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ETA 1: Stephen Fry has posted an apology for his remarks about abuse.

TW for references to rape/incest.

A friend on Facebook linked to this article: Stephen Fry hits out at ‘infantile’ culture of trigger words and safe spaces.

There’s just too much ignorance for me to address it all in one blog post, so I want to focus on triggers, trigger words, and trigger warnings: what they are, what they aren’t, and what Fry seems to think they are.

“There are many great plays which contain rapes, and the word rape now is even considered a rape. They’re terrible things and they have to be thought about, clearly, but if you say you can’t watch this play, you can’t watch Titus Andronicus, you can’t read it in an English class, or you can’t watch Macbeth because it’s got children being killed in it, it might trigger something when you were young that upset you once, because uncle touched you in a nasty place, well I’m sorry.”

First of all — and I say this as someone who’s written multiple books that deal with rape — fuck you. Fuck you for belittling people’s trauma with that last line.

Second, to your claim that the word rape is considered a rape? Yeah, I’m gonna just take this screenshot from xkcd and leave it right here.

xkcd: citation needed

(If you don’t get it, that’s basically a more polite way of calling you on your bullshit.)

Tumblr user Marija095 used Wreck-It Ralph as a way of demonstrating what people mean by the word “Trigger.” If you’ve seen the movie, do you remember Sergeant Calhoun’s reaction when Felix called her “a dynamite gal”? The phrase triggered a visceral reaction of grief and horror, a flashback to seeing her fiance killed in front of her.

Felix never uses that phrase in front of her again. Not because he’s coddling Calhoun’s “infantile self-pity,” but out of basic human decency, the desire to avoid twisting a knife in an open wound.

We don’t always know what might be a trigger for a trauma survivor. It could be a phrase, a smell, a sound… Many veterans have pushed for regulation and restriction of when fireworks can be set off, because the explosions trigger their PTSD.

Go ahead, Fry. Stand up and tell those combat vets they’re being infantile. I’ll be over here selling tickets and popcorn.

Getting back on track, what’s the point of trigger warnings if we can’t know everyone’s individual triggers.

It’s true, we can’t. But we have more than enough information and research to know about common traumas in our society. PTSD in combat vets is one. Rape is another. Child abuse. Domestic violence. All are obscenely common. If you’re speaking to a group of more than a handful of people, you can pretty much guarantee you’ll have survivors of rape or abuse.

“But that doesn’t mean we should censor everything!”

I agree. Fortunately — now listen closely, please — trigger warnings have nothing to do with censorship!

A trigger warning is a way of telling people about the content so they can make their own informed choice about what to do. They might choose to walk out. They might choose to stay. That warning might be all they need to brace themselves.

We do this all the time! We put content warnings and ratings on movies. We write summaries on the backs of our books so people know what they’re getting. Convention programs note “Adult only” programming.

None of this is censorship. It’s just giving people a heads-up about what to expect.

Fanfiction tends to be very good about this, tagging stories to warn readers what they’re getting without spoiling or ruining the story.

But what if people who aren’t personally traumatized use trigger warnings to decide what to watch or read?

So what? How does that hurt anyone or anything? Heck, I’ve read so many poorly-written stories dealing with rape, I might take advantage of a trigger warning to reconsider whether this is a book I want to read.

Why the hell are people up in arms about giving others more information so they can decide what to read, what to watch, and so on?

There’s a lot more I want to talk about from that article, but I’ll end up with a 3000-word blog post if I do, so I’m going to keep the focus on trigger warnings for now, post this as is, and go get dinner.

Comments welcome, as always. (And as always, don’t be a dick.)

ETA 2: Follow-up post, talking about the idea that trigger warnings interfere with mental health, and if you really want to help someone who’s been traumatized, you have to expose them to the source of that trauma.

Mirrored from Jim C. Hines.


( 44 comments — Leave a comment )
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Apr. 12th, 2016 10:20 pm (UTC)
Trigger warnings are not censorship, absolutely.

But I think the concept of trigger warnings is being used by a small minority of people to censor others. Or to shut down a debate/seminar/lecture/conversation when they personally do not like it.

