“Are you triggered?” white men sneer from every corner of Facebook, when confronted with political outrage or even mild disagreement. “Do you need to go to your safe space?” Rhetoric about “trigger warnings,” alerts to traumatized people that a book or film or article might exacerbate PTSD, has been twisted into a snide way of mocking people, a coded insult meant to imply someone is spoiled or coddled. Celebrities of all levels have commented: Neil Gaiman named a short story collection Trigger Warning as self-congratulation for its disturbing contents. Joe Rogan’s new Netflix comedy special is named Triggered, and Rogan said in an interview with Maxim that talking about triggers was the “anthem of the oversensitive crowd.” In the intro to her new book Buffered, YouTube personality Hannah Hart makes a specific point of saying there will be no trigger warnings because “life does not provide trigger warnings.” Even the University of Chicago has weighed in, making a point of telling incoming freshmen it didn’t support trigger warnings in classes — preferring, I suppose, to have students ambushed by trauma.
Before the sneering, dismissive backlash, a trigger warning was intended to inform people that a conversation, book, movie, or other experience could make them recall or relive a previous traumatic incident. Often it specifically warns of references to sexual assault, abuse, violent language, racial violence, or violent action — content that can throw people into post-traumatic flashbacks if they encounter it unprepared. Trigger warnings can benefit those who have experienced personal trauma, as well as anyone who suffers from the daily violence of being a marginalized person; for example, rape culture permeates our society as a whole, and the constant bombardment has an emotional effect, whether or not one has experienced direct sexual harassment or assault. A “safe space” is a space as free as possible from these vectors of trauma. Both are tactics to ease the load on people living in a society that constantly shoves them aside and injures them.
But in recent years, trigger warnings and safe spaces have become a shorthand for unnecessarily sparing the delicate feelings of someone too weak to face pain. Real life, detractors say, doesn’t tell you when you’re about to be challenged or hurt, so why should I?
It sounds tough. It sounds pragmatic. It’s completely wrong. In fact, real life offers plenty of trigger warnings and safe spaces — for the people in power.
“Real life offers plenty of trigger warnings and safe spaces — for the people in power.”
The truth of the matter is that privileged people have all of society as a safe space; our culture and even our laws are formed around their comfort. The most unequal laws of history have existed to protect the safe space of those in power — a space safe from abortions, from queer marriages, from black people and women voting, from anything that challenges their supremacy. Many of the people catered to by the entire setup of society are the same ones who would claim that life never gave them a “safe space.”
Of course the privileged don’t understand the need for such a space. Safe spaces exist to give marginalized people a quiet moment of respite from a society that has done everything in its power to disenfranchise and disempower us. Those who have power, money, and influence have never experienced such a thing. The world has been made safe for them from the beginning.
There are multiple examples throughout history of laws and restrictions intended to avoid triggers and make all of society a safe space for the privileged. In early Hollywood, the Hays Code limited what could and could not be shown on film. Many of the things outlawed were ideas that disturbed the people in power: positive representation of queer people, successful interracial relationships, and authentic portrayals of racism were all practically non-existent under the Code. Though touted as protection for all, the Hays Code was really about protecting a rigid, white heterosexual masculinity.
For years, the Comics Code did the same for the comic book industry, limiting the portrayal of sexuality, drug use, and sexual liberation. And who could forget the brouhaha in the late ’80s when white parents (led by Tipper Gore) were up in arms that their children were listening to naughty rap lyrics? They pushed for parental advisory stickers to protect the youth from “dangerous” content. The campaign was roundly mocked, but it was implemented nationwide. Parental advisory stickers are still warning people of potential offense today. So is the MPAA movie rating system, which privileges old ideals. The documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated shows the ways in which heterosexuality is elevated over other sexual expression when assigning ratings, and sex routinely garners a more restricted rating than violence.
What made parental advisories and MPAA ratings more serious than the current request for trigger warnings? These things were meant to protect privileged people and their children.
As a result of rules intended to protect the privileged from ideas they found distasteful, creators who wanted to present nuanced portrayals of marginalized people were blocked and stymied, so most appearances of marginalized characters were caricatures. These stereotypes protected viewers from having to consider the complex humanity of groups outside themselves, which allowed the audience to feel safe and reinforced in their beliefs. Many tropes — including the buffoonish black person, the desexualized Asian man, the oversexualized young woman of color, the strident bitchy single woman, the campy gay man, and the doomed lesbian — stem from this protective oversimplification. The stereotypes function to reassure the privileged that they are inherently superior and have no need to respect characters who don’t look or act or believe like them.
“Stereotypes function to reassure the privileged that they are inherently superior.”
The appearance of three-dimensional, non-stereotyped LGBT characters or characters of color in media threatens the safe space that society, codes, and laws have defended for years. Privileged people resist these incursions of nuance because they feel like their safe space is being “invaded.” The safe space, in this case, is the entire culture.
Real trigger warnings and safe spaces aren’t intended to allow people to skip traumatizing material entirely. Some of us simply need time to emotionally prepare before discussing or viewing triggering subject matter, or prefer to postpone it for a time when we’re not facing other emotional challenges. Trigger warnings can be the difference between knowing you’re going to see a slasher film, and going into the theater thinking Halloween is just a feel-good movie about a pagan holiday. But suppose someone did want to evade all discussion or representation of something they find traumatizing — why is that suddenly a problem? People have used status, laws, money, and tradition to shield themselves and those they care for since time immemorial. Considering that those in power have continually manipulated things in their favor from womb to tomb, it is the highest hypocrisy to decry someone making a conscious decision to shield themselves from trauma.
The problem the privileged have with ideas of trigger warnings and safe spaces is the same they have with most pushes for inclusivity and education: being asked to consider someone else’s feelings, particularly someone society teaches is below them and barely deserving of their attention. What they see as an imposition is actually an attempt to correct an imbalance that has been in their favor for too long.
“If you are going to call for the end of trigger warnings and safe spaces, be ready to throw away all the little ways the world coddles and protects you from reality.”
If you are going to call for the end of trigger warnings and safe spaces, then you have to call for an end to all of them, including the ones society bends over backwards to provide you. Be ready to throw away all the little ways the world coddles and protects you from reality. But of course, the people mocking the ideas of safe spaces and trigger warnings are the first to demand calm tones or immediately shut down dissent when they are called out or attacked for their lack of compassion.
In the end, the reasoning is always the same: We do not want you to have anything that we do — not the power, nor the safety, nor the peace.
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