Archive for April 9th, 2013

Some years ago, the Vancouver Folk Festival included an activist for the disabled. When an announcer on one of the afternoon stages called him “differently abled,” he immediately took over the microphone.

“Differently abled?” he said. “Hell, I’m a bloody crip!”

I think of his reply sometimes when I see articles prefaced with a trigger warning that they discuss potentially disturbing topics. Then I wonder if the warnings really do anything for the people they are supposed to help.

To start with, isn’t a title supposed to make clear what you are talking about? With any halfway conscientious writer, most trigger warnings are redundant.

More importantly, I question whether the average traumatized person wants to be sheltered from potential upset. Possibly, just after their trauma they would prefer not to dwell on what happened. But, more than anything else, the people I know who suffer from long-term trauma have a tremendous desire to cope. They want to appear normal, even if that appearance is an illusion. They don’t want to stand out, or to talk about their problems, or to be given more special treatment than is absolutely necessary.

From this perspective, a trigger warning is not a kindness or a piece of politeness. It’s an implication that they can’t manage – that all their carefully constructed defenses aren’t enough, and that, although they are survivors, their survival tactics aren’t enough.

In their minds, I am told, such implications are, if not actually an insult, then a dismissal of their ability to survive. The truly traumatized (by which I mean the raped and assaulted, and the people with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, not the upper middle class professional feeling thwarted at work) often take great pride in their ability to cope, so they are not going to appreciate any suggestion that they can’t.

In fact, their obsession with passing for normal is so great that a surprising number of those suffering from long-term trauma have said that, if a treatment could make them forget what happened or somehow remove its effects upon them, they would refuse it. A magic removal of their trauma would be a denial of the pride they take in having survived.

Yes, a trigger warning might spare them. But many of the traumatized don’t want to be spared. They want to prove, if only to themselves, that they can survive to some degree, even when faced with topics related to their conditions. This desire exists even when they encounter a trigger warning when browsing the Internet by themselves, and independent of how well they actually can rise above everything.

In effect, a trigger warning is an invitation for the traumatized to relax and spare themselves pain. Yet that is something that the traumatized cannot do with most people or in most situations. If they are lucky, they might be able to relax with a lover or a close friend, and resist the temptation to read past the trigger warning. But in most cases and with most people, the trigger is likely to be a challenge. If anything, some of the traumatized whom I know would be all the more tempted to click a link with a trigger warning, just to test themselves.

Those who provide trigger warnings mean well. The warnings are not just runaway political correctness, as conservatives have been known to suggest. But in their effort to pass for normal, few of the traumatized appreciate the effort to give them special consideration. From what I’ve seen, most of them would be more grateful if you let them face whatever happened along without any illusions and didn’t single them out for special treatment.

A trigger warning might seem to be a kindness. But from a traumatic perspective, it may be a subtler cruelty than a direct insult.

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