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.

Getty
Show Hide image

New Times: David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

The digital revolution has had two profound effects on how power is distributed – both of which squeeze the state's power.

Left-wing political parties exist to use the power of the state to rectify unjust distributions of power in society. What has gone wrong with this project? First, the political parties bit. Established parties everywhere are struggling to seem relevant to most people’s everyday concerns: they look increasingly like the tired relics of a more hierarchical age. The exception, of course, is the current Labour Party, which has opened itself up to become the biggest mass-membership party in Europe. But the trade-off has been to move away from seeing the acquisition of power as its primary purpose. These days parties can only really draw people in by offering to be vehicles for the expression of political resentment and disenchantment. But that is no way to rectify the causes of their resentment; neglecting the challenge of power usually ends up making things worse.

However, this is just a symptom of the wider problem, which is the changing nature of power. Technology lies at the heart of it. The digital revolution has had two profound effects on how power is distributed. First, it has empowered individuals, by providing them with unprecedented access to information, tools of communication and the means of expression. This is power exercised as choice: we all now have multiple ways of registering our likes and dislikes that never existed before.

Second, the digital revolution has empowered networks, creating vast new webs that span the globe. Some of them, such as Facebook, are close to being monopolies. We end up joining the networks that other people have joined, because that’s where the action is. This gives a small number of networks an awful lot of power.

Both of these developments are deeply problematic for the power of the state. The proliferation of choice makes citizens much harder to satisfy. Many of us have got used to micromanaging our lives in ways that leaves government looking flat-footed and unresponsive, no matter how hard it tries. At the same time, states face global networks that they have no idea how to control. International finance is one of these: money is information and information now has too many different ways to flow. States are getting squeezed.

The paradox is that the same forces that are squeezing the state are also giving impetus to left-wing politics. There are huge imbalances of power being created in networked societies. The monopolists are hoovering up money and influence. Personal connections count for more than ever, now that networked connections have become ubiquitous. Education is turning into a way of pulling up the drawbridge rather than moving up the ladder. One temptation for the left is to assume that the evidence of injustice will sooner or later outweigh the disabling effects of these social forces on the state. That is part of the Corbyn gamble: hang around until people are sufficiently pissed off to start demanding social-democratic solutions to their problems.

I don’t think this is going to happen. There is nothing to suggest that popular dissatisfaction will find its way back to the state as its best outlet. It will be channelled through the networks that are making the life of the state increasingly difficult.

The other temptation is to think that the left can achieve its goals by bypassing conventional social democracy and channelling its own ambitions into network politics. This is the other side of the Corbyn gamble, or at least the view of some of the people who have attached themselves to him: a new politics is coming that uses digital technology to mobilise fleet-footed networks of activists who can generate change without going through the cumbersome and time-consuming process of winning general elections. That also looks pretty wishful to me. These networks are just another vehicle for expressing personal preferences. They don’t have any means of changing the preferences of people who think differently. You need to win power to do that.

The state’s power is being squeezed by networks of empowered individuals, but these networks don’t have the kind of power necessary to do the redistributive work of the state. What is the left to do? It needs to try to find value in the fact that the state is not just another network. The right does this instinctively, by talking up the state’s security functions and championing ideas of sovereignty and national identity. But that does nothing to address the deleterious effects of living in a modern networked society, where we are swamped by personal choice but impotent in the face of corporate and financial power.

Rather than trying to harness the power of networks, the left should stand up for people against the dehumanising power of Big Data. The state isn’t Google and should not try to pretend to be. We don’t need more choice. We don’t need more efficiency of the kind that digital technology is endlessly supplying. We need protection from the mindless bureaucratic demands of the new machine age: the relentless pursuit of information, regardless of the human cost. There are limits to what the state can do but it retains some real power. It still employs real human beings; it educates them and provides them with welfare. It should do what is in its power to make the work tolerable and the education meaningful, to provide welfare in ways that don’t leave people at the mercy of faceless systems. The left needs to humanise the state.

At the moment, too much energy is being spent trying to humanise the party. We are told that people are tired of robotic, careerist politicians; they want unspun versions of people like themselves. But robotic politicians aren’t the problem; the coming age of robots is. While the party tries to feel more comfortable with itself, the effects of a networked society are running rampant. Acquiring the power of the state is still the best way to fight back. It doesn’t matter if that has to be done in an ugly, mechanised, artificial way, by careerist politicians with whom we wouldn’t choose to spend our personal time. Better an ugly, artificial politics than an ugly, artificial world. 

David Runciman is a professor of politics and the head of the department of politics and international studies at Cambridge

This article is part of a New Times collection of the future of the left. Read the other pieces here.

 

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times