Trigger Warnings: A Commentary

Ok, so clearly most of you reading this know that surprise! I have an eating disorder I am in recovery fighting an eating disorder.  I spent a lot of time this past summer investigating reasons, discussing personal fears and flaws, and hearing others' stories as well.  And a theme kept coming up... "triggers."  Of course these were different for every person there, ranging from the surprising to the things that would make sense (those pesky lose ten pounds fast/get a flat tummy NOW/5 foods never to eat articles).  And yet... never once did I hear people say they wished they could take away others' freedom of speech or to force others into acquiesing to their needs.  No, all I heard was a desperate cry to find some way to be able to deal with the ways in which these small little parts of everyday life could be handled and dealt with without copping to the sweet whispers of "just don't eat" or "go exercise some more" or "you're worthless, so eat some more ice cream even though you're so so so full."  

We spent weeks learning about "opposite action" and "the ABC...DEF method" and unhelpful thinking styles and how to verbalize our actual needs and emotions, even if just to ourselves.  It sounds pretty intuitive, but for people with any number of psychological disorders, it's anything but simple.  This is the kind of thing that I carry with me (and don't use nearly enough) throughout my days as I face a barrage of messages telling me to hate myself and engage in some really shitty behaviors and thoughts.  This is the kind of thing I pull out of my back pocket when I'm triggered.  This is the reason I have a "danger zone" board on Pintrest AND a "stronger" board... and only one has to do with the gym.  

But would it be SUPER helpful and amazing if tv shows didn't casually talk about starvation to look good?

She didn't eat for three days so she wouldn't look bloated.

Would it be really great if people could STFU about their eating patterns and food rules and diets and hunger?

So after a summer of gathering a bunch of ways to deal with the shit that the world hands me without starving myself, or any other forms of self-harm/self-hate, I was, too put it as mildly as possible, a little peeved when I saw the Atlantic's article about "coddling."  Initial reaction was absolute rage that the authors so sloppily used very intentionally defined and used and taught psychological treatment as a way to pathologize politics.  But that was becuase I empathized with the politics... so I tried to put that lazy reporting tool aside.

Then I got mad that they used the rhetorical device called "I'm going to make something actually totally chill sound super scary and terrible to put you immediately in the position of backtracking and reframing."  Because after reading, I was like "wait, it's not such a bad thing to want people to think twice before they speak..." and then my little tiny Libertarian voice was like "but Madi, you can't mandate that people be kind and decent human beings."

Then I started thinking about trigger warnings.  And how they have been co-opted in a multi-pronged attack from both "The Left" and "The Right" (did you like my scare quotes?).  Some people are coming at them from the point of "there's hard shit out there and I would like a trigger warning before we start any conversation and if you don't, I might sue you or get you fired" and then some people are coming at them from the point of making the person saying the above sound like a soft little idiot who can't handle discourse.  So, really, I see them at the tops of e-mails, and I see other schools prefacing books that deal with tough shit with trigger warnings and suddenly "trigger warning" sounds like a dirty word and I wonder how that happened so quickly and what the consequences of such a polarized conversation are.

I first encountered trigger warnings on Tumblr (I was an angsty pre-teen ok, so were you, don't lie) when users would share stuff about SIB or eating disorders (terrifyingly, lovingly, deceivingly called thinspo sites or proana forums... doesn't sound so bad right?). It would just be a message to other users to just keep scrolling.

Unless you were feeling up to it, and then you made an informed decision about whether you felt like dealing with that or not. So when I saw trigger warnings for things like literature, my heart broke a little, because I knew the barbs about how soft this generation was becoming was next.  Don't get me wrong, I dug deep to make sure I wasn't supposing a standard on people without thinking about how shitty it must be to read about the violence against women on slave plantations (especially when it's not carefully whitewashed like it was in middle school literature).  But that's a misuse of a trigger warning.  Trigger warnings aren't meant to warn you you might feel really sad, uncomfortable, or wary... they are a tool for the psychologically disordered to get through their day without engaging in some really bad and really serious behaviors and thoughts.  

Disclaimer: If you are feeling so deeply unsettled and upset that you feel you are bordering on a psychological disorder, please seek help.  In all liklihood, it is not from one class reading or from a few tough classroom conversations, but it might be, and there are services for you-- places and people that will help you figure out how to engage in the hard shit without going... and I use this word very intentionally... crazy.

However, this also doesn't mean that I'm advocating walking around totally discounting the different ways we experience discomfort and pain due to some seriously fucked up shit in our society.  It's important to operate with empathy, and not to just discount the way others feel, expecting them to engage you in conversations for your benefit and the class' benefit when they just might not be in the mood right then (don't lie to yourself, you know you've had days like that too).  We live in a really great time with a really great thing called Google that you can use to educate yourself on the topic if someone else isn't engaging with you the way you want/expect them too.  Google can also remind you how to keep yourself sane during rough times.  We all go through them, and they're going to jump out at us from every which way... instead of mandating that others slap a warning for uncomfortable subject matter on everything and instead of dismissing that very human need to protect oneself from pain as "soft" or "coddling" I propose we act and speak with empathy.  I propose we have patience with each other and ourselves.  I propose that we give others and ourselves grace.  I propose that we remember the ways in which we were taught to engage with people in general, let alone during tough conversations.  Clearly the TW discussion wouldn't be so huge if there wasn't a perception that people do a pretty shitty job from all angles at truly and deeply engaging with various hard topics.