Trigger Warnings Have A Purpose

It has become fashionable to bash trigger warnings and the people who use them. Some folks argue that it’s censorship to provide advance warning that difficult content may be ahead. Others just make fun of them, saying it’s silly. Trigger warnings actually neither suppress freedom of speech nor indicate an individual is stupid or a community is unwilling to join ‘the real world.’ They have a purpose. To illustrate further, I’m going to include a trigger warning of my own. After an italicized trigger warning and content you may choose to skip if you don’t wish to read a story that includes eating disorders and depression, I will resume offering my general thoughts on why trigger warnings can be helpful and where we go from here.

TW: eating disorders, depression

In late high school and early college, I struggled with eating disorders and depression. There was one summer, in particular, that was very bad. It was so bad that I accepted I was going to die. My phone would ring, and I would not answer it. I would walk through my parents home wordlessly, moving past them like a visible ghost. What did I have to say to anyone? Insomnia, self-hatred, and sadness. That is what I had.

During these dark days the precious little human contact I had was centered around a message board for people struggling with eating disorders. Though it seems silly to type now, it was, truly, my lifeline to the outside world. Therapy was not a safe place — during a group therapy session, one of the other patients attacked me for being ‘immoral.’ Eventually solo therapy became unsafe as well, and I was kicked out my entire treatment program for continuing to lose weight. I was told that I was a legal liability if I kept showing up, and if I did they would pursue a court order to put me in a state-run facility (by that time they had already hospitalized me three times). Between that and my inability to connect with friends and family, it was this message board that kept me going.

On this board I found other people struggling with the same obsessions and problems I had, and it wasn’t too tragic to speak openly about what I was experiencing. Primarily the board was a place for emotional support. Most of us wanted to get better, and so we used trigger warnings to discuss specifics that someone else might use a blueprint for self-harm. For instance, a trigger warning might set off specific information about restricting behaviors. My eating disorder was so strong at that time that I couldn’t simply read that someone had only eaten x, y, and z all week without using that information to harm myself. I used the trigger warnings like an adult, and I do think they helped me participate safely in the only form of human connection that worked for me during a hideous and dangerous period in my life.

So, it has been with interest that I’ve watched the current handwringing over trigger warnings. Simply put, if someone has chosen to offer a trigger warning before a topic that you have no problem openly discussing — perhaps eating disorders, sexual violence, or abusive relationships — you are not the intended recipient of that person’s additional consideration. There is no reason to bully the person for thinking you are “weak” (they don’t), or for “coddling” others (they’re not). Trigger warnings are good-faith, inter-community signals for people who have had a hard time with something you (thankfully) have not.

Not too long ago, Katy Waldman at Slate attacked Jessica Luther for using trigger warnings on Twitter. She did not bother to interview Jessica to ask why she had used a trigger warning in a tweet related to rape. Instead she dismissed her as ridiculous for not recognizing that Twitter is an open forum. Sure, Twitter is an open forum, but it is also very much a vibrant feminist organizing and awareness-raising space — and in this space, it’s indisputable that Jessica is a leader. I don’t doubt that many of Jessica’s followers appreciated the trigger warning, and I also don’t think Jessica’s wrong to use it. It’s her microphone. (This entire incident had an undertone of l’affaire Keller, in which former New York Times executive editor Bill Keller and his wife, journalist Emma Gilbey Keller each wrote columns attacking terminal cancer patient Lisa Bonchek Adams for tweeting the reality of her illness; among the many dynamics, you have those with media power attacking those with social media power for not following their conventional standards of editing.)

I’d also like to address this idea that trigger warnings are “censorship.” I have written before about the frequent charge that feminists attempt to “censor” others. As I wrote then, we need to take consideration of what censorship actually means, by definition, which is “changing or suppressing speech or writing that is considered subversive of the common good”:

In other words, censorship is practiced by governments or institutions for the purposes of control. It is associated most frequently with authoritarian states or religions. It is generally against freedom, which is, again, not where feminism and other civil and human rights movements calling for the emancipation, empowerment and inclusion of more people and more people’s perspectives in free public life are headed.

In the case of trigger warnings in specific, it’s censorship to bar someone from being able to offer a trigger warning. Of course, much of the hullabaloo revolves around various universities that are grappling with student requests that professors offer trigger warnings on their syllabi in order to identify material that may be triggering. Many professors don’t want to do that (Brittany Cooper has an excellent piece on that here) and I support them. I’d also like to be perfectly clear that I do not support banning books and have written before about one mother’s quest to ban Toni Morrison’s Beloved from the public school system after it made her son uncomfortable. Banning books and material is not the same thing as a trigger warning. I’d also like to distinguish between trigger warnings voluntarily adopted within a self-selected community of activists or likeminded people as fundamentally distinct from a top-down mandate within an institution of higher learning.

But I do think, in the case of these students, that we might be better served by asking why so many students continue to feel a need for trigger warnings. The underlying point is that the world remains a difficult, dangerous, and violent place for many, and especially on the basis of race, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, and ability. For example, we should look the overwhelming preponderance of sexual crimes in the eye, and especially on a policy level that addresses root causes. Are the students ridiculous for requesting trigger warnings? No. They will probably not get what they asked for, but the requests themselves present multiple opportunities for all of us to grow.


White Guys Doing It By Themselves

Follow my new Tumblr: white guys doing it by themselves.

From the House GOP conference live-tweeting its get-together during the shutdown under the hashtag “Fairness For All” to the school board in North Carolina that banned The Invisible Man, white guys doing it by themselves is a tribute to white men totally comfortable telling everyone else how it’s gonna be.

