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Steven Brust: “A masterful storyteller of contagious glee and self-deprecating badassery” —Skyler White

Trigger Warnings: Can Someone Fill Me In, Please?

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I’ve just caught bits and pieces of this discussion on Twitter, and am mystified.  I hadn’t been aware that was a controversy, and I’m still not sure what it is.  I mean, if someone were to say to me, “You must put trigger warnings in your books for anything that might upset someone,” then I can see being pissed off; but, so far as I know, no one is saying that.

I’m clearly missing something in here.  I don’t see why someone choosing to put a trigger warning on something should be a problem, and I’m a little lost trying to find the downside of requiring them on classics.  Well, okay, I admit; were I a student, I’d be slightly–very slightly–miffed to see certain warnings on certain books because it might give away something I’d want to discover myself.  But that doesn’t seem like a big deal.  Also, the proliferation of trigger warnings might be related to the annoying trend among academics and elements of the middle class to say, “If I am upset or hurt, it must mean someone did something wrong, therefore we need to make sure no one does that thing ever again.”  But, even if it is related to that, 1) I don’t see the problem as that big, and, 2) I don’t see trigger warnings as being a big part of that.

The joke, “Trigger warnings are a trigger for me,” is stupid and not funny, and has a tiny element of truth: proliferation of trigger warnings can sometimes be irritating.  Is that enough of a reason to discourage them? I don’t see why.

I’m trying my best here to find a good reason to come out against trigger warning, and, as you can see, not having much luck.  What am I missing?  What are the broader aspects to this?  Why is it a controversy?  The only thing that’s obvious is that there things I’m not seeing, and I’m now officially curious enough to ask.

 

skzb

Author: skzb

I play the drum.

50 Comments

  1. 1. I agree with those who prefer a content note to a trigger warning.

    2. Other than the above, I haven’t seen any arguments against the things, just lots of people using and/or defending them. I might live under a rock, though.

    3. Just this morning I saw someone on Twitter asking after a review of Jo Walton’s new book, My Real Children, by someone with recent experience with dementia or Alzheimer’s. I told her that I even without personal experience I found that aspect of the book tragic and disturbing. I read the book and thought, “wow, she’s such a good writer, I’m really affected by this.” My friend would probably have been far more upset and not have a good reading experience. Sometimes people want to be able to avoid something that they are pretty sure will wreck them. I’m in favor of helping them.

  2. I sent on twitter but figured I’d put some links up here. CNN asked me for a piece so I got up to speed pretty quickly.

    My CNN piece – http://www.cnn.com/2014/05/20/opinion/perry-trigger-warning-label-for-shakespeare/index.html?hpt=op_t1

    A bunch of links on the TW issue published before Monday – http://www.thismess.net/2014/05/resources-trigger-warnings-in-classroom.html

    Some post-CNN thoughts – http://www.thismess.net/2014/05/trigger-warnings-continued.html

    tl;dr

    1. Psychological disability involving trauma is serious and should never be dismissed. However, we have a mandate through the ADA to provide reasonable accommodations for students with disabilities. Let’s increasingly support, fund, and use those services, make them more robust. They are often either incompetent and underfunded or ferociously bureaucratic and distant.

    2. Let’s practice good teaching. Good teaching involves preparing students for their homework, not springing things on them. All the people who study reading and learning focus on scaffolding (as one metaphor) so that students know what they are reading for. It definitely helps my students.

    3. Blanket vague policies are probably a bad idea as they will give the appearance of doing something without actually doing something.

  3. I think the trigger warnings idea was based on readers who not only don’t know they’re walking into a scene containing __________ [insert trigger topic], but have PTSD and could end up in a whimpering ball under the furniture as a result of encountering it.

    I personally believe casual readers benefit from consumer warnings about things that are likely to upset foreseeable reader groups (so they pick up the books they intend to pick up, which needn’t be obvious from the cover). When the issue is students who *must* read something and the topic is known to psych experts to place foreseeable readers at risk of injury, I think the case for a warning gets stronger. I can’t guess how many such readers there are or how nasty a scene must be before it requires a warning, but if someone did research on it I’d be happy to put a “best practices” guide into practice.

  4. I received this comment on my blog about the origin of TWs. I thought it was interesting.

    “The term “trigger warning” came about as a way to protect survivors of sexual assault. We began using the term in a chat room that I moderated back in late 1995 or very early 1996. People looking for support would read each other’s stories. The graphic nature would sometimes trigger flashbacks and sleepless nights. We adopted the method of writing the term very early on and it was followed as “TW” almost immediately.”

  5. Good question, Steve…as are most of your questions.

    As suspicious as I am about anything new and trending, I think I have a bit of insight about trigger warnings.

