The Wonderful Thing About Triggers

[Content note: hypothetical spiders]

I complain a lot about the social justice movement. Or for a change, I sometimes complain that the media is too friendly to the social justice movement. So when the media starts challenging the movement, with articles like We’ve Gone Too Far With Trigger Warnings, I really ought to be happy things are finally going my way.

Instead I’m a little disappointed

I like trigger warnings. Trigger warnings aren’t censorship; they’re the opposite of censorship. Censorship says “Read what we tell you”. The opposite of censorship is “Read whatever you want”. The philosophy of censorship is “We know what is best for you to read”. The philosophy opposite censorship is “You are an adult and can make your own decisions about what to read”.

But part of letting people make their own decisions is giving them relevant information and trusting them to know what to do with them. Uninformed choices are worse choices. Trigger warnings are an attempt to provide you with the information to make good free choices of reading material.

Imagine someone only interested in geology, who only reads geology books and neglects all the other interesting fields of science, history, and art. In a sense, we’re enabling this person by putting titles on books – it helps her avoid all the other interesting things she could be reading that challenge her monomaniacal focus on geology and open her mind a little. If books didn’t have titles, then instead of heading straight for the geology books, maybe she’d pick up something that looked like it was a geology book and end up reading Don Quixote and be better off for it. Our decision to title books anyway assumes that we care less about denying people the ability to avoid things they don’t want to read, and more about trusting people’s judgment and making it easy for them to choose and obtain what they want. This is the philosophy behind trigger warnings as well. If you don’t like it, then I accuse you of not liking capitalism. You may prefer a country with a military draft; those are really good at making sure people are involuntarily exposed to the harshness of reality rather than sheltered from it.

So my role model here, as in so many other places, is Commissioner Lal: “Beware he who would deny you access to information, for in his heart, he dreams himself your master.”

Trigger warnings fight those who would like to be our masters in another way as well. They’re one of our strongest weapons against the proponents of censorship. The proponents say “We can’t let you air that opinion, it might offend people.” Trigger warnings say “I am explaining to you exactly how this might offend you, so if you continuing listening to me you have volunteered to hear whatever I have to say, on your own head be it.”

I agree that bad people could use trigger warnings to avoid ever reading anything that challenges their prejudices. This is a problem with providing people informed choices. Sometimes they misuse them.

But I could also imagine good people using trigger warnings to increase their ability to read things that challenge their views. Suppose you are a transgender person who becomes really uncomfortable when you hear people insult transgender people. Gradually you learn that a lot of people outside the social justice community do this a lot, so you stop reading anything outside the social justice community – forget about genuinely rightist sources like National Review or American Conservative. Now suppose sources start trigger warning their content. Most right-wing arguments don’t insult transgender people, so all of a sudden you have a way to steer clear of the ones that do and read all of the others free from fear.

Actually, “fear” is the wrong word, it buys into the stereotyping of triggered people as coddled or cowards or something. Maybe some people feel fear. Others would just be free from exasperation, anger, distracting dismay, the cognitive load of having to hear people insult you and not being able to respond and having to exert effort to continue to read. I feel like this might be my response to the existence of more trigger warnings (at least if anyone ever warned for my triggers, which they won’t).

And I guess I admit that the people who use trigger warnings to narrow their minds will probably outnumber those who use them to expand them. But the question is still: do “we”, as a civilization, force people to be virtuous without their consent? And even if we should, how come we don’t do this in any other area of life? Why don’t we make a rule that every fifth link to Paul Krugman’s blog has to redirect people to Tyler Cowen’s blog, and vice versa, so people don’t get a chance to only read the opinions they agree with? Or that every Republican has to watch one Daily Show a month, and every Democrat has to listen to one Fox News segment?

If we’re not going to do any of that, it hardly seems fair to put the whole burden of epistemic virtue on the easily triggered.


The strongest argument against trigger warnings that I have heard is that they allow us to politicize ever more things. Colleges run by people on the left can slap big yellow stickers on books that promote conservative ideas, saying “THIS BOOK IS RACIST AND CLASSIST”, and then act outraged if anyone requests a trigger warning that sounds conservative – like a veteran who wants one on books that vilify or mock soldiers, or a religious person who wants one on blasphemy. Then everyone has to have a big fight, the fight makes everyone worse off than either possible resolution, and it ends with somebody feeling persecuted and upset. In other words, it’s an intellectual gang sign saying “Look! We can demonstrate our mastery of this area by only allowing our symbols; your kind are second-class citizens!”

On the other hand, this is terribly easy to fix. Put trigger warnings on books, but put them on the bullshit page. You know, the one near the front where they have the ISBN number and the city where the publishers’ head office is and something about the Library of Congress you’ve never read through even though it’s been in literally every book you’ve ever seen. Put it there, on a small non-colorful sticker. Call it a “content note” or something, so no one gets the satisfaction of hearing their pet word “trigger warning”. Put a generally agreed list of things – no sense letting every single college have its own acrimonious debate about it. The few people who actually get easily triggered will with some exertion avoid the universal human urge to flip past the bullshit page and spend a few seconds checking if their trigger is in there. No one else will even notice.

Or if it’s about a syllabus, put it on the last page of the syllabus, in size 8 font, after the list of recommended reading for the class. As a former student and former teacher, I know no one reads the syllabus. You have to be really devoted to avoiding your trigger. Which is exactly the sort of person who should be able to have a trigger warning while everyone else goes ahead with their lives in a non-political way.

I’m sure there are some more implementation details, but it’s nothing a little bit of good faith can’t take care of. If good faith is used and some people still object because it’s not EXACTLY what they want, then I’ll tell them to go fly a kite, but not before.

I know a lot of people worry about slippery slopes; give the culture warriors an inch and they’ll take a mile. I think this is a very backwards way of looking at things. Like, the anti-gay people talked about a slippery slope and fought desperately hard against gay marriage, even though it was pretty hard to find anything actually objectionable about it other than that it might be on a slippery slope to worse things. That desperate fight didn’t delay gay marriage more than a few years, and it didn’t prevent whatever gay marriage was on a slippery slope to. What it did do was totally discredit conservatives in this area. Now any time anyone makes a family values argument, even a good family values argument, people can say that “family values” is code for homophobia, and bring up that family values conservatives really have held abhorrent positions in the past so why should we trust them now? It gave liberals huge momentum, and if there is a slippery slope then all that opposing gay marriage did was destroy the credibility of anybody who could have stopped us going down it.

Opposing a good idea on slippery slope grounds is a moral failure and a strategic failure, and I’d hate for opponents of the social justice movement to make that mistake with trigger warnings.


But this is all tangential to what really bothered me, which is Pacific Standard’s The Problems With Trigger Warnings According To The Research.

You know, I love science as much as anyone, maybe more, but I have grown to dread the phrase “…according to the research”.

They say that “Confronting triggers, not avoiding them, is the best way to overcome PTSD”. They point out that “exposure therapy” is the best treatment for trauma survivors, including rape victims. And that this involves reliving the trauma and exposing yourself to traumatic stimuli, exactly what trigger warnings are intended to prevent. All this is true. But I feel like they are missing a very important point.


Psychotherapists treat arachnophobia with exposure therapy, too. They expose people first to cute, little spiders behind a glass cage. Then bigger spiders. Then they take them out of the cage. Finally, in a carefully controlled environment with their very supportive therapist standing by, they make people experience their worst fear, like having a big tarantula crawl all over them. It usually works pretty well.

Finding an arachnophobic person, and throwing a bucket full of tarantulas at them while shouting “I’M HELPING! I’M HELPING!” works less well.

And this seems to be the arachnophobe’s equivalent of the PTSD “advice” in the Pacific Standard. There are two problems with its approach. The first is that it avoids the carefully controlled, anxiety-minimizing setup of psychotherapy.


If a person with post-traumatic stress disorder or some other trigger-related problem doesn’t want psychotherapy, then even as a trained psychiatrist I am forbidden to override that decision unless they become an immediate danger to themselves or others.

And if they do want psychotherapy, then very likely they want to do it on their own terms. I try to read things that challenge my biases and may even insult or trigger me, but I do it when I feel like it and not a moment before. When I am feeling adventurous and want to become stronger in some way, I will set myself some strenuous self-improvement task, whether it be going on a long run or reading material I know will be unpleasant. But at the end of a really long and exasperating day when I’m at my wit’s end and just want to relax, I don’t want you chasing me with a sword and making me run for my life, and I don’t want you forcing traumatic material at me.

The angry article above with all the talk of “spoiled brats” annoys me as an amateur politics blogger, but this Pacific Standard article pushes my buttons as a (somewhat) non-amateur psychiatrist. This is not your job to meddle. If you are very concerned about helping people with PTSD, please express that concern by donating to PTSD USA or one of the other organizations that will help those with the condition get proper, well-controlled therapy. Please do not try to increase the background level of triggers in the hopes that one of them will fortuitously collide with a PTSD sufferer in a therapeutic way.

If, like me, you think the social justice movement has a really serious kindness and respect problem, then you know that it’s really hard to bring this up without getting accused of unkindness and disrespect yourself. I don’t know how to best respond to this problem. But I’m pretty sure that the very minimum one can do is not to actually be unkind and disrespectful. And I worry that some of these arguments against trigger warnings are failing to clear even this very low bar.

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151 Responses to The Wonderful Thing About Triggers

  1. gunlord500 says:

    This is the first argument I’ve seen in favor of trigger warnings that’s actually somewhat convincing. Kudos for that. While I can concede they may have a use, though, I’m not sure if they might come with an equally significant drawback.

    Namely, might the common use of trigger warnings make it *harder* to maintain affable, respectful discourse generally? As you yourself point out in one of your essays, Scott, people are ‘triggered’ by a host of different things. In your case it may be feminism and social justice, but I’ve seen or heard of people triggered by things like the color yellow, cats, fat people, fatshaming, and so on, and so forth. If it becomes expected to trigger warn for content as much as possible, we may be setting pretty much everybody who wants to talk about anything up for failure.

    For instance, let’s say I write an entry involving rape, racism, and a car crash–maybe about how a racist rapist ended up dying in a chase with the cops or something. I tag it for racism, rape, violence, police, and leave it at that and think I’ve done everything right. But it turns out the racist was driving a yellow car, which triggers someone with a complex about the color (like Ellen from I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream). Also, I post a picture of one of the cops participating in the case who happened to be fat, which triggers someone who was mugged by a fat guy. I thus get at least two people mad at me for not “trigger warning” for yellow and fat.

    If this happens, I think I would do one of two things, as so would most people: Either stop using “trigger warnings” altogether, since there’s no possible way I could warn for everything, or just stop writing publicly all together, since I don’t want to take the risk of offending people. Both would be reasonable actions, but I don’t think you would consider either to be healthy, at least across a society-wide scale.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Here’s a Schelling point: trigger warn for rape, nastiness to any demographic group (including majority groups), extreme violence or bullying, blasphemy, torture, graphic descriptions of war, horror, and really gross stuff like dead bodies and wounds and swarming insects.

      If you are in contact with individual readers of your work, and some of them express strong preferences for personalized triggers, then try to include them as long as you have few enough readers that this isn’t a massive juggling act.

      Those categories are all fuzzy, but readers should assume good faith and POLITELY ask for recategorization if something slips by in a way that hurts THEM PERSONALLY (not some hypothetical other reader). Writers should respond to polite requests, either politely agreeing to do so in the future or politely refusing because there are too many such requests and it would be too burdensome. Readers should then politely accept the writer’s decision and either continue reading or choose not to.

      This wouldn’t be perfect, and of course lots of stuff will pass through, but it’s better than nothing.

      • gunlord500 says:

        Reasonable enough. I think it’s what most civilized people on the Internet at least accept (and I say this as someone who’s been on both sides of that fence). Warn for or put under a label rape, nudity, racism, or generally anything NSFW like gore or gross stuff. If I had friends who were triggered by certain things, I’d accede to their requests based on how close I was to them.

        Still, the wider one’s reading audience, the more requests they may have to deal with and the more complicated such requests may become. I still maintain but a modest readership so it’s not much of a problem for me, but well-known men and women might find even that reasonable schema to be burdensome…t-t

      • “Here’s a Schelling point: …”

        Please don’t misuse the phrase ‘Schelling point’. This is a policy propsal, and it is not a Schelling point any more than ‘abortion only during the first two trimesters’ would be.

        • Scott Alexander says:

          I don’t think I am misusing it.

          Gunlord and others were complaining that there’s going to be a lot of dispute on how far to go with trigger warnings and he doesn’t know where to draw the line.

          When I say “Here’s a Schelling point”, I’m saying “Here’s a somewhat random choice you can make that people can coordinate around rather than worry endlessly over exactly which set of triggers to use.”

          I think that’s the correct use, and I think for exactly this reason a lot of policies are Schelling points, including your abortion example. In particular, ending the right to abortion at the end of the second trimester is a perfect example of a Schelling fence as I describe it here

          Nevertheless your point against unnecessary jargon is well taken.

        • jaimeastorga2000 says:

          A Schelling point must stand out and be completely obvious in order to serve it’s purpose of enabling spontaneous cooperation. The second trimester is a bit of a Schelling point, but not much. Now birth, on the other hand, is a really obvious Schelling point. It’s like difference between midnight, 1:00 AM, 1:30 AM, 1:40 AM, and 1:45 AM, and 1:47 AM when you’re trying to stop playing Civilization IV in your post; each of those has less credibility as a Schelling point than the previous ones.

          Your list of triggers doesn’t stand out. It’s not drop-dead obvious. I agree with Itai Bar-Natan; it sounds more like a policy proposal of things you personally would like to see trigger-tagged (with some bipartisan concessions like blasphemy) than anything which people could spontaneously coordinate around.

          To put it another way, what makes your list different from every other list of triggers on the internet?

        • Douglas Knight says:

          A Schelling point is supposed to be about spontaneous cooperation. Scott, I think you are talking more about a Schelling fence. But there’s nothing “Schelling” about this particular example than that the status quo is inherently Schelling. Two trimesters is more Schelling than 183 days because it is rounder, even if it means the same thing. And this example isn’t the status quo, yet. Even if it were the status quo, you shouldn’t call it a Schelling point, just like you shouldn’t call 183 days a Schelling point.

        • Martin-2 says:

          Edit: Douglas Knight got there first with the explanation. To “spontaneous cooperation” I’ll add “in the absence of communication” to be obvious.
          Classic Schelling point example; I send you a note reading “Meet me in NYC this Wednesday” with no further details, so to find me you look for a Schelling point e.g. Grand Central Station at noon, or the Empire State Building at 11:11, or Central Park at 4:20, or whatever you think I’m most likely to choose given what you know about me and what you know I know about you etc. etc.

          Practical note: If Omega asks to meet you in NYC next Wednesday without specifying a time and place, all points are Schelling points.

      • Daniel says:

        Who is supposed to provide this master list of triggers? What are the criteria for inclusion? If I take the list you gave literally (nothing added, nothing removed), then most people will find something to disagree about, which makes it a poor Schelling point. Inevitably the presence of most things on the list is determined politically and not due to the actual statistical frequency of that trigger in the population.

        “Blasphemy” is on your list, but saying “there is no god” would be labelled by most religious people as technically blasphemy. Should there be a TW for atheism? Lots of atheists would then ask for a TW for theism.

        “Nastiness to any demographic group” just means “being nasty to people according to any criterion other than personal identity”. When I was a kid I was bullied for wearing glasses, but who’s going to include glass-wearing people on the list of salient demographic groups?

        A Schelling point is not the same as a good borderline for declaring a truce.

      • I’m currently writing a little browser gizmo that identifies and highlights certain terms in a webpage. It isn’t colossally difficult to automatically identify documents that explicitly talk about certain subjects or use certain sets of vocabulary.

        This obviously won’t work for print books, but for webpages this is a very technically tractable problem.

        • Andy says:

          And given that most readings in my classes were distributed as PDFs, certainly not impossible to expand.

      • Paul Torek says:

        Derp, Deiseach beat me to it: movie ratings. They strike me as marginally useful to many and not particularly oppressive.

      • ChristianKl says:

        A few weeks a ago a nice girl whom I’m dancing whose a nurse tells me something about syringes which triggers a trauma in me from the days I was in hospital myself. My bodily reaction is strong enough that the dancing teacher asked me whether one of the girls hurt me. My body is in turmoil for around 30 minutes.

        At the same time there no lasting damage. I dealt with it. I processed it.

        It’s something that would slip through your lists. I don’t think that you are wrong to include trigger warnings. On the other hand I don’t want to live in a world where I have an obligation to provide trigger warnings and otherwise can’t freely express myself.

        What’s completely missing from your argument is references to practical research about the effects of trigger warnings. Is there none? If so why? The people advocated the policy aren’t interested in evidence that it works? Gender science folks don’t have enough funding to finance the research?

    • ozymandias says:

      Also a lot of the discussions of trigger warnings are on college campuses. In a sensible world, a person with a rare trigger could email their professor and be like “hey, I’m interested in your horror fiction class, but I’m triggered by zombies. Will we be reading zombie fiction?” (In a slightly less sensible world, this could be handled through disability services.)

    • Sniffnoy says:

      FWIW, here’s the same point being made on Obsidian Wings the other week.

      • gunlord500 says:

        Great minds think alike, I suppose XD

        • Zathille says:

          This is a very dangerous way of thinking, I think, tying thinking alike to the greatness of a mind.

          Whether someone agrees with me is no evidence of that person being right, if I happen to have an idea that is right and another person agrees with it the agreement is orthogonal to truth-value.

        • MugaSofer says:

          Which is why the full saying is “Great minds think alike, and fool’s thought’s seldom differ”, Zathille. You emphasize whichever half you think is appropriate.

        • Multiheaded says:

          TIL Joseph de Maistre and Ursula Le Guin say basically the same things.

    • Anonymous says:

      It’d be relatively easy to make a browser addon with tags for all sorts of content you might not want to see, that utilizes regular expressions and tags by other users.

      • Zathille says:

        Google already sort of, kind of doe sthat already by keeping track of your browsing history and changing search results accordingly. Indeed, there are Chrome browser extensions made specifically to stop that. Granted it’s a small thing, but selection bias in the form of personal browsing preferences already kind of acts like a filter in a way.

      • gunlord500 says:

        That’s a good idea. One might make a good bit of coin with an app like that or something.

      • Nornagest says:

        Tumblr Savior is essentially that for Tumblr. I’ve found it entirely useless: too much content comes in the form of photomanips or sassy .gifs, which it can’t parse, and even in plain text people are remarkably creative in finding ways to express vile opinions.

        It doesn’t help, of course, that most of the things that annoy and/or infuriate me aren’t the sort of things that Tumblr’s denizens collectively consider problematic enough to tag.

    • Jadagul says:

      In an ideal world I think this is what “safe spaces” should actually do. Once you embrace the fact that a space isn’t more or less safe, but rather safe for some groups at the expense of others (it’s hard to make a space that’s safe from homophobia and also safe for homophobes), you can identify your writing as a space that should be safe for [insert tag list here]. Then people expect to get warnings about [tag] issues but not about things that aren’t on the tag list.

      We basically work this way right now, just extremely untransparently. A lot of cultural fights are over what the appropriate tag list for the bulk of the public sphere should be; 30 years ago [gays] was on the tag list and these days [homophobia] is. [pictures of sex] is on the list but [talking about sex] isn’t any more. And so on. At the same time, the Social Justice Tumblrverse has a long implicit tag list of things they warn about, and another long implicit list of people they fully intend to trigger, who respond by not reading the SJT.

      Come to think of it, perhaps it would be more helpful to post an anti-trigger tag list as well? “This space is unsafe for [sexism, homophobia, fat-shaming, transphobia]” or “This space is unsafe for [the homosexual lifestyle, promiscuity, blasphemy]” is the sort of thing I could see you convincing people to actually say. Since people who want to create an environment hostile to blasphemous gay economists are often pretty up-front about it.

    • DavidS says:

      I don’t think this sort of ‘anything could be a trigger so ignore them all’ argument works. We put warnings that things contain peanuts because enough people are dangerously allergic to peanuts. The fact that a tiny fraction of people might be slightly allergic to paprika does not mean [b]either[/b] that we have to put health warnings for that and everything else too, [b]nor[/b] that you shouldn’t have warnings about peanuts.

      If you think ‘triggers’ are invalid or made up, that’s different. But I don’t think you can make an argument that assumes they’re serious but then refuses to engage because ‘someone might be triggered by yellow’.

    • Deiseach says:

      Well, television programmes have “viewer discretion” warnings. Music albums had those stickers about content. Films have ratings. Yet somehow films, tv programmes, and music albums still get made and sold.

      Nobody would expect you to warn for absolutely everything that is a potential trigger, but if your analogy is “I cannot tell what might or might not be a trigger, therefore I won’t warn for anything”, then I think you are mistaken.

      If something is brought to one’s awareness that one was previously unaware might be offensive, then one can either say “I did not know that” or “My reasons are such-and-such”, but retorting that “You’re only looking for offence” doesn’t help much. Maybe one should take a look at why all one’s villains or bad guys are fat men, or the use of the colour yellow to indicate villainy, or having your villains be scarred or otherwise disabled.

      I mean, it might just possibly be tough to be a kid with a facial scar or a limp or a speech impediment when all the movies you and your peers go to see tell you that that makes you the bad guy, the villain, the untrustworthy back-stabbing loser.

  2. Pthagnar says:

    One group who has been implementing your scheme for years are the film classification folk. I understand that they made bigger arses of themselves back in the day, making a fuss about ‘video nasties’ and attracting the laughter of the usual civil liberties people who saw it as a right-authoritarian plot. But now, in small, unobtrusive white boxes on the backs of DVDs or corners of posters you often find content warnings, some with weird, langue-du-bois officialese phrases like ‘INSENSATE SPASMS OF VIOLENCE’, ‘CHEERFUL DRUG USE’ and ‘MILD PERIL’ (the last being real). Based on this, it seems politically plausible that left-authoritarians will be placated by something like you suggest, until the next confrontation with destiny.

    • novalis says:

      My favorite of these was on _Twister_: “intense depictions of very bad weather”.

