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Laurie Penny on trigger warnings: What we're really talking about

In the mainstream press, it is common for newscasters to warn viewers if they are about to see "potentially distressing" content. So why is there such resistance to trigger warnings - which encourage openness and honesty, rather than shutting down debate?

Alice Walker
Want to talk about censorship - what about school libraries banning Alice Walker's The Color Purple? (Photo:Getty)

There’s a whole lot of outrage swilling around about "Trigger Warnings". It came in response to a New York Times report on the request, by a small number of students at American universities, that teachers put "trigger warnings" on potentially disturbing texts - reading material that might, for example, contain graphic descriptions of violence against women. The objection seems to be that since so much classic literature involves violent misogyny, racism and brutality towards minorities, whinging leftists should pipe down and read without questioning, analysing or reacting to the canon. This appears to me, as a literature graduate, to be a rather odd proposal for university teaching, and I’m extremely glad that conservative commentators are not, as yet, in charge of the syllabus. Apart from Michael Gove.

I believe the discussion about "Trigger Warnings" is being had in bad faith. I believe it is being used as a stand-in to falsely imply a terrifying leftist censoriousness, by people who don’t understand where the term comes from and don’t want to. As Soraya Chemaly notes at The Huffington Post, stern dismissal of "trigger warnings" has become a proxy for dismissing women, people of colour, queer people and trauma survivors as readers. It is saying that our experiences do not matter - that we should calm down and "grow a thicker skin". It says that any attempt to acknowledge or accommodate readers with difficult experiences is tantamount to Stalinism. Someone is being told to shut up here, but it’s not F Scott Fitzgerald.

So let’s calm down and talk clearly about what a "trigger warning" is and is not. A trigger warning is a simple, empathic shorthand designed to facilitate discussions of taboo topics in safe spaces. What it absolutely is not is a demand that all literature be censored to ensure that moaning feminists and leftists are not "offended". 

I’m not saying that I’ve never seen people try to shout one another down by demanding "trigger warnings", but it’s a lot less common than has been implied, and when it does happen, it’s usually missing the point. I have almost never seen the shorthand attached to films or literature, and nobody is suggesting a scenario where you won’t be able to walk into a bookshop without being told what is and is not sexist. It’s about knowing and respecting your audience; crucially, it is about context. In "safe spaces" like feminist discussion forums, mental health and survivor's groups, trigger warnings are the very opposite of censorship. They allow discussions of traumatic and difficult issues to be had in an upfront manner. Rather than editing the subject material to avoid upset, group members are treated like adults and allowed to make their own decisions about what they can handle on any given day.

If you want to get angry about censorship on school and college campuses, take a trip to the state of Texas, where not too long ago the Board of Education approved a curriculum designed to emphasise Republican political philosophies and "stress the superiority of American capitalism", among over 100 right-wing amendments to the curriculum. Attempts to include more Latino figures as historical role models for the many Hispanic children attending Texas schools were consistently quashed.

Or have a word with Michael Gove, who is wedded to reworking the British history syllabus to emphasise the positive side of Empire. If you're angry about censorship of classic literature, visit any of the hundreds of American school libraries where parents have lobbied to have books withdrawn from school libraries for their sexual or controversial content- books like To Kill a Mockingbird and The Color Purple.

Censorship of literature is not to be tolerated. But it isn't the online social justice crowd who are lobbying for such censorship. Asking that classes and discussion spaces take the possible experiences of their members into account in those discussions isn't just a different ballpark - it's a different game entirely.

A trigger warning is not a rule, it's a tool. It does not demand that we withdraw from topics that are taboo or traumatic, but rather suggests that we approach such topics with greater empathy, greater awareness that not everyone reads the same way.

There is some debate over where precisely the term "trigger warning" entered common parlance. I first encountered it on Livejournal and in related online communties that were sensitive to  mental health issues; mental health bloggers in particular used the term to signal that what was about to be discussed or described might be harrowing for those with PTSD.  One of the many crucial things that has been missed, deliberately or otherwise, is that "trigger warnings", at least initially, were almost always attached to personal narratives. They became a way to share stories of trauma, anger and extreme experience whilst preserving a space which did not alienate the vulnerable.

In those spaces online, we spoke about rape and abuse, racism and gendered violence, discrimination and frightening mental health experiences, but these discussions were not designed to shock- indeed, part of the point of the discussion was that these things happened so often that they should not be shocking, happened to so many of us that there needed to be a way to talk about them. I honed my own writing in exactly those forums, discursive spaces where the personal and the political were raw and real, and "trigger warnings" were just a part of the shorthand I grew up with - and I may have got this entirely wrong, but I’m not known as a delicate, retiring person who’s reticent about speaking her mind.

The book I’ve just written touches on all sorts of potentially traumatic issues, the reason being that if you want to do transformative feminist politics properly you have to be willing to engage with rage and pain. Unspeakable Things is not being published plastered in trigger warnings, and I wouldn't want it to be, but when I sent out draft chapters to friends for comment, I told them straight-up: this might be triggery. Perhaps if you're having a bad head day for body issues you might not want to read the eating disorders chapter. If I were ever so lucky as to see it discussed in a university class, I'd have no objection to teachers letting their students know that there are some difficult passages.

Trigger warnings are fundamentally about empathy. They are a polite plea for more openness, not less; for more truth, not less. They allow taboo topics and the experience of hurt and pain, often by marginalised people, to be spoken of frankly. They are the opposite of censorship. 

In the mainstream press, it is common for newscasters to warn viewers if they are about to see "potentially distressing" content, but it is more common still for reports and narratives to be censored for the benefit of the delicate. Instead of hearing what precisely a famous publicist did to an underage girl in his car, writers simply tell us that he "abused" her. Instead of hearing exactly what a famous comedian said about Asian people, or black people, we are told that he used "offensive language". 

And in all the coverage of the "trigger warning phenomenon", what I can’t help but pick up on is bristling outrage at the very idea that alternative readings of culture might have to be taken into account. Outrage that there might be different ways of telling stories, different experiences that have hitherto been silenced but are now being voiced en masse, different outlooks that are being introduced to culture and literature by readers, writers and creators who have grown up expecting to suffer trauma but not to speak of it. Trigger warnings are not about censorship - they are about openness, and that’s what’s really threatening.