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Taken Too Far: When Trigger Warnings Attack!

I guess this is Jim Talks About Triggers and Content Warnings and Censorship and Stuff Week. Here are the previous two blog posts:

I want to talk next about the fear that trigger warnings could be abused, or that they could be used as a tactic to silence others and infringe on free speech.

As a general rule, almost anything can be taken to extremes and misused. Hypothetically, I could proclaim the color green was triggering me, and demand Michigan State University change their colors. At which point MSU would presumably, and rightfully, ignore me.

A fair number of the concerns I’ve seen raised were, like that example, hypothetical. “But what if…?”

It’s good to consider unintended consequences. We should also consider how likely those consequences are. How widespread. Have we seen incidents to suggest the potential harm outweighs the potential benefit? Are we more worried about hypothetical pain than actual pain?

Are those concerns worth thinking about? Sure. Are they justification to immediately cease and desist all Trigger Warnings and label anyone who protests an oversensitive whiner? Not so much.

Moving on from the hypothetical, what about all those real-world examples of people using “triggers” to attack others, and to shut down free speech?

Sexually Graphic Questions Appear in Cambridge Law Exam: One commenter pointed to this article, saying “Cambridge law students objected to an exam question on various forms of rape and sexual offenses.” But the article says only that students were shocked — not that they objected.

Sebastian Salek, a third-year from Clare College … told the Independent that questions on sexual offences are ‘always going to be quite graphic’, but that ‘this was on another level from previous years’.

He insisted that questions like this are ‘necessary’, however. “The criminal law isn’t pretty and law students have to be able to deal with the offences that were raised.”

The article says nothing about removing those questions. It doesn’t reference censorship, or students calling for changes to the exam. It simply notes that the questions were apparently more graphic than in prior years.

The Trouble with Teaching Rape Law: This article is by Jeannie Suk, and was referenced in that Atlantic piece about the “coddling” of American minds. The Atlantic article argued, “A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense.” But what does Suk’s piece actually say?

Student organizations representing women’s interests now routinely advise students that they should not feel pressured to attend or participate in class sessions that focus on the law of sexual violence, and which might therefore be traumatic. These organizations also ask criminal-law teachers to warn their classes that the rape-law unit might “trigger” traumatic memories. Individual students often ask teachers not to include the law of rape on exams for fear that the material would cause them to perform less well. One teacher I know was recently asked by a student not to use the word “violate” in class—as in “Does this conduct violate the law?”—because the word was triggering. Some students have even suggested that rape law should not be taught because of its potential to cause distress.

You’ve got several things going on here. One is the request that professors let students know when they’re going to be discussing rape law, particularly when — like Suk — they’re going to be assigning students to argue hypothetical cases, to prosecute or defend accused rapists in “ambiguous” situations. I tend to agree that a content warning would be a Good Thing.

Should students be able to skip classes that deal with specific, potentially traumatic topics? Well, skipping class isn’t generally good for your education. On the other hand, neither is breaking down in class or afterward. Skipping the occasional class didn’t interfere with me getting my degree or making the honors lists. (Sorry, mom and dad!) This feels like an area where each student should make whatever choice is best for them. Isn’t that what we want students to be learning? To be independent and make their own informed choices? And keep in mind, trigger warnings don’t automatically mean students will skip that class. Often, it just gives students a warning so they can mentally and emotionally prepare themselves.

As for individual students allegedly asking teachers to remove questions about rape law from an exam, or to avoid using the word “violate” in class?

The key word here is asking. If professors are being forced to remove those questions, I think that’s a problem, yes. The legal system in this country is messed up enough already when it comes to rape; the last thing we need is to graduate a crop of students who are even more ignorant about how those laws work. But Suk doesn’t say she’s actually changed her curriculum, or been forced to do so.

She does say, “About a dozen new teachers of criminal law at multiple institutions have told me that they are not including rape law in their courses, arguing that it’s not worth the risk of complaints of discomfort by students.”