    First off, I have yet to read or hear anything about trigger warnings vis-a-vis fiction, or books in general. Yet. I’m sure it’s coming. Mostly I run into the trigger warnings on videos or the like. And film ratings already tell us something about what we might encounter in a film: Rated R: includes Nudity, sex, violence, smoking, and bad dental care. You know the sort of thing.

    However, I have two really good friends who suffer from Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. One has yet to tell me about what happened. The other was involved in a peace protest that was rather viciously broken up by IDF troops. Not only was the trauma of that bad, but then on her return to the US *nobody* believed that such a thing could have happened.

    I have watched a number of movies with the first friend with no bad effect, but my second friend will occasionally go into a bad reaction when something parallel to her experience hits her. So yes, things we watch have triggered her, and you’d be surprised at how remote from her actual experience they can be.

    I think the best comparison is the allergy warning on foods, for example warning people that something contains nuts or shellfish. As someone who wheezed and broke out all over the last time I ate shrimp, I can only appreciate that someone is giving me a heads up. I also suppose warning someone who has been raped that there is a scene of attempted rape in a film might be similarly helpful.

    That being said, if trigger warnings aren’t yet overdone, I am sure they will be soon. I think it’s people meaning well.

    That being said, I wouldn’t worry about it. All voluntary.

  6. I think I’m going to come out against trigger warnings–I understand why they exist, and having content in a book/movie etc that makes one re-live exceedingly traumatic experiences is obviously not pleasant for those for whom a trigger is triggered. Sentences like my last are a trigger for me. ./not funny, as per OP

    ANYWAY

    If you have a trauma you’re needing to protect, ostensibly you can 1) see the signs coming and interrupt the activity that’s doing it–PARTICULARLY when it’s a book, or a TV show or whatever. Just put the book down. Turn the TV off. Return to it when you’re good and ready. Or don’t return to it.

    I don’t want to see my books coming with freaking 2 pages of trigger warnings notes for all the butterflies who can’t stand scenes of flossing, because that’s where this will eventually go. Furthermore, those warnings may contain spoilers. Obviously, I won’t be reading them, regardless, but still.

    When I read something that triggers me, I have coping mechanisms in place to mitigate and eventually end the response–if I can’t fix it, then I shouldn’t get into the situation in the first place. Please remember the context is READING here, not going out to a bar or something.

    But more important than anything is this fact: ultimately speaking, hiding and protecting yourself is no way to heal. The only way to move on is to move on, and yes, that might involve some potholes on the road which might seem to set you back. If your trigger is unmanageable, go get some professional help instead of casting your cross onto all those around you, such as authors and other creative types for whom the act of creating might very well be THEIR coping mechanism.

  7. The issues of TWs in writing fiction are very different than in the classroom, to be sure. I’ve been irritated when seeing other educators saying, “oh no, we can’t give spoilers!” I’m not trying to entertain my students.

    But you authors are, in fact, trying to “entertain” (in the broadest possible terms). I can see it being a very different set of calculations for you.

  8. @Jon Carey — Really?! You can handle *stuff*, so anyone and everyone else should be able to? That’s what you’re going with? That’s just precious.

  9. Regardless of the question of how best to deal with PTSD, I don’t see what the problem with telling students that “Titus Andronicus” is full of nastiness, so don’t expect something like “Twelfth Night”. I don’t think you have to “spoil” anything to give a proper warning. I mean, I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by saying that “Game of Thrones” is full of rape, murder and incest. In many ways, I think this is a made up issue, and that older people forget that a young college student may not have a damn clue what’s going to happen in “Titus Andronicus”.

  10. I’m in favor of people having access to tagging information they can use to manage how they deal with topics that are harmful or uncomfortable for them. The fact that life as a whole cannot come with this information does not mandate it being unavailable in situations where its availability is readily feasible. I’m strongly of the position that these should be called “content notes”, not “trigger warnings”. I don’t unequivocally agree with Melissa McEwan of Shakesville all that often, but on this she’s got it right. My reasons include but are not limited to:

    1) PTSD trauma triggers are idiosyncratic. One’s triggers could include the sight of a rubber duck, the smell of lighter fluid, the sound of cracking pistachios. While we can anticipate that some generalized topics will always be more likely to be triggering than others, a standardized set of trigger warnings dramatically misrepresents the phenomenon and encourages people to think “being triggered” means “becoming uncomfortable”, which turns the exercise into an appropriation and distortion of PTSD. I also don’t like the way it signals that if your trauma narrative fits certain socially accepted patterns, you’re worth protecting from your triggers, and if it doesn’t you’re not.

