I’ve had some fascinating discussions recently with a few friends about things like privilege and trigger warnings and such. I’m writing my thoughts down because not only was it really interesting seeing someone else’s perspective on this, but I also want to be sure I’ve thought this through as best I can… and writing stuff like this down helps me organize my thoughts.
When I stop and think about it, trigger warnings make a lot of sense to me. If something I’m writing or lecturing on could cause a terrible physical and/or emotional reaction in someone else, I’d much rather not do that to them. It seems only basic courtesy to me, like not randomly kicking or spitting on someone else, you know? Yet on-line I’ve noticed a great many Very Serious Missives by Very Grave Men about how an insistence on trigger warnings is the first step in a slippery slope leading to denial of everyone’s basic human right to free speech.
I don’t see this, actually. In fact, what I think things like this boil down to — and this is just my musing aloud here — is a conflict of conscience between feeling uncomfortable and guilty… and lashing out at whatever it was that made the person feel that way. In the US, however, it doesn’t seem to be acceptable to simply say, “Dude, you’re making me feel really bad about this. Can we pause a moment while I process these feelings?” In fact, it doesn’t seem to be acceptable to even admit that one has such feelings. From what I can tell, it seems to emotionally translate approximately as “guilty feeling = (possibly non-conscious) admission of culpability,” and so the guilty-feeling person quickly lashes out in anger, in an effort to deny both the guilt/bad feelings and the self-perceived culpability. Anger as an emotion does seem to pretty much obliterate most others, after all.
Of course, admitting feelings is still socially a “not done” thing even if it’s just anger, and so the entire issue gets recast as something like: “You’re infringing on my right to free speech!” But… I still don’t see this. If anything, in my experience trigger warnings do not call for less speech — they call for more. Every time I’ve seen or listened to trigger warnings, they did not prevent speech so much as they warned of an upcoming and particular type of speech.
In a way, this is what most confuses me when I think about this issue. Most of the people who’re upset with being asked to use trigger warnings seem to be older white guys. So let’s think about this logically: in a society where, on average, white men are the most privileged social group — the most protected physically and legally, and financially most powerful — is it really that incredibly personally damaging to take less than a single minute… to be kinder to someone who is weaker than they? How is this not an emotional win all around?
I found it faintly amusing that one friend professed to dislike trigger warnings because he thought they were a total waste of time. since he’d never noticed anyone reacting to them when he’d heard them given. Fortunately he also seemed to instantly grasp the concept of a warning giving people a moment to brace so no harm will be done. Perhaps it was my example that helped him get it: I pointed out that signs warning of bumps in the road didn’t cause drivers to scream in terror or anything — but it did give them a moment to slow down so the bump was bearable and no one got hurt. I feel that giving a well-done trigger warning is unlikely to cause people to either faint or storm out of the room — it’s just a courteous warning that unpleasant subjects may come up, and that it is perfectly acceptable to leave the room if you feel the need, in order to maintain personal emotional health. It’s curious — we find someone having to go to the restroom in the middle of a talk to be a no-brainer… but I’ve seen people shamefacedly admit that they don’t feel right leaving due to overwhelming emotional pain if they’ve not been given tacit permission (such as by a trigger warning) to do so. That being the case… why on earth would a decent person not take the minuscule amount of time required to grant such permission?
I think, in some ways, I heard the “real secret truth” of the dislike for trigger warnings while talking to some of my friends. From what I can tell, the reason the tired old “free speech” argument is being trotted out yet again is not because of having to give trigger warnings — so much as because those arguing against them don’t know how to give trigger warnings. In that emotional minefield, and being afraid of accusation of insensitivity, they feel nervous about speaking at all. In their heads, I believe, a perceived demand for trigger warnings doesn’t mean simply that they need to learn how to give trigger warnings — it means they are being silenced. Thus the fall-back on the accusation of denial of free speech.
The really sad thing — at least to me — is that trigger warnings are so very easy to give! As a single example, at one point I decided I was going to have to use them in order to be a courteous forum participant, but I still had no idea how to do them “correctly.” So I waited until I had something to post which I thought might be potentially triggering for others, and prefaced my post with a comment that went something like this: “I am sorry, but I don’t really know how to do trigger warnings yet… and I want to make a comment that will discuss issues re possible domestic violence and rape. If this isn’t a proper warning, could someone please gently let me know how to do it better, and I’ll be happy to fix it? Thank you for your patience.”
That’s all it took. No one complained or told me I’d done it wrong. Even if they had, though, I would have just edited the comment so it included their requests. My musings are just my opinions, after all; they are not — by any stretch of the imagination! — the sum total of my worth. If you attack them, I may not like it… but I’m also not going to take it personally.
And if this little bit of musing helps someone through that nervous moment where they decide to accept change and try to be a better person through using trigger warnings… then we all win!