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.