Yeah, that’s a problem. But is it a realistic fear? Is the problem students and others pressuring the professors, or is the problem professors giving in to baseless fears? We all know students will complain about stuff. But are universities actually disciplining or censoring professors for teaching rape law in law school? Suk’s article talks about fear, but is noticeably lacking in examples.

My Trigger-warning Disaster: This is another article linked to by a commenter as an example of trigger warnings being taken to ridiculous extremes. Rani Neutill writes about teaching a class about the evolution of sex in movies, and also filling in at the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention Services.

Before I screened [Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song], I gave a warning, indicating that it was one of the disturbing scenes to which Williams refers. The scene shows a young Sweetback … having sex with a 30-year old woman. She finds him irresistible and thus starts the hyper-sexual evolution of Sweetback — every woman on earth wants to fuck him, including a whole bunch of white women. This, of course, is statutory rape.  When the lights went on and the scene was over, two students left the room in tears. I was perplexed.

Wait, she was perplexed? She’s working in the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention Services, and she doesn’t understand how a scene of statutory rape might upset two of her students? The problem, in my reading, is that Neutill made the mistaken assumption that a trigger warning was a silver bullet, a cure-all that would ensure nobody got angry or upset or overwhelmed.

Neutill continues:

For the rest of the semester, I gave trigger warnings before every scene I screened. Every. Single. One. This wasn’t enough. A student came to me and asked that I start sending emails before class outlining exactly which disturbing scenes I would be showing so that I wouldn’t “out” survivors if they had to walk out of class when hearing what I was about to show. This took all the free form and off the cuff ability to teach. It stifled the teaching process … Nevertheless, I did it. (Emphasis added)

Why did she do it? Reading the article, it wasn’t because she feared complaints or disciplinary action. It was because students were upset, and she kept trying to “fix” that. Which isn’t how it works.

That's Not How This Works

Also, most teachers I’ve known have to plan their lessons, and showing film clips seems like something you’d have to set up in advance, so I’m not sure how letting students know in advance what they’d be looking at would stifle her freedom and process.

One final excerpt from her piece:

I don’t know about trigger warnings outside classes that deal with race, gender and sexuality, but I do know that if you promote trigger warnings in subjects that are supposed to make people feel uncomfortable, you’re basically promoting a culture of extreme privilege, cause I’m pretty sure that the trans women who are being murdered weekly, the black men who are victims of police brutality daily, and the neighborhoods in America that are plagued by everyday violence, aren’t given any trigger warnings.

Shall we play a game of “Find the Messed-up Logical Fallacies in This Paragraph”?

My takeaway on this article isn’t that we’re promoting a culture of extreme privilege and runaway coddling of American minds. It’s that this professor did not know how to handle her class, and made mistakes as a teacher.

Northwestern’s Kipnis Cleared in Title IX Investigation: This is another article referenced (indirectly) by the Atlantic piece. Two Title IX complaints were filed against Laura Kipnis following an article she wrote about “sexual paranoia,” and a Tweet she posted. Of the examples I’ve discussed here, this is the first one with larger external consequences. Kipnis voiced opinions some people didn’t like, and two official complaints were made against her.

Kipnis’ article is available to subscribers only, but the opening sentence is…troubling:

You have to feel a little sorry these days for professors married to their former students. They used to be respectable citizens — leaders in their fields, department chairs, maybe even a dean or two — and now they’re abusers of power…

It sounds like Kipnis was attacking rules that prohibited romantic relationships between faculty and students, complaining that students are, “so committed to their own vulnerability, conditioned to imagine they have no agency, and protected from unequal power arrangements in romantic life…”

The Tweet in question said, “It’s a problem that ‘trauma’ is now deployed re any bad experience. And dating is not the same as rape!”

