Why I don’t agree with trigger warnings

When I was suffering from PTSD, I didn't want to be wrapped in cotton wool.

Twitter is no longer a "safe space". It has become a vehicle for outrage, to the point where many no longer choose to express themselves at all, or do so skittishly through a network of private messages. Following the furores of the last couple of weeks, Suzanne Moore has put a trigger warning on her Twitter bio, a disclaimer as if to say "will cause offence". That, and her joking about the terminology with Julie Bindel, caused yet more disapproval from some corners of the social network. A trigger warning is not something to joke about. Trauma is not something to joke about. Trigger warning: this next tweet contains a flippant remark about trigger warnings.

For those not au fait with the terminology of the small corner of the internet that makes up feminist websites and message boards, a "trigger warning" initially existed to warn survivors of violence and rape, or those suffering from eating disorders, that an article or blog post may contain language that might "trigger" traumatic memories, thus causing flashbacks, panic attacks, or distress. A worthy goal, although also of limited use, as I’ll go on to explain. However, in recent years the phrase seems to have become shorthand for "anything you may not like", and to many has taken on the unpleasant connotation of providing a means for the oversensitive internet language police to vet content – some would argue.

As Moore was. I have PTSD, but I did not find her or Bindel’s jokes particularly upsetting. I would rather inhabit a Twitter where people feel able to have a laugh, thereby taking the risk that it may upset me, than a strangely sanitised social network where people check their "privilege" at the door like a fur coat (no knickers), with no dance floor, no booze and no fun awaiting them- just a vast, pompous expanse of skittish hacks dealing in whispered platitudes. No, thanks, that’s not for me. In the aftermath of the traumatic experience I suffered, I avoided internet feminism completely. Not because of "triggering" content, but because I wanted to go it alone. I did not want their "safe spaces" and their trigger warnings and their "calling out" of sexism. I did not want any of them as an "ally". It seemed, to me, so very American. I’d take the NHS. Good old Nye Bevan and an hour a week in a room with a stranger and a box of tissues. Reliving it all. Over and over, again and again.

Before I continue; a disclaimer. In explaining my choices, I am not condemning those of others. This is important. I have no doubt that internet support groups and feminist websites have helped many women suffering from PTSD, that the ability to share stories and testimonies and to weep has helped many to heal. But, in the aftermath, it is not what I wanted. Trauma is a strange beast. It binds people together, like twine. And especially women. You see it online all the time. The lifelong friendships formed across the ether, the complicity, the shared lingo, and yes: the anger at men. I felt it too, which is partly why I didn’t want their anger. My own was toxic enough.

It is rarely said, but post-traumatic stress disorder can turn you into a horrible person. I found its old name "shell shock", strangely fitting. Not because I had ever seen action – the poems of Wilfred Owen do not count – but because that was how I felt. Like a soft, gelatinous, wobbly little thing surrounded by a hard shell of fury. And instead of seeking out others in the same position, I stayed crouched inside, pink and seething.

I’ll admit something else that will perhaps be unpopular: those message-boards, those websites, smacked to me of victimhood. I didn’t want to be a delicate little flower who could be brought to tears by a paragraph. I already felt a keen sense of injustice, not helped by the terminology: "Camden & Islington Victim Support", "if you have been a victim of crime…" and so I never heeded trigger warnings on the internet. Not once. The contrary: I forced potentially upsetting scenarios down my throat.

Triggers can spring from anywhere. Revisiting a place, or even getting a sense of it. The odd gait of a stranger in the street; a passing resemblance; a certain time of night. For me it was depictions of hanging or strangulation. You never realise how common they are until they become so laden with horror. The frequency that they appear in works of literature (at one point it felt like every novel I read had a hanging in it), in films, in television programmes. Should they have had a trigger warning? Impossible. I had to - must - inhabit the real world. There was only so many times that I could take the long way round, that I could not go out at night. My therapist used the analogy of a factory conveyor belt to describe traumatic memory. There I was, pushing all the boxes off- toppling them one by one, before they could even hope to be processed. I blinkered myself from the reality of events. I ran from them.

All of us, at one point or another, make a choice regarding what we will and will not expose ourselves to. For that reason, while studying Primo Levi and the literature of the Second World War at university, I chose not to google "medical experiments of Dr Josef Mengele". It’s the same reason for which television news broadcasts are often preceded with the words "this contains scenes some viewers may find upsetting" – so that you can make the choice to switch off. Equally, one makes the choice to be outraged. Some viewers may find this offensive. Some. Not all. Most will be unfazed. But not all.

With triggers, one does not make the choice to have a flashback, or a panic attack, or to collapse in tears at work and have your day ruined by a random reference in an internet post. Equally, as Suzanne Moore pointed out, a soldier can have a flashback because of a curtain moving in the breeze. To have text alerting you to the possibility of a trigger is a privilege unknown to most PTSD sufferers. The world is full of triggers. You could, I suppose, try to liken a trigger warning to informing epileptics that there is some strobe lighting coming up. Except it’s not that simple. I remember my grandfather telling me how one man’s seizure had been set off by the light flickering between the trees as he drove. Similarly, that specific depiction of violence on the internet might be your light between the trees, but it isn’t mine.

