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Monthly Archives: July 2014

Trigger Warning: a response to Jack Halberstam.

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Content note: this post will contain reference to collective trauma, political murder, and police brutality.


The first thing I wrote when I sat down to compose this response to Jack Halberstam’s piece on trigger warnings, which is over here, was a content note. A content note is a little flag at the start of a piece that says, “yo: there’s some heavy shit in here. Maybe you wanna read it when you’ve got time and energy to spare for it”. I like content notes and I think they’re super-advisable in an internet activist community. We spend a good deal of our time clicking through to all sorts of nonsense on the internet (Hey look! A PALLAS CAT!!). On Twitter or on a blog, maybe all you see is someone saying “this is interesting”, followed by a link that doesn’t give away what the content of the blog is. Different content requires different kinds of attention: if you’re anticipating a Pallas Cat, you’re going to approach it in a pretty different mind-set to reading about the murder of Mohamed Abu Khedeir and its aftermath. So a content note says, “Hold up! This isn’t cats, it’s politics, brain engaged!” which is great for any number of reasons, chief among them being that it might remind you to bookmark that and come back to it when you can give it your full attention, not read it hiding behind your computer screen at work where you’re just gonna become a massive rage-ball and not be able to think about anything else for the rest of the day.

Another Really Good Thing about the content note, in my opinion, is that it changes how we approach reading news and current affairs: instead of being fed apparently “objective” (lol, right?) composites of images and words by major news corporations, we’re being given a little bit of a frame and a distancing device: this is about stuff that’s happened, but it’s also in conversation with a number of strains of things that happen in society: maybe when you’re thinking about Abu Khedeir you also want to be thinking about imperialism, the history of the Israel-Palestine situation, and so on and so forth. News isn’t events it’s systems, and content notes work to engage people in that approach to politics and current affairs.

A content note is related to a trigger warning but it’s not totally the same thing. Trigger warnings are used when you think you’re going to say something that is kind of likely to really upset someone in your readership, because of an experience that they’ve had, or of a kind of experience that is common to a raft of people. People who live with self-harm and eating disorders (E.D.), for example, can end up being drawn back towards those practices once they’ve moved away from them, just by thinking about them. So someone else’s recovery story could in fact trigger your own harmful behaviour. That is something that we know about and have known about for ages – in the internet’s earliest days, I was a teenager and a Manic Street Preachers fan (whut? Gotta start somewhere). Relatively often, you could click through from Manics fan-sites to pictures of people who had cut themselves, and even back then, WAY before trigger warnings were the commonplace they are now, there would be notes at the top saying “you may find these images triggering” – because people in that community know how that works. Indeed, I understand that people would seek out those websites for precisely that reason, as with “thinspo” or pro-ana websites about eating disorders.

Now, Halberstam says of triggering:

“Claims about being triggered work off literalist notions of emotional pain and cast traumatic events as barely buried hurt that can easily resurface in relation to any kind of representation or association that resembles or even merely represents the theme of the original painful experience. And so, while in the past, we turned to Freud’s mystic writing pad to think of memory as a palimpsest, burying material under layers of inscription, now we see a memory as a live wire sitting in the psyche waiting for a spark. Where once we saw traumatic recall as a set of enigmatic symptoms moving through the body, now people reduce the resurfacing of a painful memory to the catch all term of “trigger,” imagining that emotional pain is somehow similar to a pulled muscle –as something that hurts whenever it is deployed, and as an injury that requires protection.”

In the light of my previous comment about trigger warnings in the context of self-harm or E.D., I think it’s pretty clear that there is more than one way to use a trigger-warning, and I think that this conflation leads to most of what I don’t like in Halberstam’s article. There’s a good deal in there that I absolutely agree with. If you’re part of a community that behaves in a certain way and you trigger-warn because you’re about to do something that might make someone feel worse but you don’t want to self-censor, or not post something, for that reason. And you know what the rules are for your gang.