The problem? Kipnis was allegedly responding to a specific case on campus, an accusation of rape by a student against a professor. She denies this, but whether intentional or not, that was the context in which she was speaking out in support of those poor professors who only wanted to rape have sex with a student or two.

Does this justify a Title IX complaint? I honestly don’t know enough about Title IX law to say. I will note that Kipnis was cleared. I don’t want to minimize the anxiety and hassle of having to deal with those complaints, but she was not punished, nor was she censored by the university.

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I’m sure there are examples of trigger warnings being abused and misused. But most of the examples being brought up, if you look into them, don’t suggest a widespread attack on free speech. The fear and the backlash against trigger/content warnings, etc., comes off as completely disproportionate to any real-world problems.

I’m not saying we ignore those real-world problems, or claiming no such problems exist. I’m just suggesting that many of the things being pointed to as “proof” we’re over-coddling minds and destroying academic freedom in the process don’t actually prove that at all.

Trigger Warnings as an Impediment to Healing and Mental Health

So much conversation and debate after yesterday’s post about trigger warnings.

Most of the commenters here and elsewhere seemed to agree that:

  1. No, trigger warnings are not, by themselves, censorship.
  2. Stephen Fry was being a complete turd cabbage in his article.

But there was discussion of whether the concept of triggers and content warnings can go too far, and if we can reach a point where it all becomes damaging. One individual pointed to an article in the Atlantic as an example that was “better informed”: The Coddling of the American Mind: How Trigger Warnings are Hurting Mental Health on Campus, by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt.

I started trying to respond to some of the points in that article, and after 1000 words, had only gotten through the first few paragraphs. So I’m trying a different approach, and zooming in on just one of their arguments:

[T]here is a deeper problem with trigger warnings. According to the most-basic tenets of psychology, the very idea of helping people with anxiety disorders avoid the things they fear is misguided. A person who is trapped in an elevator during a power outage may panic and think she is going to die. That frightening experience can change neural connections in her amygdala, leading to an elevator phobia. If you want this woman to retain her fear for life, you should help her avoid elevators.

But if you want to help her return to normalcy, you should take your cues from Ivan Pavlov and guide her through a process known as exposure therapy.

NO YOU SHOULD NOT, BECAUSE YOU ARE NOT A THERAPIST!!!

(If you are a trained and licensed therapist, please replace the previous statement with, NO YOU SHOULD NOT, BECAUSE YOU ARE NOT HER THERAPIST!!!)

Exposure Therapy and Systematic Desensitization are processes. They’re done in a controlled environment, with preparation and planning, which includes letting the patient know what’s coming. I.e., giving them a warning.

You might as well say, “Hey, Electroconvulsive Therapy is still sometimes used to treat depression, and you’ve been feeling down, so I’m gonna plug in this toaster and drop it into the bath with you!”
Lucy: Psychiatric HelpAs someone who earned a degree in psychology, has been a rape counselor, has been in counseling, and married a license therapist, do me a favor and knock it off with the armchair psychologist crap before you seriously hurt someone.

Trigger Warnings are CENSORSHIP, and Other Nonsense

ETA 1: Stephen Fry has posted an apology for his remarks about abuse.

TW for references to rape/incest.

A friend on Facebook linked to this article: Stephen Fry hits out at ‘infantile’ culture of trigger words and safe spaces.

There’s just too much ignorance for me to address it all in one blog post, so I want to focus on triggers, trigger words, and trigger warnings: what they are, what they aren’t, and what Fry seems to think they are.

“There are many great plays which contain rapes, and the word rape now is even considered a rape. They’re terrible things and they have to be thought about, clearly, but if you say you can’t watch this play, you can’t watch Titus Andronicus, you can’t read it in an English class, or you can’t watch Macbeth because it’s got children being killed in it, it might trigger something when you were young that upset you once, because uncle touched you in a nasty place, well I’m sorry.”

First of all — and I say this as someone who’s written multiple books that deal with rape — fuck you. Fuck you for belittling people’s trauma with that last line.

