Friday, December 18, 2015

Friday Discussion: Trigger Warnings

We have spoken before about how Atrocities are all too often casually invoked in fiction for lazy characterisation. We have also spoken about how marginalised issues are too often appropriated for lazy storytelling or even as a cheap marketing tool - but these points don’t just apply to the genocides and catastrophes that are in our history books, but also to the very personal atrocities that happen to people every day. Rape, abuse, hate crimes and so many horrendous acts leave people every bit as devastated as the horrors that are considered large enough to deserve historical record.

Let us not downplay what a trigger means. A person who is triggered is hurt - they are wounded, they are often forced to relive some of the worst moments of their lives. Being triggered is more than being uncomfortable - it can mean your deepest fear ambushing you, it can mean nights of overwhelming terror, it can make leaving the house a desperate struggle. No, it certainly doesn’t always manifest this way and certainly many people have learned ways to cope with their triggers - but on no account can we dismiss triggers as something minor, or “oversensitivity” (as it is so often dismissed as by people who object to them even being discussed)

Obviously, it does become difficult, if not impossible, to remove every trigger for every person in the media. Nor does it mean that any or all triggers must never ever appear in the media in any form. However, that doesn’t mean some of the most commonly experienced and egregious triggers cannot be warned for - that the victims of things like rape, torture, hate crimes etc cannot be given the chance to protect themselves.

With every depiction of these on TV or in books you are invoking atrocity. You are using atrocity, you are portraying atrocity and there is an even higher chance that you are presenting that atrocity to its victims. Which means we must always ask WHY we are doing this? Why is this here? Why is it being included?

To invoke these atrocities casually, gratuitously, clumsily and/or pointlessly not only seeds unnecessary minefields of triggering pain for victims to stumble upon but it completely disrespects their experience and rubs salt into these tender wounds. It’s bad enough that a show has decided to gratuitously depict what these victims have endured - but to do it as entertainment? To do it for shock value? To do it and show none of the consequences, the impact or the scars of it? To do it even for titillation?

And how much more galling for the media’s fandom to then turn round and dismiss any such criticism? How often are those objecting dismissed as being “sensitive”? How many time do we see reams after reams of gross excuses for even the most shallow and unnecessary depiction of atrocity? How much does this make the pain of the triggered even worse - not only are they hurting, but their pain is mocked and discussed; their very right to be hurt is insulted and questioned.

I’ve spoken on how triggers are exacerbated by the casual and disrespectful way they are treated, and this is certainly true - but we must also insists that even if your portrayal is well presented, deeply respectful and fully acknowledges the gravity of the acts then trigger warnings are still essential.

I have seen shows that have handled rape, hate crimes, genocide,conversion “therapy” and other atrocities with the deepest of respect and care. They’re still traumatic to watch. Some of these shows still hurt me, badly, and left me with nights of sleeplessness or nightmares, of anxiety about not just leaving the house, but of turning on the television lest I invite more trauma into my living room. That doesn’t mean these scenes were badly done. It doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have been done. It doesn’t mean I would actually praise how they were done and the respectful way they refused to allow an atrocity to be ignored or downplayed - but nor does it mean the horrors are not still horrific

A trigger warning, content note or revealing discussion is not (inherently) an insult, a negative criticism or even an indication of dislike or disapproval. It can be all of those things, but it isn’t automatically because, yes, sometimes these terrible acts need to be acknowledged or examined. But equally those who are vulnerable need the tools to opt out, they need to be able to keep themselves safe. Even a well portrayed examination of the cruelties that have been inflicted on them can be painful for those victims to revisit and relive - and while the disrespectful, casual useage may rub salt into the wounds of those suffering, it is still bitter when an apparent respectful portrayal is equally uncaring about the victims it’s supposed to be respecting

One of the almost ironic points to mention here is that, when we post critical reviews, one of the most common dismissals is “just don’t read/watch it then.” Among the many things wrong with this dismissal is the simple fact is those trying not to be Triggered really don’t want to read/watch it. They really would love to avoid reading or watching it - I know there are certainly shows/books I avoid when I’m not in a good place. But they only way they can know what not to watch is if people warn them.

We all know that Game of Thrones and American Horror Story have a terrible, long standing issues with many things, including rape. Someone who is desperately trying to avoid being triggered by these depictions probably does not want to watch it - but the only way they can avoid being ambushed is to know in advance not to watch it. Even people who do not watch these shows are aware of the issues and triggers because others have watched them, talked about them, criticised them and generally drawn attention to these problems - even when not expressly labelled as “trigger warnings” these discussions have provided just that.

Again, we cannot stress enough how important these discussions are (again, for many reasons) because they do provide warnings and guidance when the content creators have not. A fandom that dismisses, silences or otherwise adamantly opposes informed criticism of their media doesn’t just perpetuate the disrespect of these issues being casually and cavalierly invoked, but it also denies people trying to protect themselves and destroys the ability to stay safe. It’s a dismissal that, inevitably, hurts the most vulnerable in society who are so often likely to have these triggers haunt them

Ultimately, the dismissal and rejection of any kind of trigger warning or content note - or even discussion of, criticism of and warning of potentially trauma-triggering content is another form of ableism. As a society we repeatedly refuse to make even the most basic accommodation for just about any kind of disability. We constantly demand the disabled rise above, to endure, to perform some kind of herculean effort and, tellingly, not bother able-bodied and neurotypical people with the need to change anything to help the disabled be part of the world beyond in the limited ways the able bodied deign to grant. Far easier for the disabled to be heroes, to endure physical, mental and emotional pain than for us to embrace the often simple societal changes. As is so often typical, the derision of simple accommodations like trigger warnings or content notes is another way for society to deny their need - by mocking and dismissing them we do not need to change, we do not have to take them seriously, we do not have to acknowledge the pain and we can continue as normal without the terrible scourge of minor inconvenience.