Trigger warnings, and why we use them

Last week, I added a 'trigger warning' to this thread. We've not really used these on libcom as a matter of course before, except for adding one to the introduction of Liberté Locke's excellent piece on workplace organising and sexual violence, 'My body, my rules'. But what are trigger warnings, and why do we use them?

Trigger warnings are inserted into the titles or opening lines of text, or can accompany links, the same way a 'NSFW' warning can give you a heads up before you find something you weren't expecting on your screen. Trigger warnings

Geek Feminism Wiki wrote:
are designed to prevent people who have an extremely strong and damaging emotional response (for example, post-traumatic flashbacks or urges to harm themselves) to certain subjects from encountering them unaware. Having these responses is called "being triggered". 1

Trigger warnings are often used to warn readers about potentially upsetting content (written or otherwise), commonly including sexual violence, self-harm, disordered eating, torture, suicide, domestic abuse and child abuse, although this list is by no means exhaustive. It's not just direct descriptions or depictions of traumatic events, some people find discussions and responses to traumatic events triggering too. Of course the subject matter people may find triggering is highly personal and wide-ranging, as is a person's response to triggers:

Melissa McEwan wrote:
For example, a person who was raped may be "triggered," i.e. reminded of hir2 rape, by a graphic description of sexual assault, and that reminder may, especially if the survivor has post-traumatic stress disorder, be accompanied by anxiety, manifesting as anything ranging from mild agitation to self-mutilation to a serious panic attack.3

Trigger warnings are commonly found in feminist and pro-sex web spaces, but the terminology originates from the study and treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), where avoidance of situations and behaviours that can 'trigger' flashbacks to traumatic events, and other unwanted symptoms like panic attacks and the compulsion to self-harm for example, is a symptom of its own. Trigger avoidance can lead to people becoming incredibly socially isolated, as they attempt to protect themselves from distressing situations, experiences and behaviours. It can also lead to the voices of survivors being silenced, as taking part in discussions can be too distressing.

Trigger warnings offer people who know they can be triggered by certain types of content choice, trigger warnings allow survivors the option to engage or self-censor as they see fit. We all respond differently to things depending on our mood, where we are, what our day has been like, and survivors of trauma are no different – what may be triggering to someone in one situation may not be in another situation. Perhaps someone who finds discussion of child abuse triggering is OK with it when they have ample warning, when they're at home, or when there's other people around, but not when they're reading an article on their phone to pass the time on their bus ride to work. Trigger warnings give readers the chance to choose whether or not they want to engage with something, and that's why we use them.

Trigger warnings help make media more inclusive. They're not trying to tell survivors not to read or engage with content, they're not there to patronise anybody – survivors of trauma are not dainty little flowers who need everyone to tread on eggshells, we just appreciate a little thoughtfulness sometimes. Survivors of trauma do not all respond in the same way, and survivors of trauma have as much right to read, write, and engage with triggering subject matter as anyone else – I'd argue the voices of survivors are in fact crucial to discussions on things like gendered violence, for example. Trigger warnings are about facilitating discussion, not shutting it down. As Melissa McEwan has said in her excellent article on trigger warnings, they're just about being polite:

Melissa McEwan wrote:
We provide trigger warnings because it's polite, because we don't want to be the asshole who triggered a survivor of sexual assault because of carelessness or laziness or ignorance.

We provide trigger warnings because we know that 1 out of every 6 women and 1 out of every 10 men is a survivor of sexual assault or attempted sexual assault, many of them having survived multiple sexual assaults, and just because the larger culture doesn't acknowledge the existence of this vast population of people doesn't mean we don't have to.4

Making sure any content on the site, with hundreds of thousands of posts, was all checked for potentially triggering material, and trigger warnings put in place for everything would be impossible. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to make an effort to include trigger warnings for posts containing discussion of commonly triggering topics. It's a tiny thing to do that can make a huge difference to the inclusivity of the site – I'm not saying we can't discuss rape, for example, just that adding a trigger warning to the intro paragraph of an article or the opening post of a thread isn't really a big deal, and won't put anyone out of their way.

Hopefully this is mostly self-explanatory, and if you didn't know what trigger warnings were, now you do. But of course not everyone will know what they are, and I've seen criticisms elsewhere on the web, basically saying that trigger warnings are liberal, wishy washy crap, that they're patronising, that they're unnecessary, that they're just people being over-sensitive. So, if you find trigger warnings annoying, unnecessary, or smacking of some kind of yoghurt-weaving hippy third wave feminist self-congratulation, then I'm just really happy that they're not relevant for you. If you don't understand why they're necessary, that probably just means you've never experienced what it's like to be triggered, and that's great. But if you do know what it's like to be triggered, if you do find yourself responding in ways you can't control to certain kinds of content, chances are you'll already know what a trigger warning is and why we use them.