Second, to your claim that the word rape is considered a rape? Yeah, I’m gonna just take this screenshot from xkcd and leave it right here.

xkcd: citation needed

(If you don’t get it, that’s basically a more polite way of calling you on your bullshit.)

Tumblr user Marija095 used Wreck-It Ralph as a way of demonstrating what people mean by the word “Trigger.” If you’ve seen the movie, do you remember Sergeant Calhoun’s reaction when Felix called her “a dynamite gal”? The phrase triggered a visceral reaction of grief and horror, a flashback to seeing her fiance killed in front of her.

Felix never uses that phrase in front of her again. Not because he’s coddling Calhoun’s “infantile self-pity,” but out of basic human decency, the desire to avoid twisting a knife in an open wound.

We don’t always know what might be a trigger for a trauma survivor. It could be a phrase, a smell, a sound… Many veterans have pushed for regulation and restriction of when fireworks can be set off, because the explosions trigger their PTSD.

Go ahead, Fry. Stand up and tell those combat vets they’re being infantile. I’ll be over here selling tickets and popcorn.

Getting back on track, what’s the point of trigger warnings if we can’t know everyone’s individual triggers.

It’s true, we can’t. But we have more than enough information and research to know about common traumas in our society. PTSD in combat vets is one. Rape is another. Child abuse. Domestic violence. All are obscenely common. If you’re speaking to a group of more than a handful of people, you can pretty much guarantee you’ll have survivors of rape or abuse.

“But that doesn’t mean we should censor everything!”

I agree. Fortunately — now listen closely, please — trigger warnings have nothing to do with censorship!

A trigger warning is a way of telling people about the content so they can make their own informed choice about what to do. They might choose to walk out. They might choose to stay. That warning might be all they need to brace themselves.

We do this all the time! We put content warnings and ratings on movies. We write summaries on the backs of our books so people know what they’re getting. Convention programs note “Adult only” programming.

None of this is censorship. It’s just giving people a heads-up about what to expect.

Fanfiction tends to be very good about this, tagging stories to warn readers what they’re getting without spoiling or ruining the story.

But what if people who aren’t personally traumatized use trigger warnings to decide what to watch or read?

So what? How does that hurt anyone or anything? Heck, I’ve read so many poorly-written stories dealing with rape, I might take advantage of a trigger warning to reconsider whether this is a book I want to read.

Why the hell are people up in arms about giving others more information so they can decide what to read, what to watch, and so on?

There’s a lot more I want to talk about from that article, but I’ll end up with a 3000-word blog post if I do, so I’m going to keep the focus on trigger warnings for now, post this as is, and go get dinner.

Comments welcome, as always. (And as always, don’t be a dick.)

ETA 2: Follow-up post, talking about the idea that trigger warnings interfere with mental health, and if you really want to help someone who’s been traumatized, you have to expose them to the source of that trauma.

Writing Update

Right around April Fool’s Day, I realized I’d spent the past two months writing the wrong book.

Loki Facepalm

That whole plan to get the first draft done during the month of March? Yeah, not so much. The house came down with the plague, I spent three days at a convention, and oh yes, I was writing the wrong book!

That’s a hard call to make. Every time I write a book, there are parts where I feel frustrated and stuck. I wonder whether I’ve gone off the rails. Am I going to reach the end of this manuscript and realize I’ve finally lost whatever writing ability I once had? Etc., and so on. It’s normal. Unpleasant, but normal.

This was different. This was the gradual realization that the setup I’d created would not work for the kind of story I wanted to tell. Both the characters and the plot were wrong for the humor and tone I wanted.

MiB Writing

So I scrapped it.

Yeah, it hurt.

I’m trying to tell myself I haven’t wasted two months of work. I can reuse some parts and pieces from those two months: worldbuilding, character ideas, bits of description, and so on. And I did check a couple of other things off my To Do list, like an essay for FenCon, or adding a Speaking Engagements page to my website. That’s gotta count for something, right?

