When "Trigger Warning" Lost All Its Meaning

Once upon a time, “trigger warning” was an Internet shorthand for “Hey, look out, in what follows on this website, we are going to talk about rape or child sexual abuse or something really intense, and if you’re not in the right emotional place for that, maybe go away and come back.” This was a useful kind of thing! If sometimes applied a little broadly, but you know: fair warning is fair warning.

A couple of years ago now, a big dust-up went down. Oh, those were good times: “The debate over the feminist blog staple began with sex writer Susannah Breslin, who thinks trigger warnings are condescending at best, and a disingenuous ploy to keep feminist blogs relevant at worst. The topic then migrated to Feministing, which employs trigger warnings for the simple reason that it ‘care[s] about rape victims.’ Feministing declared Breslin a ‘certifiable asshole,’ at which point the debate moved on to Jezebel, which doesn’t employ trigger warnings, also cares about rape victims, and thinks Breslin is an asshole, too.” Hoo boy! (The comments on that post are actually really great and thoughtful.)

And now here we are in 2012, where this useful thing has spread a litttttle far afield.

The other day a woman asked a question of a group of Internet strangers (good idea or no? Signs point to no!) about how she was disappointed about her marriage proposal which wasn’t all romantic enough for her, and some people were like “Girl, get over it” basically, and then some other people thought these Internet strangers were too harsh with her, “thus effectively shaming” her. And they also introduced the phrase “triggering.” This is a sign of how far afield “trigger warnings” have gone: it’s insulting, infantilizing and comes from some part of the Internet that only exists in parts of California, I’m pretty sure.

Here’s the pushback to that point of view:

Triggers are a pretty specific psychological phenomenon. They are not the same as being reminded of things one does not like. When the term becomes too general it stifles regular conversation because the phrase carries with it, in common usage, the idea that we should respect the severe psychological responses to otherwise ordinary exchanges, and should modify our behavior accordingly. In the case of a severe response, this seems justified. In lesser cases it seems like a word used to make people stop talking about something you don’t want them to talk about.


I’m kinda concerned that the phrasing of “triggered,” a relatively newly-recognized phenomenon, is jumping past its intended usage. “Triggered” is becoming the new “codependent,” in that it’s a word that’s getting overused and used to mean something other than the original meaning, and therefore starts to mean nothing.

There is literally no way that we, as people on the Internet, can extend our empathy-watch to random, thoroughly general, non-abuse-related issues. I think a lot of us can and should keep “don’t be an asshole!” in mind maybe? But the Internet at large is not a safe space for different people like you and me (though the Internet in specific can be a safe space, which is great!). The Internet is in fact a big weird place — not to mansplain, because you’ve probably noticed that yourself. Also it’s not a particularly great place to be this week if you don’t want to see people who’ve had their faces half eaten-off this week, for one thing!

In better news, tech has come a decent way in letting people take care of themselves online, instead of being cared for by random people. For instance: Tumblr Savior is an extension that lets people block any particular tags; Tumblr SafeDash is an extension that lets people choose what photos they want to view. As for the non-Tumblr Internet, you’re pretty much on your own.

A small update: This isn’t meant to further escalate what’s already a pretty intense argument over on Metafilter. It’s just an interesting moment on the Internet, and usage of language. Please don’t feel the need to go join any pile-ons, or use this for such.