(tw) Trigger warnings

As Libby Nelson recently observed, “There are probably more articles on the internet arguing about trigger warnings on college syllabuses than there are actual trigger warnings on college syllabuses”.

Even if their prevalence at universities is often overstated, they are frequently encountered on blogs, Facebook and other social media as a device for warning people that the ensuing discussion might contain distressing content.

fears-and-phobiasAs I’ve argued previously, trigger warnings can serve as a way to infantilise an audience, especially at universities where part of the point is to be exposed to challenging ideas. But they can equally serve a similar role to advisories on films, where an audience is forewarned that they might be exposed to violence, profanity, and so forth.

We’ve become accustomed to these warnings for films, and I’ve never heard of anyone finding them problematic. In fact, I suspect many more of us would be bemused – whether or not offended – to unwittingly purchase tickets for a movie featuring extreme violence without having been forewarned of this.

So one response to the issue of trigger warnings might be to say, why not include a simple (tw: violence) or somesuch before a discussion or link to an article describing the potentially “triggering” thing?

First, because there’s no consensus among psychologists* that this is the best way to handle the issue, even for people who might potentially be “triggered”. In fact, because “trigger warnings emphasize a victim rather than survivor role for the potential reader”, they “potentially increasing distress in the long-term via reinforcement of avoidance behaviors.”

And second, which is my focus here, they can treat us all as unable or unwilling to deal with stumbling upon content that might be distressing, and I worry that over-sensitivity of this sort might dampen expression of and debate on controversial topics.

Anything is potentially distressing for someone, so it’s difficult to see a logical (as in, necessary) end-point for trigger warnings, where there is some content that would never need a warning. And if everything gets a warning, that’s one less thing we need to think about – we don’t need to try and make certain judgments about who the speaker is and the context of the discussion, because that work has been done for us in advance.

The problems are at least two: what if that work has been done poorly, and we’re warned against things we don’t need protecting from? And second, making those judgements might well be a skill worth exercising and preserving.

Of course I’m aware that it’s easier for me to question the value of trigger warnings (to restate, given that I do think they have value: for me to question whether they are sometimes or often overused). And I’m well aware that much questioning of the value of trigger warnings comes from folk who have a profound insensitivity to the distress suffered by the people who often argue for trigger warnings.

But speaking from a position of relative sympathy for selective and thoughtful use of trigger warnings doesn’t mean I’m not concerned at what appears to be thoughtless use of them. To return to threat of over-sensitivity, mentioned above, we have to be able to tolerate occasional, accidental and/or marginal threats to our comfort, because any other world is practically impossible to arrange.

It would be impossible to arrange for even one person, never mind all of us. So the trigger warning conversation, and sensitivity to it, is a bi-directional negotiation: people who are speaking might need to try and avoid certain surprises (what? when? etc. are questions I’ll leave aside), but people who are listening also need to be as fair as possible in not placing undue responsibility or blame on a speaker.

As I say, I don’t know what we need to be sensitive of, or when. Well, that’s not quite true – I know as well as you do that we socially negotiate rules of conduct with the people we encounter, in a dynamic way. And the trigger warning debate does highlight that the game in question isn’t equitable, in that it privileges those of us who find little, if anything, sufficiently distressing to want to be forewarned of it.

But an equal and opposite overreaction isn’t desirable either. Here’s an example of what I mean, to finish this off. Last night, a friend Tweeted a link to an article in the guardian, headlined “Sudan’s security forces killed, raped and burned civilians alive, says rights group”.

He was criticised for not including a trigger warning, and his protestation that this was a headline that served as its own trigger warning for the article that followed didn’t satisfy the critic.

This is an overreaction first because, if the word rape appearing in a headline is triggering to you, it’s difficult to understand how you can survive on the Internet at all – there seems no way to arrange for an Internet that isn’t triggering in this way, and the requirement that we do so seems unduly onerous.

Second, and on another practical note, a Tweet is limited to 140 characters and at that sort of length, most of us would take in the Tweet at once, rather than parsing each word. In other words, there’s little or no time for a (tw) to do any substantive work in a headline like that – I don’t think it’s reasonable to think that anyone can see (tw) and then the word “rape” a few characters later, where that (tw) has had a chance to cause you to stop reading, or prepare yourself for that word in any way.

At this point, the trigger warning becomes less a thoughtful application of sensitivity to the interests of others, and more a thoughtless application of a disputed protocol. If we want our social justice concerns and interventions to be meaningful, I don’t think it sensible for us to turn them into clichés.