    2) The original concern, activation of PTSD trauma triggers, immediately became conflated with the activation of eating-disorder and other self-harm behavioral triggers, which are as radically different a subject from trauma triggers as operant conditioning is from classical conditioning. So now we’re assigning special status to phenomena entirely because they have the word “trigger” in their name. Which contributes to item 3:

    3) As anybody who’s spent time on the more sensitive side of the internet will recognize, any accommodation for those who have been victimized quickly attracts those interested in playing at victimhood chic. This cannot be prevented, but it can be discouraged by toning down the drama and urgency encoded into the terminology, and if they’re going to play, let them play with toys that don’t appropriate PTSD.

    4) “Warning” is unnecessarily pejorative, carrying the implicit judgment that particular topics are intrinsically harmful.

    It’s also worth keeping in mind that, whether CN or TW, the instant their use becomes anything other than strictly voluntary (as with the university student initiatives), the list of what, exactly, merits tagging will instantly become a political bludgeon that will probably be turned against those it was supposed to protect in short order.

  11. skzb

    ucblockhead: Well, regarding “Titus Andronicus,” I’m glad I was warned about the horse.

    Um. Sorry. “Sling & Arrows” reference.

  12. skzb

    “It’s also worth keeping in mind that, whether CN or TW, the instant their use becomes anything other than strictly voluntary (as with the university student initiatives), the list of what, exactly, merits tagging will instantly become a political bludgeon that will probably be turned against those it was supposed to protect in short order.”

    Now this I can understand and agree with without reservation. That’s exactly how things work.

  13. “The fact that life as a whole cannot come with this information does not mandate it being unavailable in situations where its availability is readily feasible.”

    Thank you. That argument irritates me. Which doesn’t mean we must have CN/TWs in other environments, just that one “life” doesn’t lead to the other “literature/classroom” logically.

  14. “The fact that life as a whole cannot come with this information does not mandate it being unavailable in situations where its availability is readily feasible.”

    Thank you. That argument irritates me. Which doesn’t mean we must have CN/TWs in other environments, just that one “life” doesn’t lead to the other “literature/classroom” logically.

  15. I feel very conflicted about all this.

    There’s nothing wrong with any writer voluntarily putting whatever trigger warnings they choose on their work.

    But then, it doesn’t stop there. We will (and already do) get organized groups of people who get upset at writers who did not think to add the trigger warnings they want. They will say that anybody who does not include the trigger warnings they demand is a vile disgusting no-excuse for a subhuman being. Trigger warnings will not be voluntary for those particular constituencies, they will make a strong vicious attempt to make the particular warnings they care about, mandatory. And they will reserve the right to change their minds about what work needs warnings, and what warnings it needs. They’ll know it when they see it.

    Still, it’s better to demand trigger warnings than to demand that triggering material must not exist. And that demand could come next.

    I agree with Jon Carey to a point. We have to wrestle with our own demons. If I am damaged in ways that make it hard for me to go out in public, I have a responsibility to heal as best I can. I have never been raped by sexual intrusion. I did have a time when I panicked sometimes when I saw a suspicious bulge under someone’s clothing that could be a weapon. I had to get over it. Many people have the legal right to carry concealed weapons, and I do not have a legal right to pre-emptively attack them. I had to get over it or go to jail, and nobody would have had the slightest sympathy for me.

    But at the same time we do have a responsibility to assist innocent people who are damaged, who can’t get by like normal people.

    Where do we draw the line between our responsibility to emotionally-crippled people, versus a political movement designed to give moral and political force to people who have appointed themselves the saviours for those cripples, who use their power to dominate anybody they feel like dominating?

    I don’t see any clear answers. It’s all a muddle for me.

  16. “A political movement designed to give moral and political force to people who have appointed themselves the saviours for those cripples, who use their power to dominate anybody they feel like dominating?”

    Who are these people? I mean specifically. Again, I have come out in the most public way against trigger warnings in the classroom, but I guess I don’t see some sinister dominating force behind it. I see well-intentioned people meeting CYA lawsuit-adverse university administrators and generating poor policies. I think we can meet the good intentions and avoid the possible censoring policy.

  17. I think trigger warnings are a good thing when they are used to let people who might be (probably psychologically) harmed by coming on something unexpectedly know that the content exists. Some people, both for and against TWs, seem to be thinking of them as warnings that someone might possibly be offended, which IMHO is a Very Bad Idea. So, warning for possible harm, yes; warning for possible offense, no. From my POV.

    (And for some of the comments above, I wish there was a “Like” button.)

  18. Context can have a lot to do with whether or not something is triggery. Since September 11th I’ve had trouble with certain kinds of imagery involving the destruction of tall buildings. But I’ve discovered that it’s situational.

    For instance, though “Megamind” is a cartoon, the part where a single tall building is destroyed is very unsettling to me. On the other hand, “The Avengers,” despite the battle scenes being set right in NYC, on streets I know really, really well, causes me no problems at all.

