Sometimes, it's just a cigar

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Trigger warnings and toothpicks.

I am writing this rather than play my favourite RPG, Skyrim. It is rated 15 for strong violence, and excessive arrows to the knee. (Sorry injoke). I may pause to get a snack, sadly the multipack of spicy niknaks informs me they are not gluten-free, so I will have to be healthy and have a piece of fruit. I don’t have any nut allergies, so luckily do not need to check for that, unlike a friend’s son who has been airlifted to hospital already this year, a horribly scary moment for any parent. The bag the apples come in warns me to keep it away from small children, due to the risk of suffocation, although no warning to keep away from small children due to the risk of headaches. Later, when the rain stops, I may go for a walk,  I don’t have to check air pollution levels to see if they are safe for asthmatics, or UV levels to decide if I need to put on sun screen. I live in Northern England, that last is a rare occurence indeed!

I am sure you have got my point by now, we live our lives surrounded by warnings, some of which apply to us, and some which don’t. I may not need the nut warning, but for others it is a life or death matter. I may allow younger family members to play Skyrim, deciding my role as a parent is to take the final decision on such things. However the warnings are there, and accepted by most people who do not think the world should revolve around them. So why the fuss about trigger warnings and why the insistence by some their rights are somehow violated by seeing or using them?

Firstly I suppose we need to decide what is a trigger warning? It is usually a short message before you read something that highlights content that some people may find disturbing. Being triggered, in the psychological sense, is more than being disturbed, it is a response first described in sufferers of PTSD where the emotions associated with a traumatic event are relived, and sometimes the traumatic event itself. I have experienced this, and it is horribly frightening. You are overwhelmed by emotions that seem to have come from nowhere, fear, and anxiety were my main ones. I could not move, or do anything except cry, My heart raced, my breathing was panicky, it was a full body response. The two times this has happened were caused by very different things, one by attempting to read The Handmaidens Tale, the other by a friend discussing a family funeral.

Of course this is not how some people use the word triggered. Like depression it has entered common parlance, a bad day is not depression, and being a little squicked by something is not being triggered, (which to be quite honest is why I prefer the term content note) however that’s how language works. Words are not set in stone, their usage and meaning changes over time. Trigger warnings have come to mean there is content that some people are likely to find upsetting or disturbing, a good trigger warning will explain what the content is. Just as the flapjacks will list gluten and peanuts, rather than just giving a random “allergy warning”

So I struggle to understand why people have an issue with trigger warnings. They presumably do not want others to be needlessly upset, just as they would not wish someone to have an epileptic fit from flashing lights on a TV show. (Another common warning). It seems to be, well I don’t need this, so why should I include one? Surely the most selfish attitude of all is to demand a world that revolves around only our concerns? The issue of spoilers comes up, and I suppose if your creative content is so poor that its only merit is that a shock event is needed then yes, a trigger warning may be a spoiler, frankly I find it very hard to care. Would you not read Macbeth because of a brief warning it contained violence? Would you decide that the only merit in Of Mice and Men was destroyed once you knew it contained a sexual assault? Perhaps you would, perhaps as a world we have become addicted to the shock, to the instant gratification rather than taking time to absorb and process. That may not be a good thing.

When it comes to erotica specifically I would not want someone to read one of my Non Con stories who did not understand rape play is a huge fantasy of mine. Why would I want to do that to someone? I would hope that my writing had more value that shocking the reader, that arousal was from the quality of it, not an unexpected event.

The idea suggested by the Guardian that trigger warnings are censorship is just laughable, as if writing one line somehow impacts on the rest of the content. Recently I touched on a very private side of myself, and my relationship with Carter. A twitter friend who is not a kinkster and knew nothing of age play asked, very politely, what was happening in the paragraph where I described calling him Daddy. They did not demand I change it, but their question made me realise that we are read by a wide variety of people, and I added a brief content note. The world does not revolve around me, and accepting others have their own view of it is at the heart of this blog. So another person needs a line to make explicit what I thought was obvious. Who am I to say which of us is right?