*Disclosure of potential bias, and a little shameless promo: the author of that post is a friend and my co-author of the forthcoming book Critical Thinking, Science, and Pseudoscience: Why We Can’t Trust Our Brains.

Trigger warnings – Internet civility and the risk of infantilization

Those of you who frequent corners of the Internet that discuss prejudice against other human beings on the grounds of things like race, sex, sexual orientation, physical disability and the like would no doubt have come across the term “trigger warning”. For those who haven’t, a “trigger warning” is essentially an alert that the text that follows might contain words or ideas that “trigger” some negative reaction in the reader. For example, a victim of violent crime might be prompted to re-live their terror on reading a descriptive piece about an armed home invasion.

There’s no doubt that some of us can be insensitive to the needs and interests of others, some of the time. In fact, some people seem to take pleasure in being wilfully offensive, and might deliberately taunt others for some or other manifested difference (or even an imagined difference). Trolls are one example on the most egregious end of the spectrum, but more commonplace is the problem that for those of us – like me – who fit into the categories that have long been considered “normal”, it’s easy to find yourself offending others without realising it, and without intending to.

More worrying for us “normals” is the possibility that this social-baseline existence makes you blind (or contributes to blindness) regarding the privileged status you might occupy in life and social discourse. The relevant catchphrase here is “check your privilege”, and as I’ve previously argued, demands to “check your privilege” can sometimes be a complete nonsense, used to evade the responsibility of making and engaging with arguments, even if it is sometimes true that “privilege” can blind one to other ways of being.

But it can also sometimes be accurate, just as there might be – and are – situations in which we’d want to warn a potential audience that something they are about to read and/or hear could unsettle them. The concept isn’t an alien one – age-appropriate warnings for visual media rely on it, and news inserts are often preceded by a warning regarding graphic content.

Yet, we surely need to take some responsibility for ourselves, in that it would be unreasonably demanding to expect, for example, a support group for war veterans to precede every recollection of some event they witnessed with a “Trigger warning: violence” alert. Instead, the most obviously suitable place for trigger warnings (if we are to agree that they should be more prevalent, that is) would be on content or platforms where a responsible consumer of that content would be justifiably surprised to encounter that which they find triggering.

Take an unmoderated Internet discussion forum, for example – you cannot expect such a place to contain only things that don’t upset you. But you might more reasonably expect a discussion forum on how to raise children to not contain accounts of children or parents dying in labour – an unwritten social contract has arguably been violated in the latter case.

The broad point is that it’s impossible to protect people from all harms, and it’s also only morally expected of us to avoid causing foreseeable harms to others, and even then, it’s unreasonably demanding to expect that we take all such harms into account. I don’t want to explore the issue of which harms we’re obliged to take into account and which not (not today, at least), but for example, I know it might harm the feelings of a religious person to tell them that God is a fiction, but that shouldn’t prevent me from being able to say so.

In other words, both because the Internet is an unregulated place, and second because we can’t reliably predict what people might or might not be harmed by reading, the traditional distinction between what’s morally expected and what’s “nice to have” – supererogatory in philosopher-speak – needs to be maintained here. We might prefer for people to create a environment of type X, but might only be able to expect an environment of type Y.

Because the alternative – of always and only saying things that are guaranteed to not harm anyone – creates such a sanitised environment that it would run a serious risk of infantilizing us. We need to be able to tolerate different points of view, and that which we might find offensive, because that’s part of the way that we learn to cope with the slings and arrows of fortune.

Of course, this approach does advantage those whose points of view, or who – as people, are subjected to fewer of those slings and arrows. But at the same time, there are people who have endured traumas that prefer to talk about them openly, to not have them treated as a “special” topic that needs to be preceded by warnings, or confirmation that a certain conversation is permissible.

Striking a balance here requires empathy – and there’s no question that far more can and should be done by “normals” to be sensitive to the fact that they frequently win at life simply because they wrote the rules. But the solution isn’t to be found in swinging completely to the other end of the spectrum, and attempting to rule out all possibility that people might find themselves challenged, even hurt, by the things they encounter in the world.

The thoughts above were prompted by a worrying trend described in this New Republic article, namely that of college classes now carrying trigger warnings on class syllabi. If a class called “Histories of the Present: Violence” is expected to carry a trigger warning, then it seems clear that we’ve over-corrected – even if there’s a real problem at the heart of the motivation for that correction.