  3. ShardPhoenix says:

    Yeah, I was surprised that somehow this issue got more of a backlash in the media than actual bad things that SJWs say and do. I mean, we already have “trigger warnings” on movies and TV – putting them on books is unlikely to matter much. The main thing I’d want is to (as you imply) limit to warnings to things that a relatively large number of people have a bad reaction to, to avoid endless proliferation of warnings and subsequent politics.

  4. gattsuru says:

    Instinctive opposition is encouraging, but I’m afraid you’ll get the same in response from me. Most obviously, you’re turning “censorship” into a fnord, here: without context of who is putting labels onto things, the phase loses a lot of its semantic meaning. The courts have, with fairly good reason, found compelled speech to an infringement of rights just as more classical forms of censorship, and it is /very/ easy to imagine compelled speech and compelled warnings that would transform the character of a work (most drawings, written or multimedia works with a sharp twist). Making the content warning easily missed reduces this effect, but a page that is poorly-read currently could well become well-read in the future if it’s well-known to have more important information than a Library of Congress number. ((And once you’ve established a norm of use, norms developed in torts make it really hard to keep any warnings small.))

    And, given the recent political climate, it’s not difficult to imagine these sort of things becoming a tool for other censors. /That/ author has written ten books Trigger Warning for homophobia — obviously /that/ author is a homophobe!

    The strongest argument against trigger warnings that I have heard is that they allow us to politicize ever more things… {So} Put a generally agreed list of things – no sense letting every single college have its own acrimonious debate about it.

    I’m not sure you can do this without solving the larger problems of human political interaction to such a degree that we’d not need such a list. There’s not a general agreement on the definition of homophobia or transphobia, to take take some of the more common rules, even within the political left. Several works have gone from progressive-thinking to terrible over the matter of mere years, as we fight over these concepts. And many on the political right reject transphobia or homophobia as terms, or who find homosexuality or transsexuality discomforting enough (or politically useful to call discomforting enough) that they’d try to label /that/ content. To an extent, they have begun to do so already: see the MPAA. I’d not consider that a success, or even really a model to follow — it’s quite prone to abuse and regulatory capture.

    On the other side, I’ve seen a good number of folk on the left with hackles raised about things like Memorial Day or ANZAC Day or the local equivalent, which suggests at least a little bit of incompatibility with a number of matters that folk on the right would very much find highly discomforting.

    Like, the anti-gay people talked about a slippery slope and fought desperately hard against gay marriage, even though it was pretty hard to find anything actually objectionable about it other than that it might be on a slippery slope to worse things. That desperate fight didn’t delay gay marriage more than a few years, and it didn’t prevent whatever gay marriage was on a slippery slope to. What it did do was totally discredit conservatives in this area.

    Is that the result of conservatives acting against gay marriage, or would it have happened anyway? I can quite easily imagine a recent past where the SCOTUS heard a successor of Baehr v. Miike unchallenged, unanimously ruled against any and all sorts of regulations even remotely involving religious viewpoints, and completed disqualifies social conservative positions just as completely and far more permanently in the process.

    And then there’s also the question of whether group-level tactics can even act like that. Individual social conservatives with knowledge of the future might have been able to avoid opposing gay marriage, but movements generally don’t react like that short of God personally announcing from on high — and sample of one, but Christ didn’t exactly have a 1.000 batting average on it. ((And many social conservatives held and continue to hold beliefs that gay marriage will have negative repercussions in addition to the slippery slope. You don’t, I don’t, and a large portion of the populace no longer does… but for those who did, it’s very hard to not act in concordance with something you believe.))


    Psychotherapists treat arachnophobia with exposure therapy, too. They expose people first to cute, little spiders behind a glass cage. Then bigger spiders. Then they take them out of the cage. Finally, in a carefully controlled environment with their very supportive therapist standing by, they make people experience their worst fear, like having a big tarantula crawl all over them. It usually works pretty well.

    Psychotherapists do not (usually) provide psychotherapy without (knowing) consent, for a wide variety of very valid reasons. Average folk talk to other people without such deep levels of consent, on a wide variety of topics, for a /different/ set of valid reasons. The vast majority of discussion of triggers are not revolving around diagnosable levels of fresh and reinforced arachnophobia nor around levels of triggering content equivalent to throwing a bucket of spiders. At the level of discussion that is common, we don’t presume that nook and cranny must be swept for spiders, and spiderwebs be labelled.

    ((Immersion therapy works well for well-controllable triggers like arachnaphobia, but I’d also not overlook the utility of flooding and related techniques. There are just too many triggers that aren’t really controllable or otherwise severely impact normal life — and, coincidentally, these are also ones most likely to be used heavily in media.))

    The article is garbage, but it’s garbage because it presents a series of unrelated points in a way that encourages bad correlation, more than because any one part is wrong.


    All the above said, I think trigger warnings can be useful and are probably polite to use, but there are advantages to the current system. People can test for the /presence of trigger warnings/. That becomes significantly less true if they’re enforced by an external group, no matter who that external group is.

    The big advantage of trigger warnings as a rule or highly enforced general social norm is that they’re always available… but we’re in a society where avoiding spoilers on content is an exercise in futility.

  5. Oligopsony says:

    On the other hand, this is terribly easy to fix. Put trigger warnings on books, but put them on the bullshytte page. You know, the one near the front where they have the ISBN number and the city where the publishers’ head office is and something about the Library of Congress you’ve never read through even though it’s been in literally every book you’ve ever seen. Put it there, on a small non-colorful sticker.

    RPG books have been covering their asses (from another Satanic panic that the industry could probably benefit from) for years. Actually I’m not sure how widespread it is anymore, but in any WW book from the 90s you’d get a nice little disclaimer on the Bullshyte page saying BTW THERES SOME GRODY SHIT IN HERE ALSO IT IS FICTIONAL YOU ARE NOT A VAMPIRE WIZARDS ARENT REAL ALSO SORRY WE HAVE TO SAY THIS

    • The Anonymouse says:

      Out of curiosity, what do you mean by “another Satanic panic that the industry could probably benefit from”?

      • Nornagest says:

        There was a moral panic over Dungeons and Dragons (and other RPGs, but mostly D&D) a while back, peaking in the mid-Eighties but persisting in some forms into the Nineties: the game was accused of normalizing violence and the occult, not entirely unlike the later (but shallower) panic over Harry Potter.

        It’s almost entirely forgotten now but had widespread, if not necessarily deep, repercussions in the industry: second-edition D&D dropped the words “demon” and “devil” as a response, for example, instead coining the rather ridiculous “tanar’ri” and “baatezu” for the monsters that had previously held those names. It probably also contributed to relegating D&D to the nerd ghetto after some limited mainstream success early on.

        • The Anonymouse says:

          Oh, no, I certainly recall the moral panic. I was wondering in what way Oligopsony meant that the industry could probably benefit from another.

          I can read it as meaning “there are still plenty of elements in the industry that are deserving of another moral panic, so as to reform”; it can also be read to mean “the industry could use the publicity giving it a boost in recognition and sales.” I was wondering if the comment was meant in one of those ways, or in some other way I have not considered.

  6. Oligopsony says:

    Actually, I suspect that he biggest effect of standardized trigger warnings across all media would be their adoption as selling points to teenage males (NATMALT.)

  7. ozymandias says:

    I’m sort of leery of pro-trigger-warning people because they tend to have this idea that people are mostly triggered by a short list of obviously bad things. Which is really not the case? I know people who are triggered by zombies, teddy bears, particular shades of wallpaper, and moral injunctions that they can’t obey. I worry that this idea will end up helping a small minority of people with mental illnesses– people who are triggered by rape, abuse, or suicide– and screwing over everyone else who is triggered by, like, pool tables, because people will assume that their trigger isn’t real because it isn’t on the short list of obviously bad things and thus refuse to accommodate them. I’ve definitely seen this happen on Tumblr with people mocking other people for, say, trigger-warning exercise. Never mind that that’s a really common trigger for anorexics…

    I am tentatively in favor of trigger warnings for triggers that are common enough that it makes sense to do so. I support more empirical research into what triggers are common (I suspect based on anecdote that some things like embarrassment are extremely common triggers but they aren’t on the Bad Things list so no one warns for them). But I really wish that there was also more awareness that people can be triggered by literally fucking anything.

    • Sniffnoy says:

      moral injunctions that they can’t obey.

      Well, those are just objectively bad! 😛

      • Not necessarily; what’s obeyable depends on the person. I have a reaction [1] like that to a relatively common moral injunction: ethical vegetarianism. I have an idiosyncratic and intense set of food preferences that add up to the intersection of vegan-compatible dishes and things my brain recognizes as valid sources of nutrition being effectively the empty set.

        [1] Dunno if I’d say a *trigger* per se; seems unfair to people with real PTSD to compare getting a bit emotionally perturbed to panic attacks and such.

    • Deiseach says:

      Trigger warnings are not “We are going to censor all kinds of content on the grounds that someone somewhere might find it objectionable”, they’re good manners.

      Suppose you bring your kids to the latest Disworkixar cartoon, and in the middle of the move when the happy frolicking animals are at the teddy bear’s picnic down in the woods, Lil’ Puppy gets his paw squished by a falling tree and is a three-legged Lil’ Puppy from then on.

      Your kid may be badly affected by this, and be inconsolable for the rest of the movie, and cry him or herself to sleep all week. Now, as a parent/aunt/childminder, you probably would have liked to know in advance about three-legged puppies so you could either decide not to take the kids to see this, or at the very least, be prepared to deal with the “Puppy got hurted!” reaction.

      Replies of “But all these other kids were fine” and even “Oh, you want to censor every movie even for adults so nothing but rainbows and birthday cake is allowed!” won’t address your request, which is “How about letting us know there were going to be puppies getting hurt so I could talk to my kid beforehand?”, which is not unreasonable in itself.

      That’s all a trigger warning is asked to do: “There is some stuff coming up which you might need preparation to deal with”.

      • Xycho says:

        The issue there is that life doesn’t have trigger warnings. Telling your kid beforehand if there’s going to be something like that is counterproductive; you’ll end up with a child who expects tragedy to be predictable. Let them get blindsided often enough early on, and they’re far less likely to delusionally expect life to treat them nicely later on. ‘Life’s a bitch and always will be – you don’t ever get not to be miserable’ is a lesson people need to know before they can talk. It’s one that a lot of people old enough to be spending time on the internet apparently haven’t learned, and that’s what results in the demands for trigger warnings: the hope or expectation that the world will endeavor not to make you upset, when the opposite is true.

        • Anonymous says:

          I frequently get to not be miserable. And I don’t think the world endeavours to upset me. I think stronger evidence is needed to oppose trigger warnings on the grounds life is shit. It can be pretty good.

      • ozymandias says:

        …I am not sure what part of this you believe I disagree with.

    • Amanda L. says:

      Surely the pro-trigger warning people can’t make it worse for those with pool table triggers, though? It’s not like anyone is accommodating them now, so it’s not really possible for them to get less-accommodated. If anything, the pool-table-triggered people are a big threat to the pro-trigger-warning movement, since they can easily be pointed to as reasons to dismiss it all on the absurdity heuristic.

      I think that fighting first for the more universally-recognizable trigger warnings is the right political strategy — rape, parental abuse, violence et al. are things that are agreed upon as bad across political lines (unlike blasphemy or classism), and no one thinks they’re silly (unlike wallpaper or embarrassment). Keeping it as un-politicized and “serious” as possible seems necessary at this point, considering how much “man up, you babies” type backlash there already is.

