On up-front warnings in certain kinds of posts

I’ve been contemplating the issue of trigger warnings.

I place them on posts containing certain graphic descriptions of violence, particularly violence against marginalised groups (including children), and particularly sexualised violence. I also sometimes place anti-warnings, on posts headlined ‘rape’ in some way, explaining that the content doesn’t contain detailed physical descriptions.

For me, the way I write, the people I write for, I see this as a straightforward courtesy. I’m not assuming they’re broken, I’m not assuming they can’t ‘handle’ it, I’m not accusing them of being delicate swooning petals; I’m offering the opportunity, should they wish it, to take a moment and choose to read now, read later, prepare themselves, or not read at all.

This applies to readers who consider themselves victims/survivors of violence, readers who don’t, and readers who lie somewhere in between.

But elsewhere, distilling quite a few conversations together, I read shit like this:

‘if graphic descriptions of violence are scary for you, switch off the internet right now and get some therapy’.

So, random internet psychiatrist:

What’s your diagnosis?

What kind of therapy do you prescribe?

How do you suggest your cyberpatients access this therapy?

What would be the goal of the therapy?

Because I tell you this: any therapy aimed at producing a me that no longer feels ill at graphic descriptions of horrendous violence against women, horrifying torture of Aboriginal people in custody, heinous murders of trans people, brutal bashings of people with disabilities, or nightmarish rapes of children, is not any therapy I’d like to have.

Because feeling disgusted, creeped out, sad, scared, or nauseous at these things doesn’t mean I’m ill. It doesn’t mean I’m broken. It means I’m normal. It means I’m paying attention. And it doesn’t need fixing.

I’d just occasionally like a moment to prep if it’s a story I could be bursting into tears over, or one that might be haunting my dreams tonight, and I know others do too. I don’t throw my weight around when other blogs don’t provide such warnings; but I choose to provide them here.

That’s all.



Categories: gender & feminism, violence

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28 replies

  1. I greatly appreciate the heads up. It is not uncommon for me to see “TRIGGER WARNING” on blogs and star the post to read later. And funny, I’ve never considered being moved or disturbed by accounts of pain, abuse or dehumanization of others to be a deficiency in my personality or an indicator that my psyche is damaged.
    What a weird take on things. Is this from an MRA or rape apologist-themed blog or something?
    Jill–Unnecesarean’s last blog post..AMA Resolution 710 to Identify Non-Compliant Patients Not Adopted

  2. Oh, and it’s considered good netiquette on message boards with a pregnancy/birth/parenting focus to note “infant death mentioned” before starting to talk about infant mortality. It’s not a “don’t worry your pretty head, sweetheart” thing. It’s just acknowledges that when someone is eight months pregnant and checking messages, they might like a heads-up before reading about poor birth outcomes.
    I had never even thought to pathologize that kind of sensitivity for fellow board members or blog readers.
    Jill–Unnecesarean’s last blog post..AMA Resolution 710 to Identify Non-Compliant Patients Not Adopted

  3. It’s a special kind of victim-blaming — if you’ve undergone experiences that make some material distressing, you just need to go back to bed and stop engaging with the world! It betrays a lack of empathy, not to mention a desire to keep controlling survivors and discussion.

  4. any therapy aimed at producing a me that no longer feels ill at graphic descriptions of horrendous violence against women, horrifying torture of Aboriginal people in custody, heinous murders of trans people, brutal bashings of people with disabilities, or nightmarish rapes of children, is not any therapy I’d like to have
    This is what we refer to as “the wisdom of repugnance” in philosophy…one of my favorite phrases.

  5. What a weird take on things. Is this from an MRA or rape apologist-themed blog or something?

    A particular comment thread today has spurred me to get the swirling idea down, but it’s been in various places over a period of time, and I don’t want this thread to concentrate particularly on what went on today, so I’m not linking here. (Regulars who really want to know can grab me on twitter or elsewhere.)

  6. Even if the only people who did need trigger warnings were people with mental health issues, like PTDS, the ‘just get therapy!’ thing wouldn’t make sense.
    Therapy is not a magic wand that makes you instantly happy and healthy. And getting access to eat is not easy or fast, and often not cheap. And ARRGH.

  7. ‘it’ not ‘eat’ – I seem to have been thinking ahead in that sentence and combined easy and fast.
    Kirstente’s last blog post..Quote of the day.