The reference to toothpick comes from Douglas Adams who despaired when he saw instructions on a packet. Whilst he was writing for comic effect I wonder why someone would care about something that doesn’t apply to them. If you don’t need the warning, or instructions, fabulous, move on. For those who do, why insist your way of being is the only one that matters?

Oh and a brief postscript, my views on this have grown massively, largely by reading the ever compassionate @stavvers
”Wicked

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22 comments on “Trigger warnings and toothpicks.

  1. carter2011
    May 29, 2014

    Such a beautifully structured argument – and lightly done…

    Like

    • jemima2013
      May 29, 2014

      thank you

      Like

  2. Marie Rebelle
    May 29, 2014

    This is a totally different point of view from any of the others I have read. I have said I don’t need trigger warnings, because if I get to something that triggers anything in me, I will just stop reading. And in fact, I think that even IF there’s a trigger warning on it, I will still read and stop when it triggers something in me, because no one else can decide for me whether it will be a trigger or not. Warnings on food I think is a different thing, because you know nuts can harm you or that you cannot handle lactose or wheat or sugar. But, when you read something, you do not know if it will be bad enough to affect you. For instance, the one rape fantasy is never the same as the next. One may affect me, the other not. But, I know for sure that (too much) sugar will make me sick. And still I eat sugar – sometimes too much – and pay the price. I keep on trying to see how far my body has healed, because I know my intolerance will not last forever. Maybe that can be the same for books that have challenging subjects? We do not want to be victims of a trauma forever, right, we want to heal. With this I do not say that trigger warnings should not be put on literature, I just say that we should not shy away from challenging ourselves and healing through trying to face the things that trigger us.

    I like that you have highlighted a different point of view…

    Rebel xox

    Like

    • jemima2013
      May 29, 2014

      The thing is you or I may not need or want a trigger warning, but some people do, just as some people need peanut or dairy warnings. If I read something and it upsets me that is my choice, and indeed TWs can be tempting, often I chose to read something cos of the trigger warning. That doesnt mean there shouldnt be a trigger warning tho, cos i am not the only person in the universe and the next person may need it.
      I see your point about reading challenging things, but where does it say that a TW means dont read this, its a warning, just as the computer game says age 15 or the film PG. This seems to be this misunderstanding, that using a TW is saying dont read this, and i am not sure where this idea comes from. No one says do not read this piece, simply be aware of some of the content,

      Like

      • Mia Sinclair
        May 29, 2014

        Hurray!!! Someone who gets where I am trying to come from!!! Thank you Jemima!!

        ~Mia~ xx

        Like

        • jemima2013
          May 29, 2014

          thank you!

          Like

      • charley
        May 29, 2014

        I may chose to read something with a trigger warning that applies to me because I feel it’s important but the trigger warning gives me a chance to mentally prepare myself for that content so that, hopefully, it will just leave me a bit upset rather than the shaking, crying, panicky, nauseated mess I turn into if I come across material that triggers me unexpectedly. Or I may chose not to read it and just ask someone a trust to give me the best summary they can while skimming over the triggering material. (I take much the same attitude with my gluten intolerance, allergy warnings allow me to take the choice into my own hands, I may eat the cake anyway and prepare myself for the consequences or I may choose a brownie because it’s low in gluten while still allowing me the thing I want or I may chose a gluten free cake/no cake at all)

        Choice is key. I have just as much right to choose what goes into my brain as what goes into my body and I have a right to be able to make an informed choice about both of those things.

        Like

        • jemima2013
          May 30, 2014

          Yes! Thank you for getting it, the gluten thing is exactly how I approach it too (intolerant but no offical coeliacs diagnosis) i know i will have that hard heavy feeling in my stomach, but sometimes want nice bread!Sometimes though, the results are, ahem, worse. Just like reading something with a TW I may be OK, I may not, but as an adult I want the chance to decide for myself!