      (As an aside, I’d guess that rape, abuse (+ violence, gore etc for those with military-related PTSD) probably do comprise the majority of actual triggers. I would be surprised if lumping together all the “weird” triggers like pool tables and wallpaper and such even equaled one of the big categories, although you may be right that certain harder-to-label social triggers like severe embarrassment (+ social ostracizing, being blamed for things you didn’t do with no vindication, etc) may be significant.)

    • anon says:

      >I’m sort of leery of pro-trigger-warning people because they tend to have this idea that people are mostly triggered by a short list of obviously bad things.

      >obviously bad things

      This struck me very hard.

      This is the fundamental problem trigger warnings and other such systems present: they represent a social path of least resistance and therefore necessarily will serve as a defense against change. Compare a base classification system: there is no implied emotion in abstract categories, while something like a “trigger warning” has VERY STRONGLY IMPLIED emotional content. “That’s just the point!” some strawman says, and I know it is, and that’s the problem. Because the trigger warning gets tied to the emotional content. The purported use of trigger warnings offered, “I can select what challenges me and what doesn’t,” isn’t actually served specifically by trigger warnings. Trigger warnings do that and more. They are not just a content classification system. They are a backdoor tool for enforcing social standards, specifically because of the “obviously bad.”

      I mean, I’ll say it: rape is obviously bad. So what? Talking about rape is not obviously bad. Trigger warnings serve the purpose of attaching the emotional content of rape to the discussion of rape. In what sense is this a net positive? To make it doubly-topical to this blog, can we have a warning: “Trigger warning for employers: expressing an opinion about someone getting fired for expressing an opinion”? —And when we say that, then it’s ok to go on? “Now, listen, I’m not racist, but …”

      Maybe I am reading into things too much but this whole discussion sounds exactly contrary to the recent post on Kant. The phrasing from that discussion: “universalize as if the process you use to universalize would itself become universal.” How would anyone here suggest we map emotions to representations in a universal fashion so that trigger warnings aren’t reduced to just some tool for enforcing social standards? Just because trigger warnings are a new hip Web 2.0 trend rather than the stodgy Victorian standards doesn’t make them any better at all. Frankly, having the hindsight of history, it makes them worse.

      >I am tentatively in favor of trigger warnings for triggers that are common enough that it makes sense to do so.
      Why, exactly? I am pretty opposed even to content classification systems but the practical side of me admits that the use in the positive cases far outweigh the potential for abuse in pathological cases (which amount more to “genre problems” rather than “social mores enforcement”). But this is at once much more and much less than that. Why just those triggers?

      I understand that words mean things; words can be used to induce emotions. And we shouldn’t be totally lackadaisical about the application of words because of this. But in what sense would trigger warnings bring this mindfulness about, as opposed to any of a zillion other classification systems?

  8. As per usual, I don’t feel I have anything to do add to another brilliant Slate Star Codex post. However, it would be remiss of me to allow

    […] teach “gender, sexuality, and critical race studies” (the last of which deals twice as much damage as regular race studies).

    to pass by without applause. One second of incomprehension to several minutes of laughter. Bravo!

  9. Aleph says:

    All this hand-wringing is unnecessary. Why not just have your computer search through the text of a book and check whether certain words/phrases are in it? (For movies, search through the subtitles or a plot summary.) That solves all these problems with uncommon triggers like pool tables or elephants. There probably already exists a browser extension that’ll do this for you.

    • I’ve got a trigger which is fairly uncommon, and I don’t think a word search would find it– it’s semantic level.

      • Jai says:

        Might still be possible to build a classifier – computational linguistics is a thing with some successes. Of course, most of my ideas for _how_ to do this first require tagging a bunch of texts as triggery, which kind of defeats the point…

        • Slightly upthread, there’s a mention of another semantic-level trigger– a person who’s triggered by moral injunctions they can’t obey. I don’t see how a computer program could recognize those.

    • Cool Idea says:

      This is a cool idea, because it gives pretty much the same utility, while bypassing the political questions: What is worthy of trigger warnings? Whatever people tag as triggering.

      It can even have a color code: you want to avoid (homofobic/blasphemous/pool table) content. Green means that people that want to avoid (H/B/P) already saw that page and did not tag it. Yellow, no person has validated safety (i.e.: no person that wants to avoid H/B/P been there and not tagged it). Red means it was tagged as (H/B/P).

      And, as an extra-nice feature, you shift the burden of labelling from the writer to the potentially trigerred readers. Is is much better (to me) to give people tools to avoid “offence” than to force the writer not to “offend”. It removes the (sometimes quite reasonable) concern that offence is more an attempt to censor than an attempt to protect oneself

      (also, no spoilers if you don’t mind about a tag, or if you are browsing a “yellow” article)

  10. Matthew says:

    I have a different concern about trigger warnings, that I haven’t seen addressed anywhere, and I have no idea if there is any relevant research available.

    On the one hand, you have already-severely-traumatized people, who will benefit from warnings about specific triggering stimuli. And it is good to warn these people. What I worry about, though, is that there might also be a larger group of marginally-traumatized people, who would read the material without being triggered, except for the fact that you’ve now primed them with the thought “something in here is bad enough to trigger people.” And so the trigger warning actually ends up harming people who would have been fine in its absence.

    • Darcey Riley says:

      I am very concerned about this as well. Not just for marginally-traumatized people, but for anyone who feels any discomfort while reading scenes of rape/violence etc. Trigger warnings probably encourage people to go loopy on these bad feelings, which Scott already acknowledge in that post.

      Also, to some extent we rely on social cues to tell us how to feel about certain things. If people get the idea that the socially normal response to reading about rape/violence is to be very upset, they will make sure to get very upset, in order to avoid being seen as insensitive. So we may not want to give people the idea that this is the socially normal response, or else a lot of people are going to be upset over things they wouldn’t otherwise be.

      • Deiseach says:

        Please tell me how a socially normal response to rape is not to be very upset is a good and normal thing.

        I would, as a female, be very damn interested in this, seeing as how the good old U.S. of A. has just had another mass murder attempt by a mentally ill person who thinks that women, since they weren’t falling all over him, deserve to be murdered as bitches and cockteases.

        • Charlie says:

          There’s an interesting difference between “not very upset” and not “very upset.”

          Anyhow, being very upset is unpleasant. It is a variety of harm. If you wish to make it more widespread, this should not be for its own sake, but as an unfortunate side-effect of accomplishing some other goal.

        • nydwracu says:

          Is that “another[mass murder attempt by a mentally ill person who thinks that women etc.]” or “another[mass murder attempt] by a mentally ill etc.”? If the former, I can’t think of an American precedent. (Lepine was a Canadian with an Algerian Muslim father.) Maybe Klebold, but the circumstances are so different there that it’s a major stretch to say the two are even comparable.

          (Also: over half of the spree shootings in Canada — with Wikipedia pages, anyway — were in Quebec, and the most recent one that wasn’t in Quebec was earlier than the first one in Quebec. What’s up with that?)

        • Darcey Riley says:

          I’m not saying we should all be happy and joyous when reading depictions of rape. But the average, non-traumatized college student also shouldn’t get so upset while reading a rape scene that he/she can’t finish the book. As discussed elsewhere, part of college (and life) is learning to confront things we’re uncomfortable with, and accept that life will contain such things. I don’t want society to move in a direction where either of the following is normal: (1) normal people reading rape scenes get debilitatingly upset, or (2) normal people reading rape scenes get just a little more upset than they currently do, but social norms say that this mild upsetness justifies stopping reading the book.

          Basically, PTSD symptoms are bad. That’s why people with PTSD seek therapy. If a societal change helps some people with PTSD symptoms, but gives new PTSD symptoms to even more people, that seems like a net negative. And that’s what I’m concerned that trigger warnings are going to do.

          I am equally concerned, by the way, that our culture’s attitude of “rape is the worst thing ever” actually makes things worse for rape survivors. How much of people’s negative reaction to rape/sexual harrassment is because rape is inherently awful, and how much comes from power of suggestion/cultural preconceptions of how rape survivors are supposed to feel about it? (Also, what role do other cultural factors play? Obviously rape will be a much bigger deal in a culture that insists on virginity before marriage. Presumably other cultural attitudes about sex, violence, and gender roles also change how people perceive rape.)

          By the way, I’m also female, but I absolutely refuse to live in fear. When I go for a walk outside, I spend my time enjoying the scenery, not worrying about potential rapists. I don’t carry pepper spray; hell, I don’t even usually bring a cell phone. Sometimes I travel to remote places with sketchy male strangers. I have no self-defense skills; if someone wanted to hurt me, they could. And yet I’m not afraid. Fear is a choice*, and I would rather have bad things happen to me than live in constant fear of those things.

          *When I say “fear is a choice”, I don’t mean that someone with a lot of fears can just wake up one day and decide to stop being afraid. It takes years to overcome fears. But the first step in doing so is recognizing that fear, while natural, is not a logically inevitable response to “scary” things. “Scary” is a two-place predicate, meaning is something our minds do and not something that exists in the world, the map is not the territory, etc. It’s possible to decouple the stimulus from the response and stop being afraid.

          (By the way, everything I say in this comment stems from an assumption that people’s internal experiences are very malleable, and that who we are/how we act is strongly influenced by the culture we live in. So maybe this assumption is where I disagree with a lot of people on these issues?)

    • Jai says:

      This is why it’s probably a good idea to have warnings be available-but-not-in-plain-sight. Like on the bullshyte page, or in META tags on web pages. You want to only transmit the information to people who have opted to receive it.

  11. Douglas Knight says:

    One cost is attention. If I am to write a trigger warning, I must know the list of triggers and I must compare that list with my text.

    Demands for disclaimers are often used as a way of putting extra weights on your opponents. That’s not just a gang sign, but a real cost.

  12. Fu's Truly says:

    I’ve been a little lost throughout these conversations. Is there a reason we treat being triggered by common things as an acceptable way to live and try to adapt society to make it work? In college, if you get a long-term non-psychological disease that makes it hard to function, you’re expected to drop out, rely on your family or the state a little longer, go to treatment, and come back when you’re healthy and able to focus on your studies. If you have a job and you’re unable to properly perform long-term because you’re too sick, they might hold the position for you if it’s worth it to them or if they’re legally obligated to, but you won’t be able to stay and just keep getting by. Why don’t we do the same for this kind of anxiety?

    I don’t mean to suggest that we should demand they go to treatment or otherwise force treatment on them; it’s not forcing treatment on people to not go out of your way to facilitate them living in unacceptable conditions.

    There are a couple of claims I’m relying on here: it is to society’s benefit to only allow sufficiently healthy people to study and work; and, less arguably, for our fellow humans’ sakes, it is unacceptable for us to deliberately endorse and facilitate their living with crippling diseases when there are treatment options available.

    And, more personally, as someone who formerly had crippling anxiety, I’m frustrated that I have friends who think it’s perfectly fine to go on getting by (in many cases I wouldn’t call it living) in their current state, and other friends who make it possible and even treat their status as a sick person as endearing. It also makes it hard for me to rely on them, to help them get jobs without screwing over my friends who would pay them, or even to bring other friends around them.