Don’t worry, is still my blog-blog, so stick around here, too!

On Feminism And Accusations Of Censorship

There are certain joyless people in this world, generally belonging to a subset of angry white men whose fortunes depend, at least in part, upon furthering racism, sexism and homophobia, who would have you believe that feminists are politically correct harridans obsessed with censorship and shutting you the hell up. Since feminists stand for freedom and justice for all people, starting with women at the center, this charge tends to be inaccurate, untrue and, often, purposefully misleading in keeping with a larger right-wing strategy of claiming victimization on behalf of the dominant whenever the gals, gays and people of color get a little more visible.

Censorship is the institution, system or practice of censoring. Let’s consider the following discussion from the Concise Encyclopedia on the Merriam-Webster online dictionary:

Act of changing or suppressing speech or writing that is considered subversive of the common good. In the past, most governments believed it their duty to regulate the morals of their people; only with the rise in the status of the individual and individual rights did censorship come to seem objectionable. Censorship may be preemptive (preventing the publication or broadcast of undesirable information) or punitive (punishing those who publish or broadcast offending material). In Europe, both the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches practiced censorship, as did the absolute monarchies of the 17th and 18th centuries. Authoritarian governments such as those in China, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, and the former Soviet Union have employed pervasive censorship, which is generally opposed by underground movements engaged in the circulation of samizdat literature. In the U.S. in the 20th century, censorship focused largely on works of fiction deemed guilty of obscenity (e.g., James Joyce‘s Ulysses and D.H. Lawrence‘s Lady Chatterley’s Lover), though periodic acts of political censorship also occurred (e.g., the effort to purge school textbooks of possible left-wing content in the 1950s). In the late 20th century, some called for censorship of so-called hate speech, language deemed threatening (or sometimes merely offensive) to various subsections of the population. Censorship in the U.S. is usually opposed by the American Civil Liberties Union. In Germany after World War II it became a crime to deny the Holocaust or to publish pro-Nazi publications. See also Pentagon Papers.

In other words, censorship is practiced by governments or institutions for the purposes of control. It is associated most frequently with authoritarian states or religions. It is generally against freedom, which is, again, not where feminism and other civil and human rights movements calling for the emancipation, empowerment and inclusion of more people and more people’s perspectives in free public life are headed.

This stands in stark contrast to religious and/or sexual fundamentalist movements who regularly call for the restriction or silencing of medically and scientifically accurate information, or simultaneous presentation of know-nothing mockery and false equivalences having no basis in reality, as well as consensual sexual expression and artistic depictions thereof, within public schools, public libraries and public life for the purposes of maintaining a currently unequal and unjust balance of power that favors heterosexual white men with money and some allegedly, dubiously celibate men within religious orders that seem to spend increasing amounts of time and money to suppress free sexuality on others’ behalf and hide sexual proclivities or outright crimes on their own behalf. Here are a few quick examples of their censorships and/or justifications for them:

  • “Evolution is just a theory, but Creationism has been advancing within the scientific community.”
  • “Abortion is never necessary to save a woman’s life.”
  • “Schools shouldn’t teach about condoms because they make you more likely to get sexually transmitted infections.”
  • “If you’re raped, you’re less likely to get pregnant than with consensual sex, therefore if you’re pregnant you wanted it.”
  • The regularly reoccuring Global Gag Rule that has required international family planning entities that receive U.S. funds not use any separate funds to even say the word “abortion.”
  • The history of books, including James Joyce’s Ulysses, going to court within the United States.

There are a few regularly reoccurring accusations of censorship leveled against feminists that I’d like to address directly, and why the actions discussed are not censorship.

Applying pressure to a private business that has condoned, promoted or not taken a position against hate speech against women is not censorship, it’s activism. Our lives are increasingly defined by corporations and their policies. Telling an advertiser to stop objectifying women isn’t censorship, it’s applying consumer demand within the free market. Telling a business to stop sponsoring a show that calls women sluts for using basic birth control — nearly every woman in this country at some point in her life — isn’t censorship, it’s assisting them and other consumers in allocating their dollars wisely. Telling a user-dependent website to stop tolerating rape imagery isn’t censorship, it’s an uprising within the user community for the purpose of adjusting community standards to those that are safer for everyone. Private corporations are free to ignore the activism, and they are also free to do the right thing. When given sufficient nudge they often do, because women are important consumers.

Supporting policies that require the posting of disclaimers within settings where medical care might not be offered, despite presentations to the contrary, is not censorship, it’s the supplementation of additional (accurate) information in keeping with the Hippocratic Oath to do no harm. At the local level, feminists often take action to ensure that crisis pregnancy centers representing themselves as medical facilities make it clear that many or all staff are not medical professionals and that they are not dispensing medical advice. That is not censorship. No one is stopping them from lying and saying that abortion causes breast cancer, and other non-truths that have been debunked. Posting a sign when a pharmacist refuses to dispense contraception is not censorship. Requiring Catholic hospitals that don’t provide the full range of medical care to make that clear in materials is not censorship. In all cases they are left free to continue lying and suppressing — how is that censorship?

The “censorship” charge against feminists tends to be ridiculous, and we can expect it to keep on coming. It’s almost worth a laugh since those who yell it the loudest tend to be those who most rely on censorship to continue legacies of discrimination that the human spirit has long outgrown. In the meantime it’s important to remember that those leveling the charge are more often those who wish to leverage institutions to control and suppress others, while feminists are those who wish to expand institutional freedom to allow more people to live equitably and with justice for all.