Trigger Warnings

We were talking about this over on Facebook, but I wanted to talk some about it here, too. I like trigger warnings. I loathe the demand for trigger warnings.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with saying, “Brace yourselves!” in any situation in which you can reasonably guess someone might like to know he or she should brace themselves. We don’t pick on people for needing handrails to climb steps or make fun of places that put out signs warning you when the floor is wet.

I just can’t and will never see anything wrong with giving people a head’s up about what the content of something is. I mean, no one laughs at people who look at a movie poster and say “Ugh, yuck, I can’t handle horror.” We see that it’s good to know what kind of movie it is so that they can avoid it, so why is it so funny and annoying if professors put content notes on their syllabi? I don’t and will never get it. It seems like a nice courtesy.

But I’ve been around on the internet a long time and I’ve seen the ugly fights that feminists have among themselves. I’ve seen the same old provocateurs reappear over and over. My friend lost her job to an internet shit-storm that could not be stopped, even after the original shitter realized he had shit in the wrong direction. I have seen the ways that people work themselves up into a righteous belief that the asshole thing they’re doing is justified, is deserved.

And that aspect of trigger warnings pisses me off.

Every internet shit storm I have ever seen stir up goes like this: Someone does something or says something. Someone else says, “How dare you? That was so stupid because…” (At this point, though it’s a fight, everything’s fine. But the atmospheric conditions are ripe.) Then someone (maybe the someone else, maybe one of the someone else’s backers) says, “You should have known that was stupid.” And then a group comes to think that, since you knew it was stupid and you did it anyway, you were the aggressor and, as the aggressor, you must be dealt with. (Even now there’s still the potential for it to be okay.) Then the crowd becomes convinced that you should have known they would find it offensive. And then the shit-storm is on.

The fuel of the shit-storm is when the crowd becomes outraged that you did not anticipate its reaction.

Once that dynamic is in play, the monster is loose. You are in trouble because you couldn’t guess ahead of time what some strangers wanted from you. And you will continue to be in trouble because there’s no way to guess what they want from you, what would appease them.

Like I said on Facebook, this is the thought-process of an abuser, the idea that everyone around you should be anticipating your needs and meeting them. And, in that regard, it’s the thought-process of an abused person to believe that you are to blame for the shit-storm in some way because you didn’t.

And I have seen trigger warnings used as a measure of whether the content creator (what a terrible term) has properly anticipated the needs of strangers. I have seen the absence of trigger warnings or a missed trigger warning used as a reason to bring down the shit-storm (like, if a story says, “Trigger warning: rape, incest, child abuse” someone angry because it doesn’t also say “child rape” as if you couldn’t have discerned that from the other trigger warnings).

I will never be okay with this use of trigger warnings. I don’t think anyone is obliged to provide them. I don’t think it’s wrong not to provide them.

I think a lot of people in our culture feel best (safest, most secure) when they are in control of others. I think they go to great lengths to put themselves (or to try to) in control of others because it’s soothing to them–either being in control or punishing others for not letting themselves be controlled.

I find that dynamic really troubling. I don’t think trigger warnings are to blame for it, of course, but I think the rise of the internet shit-storm is a result of it, for sure.