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Author of queer, wry sci fi/fantasy books. On Amazon.
Editor of all fiction genres.

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Trigger Warning: A Dissection and Confession, Part 1

Hello hello!

Today I'm going to talk about something ugly and difficult. Consider yourselves warned. But before I talk about trigger warnings and Trigger Warning, let's define the terms of battle.

What's a trigger, exactly? 

"Trigger: an event or circumstance that is the cause of a particular action, process, or situation.
  • "the trigger for the strike was the closure of a mine"

In mental health terms, the action, process, or situation resulting from a trigger tends to be panic, anxiety, anger, or even violent defensiveness. The trigger itself can be just about anything, but the most common triggers tend to be related to violence or abuse.

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 (not) wonderful thing about triggers 

The second thing to know about triggers in the real world is that they are sometimes reasonable and sometimes absurd. Some are reasonable, such as violence, car crashes, decapitation, and sexual assault; some are small, like the words "bitch", "fuck", or "psycho".

I know this mix of absurdity and logic in triggers too well. Some, like being ganged up on in a discussion or being in the centre of a circle of people who are annoyed at me, are 'sensible things' to be afraid of. Some of mine involve apparently innocuous situations. Being in all-female groups, for example, or being in a space with no hiding areas, or having someone sharply criticize the very short List of my favorite people/things (Neil Gaiman, Leonard Cohen, Neko Case, John Green, and Farscape) can throw me into a bout of nausea and panic.

For people who don't experience panic attacks or phobias or traumatic flashbacks, trigger warnings seem ridiculous: like impedimentia, rather than useful, helpful tools. When trigger warnings first caught academic attention, and wider internet attention, they got abused on Tumblr and drew ire and panic on forums. A lot of us (myself included) thought proper use of trigger warnings would lead to a spoiler-riffic, dystopian, creative hell. More on that later.

What's the big deal?

There was a time when I thought they were ridiculous. An attempt to keep people from their emotions, from dealing with things properly. I got fooled into believing the rhetoric some people were espousing, suggesting that trigger warnings would balloon out of control and end up spoiling novels, ruining all discussions, and basically leading to the end of intelligible discourse in classrooms and forums everywhere. Some survivors (!) called trigger warnings ableist, some said that triggers were too arbitrary to pin down, citing things like the smell of paint or breakfast or a certain shade of orange; a lot of other people called them absurd, and so on and so on, in circles. A few people took a more moderate response to the faddish appearance of trigger warnings, but in response to this extreme climate, Neil Gaiman announced the title of his next story collection would be Trigger Warning.

When I heard about that title, though, instead of rejoicing in the stick-it-to-the-man potential, I cringed. That was after I realised I had my own triggers, and after I had developed close friendships with a lot of survivors. I'd been reacting to things as though triggered, but not having the vocabulary for it made it hard for me to protect myself, and even to know when I was being unreasonable.

Wat do: the musical

So what does one do, then? Avoid the potentially problematic work, which lurks like a shark in the ocean at the end of the lane, or risk pain and suffering by facing the thing head on? In my case, Trigger Warning was a persistent itch. Today, I caved and bought a copy. I have not yet read the stories; only the foreword, which tackled the rationale for the title.

It wasn't as good as I'd hoped, but it was better than I feared. It tackled that triggers are not a punchline or an absurd thing made up for the sake of attention and tone-policing--well, it didn't address those last two directly, but it did validate their existence. I can tell Gaiman either isn't a person who struggles with triggers, or else has a different cultural perspective on them from what I'm used to. And then I managed to read an essay criticizing the book's approach, and even discuss it with my editor and some friends--without panicking or falling apart. Okay, so I almost fainted in the shower afterwards--but it didn't derail my day or make me curl up and cry, something that happened during a nasty attack two weeks ago. Baby steps, to be sure. But steps.

But this paragraph, the closer, imperfect as it is, gives me comfort. It could be read sarcastically, but I interpreted it as sincere. A corner of comfort is a good start, but there are other books that have not been labelled which perhaps should have been.

"There. Consider yourself warned. There are so many little triggers out there, being squeezed in the darkness even as I write this. This book is correctly labeled. Now all we have to worry about is all the other books, and, of course, life, which is huge and complicated and will not warn you before it hurts you."

And yet, people still complain when a trigger warning shows up, complaining that it limits their freedom or that it's distracting. The thing is--do we want to cater to people who want to pretend they haven't been hurt, or help the people who have been hurt to brace themselves?

The thing to know about triggers is that they are basically pressure points. We all--from the angriest Men's Rights Activist, to a survivor and pro-choice activist, to a socially isolated government clerk, to a homeless person couch-surfing until they can make ends meet--have pressure points. We all have demons in the dark. So if you, too, are one of the people skeptical of the utility of trigger warnings, especially simple, general advisories like "Mature and violent content" or "warning: explicit description of child abuse", try to think about your own pressure points. Try to remember the last time something apparently arbitrary brought back a memory, and made you cry or panic or burn with rage. Remember the last time you felt out of control, or laid in bed and stared at the ceiling because it was absolutely impossible to imagine doing anything.

The Thought Police are not coming for anyone, and there are no Compassion Police to make us treat each other with sympathy. We ourselves have to take responsibility--for the sake of those who can't, but also for the many more who are trying.

The weirdest thing, though, is that having trigger warnings actually improves our ability to speak freely, rather than restricting it.  Yes, Virginia, you can have your cake and eat it too. How? That's coming up in part 2.

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! 

1 comment:

  1. Let me say first this was a thought-provoking post. Especially that last bit, about personal trigger warnings. Yes, I guess I have one. But I just can't see anybody putting a trigger warning like this on a book - "this book contains scenes where the MC, lying in bed, hears muffled voices as sounds without words".

    And for me, therein lies the issue.

    Trigger warnings for some content, the obvious stuff - graphic violence, rape and the like - that's fine. But where do you stop? This story contains spiders? It uses the word 'psycho'? As you say, triggers can be anything.

    I recently read a fascinating article about a guy with PTSD. He was a war veteran. He was happy to talk about his experience and in fact made the point that this is one of the biggest problems PTSD sufferers face - talking about it. And another one who was absolutely dead against trigger warnings, despite their risk to him. (Sorry, I don't have the links)

    I don't think there's an easy answer to any of this. But it certainly won't be one size fits all.


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