This is to do with behavioural triggering, rather than emotional triggering, the causing of flash-backs to, or opening up of, past traumas. in the above quotation, Halberstam is clearly talking about traumatic memory. Now. I will trigger warn if I am going to talk in any detail about: domestic, sexual or police violence, or personal grief and loss. Why? Because I have been through those things and so have a huge number of my friends. There are women in my friendship circle who became my friends precisely because of a shared experience of domestic abuse or sexual violence, which changed the way that we behave and the way that we see the world. Things that we encountered shaped us to be able to understand each other. And those sisters of mine are incredible and tough – but some of them have been through what I went through or something like it, often much worse, much much more recently than I have. So it’s still on their minds all or most of the time. And I remember what it was like when a relatively common kind of joke would make me vomit, and I remember what it was like when I would dream every night about coming out of my university graduation ceremony into a police kettle. Those things do fade over time: the touch-paper doesn’t remain a touch-paper forever. I got crushed to the ground three times at a Libertines gig in Hyde Park on Saturday. I didn’t at any point panic or think that the police were trying to trap us under harris fences and run horses over us. (Yes! The police do these things! To children! AREN’T THEY SWELL!) I didn’t think I was being attacked. Sure, I was pretty scared occasionally, but I was completely mosh-pit phobic for a decent couple of years because it would trigger panic attacks for me to be in conditions so much like the conditions of a riot. And I know that people who have been through those things and way worse, way more recently than me, are going to be reading what I write, because they’re my pals, my community, and I know them in real life, and I don’t want them to be unprepared and to end up shaky and tired and sad if that’s not what they’re up for right now. They’re allowed to choose how far into the gross stuff that’s happened they want to go at any given time. Entering the martial arts class, for example, putting on the dobok & standing in graded lines: that’s your preparation framework for getting punched in the face. Someone punches you in the face when you’re walking down the street, you’re entitled to be upset, freaked out and pissed off about it. Same thing goes if you’ve no idea what you’re about to look at and you think it could well be a picture of a Pallas Cat and it turns out it’s actually an intense narrative about sexual violence, very like your own, which you were managing not to think about that day, thanks very much.

Again: you know what the rules are for your gang, how you’ve agreed to look after each other and make each other tougher and support each other through talking about all the shit that needs to be talked about, precisely WITHOUT censorship, and without more emotional disintegration than people want to face.

It is for exactly this reason that I agree with all of Halberstam’s points about Trannyshack. We’re our gang, you’re not. We’ve decided to identify as “trannies”, identifying ourselves internally with one another, and externally against a general social trend that tries to STOP us being what we are and labels that thing, “Tranny”. Sod off yo, we know what the rules are for our gang. Nobody gets to tell a group of queer people not to call themselves what they want to call themselves. Telling a cishet person not to use “tranny” as a term of abuse is a COMPLETELY different ballpark to telling a TG person not to identify as a tranny if they want to.

And, yeah, liberal politics have hijacked some of the language of trigger warning and call-outs, in order really to stop anyone from ever being weird or aggressive or transgressive or TALKING ABOUT DIFFICULT SHIT. And that is absolutely a damaging thing. I’ve also apologised before for gang-mentality twitter stuff: internet activism is still kind of new and it still needs to find its feet, but I DO think it’s okay to shut down people who say heinous shit – it’s just not okay if that shutting down carries over into completely crippling people who are vulnerable themselves…

What I really want to say in all of this is I think not complicated at all: there is more than one trigger warning culture. One of them is trying to stop people being weird and talking about the nasties. One is trying to make people aware of their behaviours and support people trying to move on from particular conditions. One is about creating emotional space and trying to share experiences precisely without becoming a victim culture.

The crucial thing I think is not to have a blanket policy. To think about where you are writing and who you are talking to. I’m talking most of the time to a pretty immediate coterie. I know what they’ve been through and what could well hurt them. Say “2011” to me and some of my friends and we do go quiet and reach for each others’ hands. Because we know what happened then, and it isn’t super long ago, in fact. Endemicising “victim culture” is totally different from actually inhabiting a community of survivors.

So – you know who your gang are. You make your rules.