Trigger Warnings

[Content note: This post contains discussion of trigger warnings and skepticism about trigger warnings, as well as discussion of various triggers. The links at the bottom contain similar material.]

In what is becoming a much more frequent occurrence, I am once again put in the position of having to explain trigger warnings/content notes/whatever you want to call them to someone. Instead of doing this individually, I’m just going to post this directly so everyone can see it. I doubt this will end the questions once and for all, but at least it will provide one convenient link that I can send people to (and one slightly less passive-agressive than a lmgtfy link!).

Now, this is kind of an odd topic for me to be explaining, since as far as I can tell I am lucky enough not to have any triggers. There are things that piss me off, of course, and kind of make my day shittier (like receiving one more goddamned question about trigger warnings!). While those are certainly good things to guard against, I don’t suffer from PTSD, I don’t experience flashbacks, etc. As such, this is going to mostly be a compilation of links with interesting bits excerpted from them, along with my own rationale for my personal policy on trigger warnings.

If I link something in here, it probably means that I expect you to read it before commenting here or giving me more shit about posting lots of content notes/trigger warnings. For the sake of legibility, links will be “cited” with a number in brackets, like this[42], with the links compiled at the end.

Why Post Trigger Warnings?

I should get the most obvious question out of the way first: what are trigger warnings, and why do they matter? I found an excellent compilation[1] of a few other[2] posts[3] that I recommend reading. The Geek Feminism Wiki explains trigger warnings as follows:

Trigger warnings are customary in some feminist and other spaces. They are designed to prevent people who have an extremely strong and damaging emotional response (for example, post-traumatic flashbacks or urges to harm themselves) to certain subjects from encountering them unaware. Having these responses is called “being triggered”.

So what does being triggered entail? As mentioned above, it could be “post-traumatic flashbacks or urges to harm themselves”, but it can manifest in a variety of other ways, all of which are unpleasant. There is no one “right” or “wrong” reaction to a trigger; from what I can tell it varies wildy from person to person.

A rule I’ve seen in a few places can be summed up as “if you think it could trigger someone, post a warning.” To directly quote one of them[4]:

The general rule for posting a trigger warning is this: if you have reasonable cause to believe that what you’re posting will trigger someone, put a trigger warning.

I’m not a huge fan of the word “reasonable” there, but I’ll get to that in a bit. As Melissa McEwan says[3]:

We provide trigger warnings because it’s polite, because we don’t want to be the asshole who triggered a survivor of sexual assault because of carelessness or laziness or ignorance.

So why provide a trigger warning? Because it’s the decent thing to do, and it has a good chance to avoid doing a lot of harm to people.

What Trigger Warnings Aren’t

One misundersatnding about trigger warnings that I’ve seen before is that they somehow attempt to dictate what people should and shouldn’t read. While this is a reasonable misunderstanding, it couldn’t be further from the truth: the point is to empower survivors of traumatic experiences to make decisions about what they should and shouldn’t read. In other words,

We provide trigger warnings because they give survivors of various stripes the option to assess whether they’re in a state of mind to deal with triggering material before they stumble across it.

The point is to empower survivors and make sure they have the ability to make decisions about what they read. A related point is that survivors (or really, anyone who has any triggers to worry about) already have it pretty rough—being triggered is a big deal! So if you want to share an article that could be triggering, why not put the warning there? Even if you think the triggers should be “obvious” from the title, that might not be the case for everyone. And as pointed out in an excellent (and very triggering) explanation of one person’s experience with abuse and the resulting triggers[6]:

Often, people who have been triggered cannot stop reading…[The trigger warning] is a warning, saying, “get out now before things get even worse”.

They also mention that another common argument against trigger warnings doesn’t work. Specifically, even if the potential triggers might not be obvious from the title of the article, they might become obvious partway through reading the article, at which point the reader can say “this is going to trigger me, I will stop reading it now”, right? Well…

[The feeling that something bad is about to happen] is the feeling that anti-warnings people often pin down as a place where any survivor should know to leave a fic, no harm (or little harm) supposedly done. But that is the place that triggers me. The textual warning triggers me, which is why I need an extra-textual warning.

In another instance, a friend of a friend on facebook mentioned that they were, for a while, triggered just by the word “rape” appearing in a text. Since I had wondered about this for a while (I think an anti-trigger warning person brough it up: “trigger warnings themselves can be triggering!”), I asked about this. Their response:

Usually, when I see a trigger warning, I can kind of brace myself. I take a deep breath and kind of.. steel myself. It’s been a long time since that’s happened, though. It’s mostly seeing the word unexpectedly.

More evidence that having the trigger warning at the meta-level is beneficial compared to requiring survivors to figure it out for themselves.

Why bother?

Another anti-trigger warning argument I’ve seen is that it’s impossible to warn against every possible trigger, so what’s the point in warning against any of them? If you’re confused about this argument, then we’re on the same boat.

The premise is sound: anything could be a trigger, from the more commonly seen things (sexual assault, violence, racism) to stuff that I’m sure most sufficiently privileged people don’t think of (misgendering, alcohol) to the seemingly mundane (slamming doors, milk, blue shirts).

This is, at least from my point of view, a bit of a conundrum. But I don’t doubt for a moment that the right answer involves a nonzero amount of warnings. Just because a task is huge and difficult does not mean we should give up and throw survivors under the bus.

