[Content Note: Narratives of oversensitivity; discussion of being triggered.]

Via Jessica Luther, I see that there's another entry, care of Jenny Jarvie in The New Republic, in the increasingly frequent genre of articles about how trigger warnings are ultimately harmful and their proliferation "now threatens to define public discussion both online and off."

Jarvie is concerned about the use of trigger warnings spilling into offline spheres, like university classrooms, and frets about the possibility of trigger warnings slippery-sloping their way into all aspects of communication (oh the humanity):
The backlash has not stopped the growth of the trigger warning, and now that they've entered university classrooms, it's only a matter of time before warnings are demanded for other grade levels. As students introduce them in college newspapers, promotional material for plays, even poetry slams, it's not inconceivable that they'll appear at the beginning of film screenings and at the entrance to art exhibits. Will newspapers start applying warnings to articles about rape, murder, and war? Could they even become a regular feature of speech? "I was walking down Main Street last night when—trigger warning—I saw an elderly woman get mugged."
Film rating systems, which include warnings about certain types of content, including sexual and violent content, have existed for years. Although they are not typically broadcast at the beginning of a screening, with the exception of cable broadcasts where that has been standard practice for some time, viewers can easily access in trailers, reviews, and listings on sites like IMDb notes about the content of a film before viewing it. Newspapers, too, frequently offer notes about content at the top of in-depth investigative pieces about systemic abuse or violent crime, especially when there are graphic descriptions within the story. These sorts of habits already exist in some measure, which makes the alarmism about trigger warnings misplaced, at best.

But what if, as Jarvie fears, trigger warnings (or some variation, like Shakesville's content notes) became common, even in interpersonal communication?

Well, first it's important to understand what a trigger warning actually is. And for that, it's important to understand what being triggered really means: Being triggered does not mean "being upset" or "being offended" or "being angry," or any other euphemism people who roll their eyes long-sufferingly in the direction of trigger warnings tend to imagine it to mean. Being triggered has a very specific meaning that relates to evoking a physical and/or emotional response to a survived trauma or sustained systemic abuse.

To say, "I was triggered" is not to say, as it is frequently mischaracterized, "I got my delicate fee-fees hurt." It is to say, "I had a significantly mood-altering experience of anxiety." Someone who is triggered may experience anything from a brief moment of dizziness, to a shortness of breath and a racing pulse, to a full-blown panic attack.

Speaking about trigger warnings as though they exist for the purposes of indulging fragile sensibilities fundamentally misses their purpose: To mitigate harm.

If a very simple strategy for harm mitigation went into wider usage, that would be a good thing, hardly a reason to wring one's hands.

And, like film ratings systems and newspaper reader warnings, there exist people for whom this type of sensitive communication is already in use. Most of my friends and colleagues make use of some sort of "heads-up" about potentially triggering material, whether it's an explicit content note at the top of an email, or a, "Hey, are you in a space where I can talk to you about X?" in conversation.

Contrary to the idea that this limits the subjects about which we speak, creating a space in which we center safety and frank communication about difficult subjects, it means that we have meaningful and constructive conversations, in moments where everyone has the emotional wherewithal to have them. The only thing that's been curtailed is the idea that we have the freedom to disgorge at each other without consideration for whether someone about whom we care is prepared for a heavy conversation. In other words: Harm mitigation.

When I recently gave a workshop on rape culture, I opened the session by communicating to everyone in attendance that they may have unexpected (or expected) reactions to the material, and everyone should feel free to leave if they needed to, without worry of judgment or causing offense. "I want you to prioritize your self-care." It took all of two minutes of my time to create that little bit of safety, for which people thanked me afterwards.

The thing about being a person who is triggered is that sometimes knowing you can leave gives you the space you need to stay.

If we understand that being robbed of one's consent or agency or humanity can result in an anxiety disorder, it shouldn't be difficult to understand that explicit communication that reduces the feeling of being obliged, coerced, trapped can mitigate that anxiety in potentially triggering situations.

It's just a basic politeness, in response to recognizing that we live in a fucked-up world that harms lots of people in similar ways.

And it's such an easy thing to do. The only reason I can imagine resistance to trigger warnings, or whatever variation, is that their ubiquity will create an expectation of sensitivity with which people can't be bothered. The sort of people who say that people who need trigger warnings are too sensitive, rather than conceding that maybe it is they who are simply not sensitive enough.

Trigger warnings don't make people "oversensitive." They acknowledge that there is a lot of garbage in the world that causes people lasting harm. If for no other reason, I defend my use of content notes on the basis that to fail to use them is to abet the damnable lie that everything's pretty much okay for everyone, and people who have been harmed are outliers.

And, no, I don't worry that I am infantilizing my readers, who have the choice whether to make use of content notes or skip them altogether, based on their individual needs. Nor do I worry that "you can't possibly predict all triggers!"—the reddest of all red herring arguments against using trigger warnings. Sure, you can't. I can't. But I can give it my best effort.

It's not just about me, and the other writers in this space, anyway: It's also about the readers. "The provision of content notes is an exchange in which readers must participate: We communicate the information, and readers must assess their own immediate capacity to process content in the noted categories, then proceed accordingly."

Trigger warnings, or content notes, are a communication between two people. Not a proclamation.

And, ultimately, they indirectly communicate something else very important between a writer and hir reader: To some degree, trigger warnings have emerged as a sort of metric for how inclusive a blog community is. The presence or absence of trigger warnings can serve as a good faith litmus test for whether a writer is sensitive to issues that affect you, and whether the commentariat is likely to be supportive or hostile toward your participation. It's a reasonable thing for a reader to expect that a blogger who provides a trigger warning or content note about transphobia, for example, will have moderators who do not allow rampant transphobia in comments.

Trigger warnings are thus not strictly just an indicator of potentially troubling content on the main page, but also an indicator of how safe the space might be for you overall.

Evidence of sensitivity is suggestive of safety.

Online, offline, everywhere.

Shakesville is run as a safe space. First-time commenters: Please read Shakesville's Commenting Policy and Feminism 101 Section before commenting. We also do lots of in-thread moderation, so we ask that everyone read the entirety of any thread before commenting, to ensure compliance with any in-thread moderation. Thank you.

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