          Like

  3. Johan
    May 30, 2014

    One issue I have with trigger warnings is that they may create a chilling effect, in particular when applied to the syllabus of a school course. Some students may elect to not read some works, even if they do not suffer from PTSD or related issues, simply because they don’t like the prospect of being offended. But the point of reading something like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, despite the use of a certain word, is to induce strong feelings in the reader. I feel like so much could be lost by creating the pre-emptive fear of offence and by the idea that avoiding getting offended is always a good thing.

    Like

    • jemima2013
      May 30, 2014

      sorry but when did students get to decide what the curriculum content is and what does that have to do with TWs?

      Like

    • I’ve read a variation of this comment on a few blogs – that because there’s the chance that some will mis-use a TW, they shouldn’t be in place.

      I don’t understand the reasoning behind it. Yes – there are some individuals/institutions that may mis-use TWs for reasons they aren’t intended. In this case, students not reading certain books as they don’t ‘want to be offended’. Is the chance of this worth the harm from an actual ‘triggered’ event? I think ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater’ is the phrase.

      Like

      • jemima2013
        May 30, 2014

        It also ceases to be a trigger warning, i think people are writing without any idea of what they are or how they are used!

        Like

      • Johan
        May 30, 2014

        Something I learned in politics is to analyze not only the intended, but also the unintended consequences of an action, and to look ten steps into the future, not just one. As they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Make of that what you want.

        Like

        • jemima2013
          May 31, 2014

          something i have learnt from politics is ppl use fears to whip up hysteria, see UKIP

          Like

        • Big Pink Box
          June 9, 2014

          Would you advocate banning the sale of all knives, scissors, and other implements with sharp blades? It’s just that I’ve looked 2+2 steps ahead, and on the fifth and final step I saw someone using a kitchen knife not to carve a roast, but to kill their husband.

          Better to be safe than sorry. Better to appoint oneself devil’s advocate and JAQ off until the air is thick with the result of your mental masturbation, and reduce people to spreading butter on their toast with the back of a tablespoon, rather than risk the chilling effect caused by the fear of knife misuse.

          Here’s the thing though, Mr self-appointed arbiter of trigger warning usage, you apparently have no idea what you’re talking about and what TW/content notes are, despite multiple excellent explanations, They’re not there so people can say “Oh good gracious, racist insults? That won’t do for my precious Tabitha!”. A TW/CN for racist hate speech is typically to warn someone who has PTSD as a result of racist abuse.

          Being triggered is not about being offended, upset, or annoyed, and I suspect that you already know this and are just pushing buttons because “lol silly wimmenz!”. I’ll explain how it affects me. Big triggers for me are groups of shouting men (but only at night), and the smell of a certain household object/consumable. When hearing the former or smelling the latter I don’t get the chance to do anything, I’m not thinking “Oh heavens no, my lady senses are offended!”, I’m not thinking anything. From the outside I’m told my eyes are wide and unblinking and my gaze is fixed. I’m typically chalk-white, with standing sweat on my face and chest, and my breathing may be in ragged gulps or shallow rasps. My muscles are clenched, my posture fixed and unyielding. I can’t see/hear/comprehend anything going on around me. Sometimes I bite through my lip, tongue, or any fingers/thumb that end up in my mouth, but I don’t feel it.

          On the inside, well its hard to describe, so imagine this:

          Its a beautiful sunny day, and you decide to go for a picnic in the countryside. The sun’s warming your skin, the birds are singing, and everything feels great. Then suddenly it’s pitch black and you’re plummeting downward.After what seems like an eternity, but was probably half a second, your body is engulfed in icy water. It stinks, and you can feel things floating in it, brushing against your face and body, but when you try to push them away you realise that your legs and arms won’t work, that your being pulled down into the depths, and you’re powerless to stop it. Your sense of proprioception has gone, you can no longer sense which way is up or down, whether you’re headfirst of feet first, or where your useless limbs are. The current pulls at you, your lungs are screaming for oxygen. You’re going to die, you know you are, you just pray that I’ll be quick.

          . Then, suddenly, you’re standing in the sun again. You’re filthy, soaking wet, and everyone is staring at you as if you’re a purple sheep. You’re suffering from all of the effects of your near-death experience, but despite showing visible signs of your trauma, nobody believes you, even though you beg them to.

