Safe Spaces, Free Speech, and the Internet: On Your Right Not To Be Triggered

I should start this probably by saying that I am a big supporter of free speech (the Constitutional concept) and also a fan of the trigger warning, when used by people who are trying to create a safe space.  Trigger Warnings are actually a great way to enhance free speech and allow yourself space not to self-censor certain topics, while also making it easy for those who are bothered by the subject to avoid it.  That said, that doesn’t mean that every space gets absolute free speech nor does it mean that every trigger gets a warning.

I am, personally, not a big user of the Trigger Warning in my own work.  Not because I think people shouldn’t use it if they’d like, but because I rarely talk about subjects that traditionally require them, I find them bulkier than tags, and don’t really think they work for Facebook/Twitter, which is where I do most of my textual interaction.  They are, to my mind, most useful when linking to something else that someone might not want to click on because it is graphic, like a NSFW warning.  I generally don’t have a problem with the idea that people are, at times, disturbed by my content.  Many are disturbed by my atheist content, some by my language, I don’t feel the need to warn people that I am going to talk about religion disparagingly and with bad words.

This post was inspired by two separate events that happened in the last couple weeks on Facebook.  The first was a post that someone made in response to MRAs trying to hurt rape victims in which the poster said in anger that they wanted to hurt the MRAs for doing that and, in the comments below, said that some people need killin’.  Some people then got angry at him for talking about violence in hyperbolic fashion about people he doesn’t know without self-censoring, because any reference to death made people “uncomfortable” and suicidal people could be triggered by it and immoderate words could lead to immoderate actions.  (It was unclear if anyone was being triggered themselves, or just concerned that it was possible; since distancing language is common when trauma is involved, I don’t make any conclusions.)  The argument escalated to basically an insistence that, to be a good person, one should be willing to self-censor anything that might be triggering.  Not to simply warn that there was content, but to completely bar yourself from speaking on the topic in shared spaces, like Facebook.

Now, to me, my Facebook page is not a safe space for other people; it’s a space where I talk without self-censorship to my friends and followers and they can tune in or shut me off, either is fine with me.  No one is obligated to listen.  It is my space to rant and complain and cope with horrible things and share exciting things and get angry at things that are terrible and happy about things that are adorable.  That doesn’t mean that what I say there is beyond criticism in comments, but I am not going to NOT talk about something because someone finds it triggering, in the same way that I don’t always avoid spoilers.  Facebook is therapeutic for me; it is how I process anxieties and questions and my own struggles with mental illness and trauma of many kinds.  There are some things that are for my gratification, and it took me a very long time to understand that that’s OK, I get to do things for myself sometimes.  I balk at the idea that who I am, the experiences of being me, require a content warning every time I open my mouth to talk about surviving them.

On top of that, I’m not going to try to stay on top of every possible thing that could trigger someone that follows me, because it’s just not possible.   I do not advertise any of the spaces in which I write to be universal safe spaces, because they aren’t.  Which leads me to the second incident.

I am a member of a Facebook group that claims to be a “Safe Space” and has a very long list of Content Warnings that anything to do with the subjects in question has to be hidden behind many returns so that people can avoid the content if they’d like.  One of the things on that list is the word “trigger,” which is apparently a trigger for people; hence, CW rather than TW.  Another thing on that list is People in Drag — there are to be no pictures of people in drag in this forum.

This made me very angry.  I expressed this anger in a constructive form, simply saying that I thought it was inappropriate for drag to be on the list, because it was creating an unsafe space for other individuals for whom drag was a part of their identity.  Would it be OK to put “black people” or “women” in your list of content warnings?  “Sorry, any pictures of someone who is not a white heterosexual male must go behind a cut.”

The person who’d asked for the warning to be added responded, saying that they were traumatized by the sight of people in drag and the moderators defended it saying that there doesn’t have to be a reason for a trigger, it just is one.  Except this person wasn’t *triggered* into having PTSD symptoms and flashbacks, they were just grossed out by it.

