On triggers and warnings and those darn kids today


I wasn’t going to do any significant blogging this week, because I’m scrambling to A) get an intensive summer course ready to teach next Monday, and B) prepare myself for Readercon, but the Jack Halberstam essay on trigger warnings that’s been floating around, and the various excellent responses, have sort of got me worked up and I want to say something. Probably nothing that hasn’t been said by others elsewhere and better. But this is me talking for a sec, not just about what Halberstam wrote but about this whole Thing in general.

One could criticize the essay on a number of levels, and people have. Natalia Cecire writes about the problems with the ways in which Halberstam discusses neoliberalism and approaches the emotional fallout of painful history. Ari (Tumblr: navigatethestream) writes about the deep problems involved in approaching activist culture from the perspective of the academy, and Halberstam’s use of examples of transmisogyny. And as usual, Robin James has some great stuff to say about legitimacy and the performance of “resilience”. So I’m not going to deal with this on those levels but instead go after some things that are smaller and a good bit simpler but that really, really irritated me because of my particular experience.

Full disclosure: I’m not cisgender or straight, but I’m white and ablebodied and American with a decidedly upper middle class background. I have privilege out the ass. There are so many marginalized experiences I can’t speak to and wouldn’t dare to speak for. That said: There are so, so many ways in which we talk about trauma and trigger warnings – that Halberstam is reproducing here – that really, really gross me the fuck out. Probably the best articulation I’ve seen of these feelings so far is Jaqui Shine’s excellent piece “What We Talk About When We Talk About Trigger Warnings”:

How we talk about trauma survivors is what’s most troubling to me in all of this. I hear people expressing contempt for who they think survivors are: fragile, weirdly entitled, narcissistic, pathetic, weak. With outrage, people ask angry, accusatory rhetorical questions that communicate their views: Do trauma survivors expect “us” to make the world safe for them or protect them from anything scary? Why should “we” be responsible for the fact that they can’t handle reality? Can’t survivors deal with their feelings and move on with their lives? Are they really so weak that they’ll fall apart if confronted with a difficult image or idea? This is what we think trauma survivors are like.

And it’s all so, so wrong. I don’t think anyone knows better than trauma survivors do that the world isn’t safe, that we can’t be truly protected from anything (except certain communicable diseases, via appropriate vaccinations). I don’t know what other people think constitutes reality, but for me it’s included burying both of my parents and repeatedly committing loved ones to terrifying psychiatric hospitals for their own safety. I’m pretty clear on what reality can look like.

We don’t get triggered because we’re weak; we get triggered because trauma responses are physiological. They’re not imaginary or only psychosomatic, and they’re not necessarily part of a lifetime condition.  Lots of people around you are trauma survivors, but you may not know it because we’re dealing with our feelings and, exactly as you say you want us to, moving on with our lives.

Read it.

Bullet points.

  • We gender trauma in order to dismiss it. So much of the discourse that represents anti-trigger warning positions contains deeply sexist/misogynist language, even if it’s not someone explicitly saying “man up”. Trauma survivors are characterized as weak, helpless, sniffling and constantly weepy, overly emotional, and actively protecting their status as victims as if it confers some kind of privilege. This is dangerously close to the derailing tactics that get used against marginalized populations every time they demand that pain and damage and oppression be recognized. It’s really not a road one wants to go down. You end up in a bad place. Halberstam does this, and it’s very disappointing to see:

    In a post-affirmative action society, where even recent histories of political violence like slavery and lynching are cast as a distant and irrelevant past, all claims to hardship have been cast as equal; and some students, accustomed to trotting out stories of painful events in their childhoods (dead pets/parrots, a bad injury in sports) in college applications and other such venues, have come to think of themselves as communities of naked, shivering, quaking little selves – too vulnerable to take a joke, too damaged to make one.

    Yeah, I’ve heard “you just can’t take a joke!” before. Don’t do that.