Comments

Arbeiten
Jan 15 2012 23:01

nice one cool

lzbl
Jan 15 2012 23:06

Excellent introduction R.

Ramona
Jan 15 2012 23:23

Thank you! Still unsure about exactly how/where they should be incorporated, and I didn't really explain why the specific wording is important, I know it is but not really doing so well articulating exactly why...

lzbl
Jan 15 2012 23:34

Which wording - 'trigger warning' or what you might say after it?

Ramona
Jan 15 2012 23:40

Yeah, 'trigger warning' specifically. Like, maybe it's not immediately apparent what it means, and there could be some clearer way of saying it? But I'm not convinced with that

no1
Jan 15 2012 23:47

This seems like a really worthwhile thing to do, even if only to increase awareness of the plight of PTSD sufferers. But isn't there a practical problem in that trauma triggers are really diverse because (as far as I understand it) they relate to the specifics of a traumatic experience, and are therefore very hard to anticipate? Also, so far this has been used only on threads relating to sexual assault, but there are other common causes of PTSD such as war - shouldn't there be a trigger warning on the thread about Marines/Taliban vid for example?

Refused
Jan 15 2012 23:48

Thanks for writing this, I think it's excellent.

lzbl
Jan 15 2012 23:54

@Ramona -

I don't think so - it's the widely used term, so if you need to know what it means you probably already do and if you don't then a) lucky you and b) google is your friend. In addition to which, any additional information about the triggering content normally provides enough information for people to work it out.

I can't think of anything shorter that gets it across, and unlike a longer block of text it normally stands out enough to notice it even when scanning. Choosing to use different wording means you're putting people who would respond to 'trigger warning' at risk. I've seen trigger warnings being added after publication quite a lot at the request of readers, so I imagine you'd be asked to change/add it anyway.

Nate
Jan 16 2012 23:05

I think this is really important stuff but I'd like to know more about where the wording came from and if there are attempts to give a trigger warning in descriptive terms (like in the intro to a thread) rather than just use the words 'trigger warning'. I don't mean to nitpick or be disrespectful here, I say this as someone who grew up in an abusive home and did a several of feminist political work, mostly around sexual assault. I had an expeirence once with reading somethoing line before I know what 'trigger warning' meant, the term it was on the title of an article, I didn't know what the term meant, I ignored it, then read the article and was rather upset and was like "I wish there had been a warning on this!" and then I figured out from context that there had been a warning, in the form of the phrase 'trigger warning', it was just a warning I didn't understand. That added me feeling stupid to the mix of being upset by the article, which wasn't particularly helpful. It may be that the readership on libcom is generally in the know enough that this won't happen to other folk, but I would imagine that I can't be the only person who has experiences like this. Especially for articles like Liberte Locke's one, which I think was pretty widely shared among folk who aren't regular libcom readers.

radicalgraffiti
Jan 16 2012 23:19

i've seen people before say that you should specify what kind of content you are talking about when you put a trigger warning.

So far i've found that everything i've posted that i might expect to be triggering describes enough in the title that i think its clear, so i haven't been adding them yet, but i can see the point.

lzbl
Jan 16 2012 23:43

Yeah, I think it's good practice to outline what you're warning about.

jef costello
Mar 7 2012 18:50

Thanks for the blog.
Honestly my first reaction was that it was a bit patronising and unnecessary but after I had a bit of a think about it changed my mind.
The trigger warnings I've seen so far have said what kind of trigger there is. Could be worth linking to this post as a hyperlink, ie trigger warning to help people out. Might be possible to do automatically as well.

Ernestine
Mar 7 2012 20:58

I didn't know what it meant:
trigger warning - content _____
would work well I think.

wojtek
Dec 11 2012 13:34

Does 'trigger warning' itself sometimes become a trigger?

Mr. Jolly
Jan 22 2013 06:10

What evidence is there that descriptions of sexual and physical abuse are significant in triggering negative emotional responses in people who have experienced such abuse and continue to have psychological problems as a result?

Joseph Kay
Jan 22 2013 07:11
NHS wrote:
A person will involuntarily and vividly relive the traumatic event in the form of flashbacks, nightmares or repetitive and distressing images or sensations. Being reminded of the traumatic event can evoke distressing memories and cause considerable anguish.
Avoidance

Trying to avoid being reminded of the traumatic event is another key symptom of PTSD.
Reminders can take the form of people, situations or circumstances that resemble or are associated with the event.
Many people with PTSD will try to push memories of the event out of their mind. They do not like thinking or talking about the event in detail.

http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/Post-traumatic-stress-disorder/Pages/Symptoms.aspx

Mr. Jolly
Jan 22 2013 17:01

For sure, and from personal experience I fully understand things that may trigger intense emotional feelings, but for me they are very varied and nebulous, smell, sounds, certian times of the year, certain words, one thing one day may trigger something and the exact same thing the next day wont. I am not querying whether people suffer such phenomena, my question is how significant are discussions or descriptions on a page/online about rape and sexual abuse, that are general or about other people? Are they so significant in triggering that its deemed to that they need to carry a very explicit warning?