  8. I wrote up a whole huge rant in reponse, and then re-read your post to see if there were other things i wanted to say. And in so doing, i recognized that my rant basically boiled down to saying, “i agree with this post.”
    I’m inclined to think the following: ‘if graphic descriptions of violence are NOT scary for you, switch off the internet right now and get some therapy’.

  9. Therapy is not a magic wand that makes you instantly happy and healthy
    exactly.

  10. Yeah, I’m not seeing the problem with trigger warnings. Obviously, people are triggered by lots of things, some of which seem benign and can’t be warned for, but it seems like common good manners to recognise that that reports of violent imagery, esp. sexual violence and violence against marginalised groups is more likely to be triggering for a greater number of people than are pictures of kittens and otters.

  11. The “if you can’t handle it then just fuck off” mentality is a norm on a lot of malecentric sites including gaming sites and youtube and non-feminist friendly message boards (which is pretty much all message boards). I’ve been scorned and flamed for including trigger warnings on my posts at the music forum I belong to. I’ve even seen that kind of sentiment expressed on uni discussion boards, but I’ve never seen it occur on feminist or other progressive sites, so it’s sad, no, alarming if that’s starting to happen now.

  12. I still remember how sick and frightened I was when I read a post here about abuse of PWD in long-term care facilities. I sometimes still have nightmares about it, because I’m so afraid of what might happen if I died. I’m all too aware of how little it would take for Don to end up in an institution full-time.
    If that means I should leave the internet, then fuck it – I need Don far more than I need the internet.
    (And then I’ll get a cell phone and keep up with Twitter. That’s not the internet, right?)
    (See this XKCD)
    Sincerely, though, I don’t see what other people have invested in this. “I think trigger warnings are stupid!” “I think blue jeans and black socks are stupid. What is the point?”

  13. Because feeling disgusted, creeped out, sad, scared, or nauseous at these things doesn’t mean I’m ill. It doesn’t mean I’m broken. It means I’m normal. It means I’m paying attention. And it doesn’t need fixing.

    This.
    Excellent post. The metadiscussion on safe space and triggers at the moment is highly varied around the blogosphere, and I’m frankly appalled at some of the meaner-spirited posts and comments. I do appreciate other bloggers who’ve said why they personally don’t choose to include trigger warnings in their own posts while still acknowledging that safe space ideas such as trigger warnings still have their place on other blogs catering to different commenting communities.
    It’s OK for blogs to be diverse. It should certainly be OK for other bloggers to choose to arrange their commenting policies differently than we do here, and as far as I’m concerned it is. But why do so many people go into derogatory mocking mode when someone else organises their online space differently than they do?

  14. Wow, that’s like someone walking into your house and telling you that you chose the wrong colour couch or something. Don’t like it, don’t come here.
    Personally, I think it’s common courtesy to let people know that the post contains things that they might like to read later for whatever reason, or chose not to read at all.
    I wonder if these people who mock also mock ratings on TV shows and movies and messages to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities that certain shows may have images or voices of people who have died.

