, , , , , , , ,

The first time I recall reading a trigger warning it was in the off-topic sub-forum on a gaming discussion board. If I remember correctly, it was in the title for a thread about sexual abuse. That usage struck me then, as it does now, as a perfectly appropriate warning to some that the ensuing discussion was going to cover issues which some might find intensely stressful. I also understood the likely reason for this to be that some people might have had direct personal experience with the realities of such abuse. It has ever since struck me as a reasonable and positive thing to provide that warning in advance. It also serves as a good reminder to the rest of us that something we may regard as grist for the mill could have serious personal significance for others. I know that reminder has helped me to appreciate the weight of some issues. I can’t say that I’m always happy with my performance in dealing with these things, but I do think I handle these issues with more care now than I did in earlier days, and I credit that first encounter with a trigger warning with producing the difference.

Within a couple years on that same discussion the trigger warnings in the off-topic forum had multiplied beyond my wildest imagination. Countless variations of trigger warnings could be found in the title of one thread after another. I found it increasingly difficult to take them seriously, not because I couldn’t imagine someone getting upset at this or that topic, but because there comes a point where the likelihood that someone will become upset ceases to be a function of the topic and becomes an abstract possibility that is simply always there. People get upset, but it isn’t always because the discussion at hand is intrinsically dangerous subject matter. As I read the increasingly common little warning symbols, placed conveniently in square brackets, I couldn’t help but think the point was far more likely to be a statement about the values of the person employing the hashtag. Right wingers like to call this ‘virtue signaling’, and I don’t necessarily dispute the appropriateness of the label, though I do suspect the convenience of that buzz-term is a vice of its own. Whatever the purpose of the growing trigger-warning craze, I couldn’t help thinking then, as I do now, that the concept is subject to inflationary pressures.

As in, increased usage leads to decreased significance.

Where do you draw the line? I don’t know, but somewhere between a trigger warning fr sexual abuse and the many seemingly trivial uses I have seen over the years, the significance of these warnings does seem to change. Moreover, the expectation that someone ought to use trigger warnings, or that they must use them introduces a level of coercive authority into the equation. It wasn’t that long ago that a Dean at the University of Chicago denounced trigger warnings. In so doing, he clearly took them to be a mechanism for silencing those with whom one disagrees. But what about those who choose to use such warnings, some argued. Is that not permitted? And thus the renunciation of authority came  itself to be viewed as an assertion of authority, one itself worthy of denial. Who is oppressing whom and how is, it turns out, a bit more complicated than some would have it.

I guess I’m enough of an old fashioned liberal to want to have my free speech and use it too. I don’t like seeing efforts to silence speakers at public universities in the name of safe spaces, and that isn’t because I’m a fan of people like Milo Yiannopoulos. What I really don’t like is watching the careers people like that flourish as a direct result of the explosive outrage they specialize in …triggering. People like that have nothing to say, and they need the spectacle of outrage to provide the illusion of substance. I’d rather answer them. I would rather make the case against them, at least when that case can be made without fear and intimidation coming from the other side. I have seen right wingers drown out their critics, and I wouldn’t tolerate it. Lately though, a number of right wing sources have come to relish moments in which the left appears to be doing the same thing.

…is doing the same thing.

That too should not be tolerated, not the least of reasons being that it’s exactly what some of these hacks want from us.

This brings me back to the whole inflationary pressures thing. If the left wing over-uses trigger warnings, I think the same can be said of the right.

…well the ‘trigger’ part anyway, not so much the ‘warning’ part.

Time and again, I see folks respond to an argument for social justice by claiming its proponent has been triggered. Hell, I’ve gotten the response myself a time or ten, sometimes when I am more amused than agry. It’s fascinating to me, to see this cry of victory. As often as not, the signs of stress just aren’t there, or if they are, they are present to exactly the degree that one might expect from anyone else upon expressing disagreement. Yet, those proclaiming their opponents have been ‘triggered’ seem to hope those opponents are wallowing in distress, or at least they seem to enjoy pretending that is the case.

This is of course the hope of a troll, and it isn’t much worthy of anyone who claims to be advancing a serious point of view on any subject. But I suppose it does help to confound the issues, to ensure that no-one ever does take a trigger warning seriously. Still, I can’t help thinking for some it appears to be an end in itself, the prospect of making someone else feel bad.

If the notion of a trigger has lost some of its value in overuse by those on the left, it’s losing even more value as playground conservatives transform the term into a trophy of sorts. If they have their way, the public will be incapable of distinguishing between the psychological traumas experienced by some when dealing with sensitive issues and the irritation others feel upon realizing someone is wrong on the internet. This isn’t really conservatism, of course. There is nothing conservative about mocking women over their looks, disabled persons, victims of crime, or even minorities for pleading their own case in the public eye. Conservative politics may be resistant to a number of efforts at correcting social harms, but the growing orgy of right wing schadenfreude is an altogether different animal. Some people really do hope to inflict suffering on others.

To them a trigger warning is a symbol of hope.

It’s a hope I would see them denied.