The result is that, in this community, because the list of triggers is so long, everyone just hides every post and tries to come up with a CW for them, often in vague useless ways or ways that are far more disturbing than the sentence long update.

This is, of course, this particular group’s right, and they can create a safe space for whomever they want, whether it includes me or not.  And it is my right to feel mildly horrified that people are equating seeing a picture of a drag queen and being grossed out with people seeing graphic depictions of rape and having flashbacks to their own trauma.

I want to be very clear here, being upset at something is not the same as being triggered by it.  I am deeply upset by many gruesome images and I dislike seeing them, but they don’t trigger me.  Almost all of my triggers are really mundane, and they happen inconsistently and without warning — I can’t ask the number 864 to suddenly stop existing, right?  I don’t have an expectation that people generally avoid anything that might trigger me, I just have strategies with coping with what it’s like to have a brain that isn’t always my friend.

In much the same way that you don’t have a right not to be offended, you don’t have a right not to be triggered.  You have a right to feel your feelings and express those feelings.  You even have a right to ask for certain spaces to be different.  But I also think it is unfair to expect friends to self-censor every public thought for your benefit and that it is insulting to equate being grossed out or upset by something to being triggered by it.  I get to ask for consideration of my needs, but I also have to accept that other people have needs as well and, sometimes, they are in conflict — and while my need to not have flashbacks does seem, on the face of it, like a greater need than someone else’s need to vent, it’s not really my place to decide that for them.  I get to decide what spaces I expose myself to and how to respond if someone else can’t make a safe space for me, but someone needing to talk about things that might trigger someone else doesn’t make them a bad person.

Safe Spaces, Free Speech, and the Internet: On Your Right Not To Be Triggered
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6 thoughts on “Safe Spaces, Free Speech, and the Internet: On Your Right Not To Be Triggered

  1. 1

    Interesting post! I do think it’s reasonable to expect people to include some sort of warning if they’re about to discuss or link to content that falls within the range of relatively common triggers, such as sexual assault, eating disorders, and things like that. Of course we can’t (and shouldn’t) try to account for every conceivable trigger someone might have, but some are more common.

    But I don’t know that I’d consider it any sort of moral imperative to do that; I feel better when I add trigger warnings to things like that on Facebook because otherwise I’d worry that I’m hurting someone, and I feel a little better when I see TWs from others not because I have triggers, but because it allows me to make a better decision about what I feel like exposing myself to at the moment.

  2. 2

    “I want to be very clear here, being upset at something is not the same as being triggered by it. “

    Yes, yes, yes, a thousand times yes and thank you from the bottom of my heart.

    I flat out refuse to put trigger warnings on anything anymore because the phrase has been so abused by people who think that they are special snowflakes who shouldn’t have to see anything that they don’t like or they disagree with. It’s a complete abdication of personal responsibility, the way it’s used by most people these days.

    Yes, there are certainly valid times and places for trigger warnings and valid circumstances where they should be used. But most of the outrage I see online about it is not at all valid or defensible.

  3. 3

    Sorry… I’m a little miffed that this Facebook group you describe is comfortable dancing around what is clearly fucking bigotry.

    Or… okay… maybe they have a very personal reason for not liking pictures of drag because it doesn’t indeed trigger memories of a horribly personal and traumatic event in their past and they don’t want to talk about it.

    But on that face of it, that really does read like that group is accommodating this person’s bigotry… or… maybe…

    Fuck… I was pissed after reading that section, and now I’m second-guessing my reaction because what if it legitimately is tied to this person’s past in a horrible way that they don’t want to make public?

    Over all, though, I do see your point, Ashley. Trigger warning labels can be abused pretty badly.

    I’m having a sort of internal debate over trigger warnings on posts talking about meat in case any vegans are reading my blog or Facebook. I’m not sure where I first read that suggestion, but it did make me pause. Yet part of me thinks this qualifies as an abuse of the trigger warning label.