    Comparing these and other experiences has led me to conclude that knowing that buildings are being evacuated (as in “The Avengers”) prevents the tension and stomach-clenching moments. One of the reasons that I have not seen Man of Steel is that enough people told me about the wanton destruction of the city that I knew I would not be able to stand watching it. I appreciated knowing those moments existed in the film and was able to make an informed decision about watching it, whereas the scene in “Megamind” hit me completely out of the blue and ruined, for me, an otherwise enjoyable movie.

    So in a situation where a person is not able to choose to turn off or disengage, such as a class requirement, I can understand a student wanting to know that a work might be problematic in a specific way, so that she or he can prepare for the encounter or negotiate an alternate assignment if one can be given. I can also understand that it is impossible to completely list everyone’s triggers, and that people can be triggered by things which are innocuous to others. But it does seem to me that there are some constants, on which there is general consensus, which can be listed.

  19. My concern is that any non-voluntary “content notification” or “trigger warning” requirement amounts to censorship. I’m also concerned that a voluntary system might be used as pressure to conform or face consequences in social or marketplace sphere that become de facto censorship.

    The best examples I can think of are the Comics Code Authority, the MPAA, and ESRB. Until very recently, you couldn’t get shops or distributors to carry your comics if they weren’t Comics Code Authority approved. The MPAA can essentially prevent your film from ever being seen in theaters if their members are disturbed by your content.

    Voluntary systems are fine until they in effect become non-voluntary.

    I know that people who have suffered trauma can re-experience that trauma or negative effects of that trauma when something treads on those metal pathways. I don’t think any genuinely sane or humane person wants to inflict additional harm or trauma on a survivor or person with an illness or mental health issue.

    I can understand a professor not wanting to have to make exceptions for students who find course material triggering – I can see the argument being made that they might have to excuse a student from a requirement because it is a triggering item and the professor is worried that they’re then certifying students who ‘haven’t done the work.’

    Not sure where one would go from here, other than to allow people who want to add content notifications or trigger warnings to do so if they wish, but not force anyone to do so by policy or law.

  20. “Voluntary systems are fine until they in effect become non-voluntary.”

    I think that’s true. I wish all the people complaining about trigger warnings would spend their time on the MPAA …

  21. “I think we can meet the good intentions and avoid the possible censoring policy.”

    I want to think you’re right, but I suspect what we’ll actually end up with is a perfectly legal passive-aggressive form of censorship in which anyone who doesn’t want to be called a racist feels obliged to put a racism trigger warning on Huckleberry Finn.

    I keep thinking that in art, trigger warnings and no-spoilers are at odds. I’m on the side of no spoilers.

  22. I don’t see a problem with adding CN — it’s easy and considerate. Too attribute ill intent to the advocates is paranoid and delusional.

  23. We already put information on fiction about what’s inside. I looked at a book recently and was interested, and then saw that it was 4th in a series (I looked at the first and ultimately didn’t buy any of them). Pretty sure no one would say that I should just suck it up and deal with not knowing a book is mid-series.

    Will — I don’t think a content note is at odds with no-spoilers any more than jacket copy and blurbs are, which is to say, it is possible but shouldn’t happen when done right. I want to know *something* about the thing I’m going to read before I read it.

  24. Put me on the side of those who feel that “trigger warnings” are just one step away from book banning and censorship in general. That’s not to say that we might not want cover blurbs that a bit more informative. But the articles I’ve seen/heard were referring to high school and college reading lists and seemed to promote alternative reading assignments as a suggested solution.

    What happened to a rousing good discussion about racism then and now as part of reading Huckleberry Finn, or a discussion about how the concentration camps were not the figment of someone’s imagination. Maybe if schools spent more time discussing suicide instead of romance when reading Romeo and Juliet, fewer teens would be tempted to solving their problems that way.

    This is called learning. Sometimes it hits close to home. The classroom should be a safe place to deal with this, and to discuss how experiences are shared and reshaped through art. If you’re reading/watching for pleasure, check it out first, or put it down/turn it off. First they warn, then they ban, then they burn…from my experience.

    Maybe the gist of it is who are the “they” who get to decide.

  25. Jen, it is true that someone could get a file of a story with no information about what’s inside it, but that seems unlikely. If it’s for a class, the class description ought to suggest what’s ahead. But I dunno. Maybe I’m underestimating how protected the children of elevator parents are. Do you know of any scientific studies of PTSD and fiction?

  26. I was in Serbia during the NATO bombing campaign of ’99. Even today, 15 years later, I get tense when I hear something that sounds like air raid sirens. It’s nothing serious, unlike a full-blown panic attack, but it’s been 15 years and I still can’t fully “get over it”. I can only imagine it’s a hell of a lot worse for people with PTSD, which is why I’m wholeheartedly in favor of giving them enough warning to help them avoid triggering an episode.

