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the girl with violets in her lap [userpic]

March 7th, 2014 (04:09 pm)

Well, here is a thing I'll come back to LJ for, apparently -- this viral post about trigger warnings. It is entitled "Trigger Happy*: The 'trigger warning' has spread from blogs to college classrooms. Can it be stopped?" and it is based in blatant misunderstanding of what triggers are and why anyone should care about triggering others. This is an argument that has been rehashed many, many times, and it is *always* based in ignorance about PTSD; it is also generally associated with a self-centered belief that other people's triggers are not sufficient reason for a writer to undertake the arduous task of writing five to ten words warning about a post's contents.

So let's take a look.

Here is the big thing, the thing I really want people to know: the word "trigger" does not mean what most people think it does. A "trigger", for a person with PTSD, is not a matter of getting offended. It is not a matter of taking offense because taking offense is fun. It is not a matter of thinking that they have a right not to be "upset" by the world. It is a matter of getting "upset" in a sense, but the word "upset" here does not describe the same experience that non-PTSD-sufferers have when they are "upset". It isn't something that people without PTSD can understand without a lot of experience with/listening to people who do have PTSD.

I'm not going to ask people to imagine what it would be like to suffer a horrible trauma sufficient to cause PTSD, because if it hasn't happened to you, you can't understand. You might think you can. You might think you can extrapolate your own experience with bad, upsetting, or scarring events out to an understanding of what people with PTSD have suffered. But you can't. It's not the same category. I have often seen people say they were "traumatized" by a very upsetting movie or things like that. That sort of "trauma" is based in a generally understood definition that entails the experience of encountering something that upsets you greatly, something that you never forget and that shapes part of who you are in the future. And that kind of emotional trauma is real; I'm not saying it's not. But it's not the same thing as fighting in a war or living in a war zone or being raped or severely physically assaulted or other things that can cause PTSD. The sooner people without PTSD start understanding that their own experiences of "trauma" are simply not comparable to the experiences of people with PTSD, the better. This isn't a matter of different degrees of the same thing. They're different -- different in experience and very different in impact. So stop thinking you can get it because you can imagine your own traumatic experiences magnified. You can't.

With that said: what is a trigger? This is an incredibly misunderstood word. Even people who don't think that triggers are about being "upset" in a neurotypical sense tend to have an incomplete understanding of the definition of the word. People have a sense that it can mean something that causes a "flashback", but they see it in a limited way: someone sees something triggering, has a flashback, pulls him/herself out of it, and moves on. That's generally not the way it works. I said to one PTSD sufferer that a trigger doesn't mean ruining a half hour of your life, it means ruining the rest of the day, and she laughed kind of bitterly and said "That would be really lucky. It usually ruins a few days or maybe a week." I was going to try to explain it myself, but I don't have PTSD and I'd do an incomplete job. So here's what Toby M (@tylluan) on Twitter has to say:

"For me, triggers mean: can't breathe, can't speak, can't tolerate touch, sweating, crying, frozen, out-of-body consciousness experience. After effects linger for days - voice doesn't return, jump at shadows & sudden sights/sounds, can't sleep, nightmares."

So let's stack that up. That's what people with PTSD can experience when they are triggered. Some people have less severe reactions, some people have more severe reactions, but for all, it is an immersive experience that plunges them back into the worst thing they have ever experienced -- and remember that the worst thing they've ever experienced is unimaginable to the rest of us. When they're triggered, they're being raped again, they're in the middle of a war zone again, they're being brutally assaulted again, and so on. Not just remembering it: they are in that moment again.

In a hefty percentage of cases, all of that can be avoided if people want to give a shit about it. I have seen many, many people bitching about having to put trigger warnings on blog posts or fanfics, as if it is some incredibly difficult task that will somehow tax the writer. People generally get offended at the idea that someone else might get offended by something they've written. Apart from the irony here, that demonstrates willful ignorance: interpreting a PTSD sufferer's experience through one's own lens and then blatantly ignoring anyone who tries to explain. Because trigger-warning supporters do try to explain. A lot. Strong trigger-warning opponents don't give a shit. They would have to put something like "TW: rape" on THEIR story or THEIR blog post! But they are STANDING STRONG and NOT BOWING TO THE PC POLICE.

So they just go ahead and risk causing others to have that horrific experience Toby M describes, because what the hell, no one is going to tell THEM what to do.

