Who’s trigger is it anyway?

content: Descriptions of triggers, gaslighting, and suggestions for how to label information.

Many spaces struggle with how to provide adequate information about the nature of their content in a way that is useful to people who wish to be able to enter into difficult conversations with the means to prepare.  There seems to be a great deal of confusion regarding the nature of certain words commonly used to pinpoint hurtful subjects especially within social justice spaces.

Triggers is a medical term for a particular Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) symptom that’s caused by a fairly specific individual things, often smells and can be something as innocuous as a particular shade of orange.  This is not the only way PTSD manifests, and not every reaction to trauma is PTS or PTSD. Sometimes its also used to describe other symptoms such as the experiences of people who have sensory and mood disorders that may become overwhelmed by specific “triggers”.  The use of this also suggests that “meltdowns” are pathological the way a flashback may be for a person with PTSD. Regardless of the different perspectives on that type of experience, this relationship is very relevant for many people and the use of this term by the group is part of how its severity is communicated.

When we want to describe something that is connected or can be itself traumatic, it makes the most sense to call it that: traumatic or traumatizing.

Gaslighting means deliberately making someone feel insane, that they cannot trust their own reality. It does not include doubting someone else unless it’s done in a way that convinces them to doubt their ability to distinguish between fiction and reality.  “I disagree on this case” is very different from “you don’t really believe that and I can prove it to you through prolonged manipulation to which you have been exposed in this unhealthy relationship we are in”.

Gaslighting is sometimes also used to describe how society provides harmful messages repeatedly in a way that makes people doubt their lived experiences and can be incredibly damaging.  There are other technical terms for this that come from the field of study of stigma and prejudice, that refer to various effects of this kind of social pressure.

These distinctions are important because devaluing emotional responses is a massive problem, even within many radical communities.  It’s a toxic habit reinforced by the idea that some forms of distress have validity and others don’t.  Often this means that the distress of privileged individuals is placed above that of marginalized individuals, which is something that we can work against by centering the voices of marginalized individuals, and allowing them to express emotion without suggesting that their emotions are harmful to their political work.  Political work is emotional, when it comes to our survival.  This is why the term tone policing is used to describe the act of silencing a message by focusing on the emotions behind it.  This is not the same as justifying bullying or harassment by through experiences oppression, or justifying one form of oppression within the work against another.

However, even when the relationship is not one of oppression, suggesting that the pain some people experience is less valid is damaging.  Words can hurt without being ill intentioned, and ill intentions come in many forms.  Content can be distressing and traumatic without being triggering.  It is important to recognize how the content itself can be a source of distress or trauma, rather than triggering the effects of a past trauma.  Especially when we discuss how content should be labeled in academic settings, this misunderstanding has led to the trivialization of triggers.  The discussion should center on providing people with the means of engaging with difficult material by allowing them to prepare mentally and emotionally in whatever way is necessary and whether or not they have PTSD.

In any case, people have a wide range of reactions to sensitive material, and different feelings about what is sensitive.  Many of these may be culturally specific, another subject that should be considered in creating equitable access.  Providing information about content serves to allow people to engage respectfully, as well as safely.

Personal attacks, passive aggressive remarks and actions, and invalidation all have negative effects regardless of how individuals react.  People can be incredibly hurtful in many different ways.  That does not make any of them less harmful or more ok.  Even we are wrong, or have something we need to improve, or even can see that someone else is wrong, cruelty remains cruel and unnecessary.

In order to address these concepts, I’ve chosen not to use the phrase trigger warnings.  Instead, I try to include content notes that summarize a concept in a more complex piece of material.  Like a byline, including a note helps the reader quickly grasp the point and decide whether the subject is of interest or not.  Additionally, I can say whether the content may be graphic in various ways or potentially traumatic or distressing and why.  These types of summaries make information more accessible to people who may have less time, ability, or resources to engage with a great deal or writing or certain topics.  Mindfulness of individual preferences can help of course, but since we can never address everyone individually, we are best served by providing relevant information so others can make informed choices.


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