WARNING: This post contains intellectually provocative ideas, graphic descriptions of the power of words, and potentially repulsive ideas. (And swear words and suggestive sexual content in some of the videos!)
Jenny Jarvie’s recent article for The New Republic discusses the increasing prevalence of the “trigger warning.” As my tongue-in-cheek rendition above indicates, a trigger warning is an up-front disclaimer about stories that some readers may find upsetting or even traumatic. (I first heard about the article in an On the Media interview with the author.)
The initial impulse seems innocuous enough. For those who have suffered traumatic events—rape or sexual abuse, for example—reading a story about those subjects could trigger anxiety or trauma. A sympathetic writer might naturally want to protect such readers.
But what about the trigger warning Jarvie references in her article—requested by students to be placed on class content at the University of California, Santa Barbara?
Another problem is that one person’s innocuous event is another’s trauma-inducing trigger. I understand this from personal experience. For about a year after my mother died, I couldn’t bear to read anything about mothers and daughters. References to Mother’s Day put me over the edge. Should stories about mothers come with trigger warnings?
Another manifestation of the impulse to protect the vulnerable from powerful words is Sheryl Sandberg’s “Ban Bossy” campaign. Here’s one of the videos from the campaign.
I won’t go into details here; you can read Kara Baskin’s excellent commentary in the Boston Globe or Margaret Talbot’s thoughts in the New Yorker for some perspective. I particularly like Baskin’s observation that “Someday, we should be able to say, ‘You think I’m bossy? So what!’”
Sticks and stones
Both of these initiatives acknowledge the tremendous power of words. And this sometimes puts us—as citizens, speakers, and writers—in a tough spot. We want words to have power. We want them to evoke strong emotions in our listeners or readers. But if our words shock or distress to the point where people can no longer hear what we’re saying, have we been effective? Should we censor ourselves? Or should someone tell us to be quiet?
“Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me,” goes the nursery rhyme. As anyone who has ever been called a name can tell you, that’s not strictly true. Words can cause a world of psychic hurt. Words can put people in boxes, denigrate them, incite them, and cause them to act in ways they might not otherwise act.
Here’s an example of some of the responses to the “Ban Bossy” campaign:
Words as weaponry
However, we do a great disservice to ourselves—and to rational discourse—if we confuse tools with weaponry. Words are tools, to be used in the service of communication. When children on the playground or leaders in positions of power turn words into weapons, we shouldn’t ban the words but should shine a light on the hurtful (or illegal, or morally reprehensible) behavior. We shouldn’t “ban bossy” to protect girls or even because the term has become a shorthand for a complicated mess of psychosocial and gender issues. Ironically, I could support Sandberg’s campaign only if she doesn’t really mean it—that is, if she doesn’t really intend to ban the word but is using a provocative alliterative phrase purely to get people talking about an important issue.
Normally, I’m a person of nuance. I like shades of gray; I don’t buy into “slippery slope” arguments because I believe we ought to be able to distinguish among those shades of gray. But regarding trigger warnings, I must confess to having fairly strong feelings about anything that even vaguely resembles censorship. We don’t live in a utopia. The world is full of pain, hatred, and hurt. Banning words and images that describe these things—even for the noble cause of protecting the vulnerable—is a slippery slope I’m not prepared to start sliding down.
Even more importantly, I believe that both trigger warnings and sensitivity about unpleasant words focus the conversation in the wrong place. Yes, we need to raise awareness about things like persistent gender inequities and the horrors of trauma and abuse. But rather than arguing over the words we use or slapping warning labels on everything we write or say, we should work toward making sure individuals who have been hurt or traumatized get the help they need to bolster their resiliency and take life’s normal harshness in stride. Going one step further, we should work toward a world where the hurt and trauma don’t occur in the first place.
What do you think? Have you ever censored yourself so your words wouldn’t traumatize a reader? Have you ever been triggered by something you read? Do you think you should have been warned? Do you support the idea of banning words to help change social norms?
*If you’re old enough, you may get the reference in the title to Cameo’s 1986 hit song. I’m not sure it relates to the topic but it’s a fun ’80s R&B/funk tune that should help lighten your mood.