Why would they not actively *want* to spare people that? Why would they not want to spend *two seconds* trying to help people not to be triggered? Because fuck those whiny hypersensitive people. That's why.

The discussion, of course, doesn't center around an issue as neat as that. People warn that trigger warnings are going to become endemic, that people will have to issue trigger warnings before everything they say or do lest people who don't *really* have PTSD, people who just like taking offense, yell at them. The linked article notes sardonically that people have requested trigger warnings for books and movies used in college classes,** for television shows, for... actually, those are the only real examples they've got, but they pad the article out considerably by imagining a whole bunch of other settings in which no one is using trigger warnings *yet* -- but they might have to in the future! Everyone knows that speculation is just as good as facts. Right?

And again, I say to you: who cares?

Why do you care about taking five seconds to put out a trigger warning? Even as a just-in-case? Maybe some people who appreciate their use don't technically have PTSD. Maybe they just want to avoid reading about things they don't like. Why do you care? So you take a chance that someone with PTSD will see the trigger warning, and instead no one with PTSD happens to see it. This is really your big argument, that that's somehow too much for you to do?

People are saying trigger warnings can't possibly encompass everything that could be triggering. No, they can't. Now explain to me why that means you shouldn't use trigger warnings for common triggers.

Is it possible for demands for trigger warnings to get out of control? Of course. Just look at all the speculative stuff in that article! It's possible for anything to get out of control. But I haven't seen trigger warnings get out of control. I've seen people asking for trigger warnings for a wide variety of common triggers, it's true. I've seen people asking for trigger warnings for things that seem trivial to people who don't have PTSD.*** But most of what I have seen is people balking at the idea of trigger warnings themselves, thinking they're enacting that most horrible of modern bugaboos, political correctness. Think-pieces in the New Republic might focus on the fringes of the trigger-warning movement, talk about them as if they are the mainstream, and then speculate about where they might take us next. But that is not what is happening in the mainstream. The mainstream is having a debate about whether trigger warnings should exist at all. Instead of taking a compassionate view, a "hey, I don't want to send people into a horrible experience" view, it's all "I don't want to do this but they're making me!"

To those people: stop it. Think about someone other than yourself for once. Stop making dire predictions about the future and look at the now. Right now there are people whom you could be plunging unknowingly into horror. Think about them, and write the goddamn trigger warning. I guarantee you you will not be harmed by doing so. You'll be fine. Really. I promise. So do it.



**I am so not tracking why they're upset about the college materials thing in particular. Many college materials deal with stuff that can absolutely be triggering -- it's part of the deal; college is meant to be intellectually challenging. They talk about a woman who got triggered by a graphic rape scene in a movie but didn't leave the room because she didn't want to stand out or betray her history/level of upset. The general tone of the sentence implies that she could have just left and there wouldn't have been a problem. The issue with that is that a triggered mindset is not a rational one. It also very often makes it difficult to make decisions like a decision to walk out. People feel frozen and cornered and sometimes physically can't remove themselves from the situation.
***Apparently the people writing that article don't know this, but in my corner of the Internet there's a thing called "content warning". A trigger warning warns of common triggers. A content warning warns about things that might be overly upsetting to people who don't have triggers and about passing, non-graphic references to things that can be triggering. I still don't get why it's a big deal to do this. I'm not saying people should *have* to do it (nor am I saying that about TWs, by the way); I just think it's a nice thing to do. People could stand to be nice more often.


Posted by: Pirate Jenny (deliriums_fish)
Posted at: March 7th, 2014 09:46 pm (UTC)
pirate jenny

I remember walking out of a college class for a triggering moment. I was taking a sociology class on social deviancy, and for some reason, the instructor (who was a TA), decided to screen the rape scene from "The Accused". I'm not exactly sure how that particular scene helped the lesson, but I do remember walking out, and I do remember it being humiliating and I do remember leaning against the wall outside the door. I stayed out side for the rest of the class because I didn't want to draw more attention to me, but I did go back in later and ream the instructor out.

Posted by: the girl with violets in her lap (slammerkinbabe)
Posted at: March 7th, 2014 11:01 pm (UTC)

Ugh, I'm sorry that happened. That's really not okay. How did the TA respond when you talked to him/her?