Of course no one is suggesting that we stop reporting the news. I don’t think, like some, that trigger warnings hinder freedom of speech. But they do display an increasingly nannying approach to language that is being used to shut down discourse and to silence. Often, it is coupled with a sense of passive aggressive glee ("um. You should have put a trigger warning on that"). I do not doubt that they are of enormous service to survivors with specific triggers likely to reoccur on feminist websites, but it has got to a point now where I feel women I have never met are trying to wrap me in cotton wool, and I detest that. PTSD can make you hypersensitive and hyper-aware – not qualities I see as desirable in a writer or an editor whose job is to produce words for the general population. Whether a survivor personally feels ready to stop toppling the boxes is their choice and only their choice. Some never will; the trauma is too profound to ever process. But there are some survivors who are trying to open their boxes, and a trigger warning can serve as an admonition to stay in our shells. I wanted out of mine.

A trigger can be anything - one man’s seizure was set off by the light flickering between the trees as he drove. Photograph: Getty Images

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a writer for the New Statesman and the Guardian. She co-founded The Vagenda blog and is co-author of The Vagenda: A Zero Tolerance Guide to the Media.

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Not just a one-quack mind: ducks are capable of abstract thought

Newborn ducklings can differentiate between objects that are the same and objects that are different, causing scientists to rethink the place of abstract thinking.

There’s a particular loftiness to abstract thought. British philosopher and leading Enlightenment thinker John Locke asserted that “brutes abstract not” – by which he meant anything which doesn’t fall under the supreme-all-mighty-greater-than-everything category of Homo sapiens was most probably unequipped to deal with the headiness and complexities of abstract thinking.

Intelligence parameters tail-ended by “bird-brained” or “Einstein” tend to place the ability to think in abstract ways at the Einstein end of the spectrum. However, in light of some recent research coming out of the University of Oxford, it seems that the cognitive abilities of our feathery counterparts have been underestimated.

In a study published in Science, led by Alex Kacelnik – a professor of behavioural psychology – a group of ducklings demonstrated the ability to think abstractly within hours of being hatched, distinguishing the concepts of “same” and “different” with success.

Young ducklings generally become accustomed to their mother’s features via a process called imprinting – a learning mechanism that helps them identify the individual traits of their mothers. Kacelnik said: “Adult female ducks look very similar to each other, so recognising one’s mother is very difficult. Ducklings see their mothers from different angles, distances, light conditions, etc, so their brains use every possible source of information to avoid errors, and abstracting some properties helps in this job.”

It’s this hypothesised abstracting of some properties that led Kacelnik to believe that there must be more going on with the ducklings beyond their imprinting of sensory inputs such as shapes, colours or sounds.

The ability to differentiate the same from the different has previously been used as means to reveal the brain’s capacity to deal with abstract properties, and has been shown in other birds and mammals, such as parrots, pigeons, bees and monkeys. For the most part, these animals were trained, given guidance on how to determine sameness and differences between objects.

What makes Kacelnik’s ducklings special then, as the research showed, was that they were given no training at all in learning the relations between objects which are the same and object which are different.

“Other animals can be trained to respond to abstract relations such as same or different, but not after a single exposure and without reinforcement,” said Kacelnik.

Along with his fellow researcher Antone Martinho III, Kacelnik hatched and domesticated mallard ducklings and then threw them straight into an experiment. The ducklings were presented pairs of objects – either identical or different in shape or colour – to see whether they could find links and relations between the pairs.

The initial pairs they were presented served as the imprinting ones; it would be the characteristics of these pairs which the ducklings would first learn. The initial pairs involved red cones and red cylinders which the ducklings were left to observe and assimilate into their minds for 25 minutes. They were then exposed to a range of different pairs of objects: red pyramid and red pyramid, red cylinder and red cube.

What Kacelnik and his research partner found was that the ducklings weren’t imprinting the individual features of the objects but the relations between them; it’s why of the 76 ducklings that were experimented with, 68 per cent tended to move towards the new pairs which were identical to the very first pairs they were exposed to.

Put simply, if they initially imprinted an identical pair of objects, they were more likely to favour a second pair of identical objects, but if they initially imprinted a pair of objects that were different, they would favour a second pair of differing objects similar to the first.

The results from the experiment seem to highlight a misunderstanding of the advanced nature of this type of conceptual thought process. As science journalist Ed Yong suggests, there could be, “different levels of abstract concepts, from simple ones that young birds can quickly learn after limited experience, to complex ones that adult birds can cope with”.

Though the research doesn’t in any way assume or point towards intelligence in ducklings to rival that of humans, it seems that the growth in scientific literature on the topic continues to refute the notions that human being as somehow superior. Kacelnik told me: “The last few decades of comparative cognition research have destroyed many claims about human uniqueness and this trend is likely to continue.”