So I think that might be what he's getting at? Not saying trigger warnings themselves are censorship, but that there is an unhealthy usage creeping in around the borders of the concept.

But I don't know. He's certainly screwed the pooch by belittling victims of sexual assault there.
Apr. 12th, 2016 10:57 pm (UTC)
That's possible. Anything can be taken to extremes. I haven't personally seen trigger warnings used as a tool of censorship, but I definitely wouldn't say it has never or could never happen.
(no subject) - therck - Apr. 13th, 2016 12:40 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - joycemocha - Apr. 13th, 2016 01:10 am (UTC) - Expand
Apr. 12th, 2016 10:24 pm (UTC)
The unfortunate problem with this is falling into the same on or off position that we tend to do with complex points about culture.

Warning people a thing might trigger a bad reaction or hurtful one is one thing. Extending that to say that all people might be injured by similar/same ideas and as such should be protected against them is another. The complex issue for me is that we can warn but this "do no harm, potential harm" can go too far. And it does from time to time.

Fry? Read part of it before I just had to stop from all the wincing. He's being an ass. (shrug)

But that's something that makes the conversation difficult. "Please, don't help me." happens far more often than I care to think about. This is one of those moments.

I find for myself that there is a line between caution and diligence, and over-sensitivity. I note that most times when that comes up people get upset. "There is no such thing." I disagree. I think there is a fair and appropriate level of concern and protection, but I also agree with several people who've put forward that complex issues often are being withheld from students, for instance as an example, in an environment where they're supposed to confront concepts outside of their comfort zone. Not abusive ideas, but ones that could make them uncomfortable. And when we don't provide for there being a scale or spectrum of concern, we tend to default to There Is or There Isn't. By which I mean either I end up sounding like I'm arguing people should never have warnings or everything should have warnings.

Which is so not what I'm saying at all.

If my lifetime has taught me it's anything it's that we will oversimplify, pare down to the simplest and quickest form of something and then defend it's application across all kinds of situations as reasonable. And then realize, in time, that we've just put a size six shoe on everyone in the world, wondering why half the people are limping and the other half are swimming in them.

Edited at 2016-04-12 10:25 pm (UTC)
Apr. 12th, 2016 10:52 pm (UTC)
No argument from me that there's a deeper, more complex conversation to be had here. Pretty much anything can be taken to extremes.

We've certainly seen instances of White Knighting, where people come charging in to "help" despite not having been asked for assistance, when their help is in fact not wanted or needed. Or if, for example, a college passed a rule that you weren't allowed to say the word "rape," I'd have huge problems with that.

You're right that people tend to boil everything down to a simple binary. Right/wrong, my side/your side, etc.

Depending on how much time and how many spoons I have, I may try to get deeper with all this in a follow-up post.
(no subject) - baker_kitty - Apr. 13th, 2016 12:44 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - elusis - Apr. 13th, 2016 01:39 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mt_yvr - Apr. 14th, 2016 03:59 pm (UTC) - Expand
Apr. 12th, 2016 10:47 pm (UTC)
I agree, it's completely ridiculous to call trigger warnings censorship.

Not to nitpick, but I do think that movie ratings are a form of censorship - sorry to reply to a conversation about not-censorship with a discussion of censorship, but I have very strong feelings about censorship and the MPAA (and their racism, sexism, homophobia, fear of female desire, etc.) -these ratings can keep movies out of theaters, and labels on albums mean that large chain stores can easily refuse to carry them, as Walmart does, but trigger warning don't operate remotely like that. And those are done to appease those with power, not those who have experienced trauma.

Apr. 12th, 2016 10:55 pm (UTC)
I suspect you know more about MPAA's standards than I do, but even what I know of what does or doesn't get an R rating...yeah, they're pretty messed up.

I think I see what you're saying, but I'm having a hard time calling it censorship. Biased and often misleading, yes. But, for example, if Walmart chooses not to stock a product, is that censorship?

