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.

All photos available for public use: Wikimedia Commons, Getty, Flickr
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Death tribute cartoons are the embarrassing face of kneejerk social media mourning

Whether it’s Stephen Hawking leaving a wheelchair or the Buddhist Steve Jobs meeting God, these grief gags show the decline of cartooning as an art.

Recently, following the death of Stephen Hawking, social media users were treated to the usual display of sad words and images. Among these were the by-now-standard death tribute cartoons, most of which focused on Hawking’s wheelchair: sitting empty as he flies out of it; sitting empty as he walks away; sitting empty as he turns into cosmic energy.

These images proved offensive to some people, implying as they did that Hawking had been constrained by his illness and was not a whole, functioning person with a brilliant intellect.

But death tribute cartoons are nearly always problematic, and their rise is connected with the decline of cartooning as an art form.

In the mid-twentieth century, magazines and newspapers were omnipresent, and so were single-panel cartoons. There were gag cartoonists and there were editorial cartoonists, who provided a visual take on the news.

Back then cartoons felt dynamic and alive – but as the twentieth century dragged on, the single panel became a dead format. All the good simple cartoon ideas had been used and re-used and used again, and not everyone can create an original single-panel image that’s funny or makes an interesting point; in fact, almost nobody can.

As publishing began to decline, the art was the first thing to go. Today very few newspapers have full-time editorial cartoonists, preferring the freedom of choosing from a roster of syndicated artists. But one of the most popular and durable editorial cartoon formats has expanded into internet culture, and that is the death tribute cartoon.

The death tribute cartoon is different from simple tribute art, in that it uses a visual format designed to amuse, but to be maudlin instead. As near a perfect description for the death tribute cartoon as I can find is German writer Winfried Menninghaus summary of the concept of kitsch: “A simple invitation to wallow in sentiment.”

Every celebrity’s death is treated as an occasion for cloying fantasy or impossibly awkward visual metaphor.

The most common death tribute cartoon trope shows the celebrity arriving in heaven, most often encountering St Peter. It doesn’t matter what religion the celebrity actually practised (as with Steve Jobs, a Buddhist, who was placed in this context at least ten times, including on the cover of The New Yorker).

St Peter only tenuously represents religion in this context anyway; he represents popular emotion and the love of the crowd. He behaves like the maître d’ of a celebrity restaurant, trading quips with stars and sometimes even grabbing a selfie.

Sometimes there are other famous dead people eager to hang out with the recently deceased. It’s a ludicrous reflection of our obsession with celebrity status.

Other popular death tribute cartoon tropes include: a prop associated with the deceased, abandoned and weeping; fictional characters associated with the star sharing a drink, or weeping; the world itself, weeping.

The Hawking cartoons weren’t the first to show a star escaping a wheelchair; this also happened with Christopher Reeve and Muhammed Ali. Ali was also pictured in one strange cartoon lying on the floor of the boxing ring, having apparently lost to a skull-headed figure labeled “29,000+ HEAD BLOWS INDUCED PARKINSONS”.

The democratisation of social media means that it is nearly impossible to tell the cartoons created by an artist in the employ of a media outlet from those made by a complete outsider.

With the Hawking cartoons, the one deemed most offensive by the Huffington Post was in fact by an amateur, but a much more bizarre one (showing Hawking pumping his fists in the passenger seat of Elon Musk’s space Tesla) was from a publication.

The competition is serious: the right tribute cartoon at the right moment, going viral, can alter the trajectory of an independent artist’s career.

Our culture demands the instant tribute, the quick crystallising of emotion, and death tribute cartoons are made for that. We are instantly ready to be nostalgic about anything and anybody. Death tribute cartoons are a feature of a society constantly being made aware of what it has lost.

They’re never funny, they rarely make much sense, and they pander in a way that’s embarrassing. I’m sure we’ll see many more of them.

Michael Kupperman is a graphic novelist. Find his work here. He tweets @MKupperman.