λ was telling me how her Women's Studies 101 prof handled the same movie (I think): she screened it at a different time than the regular class and told people to show up if they wanted to. Hence people who'd be triggered could avoid it without its being a Deal. I wish all instructors were that sensitive and smart about it, especially in the humanities (I mean, maybe math equations are triggering to someone, I don't know*, but the odds of creating a problem go way up with humanities classes).

*Actually, I know some assault survivors dissociate during the assault by doing mental math, so that could happen, I guess.

Edited at 2014-03-07 11:01 pm (UTC)

Posted by: Pirate Jenny (deliriums_fish)
Posted at: March 8th, 2014 03:00 am (UTC)
pirate jenny

I'm pretty sure he apologized. I can be pretty good at laying the verbal smack-down, especially when it comes to professors (or a TA), even in the middle of class (I'm well-liked by my peers, clearly), but in that situation I couldn't say something while the film was rolling, I was too stunned. I just remember how dead I felt leaning on the granite blocks outside the door of the lecture hall.

I had already seen the movie, but I had FF-ed through that scene, and also, watching it with 30 other near-strangers is pretty damn traumatic.

Posted by: Morgan (banshea)
Posted at: March 7th, 2014 10:00 pm (UTC)

This seems like a good opportunity to ask: Do you have a link to a list of common triggers that deserve trigger warnings?

My problem with trigger warnings is not that I don't see the need or that I don't understand how they work, it's that I don't understand what they should be. The corners of the internet I find that use them don't consider it their responsibility to educate, and sometimes it seems like they're just tagging things with "Trigger warning: words words words." And it doesn't help that there really is a large number of people who conflate "triggering" with "offensive" and are essentially pretending to have PTSD so they have an excuse to yell at others, so I'm afraid to just look for the answer myself because I'm more likely to find garbage and get angry.

Man, people in general need to stop casually using psychological terms based on an incomplete understanding of the condition they refer to. (...She said, while being totally guilty of using "OCD" in exactly that context.) Hey, want to popularize the notion of "medical appropriation" with me? It's a term I just invented. It's like cultural appropriation, but with physical and psychological disorders.

Posted by: the girl with violets in her lap (slammerkinbabe)
Posted at: March 7th, 2014 11:17 pm (UTC)

Google found me a few lists (here and here -- they're more comprehensive than what I tend to warn for, which is basically sexual assault, violence, strong language (I usually use this to warn for particularly charged terms, like "cunt" or "n*****r"), eating disorders, suicide, and prejudice -- homophobia, transphobia, etc. (I distinguish between graphic and non-graphic violence, rape, etc.) I actually like that the list is very comprehensive though. I don't think I'd use all of that on Twitter, since space is so limited and most of them fall under umbrella terms ("violence" covers a whole lot, frex), but fanfic is a big area in which trigger warnings are appreciated, and it's very easy to just tag fics with the relevant stuff off that list. I mean, it can't do any harm. There are some things on that list that I would probably list under content warning instead of trigger warning, but that's splitting hairs. Anyway, I know not everyone is going to want to go through all the stuff on those lists, but I still think a system of warning for violence, sexual assault, and whichever -ism(s) might be appropriate is pretty easy and will catch most problem things.

I actually haven't personally come across a lot of people misusing the trigger warning idea/pretending to have PTSD, but then, I'm not really sure how one could assess with 100% certainty whether someone is pretending to have PTSD or not, so I just believe them by default. I know others' mileage may vary. In general I have thought the "they just want to be offended" thing was pretty much a straw man, but I know you're not a jerk and not given to straw-man attacks, so if you've seen it I figure it must be out there somewhere. It hasn't been a problem in my circles though.

And, yes, I am on board with a "medical appropriation" designation. :P People misusing "bipolar", "schizophrenia", etc. is a major eyeroll issue for me.

Edited at 2014-03-07 11:17 pm (UTC)

Posted by: Morgan (banshea)
Posted at: March 8th, 2014 07:21 am (UTC)

When we're talking about an individual reporting a problem, I absolutely give them the benefit of the doubt unless I know them well enough to believe that they are lying. So I do know as well as one can without being privy to an entire medical history that I have been lied to in the past about this. Assuming the best about all involved in that, we're talking about misuse of the word "trigger", which I understand to be a very specific term relating to PTSD. If I'm correct in that understanding, then saying "I find that triggering," implies the statement "I have PTSD," which is what I mean by "essentially pretending to have PTSD."