          That’s a rough physical equivocation of my mental state upon being triggered. I speak for nodody else. I know it’ll be written off, but I put it out there in the vcain hope that maybe one person may rethink their wrongheaded conflating of such disparate concepts as mild discomfort with the effects of PTSD.

          Men who are triggered by loud bangs are allowed any reaction from fear to violence. People say “Oh, he must have been a soldier, poor thing”. When a man injures or kills his spouse and claims it was due to PTSD-induced dissociation, he’s lauded for “serving [his] country”, and people blame the healthcare system for not looking after him properly. His victim becomes a trivial footnote. However, a woman simply asking for a heads-up that a piece of Glee fanfic (or whatever) may contain unexpected violent sexual acts, she’s written off as a censorious harpy who wishes to police art and control people. She’s not asking for leniency after assaulting or murdering someone, but somehow hwe ‘crime’ is worse because it’s assumed that she hasn’t been in a warzone.

          Here’s the thing though – living with/through abuse and violence in your life has identical physiological effects to bring at war. The mental and physical effects are indistinguishable. A huge number of women live under the constant threat of violence, all of their lives, yet their mental trauma is written off as them being “hysterical” and “whiny’, but the man who spent six months on a tour of duty is “brave” and “heroic” ever after, no matter what he might do.

          Sorry this got so long. Thanks for the post.

          Like

          • jemima2013
            June 9, 2014

            who anywhere has advocated banning anything? Read what i wrote not what you think I wrote

            Like

            • Big Pink Box
              June 9, 2014

              I wasn’t replying to you though. I understand exactly what you mean, hence the content of my entire comment, which is threaded directly under his.

              I think you’ve reacted defensively (don’t blame you, in light of the mansplainers wherever TWs are mentioned), but I was backing up your argument in the face of this from Johan:


              Something I learned in politics is to analyze not only the intended, but also the unintended consequences of an action, and to look ten steps into the future, not just one. As they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Make of that what you want.”

              He’s implying IMO that his manly logic tells him that trigger warnings would lead to censorship because bullshit about unintended consequences, so TWs/CNs shouldn’t be used. That’s why I mentioned his Devil’s Advocate “I use manly logic in the face of icky womanly emotions”, it’s why I parroted his ” X steps forward” crap, and mocked his idea that making sure trigger warnings go away will prevent censorship. Instead of his “TWs lead to censorship, OMG SLIPPERY SLOPE!” I used knives, to show what his negative ‘Chicken Licken’ attitude reeks of. He wouldn’t recognise a chilling effect if he were a shaven polar bear. Sure wish I could enact some kind of Ayn Rand limitation act tho’…. (J/k Johan)

              So no, I don’t need to reread your post or comments. My comment was overlong because I was explaining to him what “being triggered” is like for me, what it definitely isn’t, and why TW/CNs are so important across various media. Sorry if my first lines apparently wiped out the rest of my comment. It took a few hours to write because it was upsetting to put it out there, but I take the view that enlightening just one PTSD skeptic would be worth it, a ‘Pay it forward’ type of thing. I can see how that might have fucked it all up in terms of coherency and clarity though, so feel free to delete my comments if you think they’re inappropriate.

              Like

  4. Pingback: Trigger Warnings – Is Your Privilege Is Showing? - Corsets and Candy

  5. SubReiSkyeM
    May 30, 2014

    “I suppose if your creative content is so poor that its only merit is that a shock event is needed then yes, a trigger warning may be a spoiler, frankly I find it very hard to care.”

    ^ THIS. I ‘yes’d so hard at this line. I was thinking of that myself and will probably blog about it later.

    Thank you for being compassionate and understanding that not everyone is the same.

    Like

    • jemima2013
      May 30, 2014

      thank you, and if you do blog i would love to read it 🙂 i might have explored that idea in more depth

      Like

  6. Pingback: Trembling | Sometimes, it's just a cigar

  7. Pingback: Life does come with trigger warnings. | Sometimes, it's just a cigar

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