So this week in the feminist blogosphere there’s been a lot of discussion about the practice of using trigger warnings. Some bloggers, particularly in the feminist blogosphere, who write a post on something that might trigger symptoms for those with PTSD (such as graphic descriptions of violence or sexual assault) label said posts with a trigger warning so that their readers can make an informed decision about whether to continue reading the post, pass it by completely, or save it for another day. Amanda Hess @ The Sexist has a good round-up of links from around the blogosphere on the subject, as well as her own reflections on the usefulness of trigger warning tags.
Melissa McEwan @ Shakesville makes an eloquent case for trigger warnings and explains why she uses them on her own blog posts.
A trigger is something that evokes survived trauma or ongoing disorder. For example, a person who was raped may be “triggered,” i.e. reminded of hir rape, by a graphic description of sexual assault, and that reminder may, especially if the survivor has post-traumatic stress disorder, be accompanied by anxiety, manifesting as anything ranging from mild agitation to self-mutilation to a serious panic attack.
Those of us who write about triggering topics (sexual assault, violence, detainee torture, war crimes, disordered eating, suicide, etc.) provide trigger warnings with such content because we don’t want to inadvertently cause someone who’s, say, sitting at her desk at work, a full-blown panic attack because she happened to read a triggering post the content of which she was unprepared for.
Matched only by her follow up, On Triggers, Continued.
[Susannah] Breslin [blogging at True/Slant] accuses feminist writers of “handing out trigger warnings like party favors at a girl’s-only slumber party,” which is certainly designed primarily to insult writers like me, but doesn’t say much for what she thinks of feminist readers, either. I don’t view my readers as children at a party. I respect them as adults, with autonomy, agency, and the ability to consent—their own best decision-makers, their own best advocates, and their own best protectors.
Not that trigger warnings are universally employed by feminist bloggers. Amanda Hess (above) and the group blog Jezebel both thoughtfully articulate their reasons for not using such tags on their posts. However, it seems odd that someone would so virulently object to their application. As Hanna said when I described the practice to her, “so it’s like spoiler alerts for the real world!”* which I have to say I think is an awesome description. That’s exactly what they are. And I think they can be a really useful tool.
Apparently blogger Susannah Breslin, writing for the online news magazine True/Slant, doesn’t think so. She thinks trigger warnings are a symbol of everything that is wrong and wussy about modern feminism.
Just to be clear here, we aren’t talking “trigger” as in “you might be annoyed by the sentiments expressed in this post.” At that rate, everything would be slapped with a flashing warning light. No, we’re talking “trigger” as in involuntary physical reactions like panic attacks and flashbacks. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder territory. As commenter Li writes over at Feministe
I really like the part where she [Susannah Breslin] suggests that her previous post “triggered” feminists into being offended, cos I personally know that when I am offended it is exactly the same as when I am triggered and go into major motor function failure.
I was in a severe car accident over ten years ago, and to this day I find certain sounds and settings (such as emergency rooms, ambulance sirens, panic in peoples’ voices) slightly triggering. I’ve never actually suffered hard-core flashbacks or other incapacitating physical symptoms, but I’ve had enough experience navigating those waters to imagine how much it would suck to walk through the world wary that something you read was going to cause “major motor function failure.”
I find it incredibly dispiriting — not to mention bewildering! — that anyone would choose that sort of personal pain (and the corresponding courtesy that some of us are attempting to show, by equipping visitors to our blogs with the tools to navigate this space) as the avenue through which to attack feminist bloggers. Isn’t being courteous to well-meaning visitors to our blogs basic politeness? I make the effort to label my photographs, for example, and clearly identify my links so that my blog posts are more reader-friendly to those who use accessibility software. I try to provide transcripts when available to video and audio content. I consider “trigger warning” tags for stories with especially graphic content (such as Amanda Hess’s excellent, detailed account of a sexual assault victim’s quest for medical care) to be similarly courteous, and do my best to indicate when links contain graphic content.
If that’s what it means to be a feminist — even if that’s all it meant (as Ms. Breslin alleges) — I’m proud to consider myself a feminist. Because hopefully by extending courtesy and care to other human beings who visit my space, I’m helping to make the world a little bit better for all of us.
*Used to alert readers of your blog when you’re going to talk about plot details of a movie, television show, etc., that they may or may not have seen. That way, if readers care about not having the plot “spoiled” by knowing the ending, they can avoid reading the rest of the post until they’ve actually seen the show in question.