    However, the problem with TWs and CNs is knowing what to put in them. Sure, if a book or a movie contains a scene with rape or attempted rape, then it’s easy enough to provide a warning. But take a look at Melissa’s example above: how do you deal with that? How much do you include? Where do you draw the line?

    Again, these aren’t arguments against TWs and CNs per se. They’re just my comments on the fractal nature of the problem. And whenever humans try to solve a fractal problem, they make an unholy mess out of everything, until everyone is thoroughly sick of the whole thing and the solution (usually) becomes irrelevant.

    Just look at existing rating systems. In a world where MPAA’s PG-13 has become utterly meaningless [1] and ESRB rating system is simply hopeless [2], what hope do we have that TWs and CNs won’t suffer the same fate?

    Maybe I’m just too naive about this, but I’m thinking that this might be solved a lot better through some crowdsourcing effort: just like I go to GoodReads to try to predict whether I might enjoy a book or not, maybe we could have sites where people post their warnings about content, with tags and ratings and all the typical features that help people find out what they need.

    [1]: http://www.forbes.com/sites/scottmendelson/2013/11/26/disneys-frozen-proves-worthlessness-of-pg-rating/

    [2]: http://www.gamerswithjobs.com/node/48914

  27. Cynthia – “What happened to a rousing good discussion about racism then and now as part of reading Huckleberry Finn, or a discussion about how the concentration camps were not the figment of someone’s imagination. Maybe if schools spent more time discussing suicide instead of romance when reading Romeo and Juliet, fewer teens would be tempted to solving their problems that way.”

    I think that comment does not reflect what advocates for TWs in the classroom are looking for. Please read this http://edition.cnn.com/2014/05/20/opinion/perry-trigger-warning-label-for-shakespeare/index.html?hpt=op_t1 piece of mine if you haven’t already. This is not a discussion about how kids today are fragile precious little snowflakes, but about how one should teach difficult subjects.

    Again, I am opposed to TWs in the classroom.

    Also, since I am not a Minnesotan, I can self-promote. I’m going to be talking about this very subject on Wisconsin Public Radio in 45 minutes. http://www.wpr.org/programs/central-time

  28. One thing: I don’t think we can really understand the phrase “trigger warning” without understanding the phrase “safe space”.

    The “safe space” model mainly comes from support groups, blogs, forums and similar venues for survivors of sexual assault (primarily, initially) and other traumatic events (secondarily, later). It designates a social space where, if you’re one of the people it’s dedicated to, you will find an emotionally supportive environment where your concerns are centered and things that threaten your well-being will be removed. This appears to be an extremely powerful tool for recovery from trauma, especially in early stages of recovery.

    They’re a hothouse environment and that’s what they’re meant to be. They exist so people can heal and get back the strength to engage with the world.

    Trigger warnings are an important part of dialogue in a safe space. They allow people to talk about their trauma — if they can’t do this, the space is nearly useless — without willy-nilly becoming a source of threat to the well-being of other participants.

    As would have to happen, of course, people interact with this sort of space, enjoy it greatly, and would much rather the entire rest of the world acted more like that space than treat it as a temporary retreat. And it’s an appealing message if you don’t understand the jargon: “This con should be a safe space!” “Safe space for all!” We hear the words “safe space” and think, “sure, why wouldn’t we want that?”

    The difficulty is, any safe space is only safe for particular people who meet specific criteria. This is a necessary consequence of making judgments about who participates and who is excluded based on people’s well-being, not their actions. Any stimuli that a designated supported person may react to in a fashion that threatens their well-being has to be excluded from a safe space, regardless of how those stimuli are produced. If you remind someone of a perpetrator and therefore constitute a trauma trigger for them, you have to go. (If you don’t, the person for whom you’re a trigger isn’t on the list of people the space is safe for.)

    The extension of trigger warnings to more venues is, I think, significantly driven by this impulse to make safe space cover the world.

    But as someone said, “Safe space is not for staying comfortable.”

  29. My kid brother died in 2007. That was super traumatic for me, but I daresay that a sibling dying in a car accident could very nearly be called “commonplace trauma”. Nonetheless, any book I read, any movie I watch, death of a sibling figure (cop partner, military squad member, business partner) is suddenly – and I hope this makes sense – a “mild” trigger for me. I tear up a bit, even if that was not nearly the intent of the filmmaker/author, but it doesn’t prevent me enjoying what I’m watching or reading.

    Based upon this very limited experience of my own, I assume that those who have PTSD, have been sexually assaulted, or etc, etc, are often facing involuntary reactions to specific stimuli, and it isn’t always going to be possible for them to avoid all of the triggering stimuli. As such, I’m very much in favor of providing them with a way to avoid such stimuli as often as possible.