Also, I have a friend who will go on very impressive tirades about self-diagnosed Asberger's, and how this is apparently a huge problem, because it confuses general knowledge about Asberger's and keeps these people from getting help for their actual issues. Coming from me I know that's a vague anecdote, but for me it reinforces the idea that people do claim psychological disorders with little to no basis in medical fact.

I don't think people want to be offended, but I do think that in general, being offended doesn't carry the same significance as being triggered. So if you're afraid that someone won't take you seriously if you take offense to them, it can be effective to call it a trigger in order to win the argument. It's hyperbole in that case, but it's still misusing something that people need for real and serious reasons.

Tangentally, I finally realized why every therapist I've ever talked to has seemed hung up on my house burning down when I was a kid. That event was the starting point for all kinds of problems -- social issues, stress-related medical issues, financial issues, etc. -- and in hindsight the therapists I've talked to were expecting to be able to diagnose me with PTSD from it. Nope. Closest thing I get to a flashback is a vague panicky feeling when sunlight is being filtered through heavy smoke, and I think that only got a rise out of me because it's not something that you encounter very many times in the average life.

Posted by: Tasha Rebekah Martin (lietya)
Posted at: March 10th, 2014 12:02 am (UTC)

The "self-diagnosed Asperger's" thing is kind of a hot button for me, so it's actually caused a revelation here as well : the fact that many people are self-diagnosed because it can be *fiendishly* difficult to get an official diagnosis may apply across the board to many mental issues. Getting an official, professional diagnosis requires a number of factors to align just right, not least being money, availability of doctors, competence of doctors, and willingness *and* ability to jump through the necessary hoops and fill out the correct forms. I know people who were denied a diagnosis because they didn't have insurance, or because they couldn't get a referral to a specialist (or got the referral and the specialist was booked up/didn't take it/they lost the paperwork). Most of them went on to get their diagnosis recorded officially eventually, but it took a lot of hassle and effort. Heck, the amount of work I have to put into getting a simple PRESCRIPTION filled sometimes... but I digress.

Short version : expecting someone to show credentials on their mental illness is, regrettably, not entirely fair.

That said, I've run across people for whom "That is a trigger" is admitted *in their own words* to mean "makes me unhappy or cranky," so I'm not denying they're out there, or that they're kind of a scourge for someone who genuinely has PTSD.

(In the interests of full disclosure, I have a self-diagnosed anxiety disorder, in that I'm fairly sure "the following innocuous conditions cause me to suffer anxiety so extreme that I consider suicide, and cause intrusive, repetitive worry thoughts to the point that I am unable to function at basic life tasks" is not normal. However, I was able to ask my GP for a prescription for emergency Ativan, and titrate that on my own to a maintenance dose [a dose and frequency well below what the doctor said was worth being concerned with in terms of overuse] that largely suffices to keep things under control. Therefore, I do not have a diagnosis; I have had neither the time nor the motivation, given a number of more urgent health scares, to chase one down on an issue that I feel I have well-controlled right now. This is a real-life example of how the intersection of "self-diagnosed" and "likely genuine" can occur even in someone with most of the privileges required to succeed at professional validation. Heck, as far as that goes, I'm also very smart and good at argument. I could probably successfully *fake* certain conditions. ;) so the tl;dr on this one - professional diagnosis /= guarantee of much except that you got a professional to go on record with something.)

Posted by: Tasha Rebekah Martin (lietya)
Posted at: March 8th, 2014 03:55 am (UTC)

Yes, THIS. I don't understand this in general : the "PC police" are, in my experience, always asking for this sort of "five seconds of consideration." It's *that* hard not to use a given word, to include trigger warnings, to avoid hurtful comparisons, etc.? You have *that much* of your personality and quality of life wrapped up in those things?!!

Anyway, yeah, this essay ought to be framed as one of your best, I think.

Posted by: et in Arcadia egoboo (apostle_of_eris)
Posted at: March 9th, 2014 04:30 am (UTC)

At the other extreme, a couple of days ago on a political list, I saw a post of a news item about a rape. This kind of trigger word happens on the list, and people are good about posting warnings.
This particular item had the word in its headline, and then at the top of the body, had a trigger warning. I don't think that one was necessary.

Posted by: Tasha Rebekah Martin (lietya)
Posted at: March 9th, 2014 11:50 pm (UTC)

That does seem a trifle redundant, yeah. Still, the intent is kind...

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