Pulling the trigger (warning)

Safety sign reads "Warning: Unpredictable Triggers"
Years ago, when I was a member of the Seattle Lesbian and Gay Chorus, there was one particular controversy that surfaced from time to time, in slightly different forms: that a particular piece of music we were rehearsing perpetuated oppression and therefore should never be performed.

This debate was triggered one time by a particular piece of classical music which included religious text, and we wound up setting aside some time at the spring retreat to discuss the issue. There was a large group discussion, then we broke into small groups, then back to the large group again. A very curious fact came to light during this process: every single one of us who felt strongly that we wanted to perform this piece, in part because as an out queer group our performance would be “taking it back” had been raised in conservative Christian families, and had experienced various traumatic events at the hands of people claiming to be acting on god’s behalf…

Contrariwise, none of the people who argued against performing the Requiem came from such a background. The most vehemently vocal person had prefaced their remarks by explaining how welcoming and open-minded their liberal, atheist parents had been; and how lucky they felt to have been raised in an environment where the highest priority was never to cause pain to another person. After it had been determined that none of the people who were arguing against the piece of music felt any trauma listening to it or performing it themself, someone asked why they continued objecting. “Because someone who happens to come to the concert unaware might be hurt!”

The phrase “trigger warning” wasn’t being tossed around in progressive circles back then, but I have no doubt that if it had, these folks would have wanted every concert poster, ticket, and program to carry a prominent warning about the contents of the concert.

Last year Roxanna Bennett wrote of her own experience: after years of therapy returning to school to become a teacher, only to discover that something she never expected to be a trigger began setting off panic attacks in class.

It is incredibly difficult to apply comprehensive trigger warnings to every single lesson plan, because it is impossible to expect the world to know what a student’s triggers are. If, like me, you can’t handle a game of happy fun ball without freaking the heck out, gym class might not be for you at this time. But it isn’t that hard to add a few lines of text to a course outline warning of possibly triggering subject matter.

When I read it the first time, this paragraph gave me considerable pause. After delivering a very good example of how it is impossible to know what will trigger someone, even someone who has put a lot of effort into identifying her own triggers, she then says it isn’t that hard… Except yes it is! Impossible is inherently hard!

She eventually proposes not so much as trigger warnings as content labels, but doesn’t really describe them well enough to know how they would differ from a trigger warning.

The debate about whether trigger warnings ought to be employed has been raging within feminist circles for at least five years. The Jezebel web site famously refuses to use them. I’ve written before about people demanding trigger warnings (or content warning labels) for every possible subject that might be a trigger. On many fiction portals it has been common practice for people to get grief for failing to put enough warnings on their stories. And the things people are being asked to issue warnings about has grown so long as to become a self-parody. I routinely see stories plastered with content warnings for things such as: drug use, sex toys, mentions of suicide (not graphic representations, mere mentions!), mentions of rape, the inclusion of gay or lesbian or bisexual characers (again, not representations of graphic sex, merely characters who happen to be gay), dirty talk, minor violence, and so on. My very favorite content warning to date, though, is: “My Little Pony mentioned in chapter 13.”

Yes, someone got angry that My Little Pony was mentioned in a piece of fiction, claiming that they despised the show so much, it traumatized them to have two fictional characters make a reference to the cartoon.

Trauma is a real thing. As a survivor of childhood abuse, various kinds of assault, and a lifetime of homophobia, I have at least some insight into the phenomenon. As a human who possesses empathy and has friends and loved ones who have survived traumatic events, I don’t enjoy seeing or hearing about people suffering panic attacks or other effects of experiencing a trauma trigger.

But it seems pretty clear to me that some people are claiming trauma when they really just mean they are offended. Or they fear that someone else might possibly be. And we can’t create good art or have meaningful discussions about anything—let alone a free and open society!—if we insist that everyone preface every communication with every imaginable content warning and disclaimer.

Which, I realize, is the point that Roxanna Bennett was trying to make. Maybe there is a way to thread the needle. Maybe we can find a middle ground.

But I’m not holding my breath.

1 thought on “Pulling the trigger (warning)

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