My own solution is to aggressively warn for things. Often when I’m posting something, I realize that someone’s going to see a warning I post and thing it’s ridiculous or unnecessary. I’m only going to say this once: I don’t care. As long as it doesn’t cheapen the meaning of the term (more on that later), I’ll post it. If I read a post and see things that might piss someone off, I make a note of them—one person’s annoyance is another person’s trigger. Furthermore, if I see something that I know can be triggering, whether in general or specifically for one of my friends, I’ll post that, too, even if it doesn’t meet the previous rule. And I’m prepared to hear about more things that are triggering that I’m unaware of due to my privilege and take them into account, too, though to date all of the complaints about the length of my trigger warnings have been that there are too many, not that I’ve left some out.

I am particularly wary of dividing the world into “reasonable” and “unreasonable” triggers. In The Revolution Starts At Home[7] (which I think everyone, or at the very least every activist, should read), one of the essays is written by someone with a disability that is not considered “reasonable” (in the language of the Americans With Disabilities Act) and is therefore not covered; they are forced to rely on a string of abusive partners just to survive. I’m not sure how the same consequence could arise from such a partitioning of triggers, but I do know that the partitioning itself is monumentally unfair and ableist.

This is why I try to warn for triggers that I know are applicable to a broad range of people, adding new triggers as I learn about them. I try to warn for as many things as possible in order to avoid triggering people at all, but as mentioned above, this is not possible to do for every trigger since literally anything could be a trigger. But if I post something and someone tells me that they were triggered by something I wouldn’t normally think of as a trigger in it, I can now take that trigger into account.

Content Notes vs Trigger Warnings

A recent change that some people may have noticed is that I now post things as “content notes” rather than “trigger warnings”. This was not an easy decision, and I’m still not completely sure that it was the right one, but I’m sticking with it for now.

As I’ve already mentioned, I am very liberal with my warnings. If I think something has even a tiny chance of triggering someone, I make sure to post a warning on it. To once again quote [4],

Trigger warnings should be meaningful, and they should be assigned with the pain of triggered readers in mind, not the feelings of people who aren’t actually triggered. But as long as that requirement is met,  I’m happy. And it’s important to know that you don’t need to have triggers to benefit from the correct usage of trigger warnings. As the The Rotund has said, “everyone winds up benefiting when we keep accessibility in our minds.”

As a friend of mine pointed out:

I think “trigger” as in “trigger warning” is a very loaded term with connotations that don’t always fit what you’re warning about, and this is what I think is being objected to. I would venture a guess, however, that those you serve by including these trigger warnings will still be served by a warning without the word “trigger” involved, if you post it at the top of your comments as you usually have done.

Given that my heuristic was “would this piss someone off?” and not “will this trigger someone?” I think this was a good suggestion, and since Shakesville switched to saying “content note” instead of “trigger warning” around the same time I decided to adopt that terminology, too. My  main goal is to avoid triggering people, but if people like me who just get pissed off from reading too much awful stuff on the internet in one day benefit from it, too, then I’m okay with that.

My main fear is that using different, more general terminology will dilute what it means to be triggered and that people will take things less seriously. I hope this isn’t the case, but I’m curious to hear what other people have to say on the matter.

Where It Falls Apart

I mentioned above that if someone points out that something I posted is triggering and I didn’t catch the reason, I’ll accomodate that person in the future. The cases I have in mind are ones like “people in blue shirts trigger me” or “seeing a bottle of orange juice triggers me” or “reading about a parking garage triggers me”, but these don’t seem like the only kinds of trigger someone could have that I wouldn’t warn for by default. I can easily imagine someone being triggered (as in actually triggered, not just uncomfortable around) by people of a certain race/gender/sexuality/etc. I’m not sure what the right thing to do in this case would be, since I want to respect people’s triggers while still respecting people’s diversity in various ways. I don’t care about offending bigots, but when it comes to triggers it seems like either obvious solution is unacceptable. If anyone has constructive thoughts on this I’d be glad to hear them.

In Conclusion

I hope this has been a decent resource for people who aren’t really aware of any of the intricacies of triggers (and warnings thereof). Of course, since I’m not aware of anywhere near all of those intricacies myself, I’d really appreciate it if people could point out any resources that I’ve missed; I’m sure I have. The sources I used were mostly based on a quick googling, though I’ve used several of them before in my own education on the matter.

I post trigger warnings to help people make informed decisions about what links to click and what articles to read. Hopefully this prevents people from experiencing flashbacks to some of the worst moments of their lives. If I seem a bit overzealous in posting the warnings, well, I hope people now understand why, and maybe even follow suit.

On a bit of a tangent, I wonder how many other posts there are on the internet titled “trigger warnings”. Probably a lot. I should stress again that this post was conceived when I got tired of explaining to my friends why I put so damn many trigger warnings on things I post to social networking stuff. It’s not supposed to be a unique contribution so much as it is a compilation of resources that I’ve found useful combined with my own reasons for doing things so I can give people a link to click instead of making the same argument over and over again.






[6] [“Warning: Very explicit discussion of sexual assault and the nature, anatomy, cause & effect of triggers. Is itself triggery.”]

[7] [Content note: this book contains discussion and vivid detail of a wide range of triggering situations, such as sexual assault and domestic abuse, particularly within activist communities]

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