  • Not everyone’s ways of working through trauma are the same or will work for everyone, yet we keep talking about trauma as if that was a reasonable thing to expect. Know what? No, some people can’t just “get over it,” and if you’re saying that, you’re an asshole for demanding that they should, on your schedule. And some people can. And some people can but only with some things. And some people make a lot of progress and then get shoved back ten steps. Trauma/emotional injury/mental illness is individual, and recovery is individual. Everyone’s experience of oppressive social systems and processes is individual. We cannot and should not ever lose sight of the fact that psychology is not enough to understand this by, and it’s absolutely true that with a lot of the stuff around trigger warnings, we risk focusing far too much on the individual and ignoring the larger systems and institutions that perpetuate physical and symbolic violence. But we also need to recognize that there’s no hard and fast rule for any of this. Among these groups are vast individual differences of experience, and those differences need to be respected. We ignore that at our peril.
  • Emotions are not separate from the body. Emotions are embodied, and we all experience physiological reactions to emotion, at least to some degree. Yeah, you’re goddamn right, we talk about trauma like it’s a physical injury. It is. Everyone I’ve ever heard talk about their triggers has talked about them in physiological terms, because that’s usually what happens. This isn’t about “hurt feelings”, at least not for most people, I really do not think. This is about shaking hands, numb fingers, shallow breathing, sweaty palms, racing hearts. Even if it’s not about those things, it’s about being hurt badly enough that it interferes with your life for a while. I have a couple of triggers that are upsetting to differing degrees; sometimes they give me the physiological reactions above, sometimes they make me completely unable to deal with anything for the rest of the day, and sometimes they just force me to get away from whatever the trigger is and very firmly distract myself for a while. See? Not only are triggers different for each individual, but different people can experience multiple different triggers differently. I’m sorry, we don’t all necessarily fit your academic theories of trauma. That doesn’t make the pain illegitimate.
  • Trigger warnings are not about protecting our precious fee-fees from any pain whatsoever. They are about informed consent. This gets talked about a good bit in Shine’s piece above, but it’s worth emphasizing. I’m not saying they can’t be used poorly and I’m not saying none of the pro-TW discourse does that. I’m not saying there’s no uncomfortable, unhelpful narcissism happening anywhere here, or that TW discourse can’t, as Robin James points out, “legitimate some kinds of trauma, when experienced by the ‘right’ kind of people/on the ‘right’ kinds of bodies”. What I am saying is that when used correctly, trigger warnings make it easier to approach difficult and painful things because one can make a decision about whether or not one can deal with something at a particular time and how much of it one can take. Listen, I read some sick shit as part of the work on war and genocide I’ve done in graduate school. I’ve read and written about the worst, most twisted, most disgusting atrocities you can imagine, individual acts of horrifying violence in contexts of equally violent institutionalized hatred for the bodies against which the violence is being committed. I can handle that, most days. I deserve to make that choice for myself, where possible. Trigger warnings, ideally, open up discussion. They don’t close it off. They are not “censorship”. Stop calling them that.
  • At their best, trigger warnings are community-building. Halberstam is talking about trigger warnings as weapons for use in in-fighting, and I’m sure they get used that way. But in all of my experience – and yes, like a good sociologist I realize that my anecdote is a poor dataset on which to conclude anything – that’s not what I’ve primarily seen it doing. What I’ve seen it doing is connecting people with each other, creating profoundly meaningful bonds around shared pain and also bringing into play the recognition that different and even unfamiliar forms of pain are to be respected. That we have obligations to work together with greater respect and compassion precisely so that we’re better equipped to work in coalition to fight the oppressive social systems that assail us from all sides. I’ve seen it employed as a tool we can use to care for each other. As Jenny Davis writes:

    I argue that in contrast to the oft stated fear that technologies drive humans apart, or get in the way of meaningful relationships, the trigger warning is a means by which technological developments—or at least our reaction to technological developments—create an ethic of collective responsibility for the psychological well-being of one another.

    The trigger warning is not merely a curatorial tool, but a collective curatorial tool, provided by humans, for fellow humans. Content creators may not have you specifically in mind, but when they post trigger warnings, they do so for the general You, all of the Yous who make up the Us.

  • Deciding whose pain is legitimate and whose is to be belittled and ignored is ableist and shitty and you shouldn’t do it. Seriously. It’s not hard to not do.

I’m in full agreement with everyone I linked to above that it’s not that there are no issues around trigger warnings that need major attention and discussion and it’s not that Halberstam has no good points; it’s just that they’re obscured by way too many poorly thought-out claims, incorrect assumptions, and just plain… I’m sorry, but I can’t really think of anything to call it other than smugness. Halberstam comes off as smug and superior.

And it’s unhelpful. And it’s just like no.

One thought on “On triggers and warnings and those darn kids today

  1. David Jón Fuller says:

    Amen to all of this. I don’t get how informed consent to be exposed to something that could trigger a person is seen as unreasonable. “But the world is unfair!” or “But history is full of atrocity!” are not valid rebuttals. In a civilized space to learn and talk about things, you shouldn’t have to re-experience the horror of the thing — any more than, say a military historian should have to be shot at in class while sick, hungry and sleep-deprived in order to really learn about battle conditions, or a med student should have to contract a disease in a crowded city during an epidemic as part of learning about vaccines.

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