    That said, I assume the worst of any kind of organization, any government body, etc, that might be charged with maintaining such “ratings”.

    Expendables 3 is going to be PG-13, as an example of such failure.

  30. Wow! Some very good comments. My take-away is that:

    1) Classroom required reading is very different than entertainment. I think that is key. You can leave or stop reading entertainment. I think some kind of description (e.g., contains torture) is appropriate, but should not become law. For required reading TW may be appropriate. I’m not sure how the teacher handles the lesson and grading.

    2) It is impossible to cover all possible trigger items for all people. So hopefully people can agree on generalized warnings (e.g. contains sexual violence) and leave it at that. It would be good if the editors did that task. Having the writer do this could corrupt the creative process.

    3) This could easily end up being made both a legal requirement (legislators must legislate to look like they are doing something) and a basis for lawsuits, unless it is resisted. It must be made clear that any warning is a courtesy.

    I fully sympathize with people who have trigger events. It would be good to give these people some kind of content message. These people must learn to avoid things which put them at risk as best they can, it must ultimately be their responsibility. Unfortunately, they will be exposed to random triggers no matter how good the warnings. Just look at the TV news, for example. If violence is a trigger, don’t read murder mysteries or spy novels.

    I personally don’t like things to go this direction (warnings). Life is neither comfortable nor fair. I don’t mean to say “tough titties” to those with trigger issues but I can’t think of a good way to address this without it becoming a huge sticky mess.

  31. A part of me squirms at the thought of trigger warnings, though I understand the discussion and the reasons for it. My thoughts ultimately boil down to, if it’s a voluntary thing on the part of the author, or a note in a class syllabus then I can’t see a reason to oppose it. However, if it becomes a mandatory inclusion in publications, I have a few problems with it.

    First of all, who decides what imagery ought to be included as trigger-worthy, and to what degree? I’m against an organization or committee deciding what is and what isn’t controversial.

    I’m also concerned that readers who aren’t affected by triggers will focus on the scenes the warnings highlight and miss the message behind them–in literary fiction especially. I know that there are plenty of readers who are smart enough to take warnings in stride, but I’ve spent enough time browsing Goodreads reviews to know this isn’t always the case.

    Finally, and I guess most importantly to me, I worry that books containing many or a certain sort of trigger warning may be stigmatized such that they’re phased out of bookstores or classrooms, or even just passed over by the average reader. To give my own anecdote, I probably wouldn’t have read “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” if I’d known what was in it–but I’m glad that I did. It’s a very well written book which I enjoyed in the end despite how uncomfortable certain parts made me. On this point I agree that “content note” is probably the better language to use than “trigger warning”.

  32. Well, as a practical example of why a writer might choose to preface a piece with a trigger warning, I’d suggest John Scalzi’s ‘Fan Letter to certain conservative politicians’ thanking them for making life so much more fun for rapists.

    It’s an immensely powerful piece of writing about something which affects the lives of many millions of people, and it could have done immense damage to those people without the trigger warning at the top of the page.

    http://whatever.scalzi.com/2012/10/25/a-fan-letter-to-certain-conservative-politicians/

    Looking back I see that you posted on his essay six times, and you certainly didn’t seem to have a problem with the trigger warning bit because you deployed your talents taking down the idiots who thought the whole thing was so unfair cause their feelings were hurt when Scalzi satirically suggested that rapists had been enabled to destroy yet more of their victims lives thanks to the politicians.

    There was a lot of snark on that thread which led to late counting; please accept your overdue crown as TopSnark. In the meantime I do hope that you will continue to grind these people into the dirt with your trademark combo; joie de vivre, and killer instinct.

  33. Scalzi”s warning also serves to tell the reader that it is satire, which is often a risky proposition.

  34. David Hajicek: quite so. It is remarkable just how many people would fail to recognise satire even if it bit them on the ankle; going back to the comments again makes this only too clear.

  35. The larger implication of this is that these “trigger warnings” are part of the extended coddling taking place in this country, making its citizenry into a bunch of babies.

    People should stop being babies. Having had a traumatic experience or being easily offended by something does not mean one gets to avoid things that will trigger memories of traumatic experience or that will offend.

    If you’re easily offended: go fuck yourself. Grow some skin. Life can be offensive.

    If you’ve had a traumatic experience — guess what, there are plenty of ways to heal (therapy, medication, getting-over-one’s-self). But god forbid these babies seek true remedies. It’s much better to demand everyone else handles them with kiddy gloves.