Actually I'm just reiterating what no1 said.

Joseph Kay
Jan 22 2013 16:12

Are 2 words (or 3-5 words if there's a specification of what it's about) really that much of an inconvenience to everyone else? A considerable number of people find trigger warnings useful, seems to make sense to er on the side of caution if anything.

Mr. Jolly
Jan 22 2013 16:42

A quick intro about what is going to be discussed surely would be a more sensible approach? Its not an inconvenience, rather could it not be construed by some survivors as patronising?

Ramona
Jan 22 2013 20:19
Mr. Jolly wrote:
For sure, and from personal experience I fully understand things that may trigger intense emotional feelings, but for me they are very varied and nebulous, smell, sounds, certian times of the year, certain words, one thing one day may trigger something and the exact same thing the next day wont. I am not querying whether people suffer such phenomena, my question is how significant are discussions or descriptions on a page/online about rape and sexual abuse, that are general or about other people? Are they so significant in triggering that its deemed to that they need to carry a very explicit warning?

Pretty significant, and yes.

And, "a quick intro" would be laborious compared to just being able to chuck in a couple of words that the people who need to know what they mean will know what they mean, and everyone else can quite easily ignore. And yeah I guess maybe some people might find it patronising but really I think I'd sooner run the risk of someone feeling a little patronised (after all, we're not installing some filter that says you aren't allowed to read the content, it changes nothing) than someone not being given the choice as to whether or not they have to think about something that might well fuck them up. It's generally pretty useful IME to be able to chose when I deal with stuff like that, and it doesn't really do anything to detract from other people's engagement with the content.

fleurnoire-et-rouge
Jan 22 2013 22:25

Trigger warning on the trigger warning thread

I try not to base too many arguments on personal experience, because they are so subjective and no two people experiencing the same thing are necessarily going to react in the same way but I hope this might be a useful explanation.
When I first saw trigger warnings appear on articles I wasn't all that sure what difference they would make, after all it wouldn't actually change the content. However, I've changed my mind now. I experienced sexual abuse as a child and quite honestly felt that I was totally done and dusted with it, moved on and filed it under the whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger heading. And to a large extent I thought in an odd way it helped make me the way I am, in that it was one of the factors which made me strongly feel that no-one has the right to fuck over anyone else. And then the Jimmy Savile thing happened and it was so pervasive, even in the media over here and people that I didn't know would hear my accent and ask me to explain it and I reacted in a way that I would never have predicted even a few weeks earlier. Quite frankly I was a wreck for a few weeks, having panic attacks and anxiety, the whole thing threw me back to a place that I was a long time ago, even though my experiences were not the same as those in the Savile case. ( I think I'm OK now, btw.) My point is that you never know someone's state of mind, not even my own apparently, and you never know what is going to have a detrimental effect on someone's mental health. So I think that trigger warnings are not so much a fashionable, politically correct thing to do, rather an act of courtesy, giving someone the choice if they want to go somewhere, to give them the heads-up that there may be something which might cause them distress.
And now I feel like I've just been to some kind of meeting and done a disclosure, and I feel a bit silly and uncomfortable with posting up personal stuff, but I just think that putting up trigger warnings is just being kind. I had no idea I was going to have a meltdown but it's just nice to give people the option to avoid causing themselves pain that they might not be able to deal with right then.

fleurnoire-et-rouge
Jan 22 2013 22:27

And I may well come back after a couple of beers and edit that one out entirely, it's not something I would generally want to post here.

Ramona
Jan 22 2013 23:19

Even if you do edit that out, really appreciate your opinion and you've explained, I think, the whole point really well: it's just being polite and giving people the chance to not engage with something if they don't feel up to it. Thanks very much for your post.

Steven.
Jan 22 2013 23:30

Yes, thanks very much for that contribution. I was sceptical of the utility at first but definitely think it is worth doing now. And if anyone notices any articles we have which should have trigger warnings on but don't please let us know in the comments below so we can edit them in.

Mr. Jolly
Jan 24 2013 10:54
Ramona wrote:
Pretty significant, and yes.

