The careless use of “triggering”

It’s become an obligation in some circles to to give “trigger warnings” when writing about anything vaguely unpleasant. Let’s think about what sort of view of the audience this presents and whether it’s really appropriate in so many situations.

Triggering implies the setting off of some kind of serious reaction, which might be anything from a panic attack to road rage. Traditionally it implies the triggering of a PTSD response. It suggests that some members of the audience are incapable of dealing with the topic. In severe cases, such as portrayals of graphic violence, this can be appropriate. With audiences that are particularly sensitive, such as a mailing list for abuse survivors, it’s reasonable to be generous with warnings. But it’s often overdone, and an overdose of warnings can be insulting to the people they’re supposed to protect.

While it’s never actually stated, women often seem to be considered especially in need of trigger warnings, which suggests that they’re less able to deal with harsh reality than men. It’s part of what I think of as the new Victorianism, the return of the idea that women are fragile and need to be protected by men. This idea sometimes masquerades as feminism even though it’s far from traditional feminist ideas of independence and equal strength of character.

What’s been happening in some colleges has pushed the issue over the edge. Placing trigger warnings on unpleasant things has become an obligation in some places. Before this happened, I generally thought of those warnings in LiveJournal posts and such as just an odd turn of phrase. Lately, though, it’s developed into a serious idea that people need to be regularly warned against learning about the harshness of the world. What can this accomplish, except to make people feel that they really are incapable of dealing with unshielded facts?

An article by Jill Filipovic discusses some of the extreme cases:

Oberlin College recommends that its faculty “remove triggering material when it does not contribute directly to the course learning goals”. When material is simply too important to take out entirely, the college recommends trigger warnings. For example, Oberlin says, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is a great and important book, but: “it may trigger readers who have experienced racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide, and more.”

At Rutgers, a student urged professors to use trigger warnings as a sort of Solomonic baby-splitting between two apparently equally bad choices: banning certain texts or introducing works that may cause psychological distress. Works the student mentioned as particularly triggering include F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Junot Diaz’s This Is How You Lose Her and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. The warnings would be passage-by-passage, and effectively reach “a compromise between protecting students and defending their civil liberties”.

The idea that it’s necessary to compromise people’s civil liberties in order to “protect” them is ominous.

At Columbia, some students complained that they hadn't been given trigger warnings against the nasty things that gods do in Greek mythology.

There are people who have experienced horrible things and are particularly prone to bad reactions. We can’t realistically make open discussion safe for them, though. If nothing else, there are too many different things than can trigger them; the mention of a place or an otherwise innocuous situation can be enough. If there’s a regular participant in a group who’s known to be prone to flashbacks on certain things, it’s appropriate to take that into account, even if it’s just one person; but attempting to avoid all possible triggers doesn’t leave much that’s safe to discuss. I was going to say that discussions would have to be limited to Mother Goose, but “The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe” could be triggering to someone who’d been abused as a child. (I actually have seen it bowdlerized.)

I have phobias of my own. On occasion I’ve fled extended discussions of medical issues because I found them too unpleasant to deal with. This doesn’t mean I expect people to put trigger warnings on the things they discuss in groups where I’m present. If I’m talking with one or two people, I might say, “Could we change the subject?” and find an opportunity to excuse myself if they don’t. If it’s a larger group, I’d just excuse myself quietly.

In some parts of fandom, it’s used where what’s really meant is “This could be unpleasant to some people.” That’s a very different matter from triggering mental episodes, and with the growth of serious claims that the two are the same, using the phrase in a loose way has become a bad idea. Let’s reconsider and use it only when referring to seriously nasty stuff or special circumstances.

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3 Responses to “The careless use of “triggering””

  1. Joe Kesselman Says:

    I agree that the phrase is overused, and that in many cases “advance warning” or simply “warning” would suffice. However, I do believe that when there is something which you know folks may find hard to deal with, providing an advance advisory is courteous, and courtesy while “unnecessary” is rarely inappropriate.

    And I agree that a few folks have excessive offensensitivity. But the key phrase is “a few”. The Columbia story is newsworthy precisely because it is atypical, not because it represents a trend. And the real issue there is not the phrase, nor the material, but whether it would have been appropriate to say something a the start of the class to the effect of “The Greek gods, by today’s standards, had the manners and morals of petulant teenagers. Like nature itself, they could be kind to humans one moment and gratuitously cruel the next, and had a habit of simply taking what they wanted and discarding it casually a moment later, whether that was a city or a person. We’ll be trying to understand why these stories were told and what they said about human life at the time, but don’t expect them to be kind, good, or fair even by the standards of their own times.”

    There’s no question of censorship here. There is a legitimate question of how much caution is appropriate, though I believe that when you know some of your audience may have trouble with the material — especially when its established as a flashback trigger for some — it’s not inaporopriate to ask or warn first. I agree with you that the specific pfrase us overused… but I do not agree that this invalidates the concept it was intended to reoresent, or negate the fact that, in some cases, failing to warn can impair communications and in some specific cases may be irresponsible.

    What you do with that’s up to you, of course. You are under no obligation to issue such warnings yourself. But criticising folks for attempting to be polite is rarely productive, even if you feel it’s unnecessary.

  2. Paul Mangan Says:

    I am fortunate in not being at all *triggery*, but I can understand how a person could be. I do worry that we are seeing a whole generation or more of people become metaphorically thin-skinned. If one lives in the real world, there really are no *safe spaces*, perhaps not even in the privacy of one’s own home. But this does not invalidate what Joe K. said in his comment. Being considerate of others is usually a Good Idea.

    • Gary McGath Says:

      Roy Rogers’ horse was stuffed and put on display in a museum. Should the museum have put up Trigger warning signs for people who might get upset, or would that be beating a dead horse?


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