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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Forget fake news on Facebook – the real filter bubble is you

If people want to receive all their news from a single feed that reinforces their beliefs, there is little that can be done.

It’s Google that vaunts the absurdly optimistic motto “Don’t be evil”, but there are others of Silicon Valley’s techno-nabobs who have equally high-flown moral agendas. Step forward, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, who responded this week to the brouhaha surrounding his social media platform’s influence on the US presidential election thus: “We are all blessed to have the ability to make the world better, and we have the responsibility to do it. Let’s go work even harder.”

To which the only possible response – if you’re me – is: “No we aren’t, no we don’t, and I’m going back to my flowery bed to cultivate my garden of inanition.” I mean, where does this guy get off? It’s estimated that a single message from Facebook caused about 340,000 extra voters to pitch up at the polls for the 2010 US congressional elections – while the tech giant actually performed an “experiment”: showing either positive or negative news stories to hundreds of thousands of their members, and so rendering them happier or sadder.

In the past, Facebook employees curating the site’s “trending news” section were apparently told to squash stories that right-wingers might “like”, but in the run-up to the US election the brakes came off and all sorts of fraudulent clickbait was fed to the denizens of the virtual underworld, much – but not all of it – generated by spurious alt-right “news sites”.

Why? Because Facebook doesn’t view itself as a conventional news provider and has no rubric for fact-checking its news content: it can take up to 13 hours for stories about Hillary Clinton eating babies barbecued for her by Barack Obama to be taken down – and in that time Christ knows how many people will have not only given them credence, but also liked or shared them, so passing on the contagion. The result has been something digital analysts describe as a “filter bubble”, a sort of virtual helmet that drops down over your head and ensures that you receive only the sort of news you’re already fit to be imprinted with. Back in the days when everyone read the print edition of the New York Times this sort of manipulation was, it is argued, quite impossible; after all, the US media historically made a fetish of fact-checking, an editorial process that is pretty much unknown in our own press. Why, I’ve published short stories in American magazines and newspapers and had fact-checkers call me up to confirm the veracity of my flights of fancy. No, really.

In psychology, the process by which any given individual colludes in the creation of a personalised “filter bubble” is known as confirmation bias: we’re more inclined to believe the sort of things that validate what we want to believe – and by extension, surely, these are likely to be the sorts of beliefs we want to share with others. It seems to me that the big social media sites, while perhaps blowing up more and bigger filter bubbles, can scarcely be blamed for the confirmation bias. Nor – as yet – have they wreaked the sort of destruction on the world that has burst from the filter bubble known as “Western civilisation” – one that was blown into being by the New York Times, the BBC and all sorts of highly respected media outlets over many decades.

Societies that are both dominant and in the ascendant always imagine their belief systems and the values they enshrine are the best ones. You have only to switch on the radio and hear our politicians blithering on about how they’re going to get both bloodthirsty sides in the Syrian Civil War to behave like pacifist vegetarians in order to see the confirmation bias hard at work.

The Western belief – which has its roots in imperialism, but has bodied forth in the form of liberal humanism – that all is for the best in the world best described by the New York Times’s fact-checkers, is also a sort of filter bubble, haloing almost all of us in its shiny and translucent truth.

Religion? Obviously a good-news feed that many billions of the credulous rely on entirely. Science? Possibly the biggest filter bubble there is in the universe, and one that – if you believe Stephen Hawking – has been inflating since shortly before the Big Bang. After all, any scientific theory is just that: a series of observable (and potentially repeatable) regularities, a bubble of consistency we wander around in, perfectly at ease despite its obvious vulnerability to those little pricks, the unforeseen and the contingent. Let’s face it, what lies behind most people’s beliefs is not facts, but prejudices, and all this carping about algorithms is really the howling of a liberal elite whose own filter bubble has indeed been popped.

A television producer I know once joked that she was considering pitching a reality show to the networks to be called Daily Mail Hate Island. The conceit was that a group of ordinary Britons would be marooned on a desert island where the only news they’d have of the outside world would come in the form of the Daily Mail; viewers would find themselves riveted by watching these benighted folk descend into the barbarism of bigotry as they absorbed ever more factitious twaddle. But as I pointed out to this media innovator, we’re already marooned on Daily Mail Hate Island: it’s called Britain.

If people want to receive all their news from a single feed that constantly and consistently reinforces their beliefs, what are you going to do about it? The current argument is that Facebook’s algorithms reinforce political polarisation, but does anyone really believe better editing on the site will return our troubled present to some prelap­sarian past, let alone carry us forward into a brave new factual future? No, we’re all condemned to collude in the inflation of our own filter bubbles unless we actively seek to challenge every piece of received information, theory, or opinion. And what an exhausting business that would be . . . without the internet.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile