault, crime, mental health problem or trauma will not want to click on unsuspecting content that contains images/descriptions/footage/opinions about these events. This can trigger post-traumatic stress, panic attacks, anxiety, flashbacks and other distressing symptoms for that person.
Who the hell would want to inflict that on another human being, whether they know them well or not?
All you need to do is write ‘Trigger Warnings:’ or ‘#tw:’ for each individual item. The hashtag method is particulary useful on tumblr, as users can create a tumblr blacklist which automatically hides these posts from their dashboard and prevents them just popping up randomly when scrolling.
#2. Ask your followers if they have specific trigger warnings.
A fantastic example I have seen of a user doing this exact thing was on tumblr. taurusnymph (now deactivated) requested that their followers send them a private message (this can be anon) with their trigger warning and they would use it for all future posts. They have quite an extensive list already, but stress the importance of each one in saying: “Anyone who mocks any of the TWs I use will be blocked immediately.” (taurusnymph)
This is a really respectful and necessary thing to do if you post a lot of content and have many followers that you do not know intimately.
You can prevent causing serious harm to another human being with just typing a few letters before or after your post.
“It’s not my responsibility.”
There are many who agree with the Urban Dictionary ‘definition’ of trigger warnings; that they are pandering to the ‘easily-offended’. To those people, I would simply ask them:
Think of anyone they you have ever met who has been a victim of anything.
Think about that person’s emotions and state of mind after that thing happened.
Now imagine that in that mindless quick click of a few buttons you have, without their consent, resurrected those emotions and that torturous state of mind for that human being.
Content is NOT obviously damaging (especially if you do not find it uncomfortable yourself) but if you share and promote it, please do so in a way that minimises the huge amount of damage it can have to other people.
It’s not difficult.
Author’s note: You can always anonymously comment with a trigger warning you would like me to use in the future.