Or stepping sideways, when B&N says they won't stock a book unless it gets a different cover with more werewolves and fewer spaceships, is that censorship?
(no subject) - daria234 - Apr. 12th, 2016 11:42 pm (UTC) - Expand
Apr. 12th, 2016 11:52 pm (UTC)
I have a close friend who has a Thing about King Arthur. Not trauma, not triggered, just really, REALLY hates when King Arthur turns up in a book unexpectedly.

So now when his reader friends recommend books to him, they mention if there's a King Arthur in there, and he decides if he cares enough to read it.

Weirdly, I have never once seen anyone accuse him of censorship, fragility, whining, etc. And yet that is *literally all there is to it,* as you've said; provide the warning, and let the person decide.

(The last time someone accused me of being precious because I'm tired of books with rape as a cheap gimmick, I said I'd believe the "realism demands it" trope if and only if the book that also had the realism of the past being full of dysentery and lice. ...I mention this because, amusingly, the only time I have done so so far, it was a series about King Arthur!)
Apr. 13th, 2016 12:35 pm (UTC)

Totally off topic, here, but have you any King Arthur recommendations? I collect Arthurian books, movies, TV, etc., and am always on the look out for more.

(no subject) - x_skin - Apr. 13th, 2016 07:51 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - lietya - Apr. 14th, 2016 05:35 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - conuly - Apr. 14th, 2016 05:20 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - lietya - Apr. 14th, 2016 05:36 am (UTC) - Expand
Apr. 13th, 2016 12:04 am (UTC)
I love this post. You give such good rant. (And I'm sorry, but I will never look at Stephen Fry the same way again. ASS.)

I recently had author Toni McGee Causey (T.M.Causey)guest post on my blog after I read her amazing new book, The Saints of the Lost and Found. I hadn't actually intended to read the book, because of my own triggers, and it was so fabulous it sucked me right in. I think it is honestly one of the best things I've read in years. But when I introduced it and her, I made a point of mentioning trigger warnings, because it is a *tough* book to read, and the ending did actually give me nightmares. Well worth it, and I still recommend it like crazy, but I think people should know what they're getting into.
Apr. 13th, 2016 01:48 am (UTC)
I give similar warnings when recommending Nnedi Okorafor's WHO FEARS DEATH. Brilliant, powerful book, but hoo boy is it tough to read at times.
Apr. 13th, 2016 12:40 am (UTC)
As someone with a small, unnoticed voice who lived through 9 years of domestic violence involving all types of possible abuse, I just want to say thank you for being someone with a loud and respected voice andnsaying this. Just. Thank you. Here is an internets worth of hugs and rainbows to say thanks :)
Apr. 13th, 2016 01:21 am (UTC)
YES, thank you, it's entirely about giving people information to decide how best to take care of themselves. I think it's the opposite of censorship, really; it's providing more information and allowing the consumer to make the choice themselves.
Apr. 13th, 2016 02:52 am (UTC)
I completely agree.

People love to cry "free speech" when they mean "don't call me a shitbag just because I am being a shitbag! I have a RIGHT to be a shitbag! you can't make me be nice! MY RIGHTS!" It a ludicrously common red herring.
Apr. 13th, 2016 07:45 am (UTC)
I used to really love Stephen Fry, I really did, but his behaviour of late is kinda troubling to me, for someone who was very open about his depression and battles with it, he is very dismissive of other peoples trauma, his meltdown and subsequent flounce of twitter left me shaking my head.

He has definitely changed since he married his boyfriend and not in a good way.
Apr. 13th, 2016 06:06 pm (UTC)
He's always been kind of like that. See also his hosting on QI, which I want to binge-watch but every so often they drop a gigantic shit-bomb of some kind of racist or sexist etc. joke and he's snickering along with everyone else.

"Sympathy for me but not for thee" is a depressingly common stance, especially among the relatively privileged.
(no subject) - dharawal - Apr. 14th, 2016 08:36 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - elusis - Apr. 14th, 2016 03:54 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - submarine_bells - Apr. 13th, 2016 09:20 pm (UTC) - Expand
Apr. 13th, 2016 10:03 am (UTC)
I love this post, it is everything I want to say but struggled to put into words.

