I’ve recently become part of a small group of academics who are engaging in conversations about the phenomenon of trigger warnings, after we noticed there was a lot of debate about the issue within the blogosphere and wider media, and increasingly within sectors of the academy, but little in the way of published research. None of us were that sure we wanted to take on a huge research or writing task with our other commitments but as this topic was cropping up increasingly as we went about our work (which between us covers areas such as fandom, religion, psychology, gender, literature, sexuality, media, internet cultures and probably other stuff I’ve forgotten), we decided it was probably time we at least had some conversations about it and curated some of the other conversations going on ‘out there’ on the issue. One of the things we are wanting to do is open up discussion with each other – and with anyone else who was interested – about these things within an academic framework, and part of that includes blogging about our ideas, thoughts and findings.
This is the first of (at least) three blog posts I want to write on the topic. Here I’m really just providing some ground work in terms of highlighting other people’s comments on the debate with a couple of links to other discussions. As someone whose research is often concerned with internet technologies and media/fan audiences, naturally I am also intending to blog about internet and fan cultures and the ways trigger warnings are debated in spaces like Tumblr, Reddit, LiveJournal and fan blogs (particularly regarding so-called Social Justice Warriors or SJWs) so that’s another post or two. My third area of interest in this topic is the way TWs are presented primarily as an American phenomenon and how people (both US and non-US citizens) comment on this within wider frameworks of conceptualising ‘Murica’. (This is an area I’ve been interested in since my PhD work where I found a very clear narrative within British media about negative attitudes towards the USA).
For those who don’t know what trigger warnings (or TWs) are, they’re a way of highlighting (sometimes through tags, sometimes labels etc) potentially problematic (or ‘triggering’) content. They work in much the same way as product allergy warnings or those little boxes on the back of DVDs with the certificate rating. There can be trigger warnings for a whole range of things, but mainly we’re talking about things like rape, violence, sexual content, racism, sexism, cissexism, homophobia, suicide, eating disorders and so on. You may well have seen articles in the news or via social media about whether or not to use such warnings in literature, teaching materials and so on – mainly relating to the USA, which I will return to in a future post.
Meg John Barker kicked off the discussion a few days ago with their thoughtful post. They argue here for opening up conversations between people who take different approaches to the phenomenon and argue that neither polarised position about being ‘pro’ or ‘anti’ TW is particularly helpful at engaging with the nuances of hugely complicated and multi-faceted issues such as trauma, freedom of speech and censorship. As Barker puts it, ‘So instead [of debating pros and cons of TWs] it is helpful to ask ourselves what it has the potential to open up, and what it risks closing down. We might helpfully consider this question on multiple levels, i.e. what it opens up and closes down for the individuals concerned, for communities in which they are embedded, for achieving their aims, and for wider culture.’ I think this point is particularly pertinent, which I’ll come back to in a bit.
Barker’s post links to a couple of other blog posts on the topic, Jack Halberstam’s post, entitled You are triggering me! The neo-liberal rhetoric of harm, danger and trauma and Scott Alexander’s ‘The wonderful thing about triggers‘. These are both interesting posts that cover a lot of ground and have resulted in large comment streams, with commenters often adopting the binary positions on the topic Barker cautions against.
Halberstam rightly notes that trauma, offence and ‘social justice’ are complicated issues and one person’s attempts at preventing trauma can be seen by another person as simply censorship. Halberstam also raises a slightly uncomfortable (and importantly uncomfortable) point about a ‘hypersensitivity’ to discrimination and abuse that threatens to detract discussions in (in this example) LGBT communities from wider social issues around economics, class etc. Halberstam: ‘I want to call for a time of accountability and specificity: not all LGBT youth are suicidal, not all LGBT people are subject to violence and bullying, and indeed class and race remain much more vital factors in accounting for vulnerability to violence, police brutality, social baiting and reduced access to education and career opportunities’. However, I think Halberstam’s post, as funny, articulate and provocative as it is (and should be), neatly evades some of the important issues around trigger warnings and the people who are negotiating them, including what it might mean to have a traumatic response to content and whether or not mitigating against that through TWs has a purpose. This is perhaps as a result of specifically addressing an LGBTQ audience and their concerns than looking at some of the other functions of TWs such as warnings about rape, violence, mental health issues etc. It also, as Julia Serano notes, seems to create a sense of generational divide which is perhaps not all that helfpul. However, in a follow-up post, Halberstam acknowledges the dangers of publishing a polemical piece (which the first article was) and employing humour in an arena full of sensitivities and offers links to several response pieces which you can follow from there to see how the debate is developing.
Scott Alexander offers a thoughtful debate about the pros and cons of trigger warnings and makes an eminently sensible suggestion (to me) about placing TWs (or content warnings) in subtle places such as the copyright etc parts of books where if you want to find them, you can, and if you don’t, they’re easily avoidable. Of course, this doesn’t solve the issue of which kinds of material (Plays? Newspapers?) would merit the use of such warnings and which kinds of content would be deemed warning-worthy, but nonetheless there’s food for thought for content producers in what Alexander is saying. Alexander’s conclusion: ‘If, like me, you think the social justice movement has a really serious kindness and respect problem, then you know that it’s really hard to bring this up without getting accused of unkindness and disrespect yourself. I don’t know how to best respond to this problem. But I’m pretty sure that the very minimum one can do is not to actually be unkind and disrespectful. And I worry that some of these arguments against trigger warnings are failing to clear even this very low bar.’
Whilst I am cautious about such a categorisation of the ‘social justice movement’ – something I’ll come back to in a later post, as I think the criticisms against so-called SJWs are often couched in a (sometimes barely) concealed cloak of sexism, ageism, homophobia etc in a 2014 rendition of the old ‘political correctness gone mad’ line that is usually the preserve of the prejudiced – I think the key to it all is very much the maxim of being kind to one another. In a world, and an internet in particular, where being able to understand each other is valued highly, the trigger warning offers us an unusual conundrum – is it “better” to warn people of potentially harmful content or “better” to allow people to speak freely? Really, there is no way to ‘win’ if we consider things in such binary terms. As Barker says, better to ask questions about who is producing content and who is reading it – to consider what kinds of response may be produced, and, above all, to think about what is the best way to deal with these topics kindly and respectfully. It shouldn’t be about policing content and forcing labelling upon people in a censorious manner, nor should it be about accusing those advocating TWs of being crybabies and needing to grow up. (I even make myself LOL a bit with the idea certain sections of Reddit might be a space of kindness, but that’s for another day) In this respect, then, I am less interested in the rights and wrongs of applying a trigger warning (or a content warning, which I think may be a more helpful term – something I intend to return to in another post) or not applying one, and more in the discourses surrounding the phenomenon, the ways in which territories are contested and the voices of certain groups – often those of the marginalised – are shut down or go unheard amongst all the shouting (Julia Serano’s blog post is great on this idea and I’ll revisit her discussion in a future post).