    Where is it that pro-tws and I disagree?

    • Leo says:

      Presumably the assumption is that those people can function perfectly well except when they encounter an unlabeled trigger, so it’s less “can’t walk and you work in pizza delivery” and more “can’t walk and there’s one step in front of your office building”; putting a ramp there costs little and allows you to do your job just fine, it’d be silly to force you to quit instead.

      But, to address your actual point: this relies on treatment being a lot more effective and accessible than I think it is. Do you know something I don’t?

    • ozymandias says:

      Uh, college campuses are legally required to accommodate people with physical and mental disabilities. There are people with physical illnesses and disabilities who attend college.

      And, like… there are mental disorders that are treatment-resistant or that no good treatment has been developed for yet. Many people do not have access to treatment– because of poverty, because they are a member of a stigmatized or marginalized group it’s incredibly difficult to find a respectful therapist for, because they had an abusive therapist and don’t want to give someone that much power over them again. Mental health treatment usually takes a while to work and while they are getting treated people might want to… what’s your charming phrase… live, not just get by. I firmly reject the idea that I’m not allowed to do things like go to college because I’m crazy and might be crazy forever. That’s fucking bullshit.

  13. houseboatonstyx says:

    Another approach might be, to include a word cloud, which neither warns against, nor celebrates, any of the words. Thus, to different readers, it may function as a warning, or as an attraction, or both (if the book includes some words/subjects the reader likes and some that zie dislikes). Each reader can decide for zimself what the odds are, and whether the potential benefit is worth the risk.

    There might be an objection that a book with, for example, much sex in it, may not use the word ‘sex’, or not often enough to show up in big type. But words common in sex scenes would occur often enough to give the right impression of the book. Rather like your fnord.

    • Dave says:

      Yeah, this is generally the approach I endorse.

      Other nice thing is that a word-cloud can be generated client-side (so the author doesn’t have to do anything in particular) and the generator can be targeted/tuned to particular user interests and can take other input as well (e.g., additional tags from trusted peers).

      Mostly I think this is what we’ll settle on once we’ve gotten all of the moral posturing out of our systems and actually try to address the other issues, which might never happen. More likely, we’ll end up doing it for some entirely unrelated reason, and it will turn out to be useful for this as well.

  14. suntzuanime says:

    Some of my best experiences with fiction have been ones that left me surprised and uncomfortable. It would be a shame to lose that just because some people don’t like being surprised into uncomfortability. But then, those are the tradeoffs. (EDIT: I guess putting the content warnings somewhere unobtrusive resolves this, though in the context of e.g. a college course it might be difficult to avoid the information permeating in from one’s peers.)

    Having to put “content warning: rape” on the syllabus might get hs/college english teachers to consider just how much rape content they’re assigning and back off a little, which would be all to the good I feel. Ditto elementary school/middle school and “content warning: the dog dies”.

  15. Sam Rosen says:

    Asking me to do something for you can be seen as a dominance move.

    “Hey Sam, pick up that pen for me.”
    “Hey Sam, could you pick up that pen for me?”
    “Hey Sam, please pick up that pen for me.”

    Depending on how far away I am from the pen and how far you are from the pen, even delicate phrasings are dominance moves.

    I see a lot of trigger warning enforcement as a dominance move. I can make you do a somewhat arbitrary task because my group has moral superiority.

    Around Muslims, if I started saying “peace be upon him” every time I said Muhammad, I would be granting status to Islam because they were able to make me/have me/request I/influence me to do a thing. Hey Sam, could you please pick up that pen?

    Maybe the status of groups do stand and fall as whole and I should only grant status to groups whose ideas do good for the world.

    • Darcey Riley says:

      I agree with this. I realized a couple months ago, during an argument on the internet, that I really have no problem with the idea of trigger warnings in theory. And if people include them, but call them “content notes”, then they don’t bother me at all. It’s only the specific phrase “trigger warning” that gets to me, and that’s because I associate it with the social justice movement, which is full of all kinds of harmful memes. I hate to see trigger warnings spreading across the internet, not because there’s anything wrong with them, but because it means that social justice has an increasingly widespread influence on our culture.

      • Keratin says:

        You do realize that this is the exact same slippery slope argument that the post singles out as particularly bad?

      • houseboatonstyx says:

        Apparently the term ‘trigger warning’ is becoming wide-spread because people see it used and pick it up, without reference to who originated it. (I thought it originated in fan fiction.)

        A related issue … by using the term ‘social justice’, are we helping the “SJ” people re-define the word ‘justice’, and is that wise? And as a 1970s general purpose feminist myself, I don’t want to help a few current extremists to re-define the word ‘feminist’ to include only themselves.

        • danube says:

          Social justice people are pissed off that the the social justice warriors are appropriating the term.

        • Anthony says:

          <i.A related issue … by using the term ‘social justice’, are we helping the “SJ” people re-define the word ‘justice’, and is that wise?

          No, because the word “social” is an English particle of negation. “Social justice” = oppression, “social science” = phrenology, “social studies” = party instead of reading.

    • The Anonymouse says:

      It is dominance-seeking behavior. It isn’t a matter of how small the requests are, but the fact that the requester is expressing an entitlement to demand things of you, and you are not permitted to demand anything back.

      Ever notice how cops tend to ask questions and demand answers, but ignore any questions you might have? That’s not happenstance. Authority figures know that authority is reinforced when one side is permitted to make requests while ignoring reciprocal requests.

  16. platypus says:

    I enjoyed your post, but I would like to note that I don’t get much out of “fnorded’ documents. With the context removed, it’s less clear how badly hyperbolic the writing is; also, it’s not clear what fraction of the text was taken as fnords. — I mean, just about any document will contain some fraction of fnord-looking words, so any suitably long document can be transformed into a wall-of-incoherent-scary-text much as you have there.

    I would like to express a preference for the more common style of document summary, where you sample one or two sentences which you feel are representative and provide context if needed.

    • I, on the other hand, love fnorded documents. I’m exquisitely happy that Nydwracu introduced this technique.

    • Tom Womack says:

      I agree entirely; it’s not at all clear that the “fnording process” is well-defined, it feels like a particularly snide version of misreading a document according to the reader’s prejudices. Actually worse than sentence-by-sentence interleaved commentary, which is already a dreadful thing to do to a document or to an argument.

      • nydwracu says:

        It’s certainly not mechanistic, and it doesn’t work well on some things — but the Baffler article was pure crocodilism, and fnording is a good disarming technique in response to articles that are very obviously trying to tell their readers what to think.

    • Zathille says:

      I think the issue is less with fnording and more with that such a process is only half of a good analysis, or so I’d think.

      The way I see it, every article has Fnords to a lesser or greater extent as well as a ‘core’ or a central point that can be separated from the fnords in question to be evaluated. Fnording puts all of the former into a big bowl, the volume of which can be compared to the total volume of the article. As a heuristic, it seems generally accepted that too high a signal-to-content ratio lowers the credibility of the article.

      While This heuristic is certainly valuable, there is the other half of the analysis left to be done: The evaluation of the now-bared points on their own merits. An article filled to the brim with obnoxious signalling does not preclude it from having a good point, which is why some people may get the impression Fnording is just an uncharitable way to discredit an article.

      So, In short, it’s less of a matter of Fnording being inherently uncharitable and more that the process is not necessarily sufficient to getting to the point of the article being analysed and making an assessment of it. It’s useful, certainly, but not sufficient.

  17. lmm says:

    You know how reading a strawmanned version of an argument makes you less positively disposed towards that argument even after you’ve read the full argument? That’s my worry here; by asking for trigger warnings you’re effectively asking people to strawman themselves before giving their real argument.

    With your talk about bullshit pages and syllabuses, aren’t you arguing that it’s fine to have trigger information but make it require effort to find? In that case, why insist that the information be in the work at all? Let organizations for people with particular triggers maintain their own databases of which works do and don’t contain them, wouldn’t that achieve the same effect?

    • Andy says:

      Here, I prefer the content warning of This American Life: “This story acknowledges the existence of sex.”
      So if I’m talking about misogyny, and trying to get into a misogynist’s head in order to understand how to cure his misogyny: “Content warning: This post acknowledges the existence of misogyny and female objectification.”

      • Pthagnar says:

        Why do you prefer this? To me, that phrasing sounds even more loaded than ‘trigger warning’ in the direction away from ‘heads up, this might contain stuff you’re not ready to deal with, so here is where you can drop out’ and towards ‘I am an enlightened person who is dropping truth bombs on you with contents waaaay beyond your comprehension’ — i.e. the direction Scott does not like. Is it Honesty In Signalling?

        • Andy says:

          I see what you mean, but nyd, you acknowledge that triggering is a real problem. If you don’t like trigger warnings, funge against them. Show me a policy proposal that addresses the problem of people being blindsided by triggering material. Are people who triggered responsible for being triggered? Should they avoid any situation that could trigger them, even if they don’t know for sure whether it could be triggering or not?
          This is a real concern – I go to a school with a significant number of students who are veterans, people who joined the military specifically to get an education – should the ones with triggerable PTSD be excluded because they might encounter something that would trigger them?

        • nydwracu says:

          Given that the scope of the debate seems to be colleges…

          The course tracking system contains a page where students can submit a list of desired content warnings, which are sent to the professors who teach their courses. The lists appear in such a manner that they cannot be associated with student identities by the professor (I am not really sure if this part is either necessary or workable, since students opting out of things is intrinsically non-anonymous), but the professor responds with a list of course materials to which the content warnings apply. The language used by the page is as free of thede-signaling as possible; certainly there is no talk of ‘triggers’, and the term ‘content warning’ may become too polluted with signaling to be usable, but there are legions of bureaucrats who specialize in churning out beige verbiage, so that’s their problem, not mine.

          Since content warning requests are user-designed, there’s no question of which content warnings to print, and there’s much less potential for political weaponization. Since the use of the system is opt-in, the whole thing is basically invisible to people who don’t use it.

        • Sniffnoy says:

          That actually sounds really sensible.

          If, further, we want to ensure that people *don’t* read trigger warnings for others because they in general prefer to not know about things in advance outside of their small subset, we can do a slight elaboration. Something like: Each person sends in a list of triggers and an encryption key; for each book, if you look at the trigger warnings, you’ll find a list of encrypted triggers — decrypt with your key to find the ones for you. You don’t even need anything fancy — the point isn’t to keep other people from breaking it, the point is just so that you don’t accidentally read others. Like a Vignere cipher should work fine, so long as two people don’t pick the same key. And if they do and it fails, well, it’s not that big a deal, really…

          But for precisely that reason, this is probably just an unnecessary elaboration and the issue is mostly solved by the fact that if you don’t care about trigger warnings you won’t look at them in the first place and Nydwracu’s proposal is fine. My elaboration is probably just making too much work for the teachers.

