Monday, August 12, 2013

Trigger Warnings: What, Where, When, and Why

Warning: as a discussion of triggers and warnings, I'll be discussing things that can trigger.




Someone sits down to play a video game. As is usually the case, the game introduces various game mechanics one at time. This is how you jump, climb, fight, chat. Look! It's a quick-time event! Press X To Not Die! The player presses X. Then A. Then X. Then screws up and presses B instead of Y and has to start over. And screws up again. And again. Pretty soon she's weeping uncontrollably and can hardly see the screen. It's not because she a girl, and it's not because it's particularly frustrating, and it's not because she just hates that particular mechanic.

It's because she's a rape survivor and she's playing the new Tomb Raider. She's being told, over and over, Press X To Not Be Raped, and she's failing.

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Now we can imagine different ways she arrived at this scenario. In one world, she's the girlfriend of a regular gamer who never really got into video games herself, and he decided to share his hobby with her by buying her a game with a woman hero! He's aware of her history but didn't really follow the game's development, so he never made the connection.

In another world she's a gamer herself and is aware of the controversy, and sat down to play it, fully aware of the pain she was about to experience.

The latter scenario is akin to pulling off a band-aid1. The former is emotional mugging.


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A trigger is a small thing that leads to a big reaction. On a gun, the trigger is a small lever that, when pulled, causes a violent chemical reaction that propels a lethal projectile. In a human being, a trigger is instead a small event that leads to a large emotional response.

What can trigger a person depends on xir personal history. For a rape survivor, it can be a graphic story or video depicting rape, or it can be getting stuck in an elevator with a large stranger, or it can be standing too close at a party. For a person of color, it can be a relatively innocuous comment that nevertheless comes freighted with racist baggage. For a bisexual, it can be a room full of supposed allies actively denying that bisexuals even exist. The nature of the trigger varies.

The response varies, too. Sometimes it's anger, sometimes a panic attack. Sometimes it's a visceral response, or a headache. People with triggers learn to avoid situations that can trigger them.

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But you can't live in a bubble; you have to venture out into the world. Or on the internet, as the case may be. And when someone decides to share something, people who live with triggers have to live with the possibility that following a link may lead to danger. The video might be a dog pooping on a baby, or it might be eight minutes of police brutality. That's why trigger warnings are helpful.

On the evening news, the anchor might say "The following footage may be shocking to some viewers; those with small children may wish to change the channel." That's a trigger warning.

On the internet, it often takes the form of "Trigger Warning: What follows is a graphic description of years of sexual abuse by my father". Where space is more limited, it may be "TW: {Blank}" where {Blank} can be racism, ableism, sexism, erasure, violence, rape, or anything.

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Some regions of the internet are awash with trigger warnings. It depends on where you go, what you discuss, and who you're talking to. A forum for rape survivors is going to be very good about putting up warnings about rape, for example. 

So when should you use them? That depends. It's generally a good idea to provide a warning for the most obvious trigger, violence. Particularly sexual violence. This is true even if you're linking to a video named "Racist Cops Beat the Everlovin' Crap Out of a Black Guy for Looking at Them Funny". Sometimes people follow a link without thinking, without reading it, but at TW will be enough to make them pause. If you start relating an anecdote or talking about such things, a warning is generally a good idea.

My understanding is that warnings are especially useful on services like twitter. People can set up filters so that anything with a particular warning in it won't show up in their feed, and they don't even have to worry about seeing the descriptor.

In the end, you have to use your judgment and compare the item your sharing with your audience. When in doubt, err on the side of caution and include a warning. 

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The anecdote I opened with wasn't my own. Unfortunately, my google-fu isn't strong enough to find the article where I originally read it, so I'll instead have to regale you with my recollection.

In fact the gamer knew what she was getting into and sat down prepared for it. The process was very difficult for her, and she did fail multiple times. Eventually, she managed to gut through it and succeed, achieving what she described as an incredibly powerful moment of catharsis. 




1 - A band-aid brand adhesive bandage, that is. Man, their commercials suck, now.
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