Ah well. So I’m back to square one. Again. But I think I’m getting closer to what this book needs to be. Hopefully it will all pay off late next year when it comes out.

In the meantime, I’ve got a chapter to finish…

Aragorn - Let's Do This (gif)

Working For Exposure

Like most working writers I’ve met, I’m not too excited about the idea of writing for exposure…

…he wrote, on his blog, which pays a total of nothing.

Let me try that again. I’m not too excited about the idea of writing for other people for exposure. If you want me to write something — if you want me to work for you — it seems reasonable to expect to be paid.

There are exceptions, of course. I’ve written free content for projects I believe in, for friends and people I like, and for the pure fun of it. But if all you’re offering is exposure, I get plenty of that here on the blog. And to be blunt, my time is valuable, and I only have a limited amount. Writing for you takes time that could otherwise go to other projects, or to hanging out with my family, or even to raking up the leaves and sticks in the back yard.

I’m pretty comfortable at this point with the idea that as a writer, I deserve to be paid. (Though I still struggle with interviews sometimes, depending on where the interview is supposed to appear and how much time will be involved.)

ETA: My apologies. That parenthetical was unclear. I wouldn’t dream of charging for a newspaper or TV or radio interview. On the other hand, if you’re asking me to answer 30 questions for a small, personal blog? At that point, it can start to feel more like I’m writing content for your site, which tips more toward the “pay me” side of things.

Peggy Carter - I Know My Value, by Oh, Man! Homan! Design

Art by Alyssa of Oh, Man! Homan!

But what about non-writing stuff? I’m sometimes asked to speak at schools, or to present at libraries, or do talk about writing at a workshop. What about a half-hour Skype chat with a book club? Or speaking at the local NaNoWriMo kickoff event?

Often these invitations come with the understanding that I’ll be able to sell books. And I do love it when people buy my stuff. But the royalties from those sales almost certainly won’t cover the cost in time and travel.

On the other hand, I love libraries. I love talking to students about this stuff. I believe in paying it forward and helping new writers.

So what’s fair? In general, it depends on a number of things.

  • What kind of budget does the group in question have? I look at an all-volunteer thing like NaNoWriMo differently than I’d look at a dues-charging writing organization, for example.
  • How much time will be involved in the talk/presentation, including planning, travel, and the event itself.
  • How much open time do I have on my schedule?
  • How much fun will I have doing the event?
  • Do I know the people involved?

I still have a hard time saying no. Some of it is probably a midwestern thing. A lot of it likely comes from being a struggling writer and having so many editors say no to me, to the point where I was desperate for any sort of opportunity.

It’s harder still to say, “Maybe. How much will you pay me?”

But as writers, I believe we have a right to ask to be paid for our work, and that’s not limited just to writing. Some places have a budget for speakers, and are happy to pay. Sometimes they offer up front, which is nice, and much less awkward.

But regardless, it’s okay to ask. It’s okay to say, “This is what my time is worth.” Some people might not be willing to pay what you want, and that’s okay too. This is business, and as long you’re not a jerk about it, there shouldn’t be any hard feelings.

It’s also okay to make exceptions. My daughter’s fourth grade teacher was a wonderful person, and I ended up doing presentations to her class for several years in a row, because I liked her and I had a lot of fun. (Plus, they did things like make me cakes.) But there’s a distinction between doing something for free because you want to, and doing it because you feel uncomfortable saying no or asking to be paid.

Your knowledge and experience and time are all valuable. So are mine.

(As you may have guessed, I wrote this as much for myself as for the rest of you…)

Three Book Recommendations – Janet Kagan

I posted on Facebook that I’d begun reading Janet Kagan’s Hellspark to my son, and a number of people said they hadn’t heard of the book, or they’d heard of it but hadn’t read it. I’m here to try to remedy that!