  15. I have many swirly, grumpy thoughts about this, so this is probably not going to be the most coherent comment ever, but I find this excessively politically problematic. That is, I get that people are saying that ‘it’s just polite to provide them’, but I actually think it’s about something more than politeness. And I’m going to apologise in advance for the theory end of this…
    One of the biggest problems for feminism in the contemporary world is that (white, able-bodied, heterosexual etc) men, and men’s lives have been taken as the standard, and that’s shaped almost everything. We live in the wake of that history, and in the wake of a politics which has made great strides for various minority groups by arguing that these minority groups are ‘just like’ white, able-bodied, heterosexual etc men in some particular way. Women in the West got the vote by arguing that they were just as rational as men (well, amongst other arguments). But this history has entrenched the idea that equality is premised on sameness. And unfortunately, that approach has shaped a lot of progressive politics: the claim to being equal has all too often become the claim to being the same, or emphasising similarities rather than differences between people. This is why, for example, it’s taken some pretty difficult work to achieve even the workplace change that we have, in terms of flexitime, part-time jobs and parental leave. The major problem here is that there’s an assumption that not only is everyone the same, but goddamn it, if they’re not they ought to be. And this equal=same is what makes it possible (if wrong) for conservatives to argue, for example, that parental leave, or affirmative action or whatever, are at odds with the claim to equality. And it’s why the argument for acknowledging differences between people becomes so hard: we’re implicitly committed to an equal=same model (cheers, liberalism! And capitalism! And… yeah, well…)
    Progressives are meant to understand that things are a bit more complicated than that, but it seems that they often aren’t. And so they wind up characterising people’s different vulnerabilities and capacities as lesser and more than this, as the individual’s issue, rather than the result of the way the world is conducted. So with trigger warnings, what we’re trying to do is attend to the differences between people, to acknowledge, in however small a way—and let’s be clear, it’s a pretty fucking minor acknowledgement, as these things go, a line at a top of a post—that people are differently situated and we can, actually, care for them as different rather than requiring them to man up (and it is) and be the same. That’s a fucking huge political stand. When people grump about trigger warnings (and some of the shit I’ve read is pretty fucking offensive), what they’re effectively grumping about is ‘yet another kind of difference I’m being forced to acknowledge and don’t want to.’ It’s a conservative move. That’s why, in some threads, trigger warning discussion has shifted into ‘but I still want to use ‘lame’!!’ It’s the same impulse: ‘I don’t want to acknowledge that people are different to each other, and that I might be both responsible for others being liberated or oppressed, being safe or being hurt, simply because I assume that everyone is the same/my perspective is neutral and right/whatever.’ It individualises the problem, again, and thus depoliticises it. And more than this, it reinforces existing privilege by situating the privileged perspective on the matter as the only/the key one.
    There’s one particular example out there where someone has suggested that trigger warnings are out of keeping with an irreverant tone (I’m not linking out of respect for Lauredhel’s attempt to maintain the focus of the thread). I get the importance of irreverance, I really really do. I love irreverance. But I think it’s really problematic to imply that acknowledging people’s differences destroys any capacity to be irreverant. And if your capacity to be irreverant makes others vulnerable and even hurt, then don’t you think it’s a sign that your irreverance is politically questionable: that you’re earning your irreverance off the back of others’ vulnerabilities and oppressions. (Quite aside from the fact that I think other, safer, trigger-warning-giving spaces manage actual irreverance far better than this non-trigger-warning-giving space does. /snark).

  16. Also, grr on the pathologisation front. It’s freaking everywhere!

  17. Last week I was watching the national news bulletin with my husband and an item showing photographs of a badly abused child approx 8 years old was broadcast. No warning beforehand. No “we would like to warn viewers that some people may find the following item distressing” or anything like what I have seen in the past – just straight into photographs of a badly bruised and battered little boy. I am a social worker/counsellor. I have worked in the foster care system. I have seen this sort of thing first hand. And I still find it upsetting. I am sure I am not the only one who felt sick to the stomach about that news item. Some would say well that is the idea, to show the pictures and raise awareness. I think the people who really need their awareness of such matters raised are the ones who wouldn’t bat an eyelid at such images.
    Anyway, trigger warnings are good.
    scarlett-heartt.livejournal.com/’s last blog post..book mooch

  18. Wordy McWord to your last paragraph especially, WP!
    I think trigger warnings are a courtesy. And I think courtesy and irreverence are a false binary often put forward in Western society (witness how mainstream Christian churches – as a major locus for the expression of reverence – tend to be Very Serious Places).

  19. Trigger warnings are just plain good manners.
    Have to raise one exception, though: many moons back on Livejournal I saw someone request a trigger warning because a post contained the word “rape”. Not that it discussed rape, or used rape as a really shitty metaphor – just that the word “rape” was triggering. Which raised a big question for me: how the hell do you give a trigger warning for the use of a word without making it clear what the triggering word is?

  20. ooops, accidentally submitted that last comment half way through, which probably made it appear inappropriately callous. What I was going on to say was that, though some other peoples tolerances at which they think trigger warnings are required are lower than mine, I still regard them as simply good manners. Not everyone agrees at precisely which point a post because NSFW or tl;dr or just too damn picky or specific to be of general interest. I don’t demand them myself, but I think trigger warnings are just an example of good manners, and a far better idea than occasionally throwing difficult material at your audience without warning, and entirely appropriate to a blog with a general audience.
    Of course, there are some fora in which a trigger warning might be out of place. But the forum owner, in this case you, gets to make that call. The idea that there is something wrong with you because choose to be more polite about this sort of thing betrays some very bizarre thinking.
    Especially because, clearly, a trigger warning wouldn’t be necessary if the poster was not prepared to discuss the issue, so it doesn’t in the least represent by ‘scared’ by the issue, just acknowledging its emotional weight. To be scared of the issue would be to not discuss it at all.

