Word up*

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.

14 thoughts on “Word up*

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  1. Audrey, I tend to side with you. Banning is a stripping of free will and I don’t think it changes anything. The same thoughts remain within people and they build. We don’t want to silence people, we want to have a discussion and an understanding of the power of words. We want people to realize what they are doing and want to change.


    1. Yes, not many good things have come out of restricting speech over the years. I do mean “speech” and not “money”–that is an entirely different, and extremely political, discussion!


  2. I loved the “Ban Bossy” video and totally agree with the women moderators. I’ve been told I’m bossy and i don’t want to feel bad about that. it’s the truth. I am against this kind of censorship. For kids, i get it, but for adults? c’mon, they can choose to not read/watch. I, for example, cannot stand to see any movie or story (even fictional) where an animal suffers. But i don’t need a disclaimer. I can always tell when a story is going in that direction and choose to stop.
    I LOVE your comment that we “should work toward making sure individuals who have been hurt or traumatized get the help they need” instead of trying to put free speech in jail.


    1. Funny how so many of the people who are against the Ban Bossy campaign are women who have themselves been called bossy! And yes, it just seems to me that actions are actions and words are words… I know it’s not quite that simple, but when people are suffering and hungry and the world is going to heck in a handbasket, arguing over what you should be allowed to call someone seems a bit trivial. Step up, people!


  3. Carrie’s right about the characters must say what that character would say. If the story is well constructed, it will ring true…hopefully the reading audience will accept that.
    I like what you’ve said about words and censorship.
    This whole bossy thing is stupid 1) concern about girls decline of self esteem was a bit target during the late 70’s-90’s so it’s not exactly a ground breaking “new” issue – Beyonce and others benefited from the research and actions taken when they were younger. 2) this smacks of a PR stunt to put Beyonce back in moms’ good graces after her last group of songs were hit for being demeaning to women.3) boys can be bossy, too. 4) “bossy” and “assertive” are not the same – teach the difference, parents.
    It’s a rough tough world. If a child is so fragile that name calling can destroy him/her, there’s a problem. Mom and dad won’t be there always to run interference. Learn to laugh – at yourself and others.


  4. The women in both videos have a point, which gets muddled as both sets spiral into goofiness. What’s the best way to encourage women to fulfill their own potential? Start with respectful back and forth between the women themselves.

    Censorship and the power of words is a great topic to gnaw on, full of, as you say, shades of gray. Many years ago, a friend who was student teaching, decided to demonstrate that words only have the power we give them by saying several pretty bad ones out loud, in the classroom. The kids were thrilled. My friend was reprimanded. She did have a point, though. If you say f— (I’d write it but don’t want to get scrubbed by your spammer) fifty times in a row, it loses its meaning. I guess she probably should have warned the parents first. Bossy woman.


    1. It is indeed a muddle. Interestingly, I talked with my teenage son about the Ban Bossy campaign over the weekend. He rolled his eyes and proceeded to tell me that women could be or do whatever they aspired to be or do—but nobody should dictate what words we use.

      I love that story about your friend. It’s so true. But yes, warning the parents first would probably have been a savvy move. And that’s precisely why I try not to use too many f-bombs in my fiction. I save them for when they’re really needed.


  5. I don’t believe in ‘banning’ words. But, (always a but, isn’t there?) I do believe in being precise and aware in our speech. For instance: I find it annoying and sexist to refer to all people as mankind. I also don’t like or approve of the way our language developed along male-centric lines so that ‘he’ is a generic meant to include everyone (it doesn’t). But rather than trying to change others or correcting them, I simply refuse to use those forms. And sometimes I refuse to listen to those who use them- depending on my mood of tolerance (or not).
    Interesting post, Audrey, as always.


    1. “Precise and aware” — would that we could all bring these qualities to our speech and writing! I like your refuse-to-participate approach. Perhaps eventually we’ll have a replacement for the cumbersome “he or she.” I use “humanity” instead of “mankind.”


  6. I censored myself more with my first book, much less so with my second. Stephen King says that when we censor ourselves, we’re not writing honestly. That concept stuck with me (from his book ‘On Writing’), and I now try to focus on what the character would actually say or do rather than what my friends and family will think reading it. On the other hand, I’m less adventurous with my blog writing. Don’t want to scare people away, I suppose. 🙂


    1. It is a complicated dance, isn’t it? I think sometimes the worst self-censorship is the kind we’re not even aware of–the thoughts we won’t even let into our heads because they’re too scary or potentially shameful. At least thinking about the topic raises our awareness.


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