And, "a quick intro" would be laborious compared to just being able to chuck in a couple of words that the people who need to know what they mean will know what they mean, and everyone else can quite easily ignore. And yeah I guess maybe some people might find it patronising but really I think I'd sooner run the risk of someone feeling a little patronised (after all, we're not installing some filter that says you aren't allowed to read the content, it changes nothing) than someone not being given the choice as to whether or not they have to think about something that might well fuck them up. It's generally pretty useful IME to be able to chose when I deal with stuff like that, and it doesn't really do anything to detract from other people's engagement with the content.

Fair enough.

jef costello
Jan 24 2013 21:27

I was also sceptical at first, but they don't hurt and they might help so I think they're worth putting in.

Ramona
Sep 1 2013 10:06

Wanted to revisit this briefly to see what people thought about switching from "trigger warning" to "content note", in light of Izbl's post on "Things women say that you hate hearing all the time"

Izbl wrote:
First off, if you're using triggerwarning sarcastically you're a fucking dick. NB thewholeof libcom if you don't liketriggerwarnings you can usethe formulation 'content note' which has thesame effect, is applicableto people who don't get triggered and is just as good.

It seems like the phrase "trigger warning" might act as a red flag for certain people (not on this thread I might add) who do not have good intentions when using it/parodying its use, maybe "content note" might get round that? Or maybe it'd just raise the same issues of being patronising/infantilising regardless of the term used.

Also, looking back at Izbl's post on this thread from ages ago that makes good points too

Izbl wrote:
Idon't think so- it's thewidely used term, so if you need to know what it means you probably already do and ifyou don't then a) lucky you and b) google is yourfriend. In addition to which, any additional information about thetriggering content normally provides enough information for peopleto work it out.

Ican't thinkof anything shorter that gets it across, and unlikea longer block of text it normally stands out enough to noticeit even when scanning. Choosing to usedifferent wording means you'reputting peoplewho would respond to'triggerwarning' atrisk. I'veseen trigger warnings being added after publication quitea lot at therequest of readers, so Iimagineyou'd be asked to change/add it anyway.

So if anyone has opinions either way it'd be good to hear them, unless your opinion is "this whole thing is privilege theory gone mad" in which case no wink

Harrison
Sep 1 2013 15:03

I think content note sounds much better, ideally someone might also create a small graphic, so as to leave behind the bold caps lock text and exclamation marks, which can look a bit 4chan.

(this said as someone who supports the concept of tw's)

Webby
Sep 1 2013 11:47

If people know they mean the same thing I don't think it makes any difference what term is used. It's not as if trigger warning is misleading or sensationalised. Those that don't like it really need to get over it - maybe they don't have experience of how important they can be to some people and if so accept that they don't get it. I have never needed to use them but I know for sure that certain text and even more so images can have an immediate and devastating effect people suffering from anorexia and other forms of self harm.

lzbl
Sep 1 2013 11:57

I have changed my mind slightly about 'trigger warning', for various reasons.

1. Being triggered is quite specific. It comes from people experiencing/surviving PTSD having flashbacks or crises triggered by certain experiences. It's widened out a bit - for instance, I don't have PTSD but I do experience quite a significant negative impact on my mental health when I'm exposed to certain discussions or attitudes because they tap into a past trauma. HOWEVER I have seen people use 'triggered' as a synonym for 'upset' (openly, I'm not assuming here) and I think that's problematic. I also think it's because triggering has become how we talk about bad feelings. Idk.

2. Trigger warning has become some kind of red flag. I cannot count the number of times I have been told (by men) that they're patronising and make assumptions and what if you're triggered by cheese and how will we know wah wah. It's exhausting and if changing formulation means those conversations go away then fuck it.

3. Relating to 1, people who don't get triggered but do get upset come under the umbrella of a content note. It's ok to find upsetting things upsetting and it's ok to use markers like trigger warning or content note as self care.

4. Relating to 1 again I've seen some critique of trigger warnings being seen as pathologising or othering. I don't know how to feel about that and haven't read loads on it, partly because that's often used as part of bad faith arguments and arguments that say WELL YOU SHOULD JUST DEAL WITH IT LIKE ME (not. cool.)

All of those reasons make me think content note might be a better formula but I think that number two is probably the biggest factor for me here. If people have good faith critiques of trigger warning then content note should assuage them, if it's in bad faith then they can continue to fuck off until the end of time.

My point about trigger warning being recognisable still stands. If you used content note without any notes on what the content IS then I don't think it'd make sense whereas trigger warning might. Still better practice to include some indication with either phrase imo.

I'm kind of surprised by this thread tbh because I was given the impression that libcom had staked out their position and weren't changing it (should have spoken to Ramona eh). I don't think it would be the end of the world to keep using trigger warning. I think it would be disastrous if libcom got rid of any kind of signpost but I'm assuming that's not on the cards.