I get so, so frustrated with this narrative in society that trigger warnings are somehow equal to censorship. That some students asking their college professors for content warnings on set reading is somehow preventing everyone else from reading it. As someone who needs trigger warnings for certain things, it makes me angry. I'm angry that my self-care methods are being painted as 'infantile' and that I should 'grow up'. I'm even more horrified that these things are coming from the mouth of Stephen Fry, who is the president of Mind and held up as a ambassador against mental health stigma.

I've seen people defending Fry, saying his comments are being taken out of context. Even though there is absolutely no context in which it's acceptable to tell abuse victims to 'grow up'.
Apr. 13th, 2016 01:45 pm (UTC)
Back when I was in college, one of the books we read was A Clockwork Orange. We watched the film version in class, and the teacher said outright 'look, you've read the book, this is going to be gruesome, so if you don't want to attend class, you can have an alternate assignment'. She knew a lot more people would find depictions of violence troubling in a visual medium, even knowing they were coming.

I did the alternate assignment, actually. I didn't know if I'd find it triggering, but I wasn't inclined to test. So I turned in a short essay on the book.
Apr. 13th, 2016 04:20 pm (UTC)
Usually bullies and jerks and people that have never suffered a trauma in their life are triggered by the world "Trigger Warning" to go into a stupid angry fit about people being "weak". It's gross and sad.

It's just a Trigger Warning, like a Ratings system. I agree with you. Some people have dealt with awful things. I don't see a problem with a warning, some people sadly just love picking on "Liberals" and that's it. It's sad.
Apr. 13th, 2016 05:30 pm (UTC)
Trigger warnings are designed to be a self advocacy tool, providing information that is useful to people aware of what content and experiences might cause them problems so that those same people can make informed decisions and take care of, advocate for, themselves. Just like posting a notice about the use of strobe lights or gunshots in a theatrical performance allows epileptics and others impacted by such things make informed choices about attending said event. Neither instance is about protecting someone. It is about thoughtfully providing information that allows people the agency to take care of themselves in a manner that is more efficient and less invasive than forcing each individual to research each situation individually and possibly feel forced to divulge personal information in order to "justify" the accommodation. My disability makes that kind of call necessary all too often, and it can be complicated, stressful and sometimes leads to less access in the long run when the people running the venue are not knowledgeable about access and disability. I sometimes find myself wondering if the resistance to trigger warnings is connected to or comes from the same root as the belief that people who need access accommodations aren't really part of society. Both of those attitudes stink. a

Edited at 2016-04-13 05:31 pm (UTC)
Apr. 13th, 2016 06:53 pm (UTC)

It's not even a new concept, really: "Don't talk about rope in a hanged man's house," is a Spanish proverb that dates back to at least the 17th century.

Partly the concept of "tact" has fallen into some disfavor these days, unfortunately, especially among certain elements of geek society. (Ugh, the Radical Honesty crowd. Haaaate.) And partly, people only started objecting when the wrong kind of people started demanding tact about things that don't hit most white guys where they live.

Apr. 13th, 2016 08:36 pm (UTC)
Yeah, there's a reason that the phrase "informed consent" starts with "informed."

I do get that rating systems have been used as a form of indirect censorship - see the history of comics, or the fact that you still can't get distribution in America for a film with an X rating, not to mention an entire decade's worth of BS around the application of "Content Warning" labels to CDs. So there is something to be said about the idea that labeling and grading are not entirely neutral things.

But that is conflating the idea of externally imposed classifiction (sic) with self-advocated informational postings. In a sense "trigger warning" has become a shorthand; otherwise, we'd all be writing long sentences or paragraphs saying things like 'In this post I talk about some traumatic childhood experiences; that could be upsetting for people who had their own childhood traumas". Equally informative but longer and harder to digest. "Trigger warning: violence against children" is quicker to digest, easier to scan, etc.

So in the end I'm left confused by whatever it is Fry is complaining about? Is he conflating external- and self-labeling? Is he opposed to conventional shorthands? Or is he just not getting the idea that informed is better than uninformed?
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Jim C. Hines


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