CN: triggering, people being terrible on purpose. Also: I guarantee you that there is all sorts of awful in the links here.
Welcome to The Triggering.
Today, a bunch of self-identified shitlords have decided to strike a blow to defend freedom of speech.
Defend it against who, you ask? Attempts to censor scientists who publish research that conflicts with government policy, and to suppress workers’ right to protest? Banning student unions from engaging in boycotts the government doesn’t like? Throwing bloggers, journalists and human rights activists in prison?
Of course not.
Speaking out against those real threats takes courage. Do you know what doesn’t take any courage at all? Say, spending a day saying the most offensive things that you can think of, just because you can. Calling it ‘freedom of speech’ without having the smallest clue about what that actually is, or why it’s important.
Freedom of Speech: it’s not all about being a dickhead
Do you remember the first time you heard about ‘freedom of speech’? I was a kid. I’d gotten my hands on a copy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Since I was a kid, the first thing I did was try to find an article I could use to do what I wanted. Say what I wanted. Avoid cleaning my room, get out of homework. (I also pored though the Declaration on the Rights of the Child. There was nothing about chores. I was disgusted.)
I was insufferable for a while. Of course I was. I was a kid. I had heard of human rights abuses, but I didn’t understand what they really meant. The distinction between fantasy and real life is blurry at that age. When, like me, you grew up with a gaggle of aunties, uncles and adopted mums keeping an eye on you when you were away from your parents? The idea that someone wouldn’t always be there to right wrongs never truly sunk in .
Then I grew up. I realised that people didn’t fight for freedom of speech so that I could shout rude words in the middle of the street any time I liked. Sure, I can do that. But the point of freedom of speech? Is that speech is powerful. Speech can determine the course of history. Speech is how we connect with each other and see each others humanity. It’s how we’re persuaded to follow one political direction over another. It’s how we inform one another of discoveries that change how we see the world.
Do you know why we don’t have to defend the freedom to say mean things to people who have no political power over us? Because we’ve always had that freedom. When Galileo was confined to house arrest by the Inquisition, I’ll bet there was someone outside calling someone else the 17th century equivalent of a douchecanoe.
If you ask the (perfectly named) Shitlords, nothing quite challenges their freedom of speech like political correctness. And nothing exemplifies political correctness in 2016 quite like the trigger warning.
Trigger warnings, of course, came about when people suffering from PTSD started to ask to be notified if an article or link contained something that could trigger their symptoms. This isn’t simply a matter of discomfort. PTSD symptoms can include flashbacks, panic attacks, and more. And, lest we forget, PTSD? That’s post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s not just the anxiety dreams you (I) still have years after taking the Leaving Cert. People with PTSD have survived events that were so traumatic that they rewired their brains. Trigger warnings allow them to choose when to engage with something that could lead to PTSD symptoms. They allow someone to prepare themselves for exposure if they choose to continue forward. And if someone simply can’t be exposed to triggers- flashbacks and panic attacks don’t mesh well with getting on with your day- they can move on.
Trigger warnings don’t stop anyone from saying anything they like. You can say what you want! Just pop a note letting people know the topics you’re discussing. Simple as that.
Trigger Warnings vs Content Notices
I don’t like to use trigger warnings. My reasoning is this: I don’t know what will trigger someone. Some potential triggers are clear- think of an obviously traumatic experience. But I know of people with PTSD whose illness is triggered by ordinary things. A particular food. A song. A certain sound or smell. Things that nobody could expect to find traumatic.
There’s a certain kind of cleaning product. I don’t know what it is. But its smell brings me back to summer camp. So does the shampoo I used that summer. And kerosene? When I walk out of an airplane and take a lungful of air, I’m twelve years old again. The electricity’s out, and I’m playing cards with my parents in the hot, humid nighttime air of a Dar es Salaam suburb. Polo mints are car trips with my uncle John. Badly-cooked mac & cheese? My gran on a busy day. There’s no comfort food quite like grainy, lumpy mac & cheese. To me, it tastes like love.
That’s the flaw in trigger warnings: it’s impossible to account for everything. Trauma is memory, and each of our memories are created from unique combinations of associations. I can warn people if I’m going to discuss war, say, or rape. But I can’t warn people that I’ll mention lemonade on a spring day.
Trigger warnings are also, as a good friend of mine points out, culturally specific. Class-specific. We give a trigger warning for violence, she says. But where are the trigger warnings for money, or for cisness or whiteness? Whose triggers matter, and how do we navigate that in a society where the more marginalised you are, the more ubiquitous the things and people that harm you are?
I don’t like to use trigger warnings. However, I do think that it’s a good idea to let people know if I’ll be talking about something difficult to read. That’s why you’ll only find content notices here. I can’t predict what someone else will find traumatic. I can, however, take note of what’s in my posts. I can let you know what topics I’ll talk about.
Content notices are also not specific to trauma or mental illness. Trigger warnings exist for people with PTSD. Content notices acknowledge that anyone might, for different reasons, want to read or skip particular topics on a given day.
What’s the worst that could happen?
Imagine that everybody used content notices. Every article published was preceded by a single line briefly outlining any potentially difficult topics included. What’s the worst that could happen?
If there’s a cunning twist in your piece, people might be spoiled. Of course, you could put your content notices behind a spoiler tag if you’re worried about that. Similarly, if you’re discussing a lot of potentially difficult topics your content notice might take up more than a line. The spoiler tag will sort that one too. You might forget to include everything (spoiler: you will), or to add your content notices every time (spoiler: you definitely will). You have an edit button.
Also, if you use content notices then maybe people won’t read your pieces because their delicate, untraumatised sensibilities will be offended. You’ll be down a few hits. And someday, some person will probably ask you to give content notice for something silly. You can deal with that any way you choose. It’s your space.
As far as I can see, that’s the worst case scenario.
What about if nobody uses trigger warnings or content notices? People with PTSD will find it much harder to participate online. In addition to having lived through trauma, they’ll be excluded from many online spaces.
PTSD is not uncommon. A little under one person in ten suffers from it at a given point in time. I don’t want to develop online spaces where 1/10 of people can’t contribute. For their sakes, yes. But also for selfish reasons: I want to read what people have to say. I want an online space where trauma doesn’t prevent people with valuable insights from contributing. I think that our spaces are far more boring when we do that.
But, freedom of speech!
Content notices don’t restrict freedom of speech. In fact, they aid it.
Using content notices doesn’t prevent any of us from talking about something. It’s simply a courtesy that we can add to our posts and articles- one that takes seconds. And if we use content notices, we don’t have to worry. We don’t have to worry about whether people will be traumatised by discussing a particular topic. We simply let people know what we’ll be talking about, and they can make the choice to join us or not.
More than that, content notices don’t just allow people with PTSD to avoid reading about a particular topic. They also give them the chance to choose to read, and to take part in discussions, when they feel able to. Content notices aren’t just a tool for staying away. They’re also a signpost that lets you do what you need to feel safer, and enter with your eyes open.
Historically, I’ve been bad at using content notices. I’ll add them if it occurs to me, but I often forget. However, if there’s one thing that TheTriggering has made me think of? It’s how much I don’t want to be like those people. From here on out I’m going to do my best to provide content notices. Not to censor myself. I’ll write about what I please. Because I don’t want to be an asshole.
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