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

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.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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David had taken the same tablets for years. Why the sudden side effects?

Long-term medication keeps changing its appearance – round white tablets one month, red ovals the next, with different packaging to boot.

David had been getting bouts of faintness and dizziness for the past week. He said it was exactly like the turns he used to get before he’d had his pacemaker inserted. A malfunctioning pacemaker didn’t sound too good, so I told him I’d pop in at lunchtime.

Everything was in good order. He was recovering from a nasty cough, though, so I wondered aloud if, at the age of 82, he might just be feeling weak from having fought that off. I suggested he let me know if things didn’t settle.

I imagined he would give it a week or two, but the following day there was another visit request. Apparently he’d had a further turn that morning. The carer hadn’t liked the look of him so she’d rung the surgery.

Once again, he was back to normal by the time I got there. I quizzed him further. The symptoms came on when he got up from the sofa, or if bending down for something, suggesting his blood pressure might be falling with the change in posture. I checked the medication listed in his notes: eight different drugs, at least two of which could cause that problem. But David had been taking the same tablets for years; why would he suddenly develop side effects now?

I thought I’d better establish if his blood pressure was dropping. I got him to stand, and measured it repeatedly over a period of several minutes. Not a hint of a fall. And nor did he now feel in the slightest bit unwell. I was stumped. David’s wife had been watching proceedings from her armchair. “Mind you,” she said, “it only happens mid-morning.”

The specific timing made me pause. I asked to see his tablets. David passed me a carrier bag of boxes. I went through them methodically, cross-referencing each one to his notes.

“Well, there’s your trouble,” I said, holding out a couple of the packets. One was emblazoned with the name “Diffundox”, the other “Prosurin”. “They’re actually the same thing.”

Every medication has two names, a brand name and a generic one – both Diffundox and Prosurin are brand names of a medication known generically as tamsulosin, which improves weak urinary flow in men with enlarged prostates. Doctors are encouraged to prescribe generically in almost all circumstances – if I put “tamsulosin” on a prescription, the pharmacist can supply the best value generic available at that time, but if I specify a brand name they’re obliged to dispense that particular one irrespective of cost.

Generic prescribing is good for the NHS drug budget, but it can be horribly confusing for patients. Long-term medication keeps changing its appearance – round white tablets one month, red ovals the next, with different packaging to boot. And while the box always has the generic name on it somewhere, it’s much less prominent than the brand name. With so many patients on multiple medications, all of which are subject to chopping and changing between generics, it’s no wonder mix-ups occur. Couple that with doctors forever stopping and starting drugs and adjusting doses, and you start to get some inkling of quite how much potential there is for error.

I said to David that, at some point the previous week, two different brands of tamsulosin must have found their way into his bag. They looked for all the world like different medications to him, with the result that he was inadvertently taking a double dose every morning. The postural drops in his blood pressure were making him distinctly unwell, but were wearing off after a few hours.

Even though I tried to explain things clearly, David looked baffled that I, an apparently sane and rational being, seemed to be suggesting that two self-evidently different tablets were somehow the same. The arcane world of drug pricing and generic substitution was clearly not something he had much interest in exploring. So, I pocketed one of the aberrant packets of pills, returned the rest, and told him he would feel much better the next day. I’m glad to say he did. 

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game