    As to the first incident dealing with MRAs…

    As someone who is hot-headed and has an only partially controllable temper (partially because I’m very good at ensuring that only inaminate objects, such as pillows and walls, feel my wrath unless I’m defending myself, and when my anger is directed at actual people, it’s mostly at myself [I’m angry at myself a lot, and when it’s not, it’s at people who are attacking things and ideas and/or people I hold dear; I’ve never been even mildly angry with friends and loved ones), I can sympathize with him quite a bit.

    If I were to stumble onto a thread where anyone was attempting to deliberately trigger a rape victim or victims, I could not be held responsible for the words I would post in that thread attacking the human monsters (I know we’re against dehumanizing anyone, but on a visceral level it is really hard to not dehumanize people who would deliberately do such things, even while I understand it’s wrong and try not to do it) who are doing this.

    At the same time, I completely understand why others attacked him for using violent and over-the-top rhetoric.

    And so… um…

    I can’t remember where I originally intended to go with this, so… um…

    Random comment! Yay!

  4. 4

    One way round the problem of whether to add or not to add a trigger warning is simply to say what the piece is about. That way anyone about to read it can then decide whether they want to read it or not. It instantly removes the mental gymnastics the author might have to go through to decide if the subject matter may be triggering or not because it is not usually seen as being so. It should actually be conveyed in the title. But if it is subtle or metaphorical then that may not be obvious so something more straightforward would be required

    However I as a matter of principle make an absolute distinction between accepting responsibility for what I write or say and how someone else interprets it. There is no grey area here. It is pure black and white. This is not subject to compromise because I refuse point blank to be responsible for the emotional reactions of others. In complete contrast I accept complete responsibility for my own words. Furthermore I try to avoid excuses too. If I say something which someone finds offensive then as long as I am being honest I will not feel guilty. And since I do not lie that is not an issue anyway. I hasten to add that in spite of this I would be sympathetic to one who was genuinely offended by my words even though the principle would remain. Sympathy and sycophancy are after all not the same thing

    Regarding anger as referenced by Nate – I no longer do anger. It is always there of course but it has no impact on me anymore in real physical terms. I have my peace with it and am much better for it. And online I never get angry. It is such a waste of energy. Not being afraid of death might have something to do with it too. But that is just how it has worked out for me. I do not suggest solutions for others. That is for them not me. However if you want to overcome it you have to make peace with it. You cannot fight it because it is more powerful than you and it will always win if you try to

  5. 5

    I want to be very clear here, being upset at something is not the same as being triggered by it

    I’m still trying to figure out how these actually relate. “Upset” is naturally kept at bay by the way our psyche works, but if something manages to “trigger” me, then it’s because these protective mechanisms have failed me, and the subject at hand touches me in a way no other thing could. Except other “triggers”, that is.

    How that deeply unpleasant experience translates into demanding the restriction of public discourse, remains a mystery to me. Why would public discourse be obliged to spare me these feelings, and what kind of windbag would choose the deficiencies of 6 billion blackboxes over the merits of an argument to be the arbiter of truth-be-told ? None that I could call “friend”, at least that’s for certain.

    In much the same way that you don’t have a right not to be offended, you don’t have a right not to be triggered.

    As trivial as this statement looks, this axiom of free expression has been under attack by leftist totalitarians for quite some time now, and with a considerable amount of success. And if you move within SJW circles, the peer pressure to give up that freedom for the sake of superficial decency, must be enormous. Double-plus-ungood.

  6. 6

    Clear titles and introductory sentences should be enough for most situations where trigger warnings are given.

    There may be a few cases where it’s not, in which case an explicit trigger warning is reasonable IMO. Or cases where the risk of triggering is unusually high, it might be reasonable to give a little extra warning.

    That said, once you get very far past what actually happens in traumatic incidents, it’s almost impossible to guess what could be a trigger. I mostly only use warnings when I’m discussing the actual traumatic events because of this, though if I have actual knowledge of some of my audiences more indirect triggers I may warn for those if the context or content titles aren’t clear on their own.

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