Trigger-Angry: The Politics Of Internet Trigger Warnings


Whether trigger warnings are useful for disturbing Internet content is an interesting question. Not interesting: one “certifiable asshole’s” claim that they’re just for the “easily upset.”

For those unfamiliar with the term, trigger warnings exist to alert rape survivors, eating disorder sufferers, and others to language that might disturb them. And actually, “disturb” isn’t really that accurate — the point isn’t to help readers avoid offense or annoyance, it’s to help them avoid relapse, self-harm, flashbacks, and other serious psychological and physical fallout. That said, not all blogs and publications use the warnings — we don’t. Whether we should — whether anyone should — is a question worthy of serious, sensitive debate. But that’s a debate that’s tougher to have now that Susannah Breslin put this out there:

After some in-depth research (like, half an hour, maybe?), I was able to conclude that, for whatever reason, the feminists are all over their TRIGGER WARNINGS, applying them like a Southern cook applies Pam cooking spray to an overused nonstick frying pan. It’s almost impressive, really. I guess the idea is that blog posts are TOTALLY SCARY, and if you are EASILY UPSET, if you see a TRIGGER WARNING coming, you can look away REALLY FAST, or click elsewhere, so you won’t, you know, FREAK THE FUCK OUT.

Apparently trigger warnings are for idiots and wimps, and rape survivors and PTSD sufferers are just “EASILY UPSET.” For advancing this, uh, viewpoint, Feministing justly calls Breslin” a “certifiable asshole,” but not before pointing out that her ideas aren’t even that new (“Her post on True/Slant today begins by calling us folks at Feministing self-victimizing, angry man-haters (*yawn*)”). Slightly more groundbreaking is Breslin’s later claim that trigger warnings’ actual function is “heightening the shock factor of the content, thereby increasing the likelihood the post will be read.” But the blogs that use the warnings the most — those devoted to feminist politics and eating disorder recovery — don’t really court a mainstream audience, let alone the kind of audience that finds sexual assault titillating. In fact, many formerly public eating disorder blogs have become password-protected over the years, probably in part to protect their communities from those who would dismiss them as wimpy losers. If anything, trigger warnings and other efforts to deal sensitively with various forms of suffering may decrease readership, as the interwebs seem to prefer their violence served up with plenty of cynical jokes. And really, what’s more sensationalistic or traffic-pandering than taking a serious discussion and turning it into an opportunity to bash an entire group of people:

Perhaps most significantly, trigger warnings crystallize everything that is wrong with the current state of the feminist movement, if it can be called that. These days, feminism isn’t a movement at all, really, but a collection of blogs obsessed with the pop culture it claims to be victimized by, a forum for women who promote themselves as victims of a patriarchy that no longer exists, a pretend movement that contains within it no forward movement at all, only a fetal-like desire to curl up on itself, muttering Women’s Studies jargon, and handing out trigger warnings like party favors at a girl’s-only slumber party.

Getting raped is just like getting invited to a really great party! (Shh, don’t tell the boys.) Bullshit about the feminist movement aside (I just don’t have the space, let alone the patience), how and when to use a trigger warning is a legitimate question that’s now been totally clouded by ridiculous inflammatory rhetoric. We’ve been asked to use them in the past, and refused, on the grounds that our headlines convey the information needed to determine if a post is triggering. But I’m aware that not everyone considers this adequate, and that sites that do include trigger warnings do so as a result of sustained consideration of their own standards and their readers’ feelings, not because of some knee-jerk desire not to “freak people out.” Do the warnings work? Are they specific enough to give survivors real information on whether they’re likely to be triggered? Can bloggers accurately predict what may be triggering to readers, without resorting to the tactic Breslin mocks — tagging everything as triggering? All these are valid questions, and they deserve real examination — not the kind of lazy, unthinking, and damaging rhetoric that trigger warnings are designed to guard against.

Trigger Warnings Don’t Work. Here’s Why [True/Slant]
Trigger Warning: This Blog Post May Freak You The F*** Out [True/Slant]
Susannah Breslin: Certifiable Asshole [Feministing]

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