Janet was one of my favorite writers. Her work was full of heart and love and warmth, and I always feel better after reading them. She won the 1993 Hugo award for her novelette “The Nutcracker Coup.” She was also kind enough to offer me advice and encouragement when I was starting out.

Sadly, she only produced three novel-length works. I’m a fan of all three, and fully recommend them.

Uhura's Song - CoverUhura’s Song [Amazon | B&N] – A number of people have described this as one of the best Star Trek novels ever.

Years ago, Lt. Uhura befriended a diplomat from Eeiauo, the land of graceful, cat-like beings. The two women exchanged songs and promised never to reveal their secret. Now the U.S.S. Enterprise is orbiting Eeiauo in a desperate race to save the inhabitants before a deadly plague destroys them. Uhura’s secret songs may hold the key to a cure — but the clues are veiled in layers of mystery.

I love the focus on Uhura, the character development, the emphasis on song and culture and taboo and historical conflict and courage. I love the aliens and their names and their characterization and their struggle to do what’s right.

It’s a book that will make you feel good about Star Trek, and about the universe in general.

It’s available as an ebook, or you can pick up a used copy of the print edition.

Hellspark - CoverHellspark [Amazon | B&N] – A standalone SF novel with beautiful worldbuilding, with an emphasis on culture and language and relationships.

The members of the survey team on the newly discovered planet Flashfever are at each other’s throats. Both the local wildlife and the local weather keep trying to zap them. No one can tell if the indigenous creatures named “sprookjes” are sapient, because they insist on parroting the surveyors’ attempts at communication. The surveyors themselves, all from different civilizations, keep stepping on one another’s cultural toes. When a member of the team is found dead, no one knows whether he was killed by a sprookje or another surveyor; and the implications are unpleasant either way.

This description (from Tor) captures the plot, but misses the absolute joy that is protagonist Tocohl Sosumo. Tocohl is a Hellspark — a trader with a gift for language and culture. She’s brought in to help determine whether the sprookjes have their own language, which would prove their sentience. She’s bright, capable, tough, thoughtful, loving, and a delight. Then there’s her childlike AI Maggy, and a cast of wonderfully different characters, all from fascinatingly different cultures.

The worldbuilding in this one makes me despair of my own writing ability. Kagan plunges you into the middle of a well-developed universe, and invites you along for the ride. My son and I are only about 50 pages in. He commented that there are a lot of words he doesn’t recognize, and we talked about how the author was creating new words and worlds and aliens and so on. He’s been enjoying that immersion, and it’s even led to some good conversations about culture and body language and personal space and language and more.

The book is currently out of print and not yet available electronically, but you should be able to track down a used copy for a relatively reasonable price.

Mirabile - CoverMirabile [Amazon | B&N] – This is a collection of six stories about Annie Masmajean, aka Mama Jason, a third-generation colonist on the planet Mirabile.

There’s a problem on the planet Mirabile with Dragon’s Teeth. The humans from Earth sent to colonize the planet on a generations-long voyage through space lost some essential information in transit. Now, in the early decades of human settlement, the Earth plants and animals genetically programmed to proliferate the old species (so that, for instance, a cow might sometimes give birth to a deer, that will breed true, except that sometimes the deer will give birth to a moose…) are occasionally producing mutants. Thus the carnivorous Kangaroo Rex is born, and the Loch moose monster, and the voracious Frankenswine, Dragon’s Teeth that threaten the ecology of Mirabile and perhaps the very survival of the colonists.

Just reading the description should give a sense of how much fun these stories are. It’s been a while since I’ve read this one — I need to remedy that — so my recollection is a little blurry on the details. But I do remember Mama Jason being another of Janet’s wonderful, good-hearted, take-no-crap protagonists. And I remember that, like all of Janet Kagan’s work, reading this one made me happy.

This is probably the hardest of the three books to find. Like Hellspark, it’s out of print and not available electronically. But like the others, I highly recommend reading it if you get the chance.

Jim C. Hines