This is a stream of consciousness I wrote yesterday in response to a post I read (in a group I belong to) about the importance of adding a content warning (in the form of TW or CW) to a post if there is even the slightest possibility of triggering just one reader. It's in response to some bullshit pseudo-science.
I belong to several women- and non-binary only writing groups on Facebook. We come from a variety of backgrounds (ethnic, religious, socioeconomic, members of the LGBTQ+, countries of origin, different political leanings, diverse ways of thinking, personalities, with disabilities, etc.) but what we all have in common is that we're writers and/or editors.
(Out of respect for the non-binary and gender non-conforming, I will replace she/her/woman/women with they/them/their/person/member/writer, whether I know the member's gender or not.)
Yesterday a member of one of these writing groups (I belong to maybe 20 of them and with a good friend, own two active ones) posted an article that cites a study about content warnings being a waste of time. I will copy and paste this writer's lead in to the post they wrote, along with the first paragraph of the article before offering my response.
The OP (original Post) written by the writer before posting the article they posted in the writing group went like this:
"I tend to block people who add trigger warnings to something I wrote. It feels like you’re telling me what I wrote is harmful. And you can’t add a trigger warning to anyone who smells like clove cigarettes or vodka or polo cologne or patchouli, or that GNR song, or “can I talk to you a minute?” or name anything really. But the science behind them is iffy at best. And now there’s this. So I’m curious about y’all think. (I block people for posting of their feet too. Or who change my dog’s name. I’m block-happy.)"
Let the hostility begin! What a way to lead in to article about a very contentious topic, I'd say. The article, published by Slate:
points to two studies published in the New York Times about the "fact" that trigger warnings may not help and quite possibly hurt.
From the article: “Trigger warnings just don’t help,” Payton Jones, a clinical psychology doctoral student at Harvard, tweeted alongside a preprint of his new paper. He further explained that the paper actually suggests that trigger warnings might even be harmful."
Different Places/Different Needs
I spent 7 years in therapy from the age of 17 to 24. Among the things I survived at home were physical abuse, alcoholism and incest. By 18 I was diagnosed with PTSD and a panic disorder. Working tirelessly with my therapist, I was able to work through the PTSD. I still have a panic disorder that’s triggered by many things: some obvious, some still not to obvious until it happens.
We are all at different places. Some have never experienced trauma. Some of us recognize the trauma, some are just starting to work through it, some have worked through it and some are working to help others work through it.
What we post, the language we use and the care we take has to comfort one, a few, many or all is simply about kindness. When it comforts just one person—even at the expense of the binder/reader who no longer needs or never needed comforting—that’s fine and we call this: “the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many.”
If one person is comforted by a trigger warning, no amount of polls or studies that conclude TW/CWs are a waste of time matter. If one person benefits, then guess what? We must think of that one person’s needs. It doesn’t matter if you never needed it (so thrilled you had a perfect life without adversity) or that I usually don’t.
Bearer of Bad News
When my parents died (mom in 1994 when I was 27 and my dad in 2002 when I was 35), I had to call all of their friends and family to inform them. I didn’t say, “Hey uncle Bill. Your brother died.” I called, we talked awhile and at some point I had to break the news. “Uncle Bill, I am so sorry to tell you this. Could you please sit down? I need to tell you your brother died last night.”
It’s called softening the blow. People appreciate it, trust me!
The Redskins Football Team
When I worked in Washington, D.C. a million years ago, I worked with a bunch of second generation Irish Americans who while not racist per se, were clueless and blind. They were Redskins fans, like diehard fans.
Every so often there is an eruption around the name of the team, and rightfully so. All of them would come to work and complain, “The name Redskins isn’t racist!” Yes, well to a White person of Irish descent it may not be. To an indigenous person it is one of the raunchiest, most despicable things to do to the people who were killed en masse and who continue to be treated like shit.
I live on Puerto Rico. I have been here 11 years and was here through the most devastating hurricane in Puerto Rico’s recorded history. I had done a decent job to have my panic attacks under control prior to Maria but now when I see a large (the height of a two-story house) mudslide or a sinkhole large enough for a car or even my truck to fall through, I get a series of panic attacks. Now nearly two years later I still get them and I live in the mountains where both of those new “features” are everywhere.
My husband doesn’t get them when he sees them but does he make fun of me when I’m having tachycardia, am sweating and my breathing is labored? No, he gently touches my leg and tells me, “We’re fine. You’re fine.”
You can cite every study you want to prove any point you have to make. You can even find a study that concludes drinking while breastfeeding or pregnant is safe. It doesn’t mean your truth is everyone else’s truth.
But speaking about truth, you’re wrong. We have to continually come back to some simple truths: If one person is triggered, you must go to great lengths to guard their feelings. And the only way to know this for certain is to add a TW/CW before every post that could be triggering. It allows the reader the opportunity to say, “I’m not in a place where I can read this” or “Thank you for the TW. I can do this.” You have given your reader the gift of an informed decision.
And of course there’s always the block option. If my opinion provokes you to block me, let me say I’m sorry for you. It’s one thing to block a person who believes in a bunch of isms, but quite another to block someone who says they believe in protecting those who may be harmed by another’s words. I don’t get that.
And In Conclusion...
More than any other group of artists, we have a responsibility with our words.
Let’s use them [our word) to heal and not harm. It takes under two seconds to write TW/CW. If this takes too much time or you think it’s unnecessary, you need to ask yourself why you became a writer and if you really need to share your talent with anyone other than yourself.
The writers I most admire: Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou, William Styron, Allende, Soyinka, Garcia Marquez, and many others wrote from a place of pain so we could heal.
We can too.
Photo image courtesy of Alice Tambellini