    Here’s the thing: sometimes having a book or movie or painting or picture make you uncomfortable or offend you or, yes, make you want to go curl up and cry can be GOOD for you. It can lead to discussion. It could even lead to INSIGHT. Maybe even HEALING. Life is hard and great (even just good) art/entertainment deals with hard things. Off the top of my head, I can tell you BLINDNESS was traumatizing for me to read — and I’m not blind, never been locked up or raped (but I have a real fear of ever being helpless like many of the characters in that book). The book even gave me nightmares. I kept reading it because it also was teaching me things about myself, about the world — and in the end, the trauma paid off with a conclusion that moved me and made the whole experience worth it. Had the book had a trigger warning, I don’t think it would have moved me. Or it might have deterred me from reading it (“warning: may give nightmares to people scared of finding themselves helpless) — and then what a wonderful, complex experience I would have missed.

    So, to everyone who wants to continue babying people with things like trigger warnings, do those you love a favor and let them get hurt a little. Maybe they’ll also heal. And grow.

    On a larger scale: As long as we keep overprotecting everyone, there’s no chance people will have the guts or capacity to enact real change. Any time a populace becomes so whimp-y that they need warning labels to “protect” them, rest assured the powers-that-be are breathing easy as they gut our rights and steal from our pockets. They know those they oppress have become unable to handle discomfort — and demanding change (and creating change) is uncomfortable. So: status-quo secured.

    As for kids: I can’t think of any book I read in grade school that wasn’t already pretty tame or bowdlerized. (And I’ve seen worse shit on NBC at 9pm than you find in “Titus Andronicus”.) And, really, why isn’t the TEACHER being responsible for giving a warning if he/she thinks there’s something potentially upsetting coming? Why is it the publisher’s or author’s or – god forbid! – some legislator’s job? Must we even handle our “educators” like they’re children?

    Baby, baby; coddle, coddle.

  36. I personally would be afraid that some books that I may enjoy could end up with TW’s that make it sound significantly worse than it actually is and potentially keep me from reading a book I would have liked, because the author/editor is afraid of potential reprecussions if they under -state what is in their book.

  37. I asked my Sister in Law (a history professor) how she handles this. She says something like, “This book contains information some people might find offensive.” And leaves it at that. If a student decides to not study, that is their problem, not hers. Maybe people should just assume all books and forms of entertainment might contain offensive material. That would simplify life a great deal.

  38. “However, the problem with TWs and CNs is knowing what to put in them.”

    Consider – the moment TWs start becoming enforced in anyway, the right-wing will point out (correctly) that many people have been traumatized by their experiences living in Communist nations. They will therefore argue, using exactly the same logic and with just as much credibility, that any attempt to justify communism be considered triggering – and then extend this to anything THEY consider “socialist”, using it as a stick to beat at anyone to their left.

    “The “safe space” model mainly comes from support groups, blogs, forums and similar venues for survivors of sexual assault (primarily, initially) and other traumatic events (secondarily, later). It designates a social space where, if you’re one of the people it’s dedicated to, you will find an emotionally supportive environment where your concerns are centered and things that threaten your well-being will be removed. This appears to be an extremely powerful tool for recovery from trauma, especially in early stages of recovery.

    They’re a hothouse environment and that’s what they’re meant to be. They exist so people can heal and get back the strength to engage with the world.”

    Or, as seen in certain blogs, an environment to wallow in victimhood and preemptively shut down and ban anyone who disagrees with an increasingly rigid group think dominated by a single personality.

  39. The problem with trigger warnings in any school setting, from elementary to university is twofold:

    1) There is the practical problem. There is a constant effort in schools to ban books, and (at the College and University level) to drive out teachers who offend powerful forces (normally those who offend the right wing). As soon as you put trigger warnings on text books or whatever, you put a new weapon in the hands of would-be censors. As in “how dare you teach this book or film that will traumatize already traumatized victims? ”

    2) There is a broader problem of principle. Trigger warnings are intended for safe spaces. An education is supposed to expose students to uncomfortable ideas, and yes descriptions of uncomfortable things. If students are shielded from vivid images and unflinching description, you end up with people like Richard Cohen who only understood that slavery was not a benign institution after he saw “12 years a slave”: hhttp://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/richard-cohen-12-years-a-slave-and-arts-commentary-on-the-past/2013/11/04/f0e57a92-4588-11e3-b6f8-3782ff6cb769_story.html .

    On another point:

    “Or, as seen in certain blogs, an environment to wallow in victimhood and preemptively shut down and ban anyone who disagrees with an increasingly rigid group think dominated by a single personality.”

    Actually there can be good reasons besides protecting victimhood to limit discussion to certain points of view. For example, if you are running a blog for evolutionary biologists to discuss the implications of the latest discoveries in evolutionary biology, you may not want to waste people’s times taking on creationists who show up. If you are doing advanced work in something, that is not the place to constantly debate settled first principles. (And yes there is a risk in never debating settled first principles. They could be wrong. But a place devoted to teasing out the implications of stuff many steps past those first principles may not be the right forum for debating those first principles.)