        • Andy says:

          The course tracking system contains a page where students can submit a list of desired content warnings, which are sent to the professors who teach their courses. The lists appear in such a manner that they cannot be associated with student identities by the professor (I am not really sure if this part is either necessary or workable, since students opting out of things is intrinsically non-anonymous)

          I see what you mean, and I see it as very workable and desirable, with a few tweaks.
          My university uses a system for class registration, it’s called MySchool (replace “school” with the acronym of my school). At the beginning of the semester, the system feeds each professor a list of names, email addresses, and majors for their students.
          If each student adds on a page their desired content warnings, the content warnings can be aggregated and thus anonymized and duplicates – the trigger list is tied to the entire class, not an individual student, and “rape” appears only once no matter how many students requested it. This could be vulnerable to student jokers, and could perhaps be mediated by Disabled Student Services or the psychological counseling service on campus.

        • nydwracu says:

          Maybe I wasn’t clear enough — the whole point of the system is that no student sees any other student’s requested list of content warnings, or the response list that any other student gets. It’s designed to be totally invisible to anyone who doesn’t use it. The student submits the list; the professor submits the response to the student.

        • Anthony says:

          That can be filtered through software, too – it would just be an extension to the MySchool software Andy mentions. The students submit their preferred triggers, the software gives the list to the prof, the prof replies with which works hit which triggers, and the software sends the appropriate warnings to the appropriate students.

          This also eliminates the possibility of a student claiming to be triggered by “spoilers which would reveal that characters in the book act or think in unpleasant ways”.

    • rrb says:

      With your talk about bullshit pages and syllabuses, aren’t you arguing that it’s fine to have trigger information but make it require effort to find?

      I think this was the point, yes. Well, slightly hard to find, just enough to discourage people that don’t need them.

      The advantage of slightly-hard-to-find trigger warnings is that the people that need them still look for and find them, but nobody else ever sees them.

      This keeps them from being a whole political issue. That is, it’s a response to the concern in the previous paragraph, which begins: “The strongest argument against trigger warnings that I have heard is that they allow us to politicize ever more things.” This can’t happen if non-triggerable people can’t be bothered to look at them.

  18. Ken Arromdee says:

    On the other hand, this is terribly easy to fix…. I’m sure there are some more implementation details, but it’s nothing a little bit of good faith can’t take care of.

    Good faith on the part of who?

    I’m pretty sure that there won’t be good faith on the part of the people requesting trigger warnings. It will *not* be easy to fix. You say that we could have trigger warnings for people on all sides, and that will fix the problem of trigger warnings just being used as a gang sign by one side.

    Yes, doing that *would* fix the problem–and that’s exactly why the same people who want the trigger warnings won’t let you do it.

    If doing X is a pretense for doing Y, you can’t easily “fix” X by making it actually work as described without the pretense. Everyone else, who knows very well that it’s a pretense because that’s why they did it, will oppose you and if they had enough power to get X in the first place, they have enough power to stop you.

    • ozymandias says:

      I’m confused. Your argument is that pro-trigger-warning people are not actually going “hey, a lot of people have PTSD flashbacks when they see scenes of rape, can they please know about that so they can avoid them” and are instead doing… something else? Is there any reason to believe they’re not motivated by exactly the thing they say they are?

      • Because the things commonly singled out as needing “trigger warnings” are not a fair cross-section of triggering content, but a specifically-selected subset designed reinforce the memes and concerns of SJWs. Even something like rape, which is obviously terrible and genuinely triggering for many survivors, is nonetheless singled out in place of arguably more common triggers such as violence, car crashes, etc. because it feeds into SJW ideas about “rape culture”.

        I agree that there is a genuine, sympathetic use case for trigger warnings or content warnings, but their actual, real-world usage is almost entirely as a thedish gang sign.

        • Do you have ideas about what a good, complete list of triggers would look like, or is adding violence and accidents that tend to cause serious injury enough?

          I’ve heard that people can get PTSD from being an an ICU.

          I’ve wondered about rape being taken more seriously than murder– there was something (possibly on This American Life) about people whose relatives had been murdered having a rough time in a culture where talk of killing is generally taken lightly. I think it was in a piece about murder mystery weekends (people get together in a hotel to solve a simulated murder).

        • The Anonymouse says:

          I’m not sure you can come up with a good, complete list of triggers. If you want good, you don’t get complete, and if you want complete, you don’t get good.

          Complete gets you a list on the front of every piece of media in 8pt jargon, and after the first couple quickly devolves into a list of things that most people find completely innocuous (“Trigger warning: the color yellow is used is various descriptions of sunrises. Trigger warning: sunrises.”)

          Good (but not exhaustive) gets you into a lovely argument with an SJ activist, except ze gets to argue from the intentionally-advantageous position of the aggrieved victim, and you’re probably about to be labelled ableist as well. How dare you not be enlightened enough to know that the color can be a trigger? What, that’s silly? Are you calling my disability silly?

          Moreover, I’m not sure you could decide on a list of “good” trigger warnings even if you wanted to. I agree with Ken that those demanded tend to be slanted toward the concerns of the SJ movement, rather than being a fair cross-section of society; and further that the dominance-seeking behavior inherent therein will make the “discussion” unproductive.

        • ozymandias says:

          I mean, there is a long tail of completely ridiculous triggers, but there are also a bunch of triggers that are fairly common. It seems perfectly reasonable to me to warn for diet talk, which is a fairly common trigger for anorexics, but not for avocados because Joe the Anorexic finds his anorexia triggered by them.

      • Ken Arromdee says:

        ozy: Mai said it better, but basically, the pretense is that trigger warnings are for things which cause a certain degree of triggering. The actual intention is to put them on things which cause a certain degree of triggering *and* are politically correct.

        So they’re real in the sense that rape scenes really do give people flashbacks, but they’re pretenses in the sense that rape is chosen over other things that can give people equally bad flashbacks, because emphasizing those other things is not politically correct and emphasizing rape is.

        You will not be able to “fix” the problem by making trigger warnings egalitarian, because the people responsible for the trigger warning movement don’t want them that way.

        • ozymandias says:

          I’m not certain this is true. On tumblr, which is basically run by the people responsible for the trigger warning movement, you get a certain number of highly politicized tws (pretty much any “tw: ism”) but they also tend to hit a lot of the major things which trigger people and are clearly not politicized. You *do* get “tw: violence,” “tw: gore,” “tw: murder,” and for that matter “tw: exercise,” “tw: alcohol,” and “tw: food.”

        • gattsuru says:

          Ozy, I don’t use Tumblr very heavily, but both from my limited use and from some quick attempts to verify, there seem to be a number of fairly significant gaps. Sample of one, but tw: ied and tw: bomb do not show significant numbers of returns, despite soldiers experiencing PSTD related to roadside bombs being major newstories since the start of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

          And even many of the present and common trigger warnings seem more focused on a metaphor of revulsion, especially for violence and gore, rather than for a metaphor of PTSD.

        • Hainish says:

          A simpler explanation is that the people responsible for the trigger warning movement are more likely to be triggered by some things than others. If people outside of this nebulous group want trigger warnings for different sorts of content, they can work to make that happen.

        • ozymandias says:

          IME “tw: bomb” would usually fall under “tw: violence” instead.

        • Sniffnoy says:

          It’s not clear to me that such broad trigger warnings necessarily carry out their purpose very well. If you don’t have such a problem with violence in general but want to avoid descriptions of bombs or IEDs, then doing it that way isn’t that helpful. (This is a case where nydwracu’s proposal would work well, I think, except that that really only applies in a restricted setting, and not to general fiction on the internet.)

    • Anonymous says:

      Mentioning “good faith” in the same article with “colleges run by people on the left” is the kind of thing which wouldn’t compile in a statically typed language.

  19. Tommy says:

    Scott, out of interest, what do you think a ‘good family values argument’ would look like?

  20. T. Greer says:

    Incidentally, we Mormons have been putting trigger warnings on our syllabuses for quite a while. They are quite different in tone from the trigger warnings discussed here, but I suppose their general purpose is the same. The fact that I have absolutely no objections to them, but a rather visceral distaste for classical trigger warnings, suggests that (along with Darcey Riley above) my real objection is not to the trigger warning itself, but the influence of any SJ meme on broader culture.

    In any case, here is the last section of a syllabus for a Chinese history course I took back in the day at one of the BYU campuses:


    These films/books have not been selected for your entertainment but education. They aim to expand understanding beyond your own experiences. Parts may be bleak but wonderfully depict features of the human condition. This too is necessary for your progression. Some feel that if a movie or book does not leave them refreshed, uplifted, and joyous, it has no value but cankers their soul. Like monks in a monastery, they prefer to sever contact with the “world.” Consider the following prophetic comments concerning education and progression.

    Shall I sit down and read the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and the Book of Covenants all the time?” says one. Yes, if you please and when you have done, you may be nothing but a sectarian after all. It is your duty to study to know everything upon the face of the earth in addition to reading those books. We should not only study good, and its effects upon our race, but also evil and its consequences.

    —Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, 2:93-94

    God doubtless, could avert war, prevent crime, destroy poverty, chase away darkness, overcome error, and make all things bright, beautiful and joyful. But this would involve the destruction of a vital and fundamental attribute of man—the right of agency. It is for the benefit of His sons and daughters that they become acquainted with evil as well as good, with darkness as well as light, with error as well as truth, and with the results of the infraction of eternal laws. The contrasts experienced in this world of mingled sorrow and joy are educational in their nature, and will be the means of raising humanity to a full appreciation of all that is right and true and good.
    —Teaching of the Prophet Joseph F. Smith, p. 286

    The tide of evil flows. It has become a veritable flood. Most of us, living somewhat sheltered lives, have little idea of the vast dimensions of it. … God give us the strength, the wisdom, the faith, the courage as citizens to stand in opposition to these and to let our voices be heard in defense of those virtues which, when practiced in the past, made men and nations strong, and which when neglected, brought them to decay.
    —Gordon B. Hinckley, Be Thou An Example, p. 58

    If you still do not feel comfortable viewing or reading any of these movies or books, an alternative listing will be made available if you inform me in writing why you prefer not to follow the prescribed outline. Present this request to me within the first two weeks of class so I can make arrangements.

    • Vivificient says:

      This looks like a reasonable example of a way to warn people about the fact they may find the content of the course offensive, explain why the content was chosen and that it was in fact for a good reason they may agree with, and still kindly offer a way out for anyone who really does have a strong reason to not want to be exposed to the content.

      I notice it’s not quite a “trigger warning” in the sense that it doesn’t offer details of the kind of content to be expected; but then again, realistically it probably isn’t too hard to look up the names of classic books and find out what they are about.

    • Tom Womack says:

      That’s a fantastic piece of work, from a source that I wouldn’t have thought of at first but on second thoughts is exactly the kind of place that you’d expect to have come up against this problem and had smart well-motivated people figure out a reasonable approach to it.

    • Julia says:

      This does seem well done. It also answers my question – what is it that happens after professors put a trigger warning on a class reading, anyway? It’s not like a blog post where the readers can just choose to stop reading – presumably they and the professor need to figure out what’s going to happen about that reading assignment and if there will be some alternative.

  21. Eli says:

    Wait, the New Republic is right-wing? I always thought they were just the most milquetoast, weaksauce bunch of liberals ever to walk the planet.

  22. James Miller says:

    As a politically incorrect professor at a left-wing women’s college I’ve long used what is effectively a trigger warning on my first day of my game theory course. I think this reduces future student complaining because if they stay in the class they have consented to hear me say things outside of their comfort zone and of course there might be small student selection effects.

