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Author of queer, wry sci fi/fantasy books. On Amazon.
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Thursday, 2 April 2015

Trigger Warning: Tagging vs Censorship, Part 2

Hello hello!

So, in the last post, I tackled the scary issue of trigger warnings. In case you don't feel like reading the last post, or found it confusing, let's define what a trigger is once again.

Triggers are often connected to other symptoms of PTSD, but can appear independently, the invisible scars of trauma. They aren't the same as a Garcia Effect-coded food or experience, such as--in my face--honey-dipped hazelnuts, on which I once ate myself sick. (The Garcia Effect is responsible for ruining a food once you've gotten sick from eating it: one of the brain's adaptive measures to keep the body safe in a world full of potentially contaminated food and toxins.) A trigger is not the same as a phobia, although it can activate the phobia reaction. For example, two people with a spider phobia might react to it differently--one might have a phobic reaction on seeing a picture of a spider; the other might have the reaction only when in the presence of a spider.

The practical upshot of this, then, is that seeing something or reading about it can be not only upsetting, but disruptive to someone's life. Put bluntly, they can make someone likely to perform a compulsive behavior, cause a panic attack, or just leave someone curled up and crying on the floor for an afternoon. People who aren't subject to triggers but are still bothered by things can use those tags to determine the kind of experience they want to have. For example, the #NSFL (Not Safe for Life) tag on Reddit and elsewhere often denotes disturbing content, gross things, gore, and that sort of thing. #NSFW (Not Safe for Work) usually means swearing, violence, or sex are involved.

The value of transgression

If the sound of sex, violence, profanity, and disturbing content intrigue you, you've just discovered the upside of tagging. By explicitly mentioning these elements in a book's blurb/back cover summary, authors can help readers get a clear idea of the experience they'll have--and help readers who want to be responsible for their own mental health, or who are vulnerable, to keep themselves safe.

There is an urge and a push in the anti-trigger community to tear away these labels because of an urge to shake people up and scare them. Mostly, this is targeted at those who are not survivors. I understand the impulse, but we've reached a point in culture where being provocative doesn't require being irresponsible. In 1990, the sight of Madonna air-humping a bed was worrisome enough that a police presence appeared at one of her Toronto shows, wanting to arrest her. Now, the things people overlook and ignore for their own comfort are things like racism.

The downside

People do sometimes get overly enthusiastic or overly concerned about tagging issues. Sure, it can sometimes impede communication. But generally, the people who are most concerned about overtagging things are the people outside the survivor communities. If we want to find a happy medium, we have to a) put survivors in a position of authority when it comes to discussing these tags and labelling methods, and b) avoid falling into discussions of "theoretical" triggers. These conversations about tagging things for "warning: contains peeling paint" and "warning: contains breakfast" are often derails, and don't reflect that triggers often involve multi-sensory experiences or specific situations. I see a lot of conversations take this tactic. Ultimately, unless we listen to survivors, we won't know how to approach things, and finding a happy medium that doesn't frustrate authors and artists but still serves survivors is going to be a process.

Some people do see labelling as censorship, which is inaccurate. "This is the work of The Establishment," they cry, shaking fists, "and we won't take it!" But this is deceptive, and actually a bit archaic. Sex and violence are pretty normalized. It's hard to shock people at this point. Even so, there's a difference between shocking someone who is able, well, and sheltered, and tricking someone into suffering a mental health event. Trigger warnings don't need to be detailed in order to give people an idea that they need to prepare themselves or avoid the content. Even a simple, vague "disturbing content warning" is better than nothing at all. At worst, it whets the appetite of the curious. The battleground has shifted, and maintaining the old way of not-labelling things with trigger warnings is honestly the best way to prove oneself a conservative. The issues that make people angry aren't just explicit sex and swearing--they're issues of diversity, entrenched power structures, sexism, ableism, and all the rest. If your urge to avoid trigger warnings comes from that impulse to rebel--you need to up your rebellion game.

So what the hell should I label? Everything? 

There's a big four that often require labelling for triggers--suicide/self-harm, abuse, graphic violence, and sexual assault. Harassment and bullying are also often tagged these days, but really, those fall under the abuse heading. Most people can see why in-depth coverage these four topic groups would be upsetting or might induce a panic attack.

Some people take content warnings and trigger warnings quite far, and the outcry to label everything sometimes ends up reflecting insulative elements of white, straight, able, or cis privilege. "I don't want to watch this! It has gay people in it!" (Ask me how many times I've had my work tagged with completely unnecessary trigger warnings just because it included consensual, loving f-f sex. Yes, this has happened. And boy, does it piss me off.)

Content warnings do get abused by conservative outlets in an attempt to bubble-wrap the world and make it safe, but that's absolutely not the same as a trigger warning. As always, actions are defined by their context, and the outcry against all trigger warnings and content warnings sometimes becomes a way to tear down safe spaces. People who are used to imposing their will on others, or are trying to define their own boundaries, often end up clashing.

But as I promised, content warnings do have some benefits. Enter, from stage left, the fanfic writers.

What does fan fiction have to do with content warnings? 

Fanfic is known for its vast oceans of tags and weird sex scenes. However, fanfic writers get away with writing about incest, hardline and scary BDSM, sexual assault, and the worst romantic pairings imaginable because there's a culture of consideration in the community. People tag things so that someone looking for a sweet John Watson/Sherlock romance won't accidentally stumble onto an anal training and puppy play capture fantasy. But this appropriate tagging has led to a freedom that's allowed authors to do anything they want, basically, and that also means that they can meet even the most unusual needs their readers present.

Tagging means freedom

I will rep for "freedom of icky speech". While we do need to be somewhat intolerant of intolerance, and actual hate speech needs to be condemned, there is a large, vast ocean of people saying and doing weird and sometimes terrible things. But if we want to fix the terrible things, we need to talk about them and to criticize them. And the alternative to not tagging them is what Amazon's done--simply removing books that "violate its terms of service" because they contain "offensive content". The problem with that is that it's just plain old censorship, and it's caught some books that depicted the experiences of survivors in the crossfire.

Simply surprising people with disturbing content is no longer an option. It was permitted in the past, but so were a lot of other things, like minstrel shows and keeping women out of certain clubs. The old way isn't going to work, and if we can protect people without silencing ourselves or our artistic intentions--why not?

Thanks for dropping by the nest once again. Leave your comments, rebuttals, and vehement agreements below. Don't miss any of the phuquerie--get on the mailing list. Find Michelle on TwitterFacebook, and on Tumblr, and find her work on Amazon. Check back on the blog to see when one of the irregular posts has careened onto your feed. This is the one and only SciFiMagpie, over and out! 

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