    Similarly, if you are running a blog devoted to discussion and debate among socialists, then maybe the intervention of an anti-socialists is not welcome. After all, it is not as though criticism of socialism is not widely available outside that forum. It may make sense to have one place you deal with disagreements among people who agree on the support for socialism , opposition to capitalism without constantly having to derail the conversation back to first principles and argue with pro-capitalists. There are plenty of socialist forums that welcome debate with anti-socialists, and popular sites dealing with biology that welcome creationists as entertaining chew toys. But not every socialist forum has to take that approach, nor does every biology site.

  40. By coincidence, a Facebook friend posted this piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education on why excessive use of trigger warning might prove harmful to those suffering from PTSD http://chronicle.com/blogs/conversation/2014/05/23/treatment-not-trigger-warnings/

  41. Good letter.

  42. skzb

    Very persuasive letter; thanks for the link.

  43. Relating to ChaosPrime’s trigger warning/safe space comment–safe spaces appear to be the only place that trigger warnings can work, because they’re the only sort of places where you’d know what would trigger reactions in whom.

    Having trigger warnings in the general environment doesn’t make them trigger warnings at all–they’re more like ratings. We don’t generally have them for books, but we do for almost every other media, including other written media like fan fiction (where ratings are author-included, like trigger warnings seem to be). I see absolutely nothing wrong with rating systems, and nothing wrong with self-censoring yourself from things that make you upset or scared, let alone trigger PTSD episodes.

    If the issue is trigger warnings/ratings being put on school books, I don’t see a problem with this. At least two books my year was made to read in high school included rape in them, and one was written in the first person, which would be (even more) horrifying to read if you’d been through a similar experience.

  44. The problem with ratings on books is that they will be used to keep them out of schools. Music and videos are already excluded from schools based on ratings. A lot of web censorware designed to protect kids from non-kid friendly stuff ends up excluding feminists sites and sites designed to teach kids how to protect themselves from abusers. So I’m not thrilled with ratings being expanded to books. To tell you the truth I’m not all that happy about ratings on games and music. And there are tons of double standards going on in movie ratings for that matter. The “voluntary” movie rating system, and comic book rating system that followed its example played a huge role in slanting both media away from strong woman characters.

    Pre-ratings neither was exactly a center of feminist role models. But the number of strong woman characters and the general presence of women as more than accessories to men was reduced, not increased, by the rating systems. I’ll bet you any amount of money that you could find more movies that passed the Bechdel test pre-code than in “say” the 50s. So no, I don’t think our modern rating systems that will prevent children from seeing a nipple or a penis, but allow them to see blood spattering out of a neck after a head is severed is a great argument for extending ratings systems.

  45. “It would be much more useful for faculty members and students to be trained how to respond if they are concerned that a student or peer has suffered trauma. Giving members of the college community the tools to guide them to the help they need would be more valuable than trying to insulate them from triggers. Students with unusually intense responses to academic cues should be referred to student-health services, where they can be evaluated and receive evidence-based treatments so that they can participate fully in the life of the university.”

    I like this part of that Chronicle letter very much. Things we can do. But they do cost money.

  46. I dunno if anyone is still reading this thread, but here’s a piece from an educator explaining why and how he does use content warnings:

    http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2014/05/29/essay-why-professor-adding-trigger-warning-his-syllabus#sthash.dAmtBceY.dpbs

  47. I found interesting this: http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2014/05/empathetically-correct-is-the-new-politically-correct/371442/ and I think have not seen it linked here, so I would like to point it out

  48. Here’s a question: In what way is a world with trigger warnings demonstrably better than one without?

    Is there any real evidence that the proliferation of trigger warnings has done anything to improve people’s mental health?

    I struggle to see what this trend is in reaction to. Were there scores of Iraq War veterans flipping out based on something they read in a novel? I didn’t hear about it.

  49. Only read through maybe the first fifteen comments, so I hope this is isn’t derailing the current conversation. And I’m also going to break a 4 the St. rule here, but I’m not apologizing for that one. :p

    In -my- book, (yeah, it’s still a draft and I don’t know how a publisher would react, but I haven’t gotten that far yet) I added in two pages. One at the beginning clearly says, “This story contains material that may be triggering to readers. If you wish to know more, go to page x at the back of the book.”

    At the end it explains the triggers, with as few spoilers as possible but without at all compromising the need to be clear about the potentially triggering scenes. It concludes with, “This page is made available for the benefit of those with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and in the hope for a more compassionate society in terms of being considerate to mental health.”

    What are the holes in this solution?

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