  23. Deiseach says:

    So this is now a Real World thing, eh? I ask, because I’ve already seen the fight about trigger warnings but in the context of fandom and fanfiction writing.

    We’ve had the whole (ongoing) debate about “But what do you warn for?” and “Why call it a warning, that makes it sound as if you think what I’m writing about is bad or dangerous” and “If I warn for torture or murder, does that mean I also have to warn for paper cuts? People can be triggered by anything!”

    What I’ve heard from people asking for trigger warnings has, in the main, not been excessive. It’s been “I’ve suffered rape or abuse/I have an anxiety disorder/a phobia” and “This is what triggers me and this is what happens when someone is triggered”.

    It’s not “mildly upset”. It’s not “ooh you’re talking about nasty things”. It’s not “I don’t want to hear any viewpoint other than my own”.

    It’s “When I’m reading/watching this, and something unexpected comes up – like a woman being raped, or a murder, or a dog being beaten and abused, or acts of verbal intimidation and violence, this gives me flashbacks to my own experience and I have a breakdown”.

    So yes, it’s only courtesy to give “trigger warnings” where there is possibility of someone being harmed – and I don’t mean ‘hurt feelings’, I mean ‘forced to re-live a traumatic experience without being adequately prepared for it because you were too laissez-faire to warn for it’.

    As for that “exposure” thing, if it’s done correctly within the proper environment, fine. But a lot of assholes use that as justification for throwing people into stressful situations without proper preparation or even consent, then going “But it’s better for you to be forced to confront your fears – the research has found!”

    I have acrophobia/vertigo. It’s disabling in small ways (I can’t change a lightbulb, for instance, because I get dizzy standing on the second rung of a stepladder so I need someone else to do that) and big ways (for a fieldtrip, I was the only one in the class who wasn’t able to climb up the outside ladder to the walkway where the equipment station on the roof was located).

    If someone asked me to go into a room, then locked me in there and said “Now we’re setting fire to this room and your only escape is to climb this ladder out” – all this without me knowing about it – then yes, maybe I could force myself to do so. But you can also bet I’d be punching their teeth down their throat the minute I was back on solid ground, and it would not cure my fear of heights.

  24. Thasvaddef says:

    I don’t see the problem with “bad people” using trigger warnings to avoid things they disagree with. They would do that anyway, it just lets them do it faster and then get on with their lives.

    Also, I always read the bullshytte page. I like to know which year a book was published. In fact I dislike it that older books don’t have one.

  25. Peter Scott says:

    I propose abbreviating trigger warnings. Suppose you open a book, or rent a movie, or whatever, and you see the following words:

    TW: NSFW,R?,Inc,D,SCD

    If you know what the abbreviations mean, you may read this as “Trigger warnings: not safe for work, implied rape, incest, death, secondary character death.” (Pretty grim story, right?) If you don’t really care about trigger warnings, then I doubt you’ll even notice it.

    This way everybody gets what they want. If you’re genuinely triggered by, say, vivid depictions of war, then you’ll know to look for the “W” trigger warning. If you’re not, then it’ll probably just be another letter.

    • Pthagnar says:

      Has this scheme ever worked? Everyone knows what ‘PG’ and ‘X’ means, and I see them frequently used outside the context of film classification, and those *don’t* have ‘LEARN MY ACRONYMS, SHITLORD!’ behind them.

  26. Speculation: aversion to trigger warnings is about fear of incurring moral condemnation for failing to anticipate someone’s trigger should providing them become normative

    The problem of idiosyncratic triggers has been noted before, but bears repeating: the range of possible triggers is vast and impossible to anticipate, and there really are people out there who are aggrieved at not having highly idiosyncratic triggers respected. I give you misophonia:

    Retaliation to rudeness

  27. Pingback: Linkblogging For 31/05/14 | Sci-Ence! Justice Leak!

  28. Doug S. says:

    Content warnings lead to Avoid the Dreaded G Rating and Rated M For Money. And the NC-17 movie rating is a de facto ban, as is the “AO” video game rating.

  29. Rand says:

    It’s not psychotherapy, Scott. You either put up warnings about spiders, mice, heights, enclosed spaces, etc. or you don’t. Either way, you’re going to have a highly adverse effect on some percentage of the population – whether by severe triggers, far more frequent mild triggers, exposure, or absence of exposure. And regrettably, you can’t decide what is best for each individual: The sign goes up for everyone. That’s the type of choice a society has to make.

  30. James Miller says:

    Might you need a trigger warning for some trigger warnings. For example, imagine a film professor gives a trigger warning whenever a film will show two men kissing and the fact that some people would be offended by such kissing and need a trigger warning would trigger other people. But now pretend that the first group is offended because of their Christian beliefs and they are offended that other people would be offended by their beliefs… and so we need trigger warning for trigger warnings for trigger warnings.

  31. Anonymous says:

    Not meant as an argument so much as a “Every time I read the title my brain autocompletes it”:

    ♫ But the most wonderful thing about triggers is…mine’s the only one ♫

  32. JamesDC says:

    You phrased the necessity of trigger warnings very well, but I think you still missed the biggest problem with trigger warnings, which is that they do not actually expand your options; rather, they reduce them.

    One of the most powerful tools at a writer’s or speaker’s disposal is the ability to shock and surprise the audience. This does not simply affect the “volume” at which the information is delivered; it also alters its qualities. Hence, the argument that trigger warnings expand one’s options fails, because the option of experiencing the information with its original qualities is gone. I will grant that this is not so much the case if trigger warnings are standardized as you propose but, honestly, do you really think that’s going to happen? After all, some poor souls might miss the warnings out of forgetfulness or ignorance, and how dare you allow for the possibility that they might experience content in its original form? Also, your format doesn’t apply equally for all media, which creates more room for problems.

    But again, it bears restating: trigger warnings do not just expand options–they also shrink them, and they shrink for more people than they expand.

    • Anonymous says:

      I’m not sure it is easy to give an example of when this would actually negatively affect people in practice. Although I can’t think of a situation where this applies, you always have the option of giving a ‘fully general trigger warning’; you could include at the start of your book a small note (in the coverplate) saying, “This book contains at least one section which – in polite society – I am expected to provide a trigger warning for. Since I can’t provide such a warning without spoiling the artistic effect of the section, consider this a completely general announcement that if you have any sort of anxiety at all about any triggers you should approach this book with extreme caution”. Same with the age rating slide on films, or in the insert for videogames and CDs.

      • moridinamael says:

        In which case, it would seem that the best policy should be that each person should simply be trained to bear this “fully general trigger warning” in mind while going about their lives, to save on ink.

        But of course, trigger warnings aren’t for keeping people from being made slightly uncomfortable, they’re (notionally) for avoiding triggering people’s serious PTSD. I don’t know how these two things keep getting conflated in this discussion.

        • JamesDC says:

          They are not being conflated. Avoiding PTSD triggers and such is the purpose of warnings, but that is not their singular use; all uses, legitimate or otherwise, must be accounted for. The question is “how much triggering is worth how much art?”

          • Dave says:

            > The question is “how much triggering is worth how much art?”

            For my own part, I think the more important question is who makes this decision, and for whom it is made.

            We are capable of building systems that allow viewers to make these decisions for themselves. For example, we can support tagging spoilery content notes as spoilery and writing displays that can be configured to display spoilers, or not, depending on the desires of the viewer.

            Let the user decide how important the risk of ruining their own experience of my art is to them, and how important the risk of running into unflagged triggers is, and configure their display accordingly.

            (And of course we already do this. If I am dealing with PTSD I might ask a trusted friend “does this piece of art contain anything that might trigger me?”. The question is, do we want to build our systems to handle this use case cleanly, or do we want to continue having our systems’ users handle it out-of-band.)

            The user can even consent to let someone else control their experience, if they choose… just let whoever it is configure your viewer’s settings.

            Given such a system, this whole “but what if having this information ruins the user’s experience of my art?” thing is only a problem if I want someone other than the user to nonconsensually control the user’s experience.

            I’m willing to leave that use case unsatisfied at first.

        • Anonymous says:

          I don’t agree that that is the best policy; if I am triggered by sexual abuse but not violence then I *really* want to avoid depictions of sexual abuse but I have no reason to avoid depictions of violence. A ‘fully general’ warning on a violent piece of work will prevent me from consuming it (because I can’t be sure there’s no sexual abuse) when in fact I could have consumed the media with no problems. Insofar as trigger warnings are supposed to guide media consumption to prevent PTSD rather than censor works that might make me uncomfortable, this would be a net loss, so it isn’t obvious that the best policy is to always give the general warning; the specific warning is almost always better if it doesn’t spoil the story for the majority.

          • Dave says:

            > A ‘fully general’ warning on a violent piece of work
            > will prevent me from consuming it (because I can’t
            > be sure there’s no sexual abuse)

            This sentence assumes a lot about the hypothetical audience that is worth making explicit. (I infer from context that you’re speaking in the hypothetical first person, here, and are making assumptions rather than reporting your own experience. If I’m wrong about that, I apologize; I don’t mean to dismiss that experience, though I also don’t think it’s typical.)

            First, it assumes that the reader’s response to depictions of sexual abuse in a work is to avoid the work altogether. If it is instead to approach the work with a greater-than-usual level of caution (e.g. reading it at home rather than on the commuter rail), you aren’t prevented from consuming it.

            Second, it assumes that the trigger warning/content note/ingredient list on the work is the only available source of information. If there are other sources of information (e.g. wikipedia articles, trusted friends, etc.) then you can seek out more details once you’ve been warned that there’s something problematic here. (In this spirit, when my theater group thinks a play has difficult content we say so and encourage potential audience members to contact us if they have any questions about it.)

            All that said, I agree with your conclusion that specific warnings are better than general ones… not because of anything having to do with censorship or even PTSD, but just because I’m generally in favor of labeling things to allow informed consumer choice, and more specific labels provide more information.

            The question is at what level they’re worth the effort involved in producing them (which of course depends on how streamlined we make that process).

      • JamesDC says:

        Examples are easy to summon; consider The Prestige, which would lose all gravitass if it warned of murder, cloning, reincarnation, doppelgangers, animal abuse, etc., or Warm Bodies and “necrophilia.”

        As far as “generalized ratings” go, you run into more problems. With video games and TV shows and movies, specifics are actually required to be listed in an accessible place/format (back of the case, start of the show, online). While this could prevent Joe Shmoe from promoting his own racism while giving Discriminated Against Victor a way out, unfortunately, those rating systems are terrible about both giving accurate ratings and providing meaningful specifics. For example, there is a world of difference between imbibing a beer and shooting up heroin, but they both fall under drug and alcohol abuse. Given issues others have mentioned with providing specifics when it comes to triggers (which ones, and how much do you say?), it just doesn’t seem like a worthwhile venture.

        You are left, then, with CD ratings–purely generalized and uninformative. This is even worse than specific warnings, because any number of people will or won’t be taken out of the running who shouldn’t or should have been.

      • Doug S. says:

        This actually exists: text porn stories have the “caution” tag, which is for when the author doesn’t want to ruin the suspense by including something like the “incest” or “rape” tag in the description.

  33. jroll says:

    I think the relevant analogy is not being forced to play with spiders but being forced to read a novel with a spider in it.