  21. Nope, the comment I thought I accidentally submitted didn’t show up at all. OK, that makes things confusing. All I said was I no not generally become ill, or nauseous, or offended or disturbed, just angered or saddened. I seldom feel that I need a trigger warning myself. But that doesn’t mean I think they are unnecessary. Just as I personally don’t find NSFW warning particularly important (I work from home), but I appreciate their value to others.

  22. Word to the post.

    And word to Wildly Parenthetical.

    That this is even an issue is baffling for me. Different people have different needs and thus will go to different places which cater to them. Why is this so hard to understand?

  23. I appreciate trigger warnings. They construct the reader as an empathetic individual in a world that otherwise appears to value emotional numbness, idealise cool detachment. Even those warnings *I* don’t need are valued for reminding me that my experiences and characteristics are not centred, the warnings regarding sensitive content to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples spring to mind.

  24. The thing is, there was something useful going on in that discussion — a deeper exploration of what “trigger” *means* in real life to real life people. But it was also laced throughout with dismissive comments, “You can’t really know what a trigger IS because you don’t experience it the way I do” “You just need therapy” “I question the effectiveness of therapy anyway” “Nothing is wrong with you, you just want coddled” “This is too huge a restriction on my free speech!” etc…
    Can’t we discuss these things and how they play out in our communities without having to make it a More Legitimate Than Thou contest, for fuck’s sake?

  25. So much of what I think of as a “safe space” has been developed by my time on LJ. LJ is the place where I no longer have to include in every single post about Don & I that “a wheelchair is not a fucking tragedy”. I still say it, of course, but fuck, I’m tired of having to bring that sentence up to my so-called allies in this progressive thing that we’re doing.
    Creating a safe space is one where people’s discussion of their oppression is believed. I want to be able to say “this language hurts me” without having to then prove it, referring to dictionaries and demonstrating usage over the last five years.
    I feel that, again and again, our histories are erased. We’ve had this conversation before, sometimes with these very people, and yet, here we are again.

  26. I wonder if these people who mock also mock ratings on TV shows and movies and messages to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities that certain shows may have images or voices of people who have died.

    It’s a good question. I wrote a letter to Sky News yesterday, because they (and the other international services who pick them up, like Yahoo! News) publicised the full name of the man killed in the police van between Laverton and Kalgoorlie. Australian media sources have made the reason for name suppression absolutely clear, media guidelines abound on the issue, and the family have expressed their wishes – there wasn’t really any excuse for ignorance.

  27. Because feeling disgusted, creeped out, sad, scared, or nauseous at these things doesn’t mean I’m ill. It doesn’t mean I’m broken. It means I’m normal. It means I’m paying attention. And it doesn’t need fixing.
    Yes, this. I remember seeing a documentary a few years ago about how in the aftermath of World War 2 the US government instituted a national programme of mental health therapy because they were shocked at how many people came back from that war utterly traumatised. The assumption wasn’t that “My God, war must be horrible” but, “My God, how come we’re a nation of basket-cases who can’t even fight a war?” But to be traumatised by war is normal, it’s the ones who are completely unaffected that you want to worry about!
    The other issue I wanted to bring up is that I tend to associate “trigger” with “liable to cause full-blown panic attacks, potentially leaving the victim incapacitated for some time”, which sadly has happened to me a couple of times (though not from reading internet posts). If there’s something that might indeed propel a reader into that state (perhaps by inducing a flashback to a similarly traumatic experience as the one described in the post) then it’s not mere “courtesy” to include a warning, it’s utter negligence and brutality NOT to include it!
    Idiots who say “get therapy” to those people probably don’t realise that therapy is probably ongoing for such folks, in one way or another; and that being able to make informed decisions about whether to face potential triggers is in fact, a part of that.
    I like the idea of warnings “may cause some readers distress” as a distinct thing from trigger warnings. Empathetic readers are a good thing.

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