I didn’t really expect my first post to be on something like this, but there is a rousing (and by rousing I mean kind of depressing as fuck) discussion of ‘trigger warnings’ over at Balloon Juice, and I think it’s worth noting what is really happening there.
First, a note on Balloon Juice: it’s a blog I’ve been visiting since about 2004, back when it was one of the few more-or-less rational conservative blogs on the Internet. I visited it then because I wanted to know what was going on with the people who were desperately clinging to the Republican party, despite clearly being nowhere near conservative enough to fit into it after its full-out sprint to the right. And over the following few years, I found out: they were mostly giving up and moving to the Democratic party. The owner of Balloon Juice did, and a surprising number of the commenters followed. I now read it to keep my eye on what the ex-Republican set thinks.
There’s one rule of Balloon Juice if you’re a ‘far-left’ liberal: you don’t read the comments. The commentariat may be mostly Democrats now, but many of them are deeply distrustful of anything left of center, and unwilling to acknowledge the idea that this makes them, well, centrists. Their response is often outright mockery. And thus, when I read that they were talking about trigger warnings, I really really really should have known to run the other direction.
For those of you who aren’t up to speed here, a trigger warning is any warning placed at the beginning of a piece of writing, or before a problematic part of a piece of writing, warning that the stuff coming up could cause severe discomfort in some readers. It was originally coined because some people, when they read about rape, suffer what amounts to flashbacks to their own experiences with rape. From there, it has spread, somewhat, to other traumatic experiences. Although frankly, not much: trigger warnings are still relatively rare, and mostly only used in cases where, you know, people might actually be traumatized by content. One blog might say, “The following contains a frank discussion of rape; some people might find it uncomfortable” Another might say, “This article contains a description of my beating at the hands of my stepfather. If that kind of thing is liable to upset you, be careful.” Of course, if the article starts out with a paragraph that makes it obvious what’s coming up, then you don’t need an extraneous warning. But if it starts with a paragraph of vivid description of violence or other tragedy, a warning doesn’t seem like it would be entirely out of line.
It’s important to note, by the way, that the words ‘trigger warning’ are not required by the Secret Feminist Cabal Conspiracy to actually appear. It is a term of art, a description of a thing, not a regulatory requirement.
Now, there’s an argument, typified by that Balloon Juice post and the ensuing comment thread but really going on all over the internet, that says the following:
- We cannot possibly put warnings up for every single possible thing that might cause trauma in our readers, because that’s an infinitely long list.
- Even if we could, some people would complain that we had traumatized them with things that self-evidently cannot possibly be actually traumatic, because we cannot imagine how they could be, and because people like to pretend to be traumatized because they are bad people.
- And anyway most people who include trigger warnings aren’t really doing it to prevent trauma in their readers, they are doing it as an in-group identifier to show that they’re super-sensitive people/as a brag that they’re such a good writer that their writing can cause trauma/as a way to draw attention to themselves and how important their writing is.
- And that therefore trigger warnings are bad and people who use or ask for them are bad people.
What’s funny about this argument is that it’s all more or less happening on the Left. The Right doesn’t care, they just point and laugh. It’s just the Left who feels the need to justify their hostility towards the idea of trigger warnings. (I here use the term ‘Left’ to mean ‘Center Right and Leftward’, so at least in this context Obama is part of the Left. That’s going to be a rarity on my blog, so treasure it.)
And, that said, there are completely obvious answers to all of the arguments above. Starting with: if you don’t have a trauma that you have to worry about when reading, skipping over trigger warnings should not be a difficult thing for you. If it is, then there’s something wrong with you. Sorry, but yes, it really is as simple as that.
As for the points, such as they are:
- You’re right. We can’t post warnings for every single possible thing that might cause trauma in our readers. We wouldn’t want to if we could. So what we do is, if we are writing something that we think might cause someone some trouble, we put a trigger warning on it. And then if someone complains that something we wrote was triggering that we didn’t think would be, we apologize and then move on. We don’t tell them they couldn’t have been triggered, even if that’s what we think. Seriously, are we so afraid of losing face that we are incapable of apologizing to someone? What harm does it do to show a little respect? I’m not even suggesting that we have to mean it, as long as we sound like we do. Hell, if we don’t think that person was ‘right’ (whatever the fuck that means) about it being potentially upsetting material to anyone besides that person, we don’t even have to put a warning on it next time we write something like that, unless that person is liable to be around a lot. But why the utter phobia about giving someone more respect than some invisible intangible nonexistent judge might decide that they deserve?
- I will posit that there might be someone out there who will go around complaining about trigger warnings (or the lack thereof) as a way to get attention. (Well, okay, I know there are lots of people like that, but all the ones I’ve seen so far are the ones who are doing it because they hate trigger warnings. The current hot joke is ‘I was traumatized by your lack of a trigger warning about the fact that this post talks about trigger warnings’. So funny. So edgy.) So I will say, again: who the fuck cares? If someone says your mention of linguini is traumatic to them, say, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to traumatize you. You might not want to stick around my blog/read my articles/read my comments/play in my sandbox, because I talk about linguini a lot.’ Where is the problem? Are you afraid you’re going to get sued? Are you afraid that this person is going to post, ‘Ha ha ha I said I was triggered by linguini and he believed me!’ and suddenly all your friends will laugh at you and you will realize you aren’t wearing pants and you’re in your 10th-grade math class again? I mean, seriously. (Also, does anyone else think it’s ironic that people are writing things on the internet, an activity that can be interpreted in no other way than as a play for attention, expressly complaining about the fact that other people might make different plays for attention? Goodness me, we can’t have that.)
- And here we come to the crux of the matter, though clearly not intentionally. Because the only reason to assume, in the absence of any evidence, that people who use trigger warnings really aren’t doing so honestly is because you cannot conceive of anyone doing so honestly. And in turn this is because you cannot conceive that anyone might actually be more sensitive to the feelings of other people than you are. Clearly you are the most sensitive that it is reasonable for people to be, and anyone who is claiming more sensitivity than you must either be ‘crazy’ or insincere. Because if you believe that people who act more sensitive to other people’s feelings are neither, then the only possible conclusion is that there are people out there who really are better people, or at least more sensitive people, than you are. And almost nobody in the liberal half of the spectrum can stand to imagine that for even a second. Most particularly not centrists.
Personally, I know there are people out there who are more sensitive than I am, and yes it bothers me, and I’m trying to be a better person. But it’s so hard, when there are so many people out there who so richly deserve to be ridiculed.
I’ll have more to say about some of this stuff soon… specifically about the tendency for the center-left to aim all their weapons to their left. It’s amazing how reliable it is, and it’s hard to understand American politics without understanding it, yet I rarely see anyone talking about it.