    I also don’t agree with the framing here and agree with the a couple people above that a lit teacher assigning a book to read is not giving someone psychotherapy. Although I think you could say that these warnings are enabling people to not get treatment.

  34. Caspian says:

    When going for consensual trigger warnings, rather than take triggers warnings on nonfiction blogs as the model, I would check out what norms have arisen for online fiction communities, for example fanfiction. I expect people would be concerned with finding readers who enjoy the writing, and not want to attract people who hate it, because that makes audience discussion more negative. So there’s probably more accommodation to warning about things that trigger people the author disagrees with politically.

    I’m wondering what sort of warning could be given for HPMOR regarding Harry being too smart or too high status for his age. It seemed to really annoy some people, I suspect for reasons I would politically disagree with.

  35. J. Quinton says:

    I remember when the “explicit lyrics” tags started popping up on cassette tapes and CDs. There was a big fuss about it when it came out (e.g., Metallica’s “Eye of the Beholder”) but nowadays it’s sort of seen as a badge of honor.

    20 years from now some band will probably call itself “Trigger Warning”.

    • anon says:

      That’s actually a fantastic band name that needs to happen soon.

    • The Anonymouse says:

      That was pointed out to amusing effect on a segment about trigger warnings on NPR’s Tell Me More the other day. One of the commentators pointed out, “When I was a teenager, we fought against Tipper Gore trying to stick warning labels on everything; now, teenagers complain that there aren’t warning labels on everything.”

  36. Anonymous says:

    I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect every website to have its own text-to-speech button for blind people, only to play well with existing text-to-speech programs, which blind people can download from dedicated “blind people resources” websites.

    Same with trigger warnings. Why not just stick to using a third-party service to keep track of the triggers in all existing media? If you’re going to check the front of the book for trigger warnings, you might as well look the book up in an online app so you can only read stuff from a whitelist. That way not every author and publisher in the world needs to change his behavior. The incentives are much better that way. If I’m an author, I don’t automatically care about people who won’t buy my book. So it would either take many offended people to publicly shame me, or unoffended people to empathize with the offended people enough to boycott my book. It’s much, much easier for the relatively few traumatized people to get the service they need from a community dedicated to that, such as a global trigger database app. Concerned authors can also contribute to that database. It’s also easier to add more triggers later.

    • CAE_Jones says:

      I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect every website to have its own text-to-speech button for blind people, only to play well with existing text-to-speech programs, which blind people can download from dedicated “blind people resources” websites.

      This is true, however, it is reasonable for websites to be formatted such that dedicated text-to-speech resources can interpret them. A website or app that requires clicking on buttons, but does not label the buttons such that they can be identified by a screen reader, would not be considered particularly friendly to blind people. (These exist; see: a lot of Google’s apps, apparently.)

      This actually fits some above examples of why a trigger filter add-on wouldn’t be perfect: semantic things that are hard for a computer to recognize, or unlabeled images. But especially unlabeled images.

      A work-around might be including the ability to tag images or pages, which would then be flagged by a server that updates every other user’s filters, so that only one or two people need to be caught unprepared.

      (And this gives me an idea worth testing: can crowd-sourcing custom labels for poorly formatted apps/websites work for screen readers? I have my doubts, given what I’ve heard about the Android Accessibility API, but I’ll see what I can find.)

      • Anonymous says:

        What you say about formatting for text-to-speech programs is exactly what I mean by “play well with existing text-to-speech programs”. The equivalent of this would be the expectation for a work to have a persistent identifier, such as a title (or ISBN). This is already the case.

        I never said anything about automatic trigger recognition. Only about a database of existing triggers in media, which you call a “workaround”. (If that’s the word you want to use, then trigger warnings are a workaround in the first place.)

  37. Anonymous says:

    The reason people do not warn against your “triggers” is that your triggers are not actually “triggers” -the things you listed as “trigger” is an *action* that you dislike.

    To be “triggered” is to have an inappropriate and exaggerated emotional response to a stimuli, even though you intellectually know that it cannot harm you. Being upset at something you view as a legitimate threat is not a trigger.

    By example: “I’m triggered by racism” means that I am triggered by *discussions* of racism. When one feels harmed by people actively being racist against them, they are not being “triggered” – they just have a normally functioning amygdala which is responding to threat.

    Another example – you would not say someone would be “triggered” by someone raping them. You might say they were triggered by a movie depicting rape. You might say they were triggered by a rape-joke. One of the important thing about “triggers” is that they are typically tripped unintentionally.

    No one ever says [trigger warning: I’m about to argue that white men can’t feel oppressed] … for the same reason that no one says [trigger warning: I’m about to argue that people who were raped were kind of asking for it]…because they are *actually, intentionally brandishing verbal weapons* here…they’re actively fighting some sort of a battle with real stakes at play and “triggers” do not apply to the situation.

    No one ever says “I’m triggered when you say I’m a bad person”. You’re *supposed* to be upset in this scenario – you’re not “triggered”.

    (Disclaimer: Just because someone is actively brandishing verbal weapons, doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a bad thing – though it usually is. Like all weapons, verbal weapons are value-neutral and can be used for good-or-evil-but-usually-evil purposes.)

  38. HeatherN says:

    So…yeah…totally dig this blog post. Just wanted to let you know that folks in the social justice crowd are reblogging and quoting from this thing positively. Like…the Tumblr post I saw it from was liked/reblogged a couple thousand times…

    I’ve not read anything else you’ve written, so I don’t know exactly what critiques you have of social justice movements…but maybe give us a bit more credit? We’re not all blindly screaming our politics at each other all the time…

    I’d argue most of us are open to new ways of thinking…that’s part of why we got involved in social justice in the first place. And far from being a homogeneous whole…social justice folks often butt heads (sometimes more angrily than others, I’ll admit)…but it’s not as though any disagreement gets you barred. And I’d argue that the more radical amongst us are usually pushed to it by having their more moderate and open-minded conversations dismissed and trivialised.

    I dunno…if you have the time or the inclination, feel free to e-mail me and I’d love to chat about your perspective on social justice movements and whatnot. I quite like having respectful chats with folks I don’t completely agree with…which are tough to find these days.

  39. Contaminated NEET says:

    Commissioner Lal? Lame! Dierdre, Sakharov, and Yang were passable opponents, and Morgan at least built cities worth plundering, but Lal? Lal?

  40. Lorxus says:

    As far as the social justice movement goes, it seems like there’s a lot of anger and a lot of built-up resentment and probably a bit of thinly veiled infighting and probably a decent dose of cathartic circlejerk pointed at people who really do on the average have lot significantly easier. It is probably best to let said utterly unhelpful and frankly immature behavior either burn itself out or sublimate itself; there is no reasoning with it.

    • HeatherN says:

      Somehow missed your reply to my comment and to this until now, but…

      Um, so you’d like to have a respectful chat about sj movements after rather summarily calling their behaviour “utterly unhelpful and frankly immature” and saying, “there’s no reasoning with it.” That’s not really getting off to a good start, mate.

      There’s this thing that’s become really prevalent in pop discourse at the moment…and that’s the utter dismissal of someone’s perspective prior to even engaging in conversation. And yes, certainly, there are folks on any side of a debate that do this. However, I’ve noticed that it is very often the case that this dismissal and trivialising of a perspective is directed to sj folks. And that this dismissal and trivialising hurts just a bit more for sj folks. I mean, I’m routinely confronted with folks in the real world who trivialise and dismiss part of my identity and folks who dismiss me because of part of my identity. So then when someone comes in and dismisses my political and ideological perspective out of hand, it hurts quite a bit.

      I mean, your direct reply to my comment was “If this is truly the case…” There’s that really big “if,” that doubt in your mind that I am telling the truth in what I say. You begin by doubting whether I’ll even be honest with you. — Your comment above basically says, ‘Yeah the sj movement might stem from some real problems, but they’re immature and best to be ignored.’ This is a problem…you’re basically saying you agree that queer folk or women or whoever really are marginalised, you just don’t like how some queer folk or women or whoever are talking about their own marginalisation. So you dismiss it. You trivialise it.

      Doesn’t exactly make me feel open to talking to you. I’m not saying I won’t…I’m saying, your comments make me wary.

      (Also, apologies my comment is so long…I tend to ramble).

  41. Pingback: Trigger warning: Trigger warnings (towards a different approach) | Rewriting The Rules

  42. Aneris says:

    Hello, watching the SJWs for over two years (in the atheist/skeptics movement foremost), and having read a few articles of yours, I’ll do what is tradition on the internet: comment where I disagree (I nodded along the other articles). :p

    In my view, the gist of social justice warriorism is the radical removal of ideas, bodies of ideas (books, art, comments) and people who (re)produce such ideas from the ever expanding safe spaces, to protect their ideology which are here strongly linked to their identities in several ways, not just identity politics.

    Removal of ideas means short term and directly: they’ll block, ban, no-platform, make noise, pull fire-alarms etc. and long term they use smearing, poising the well, or defamation on the targets. The histrionic, theatralic spectacles are used to create the paradoxical chilling effect when seeing someone consigned to the flames and roasting to ashes in a pyre.

    The SJWs I have observed have a strange drift towards (dumb) abstraction, which is another indicator of their postmodernist thinking. They are “metaconcepty” and are constant label-machines that tag the world as if they were bots that need an abstract markup to navigate the world (I have all sorts ideas why that is, too).

    In practice, they turn people into labels and tokens, which we typically file under their identity politics. But it goes farther. They also categorize along the lines of who or what is sexist, racist, problematic and so on. Further, under the label, the substance gets lost. This goes too well with other observations where they are essentially natural propagandists (see Chomsky in particalar, e.g. ”On Propaganda”). Their “do you support the people in Iowa” is demanding “support” for a token group or cause.

    I’ve seen cases where it is not even known anymore why some person was deemed problematic, with histrionic displays of hatred towards the person whenever the name just came up. The community saved collective brain-power by only keeping in mind that it was problematic. Attempts to retrieve the reasons are shot down, and as usual for SJWs they have a readymade, meme-like thought terminating cliché in place, called “JAQing Off” (=just asking questions, forbidden!). They only need such information when their safe space community is somehow confronted and feels cornered. Then they regurtitate highly distorted, half fabulated versions why the person was problematic, that don’t survive basic scrutiny, but which are enough to calm doubts of their own community. It’s like religious people who have a strong reason to quelch doubts, and will practically accept any explanation by an authority (SJWs are probably high scoring right wing authoritarians, see Altemeyer. Their authorities are high standing community members).

    Long story short: I argue that, like everything else, their seemingly well intentioned trigger warnings are also a weapon. It’s an index system for ideas. The meaning is already that these books are “dangerous”. In the next step, you can argue that book A should be favoured over book B, because it isn’t “needlessly“ dangerous. I also believe that the trigger warning system, even if neutral, will have the usual doublestandards built in (or they emerge). Given two books, both with the same warning, they can use the same trigger one time against the book, if from an unliked source (dangerous, or “racism“ means “author is racist”) and in another time in favour of it, because the source is liked and the trigger there means important information about the trigger subject (”racism” means ”author says important things about racism”). I’m pretty comfident in that they tend to be both “feeler” personalities as well as RW authoritarians, and this suggests that the Trigger Warning system would be used in that respect — @Aneris23