Thursday, May 28, 2015

About triggers, content, and warnings

This is the third of my posts prompted by a mix of the Agents of SHIELD finale and my social media reading. Last Friday, I wrote about Death and Grief, and on Tuesday I wrote about Science Fiction / Fantasy and Parenting.

This is, in part, an Agents of Shield reaction post to the Season 2 finale, "S.O.S. part 2." If you desire to be completely spoiler-free, you might wish to watch that first. That said, I don't intend to discuss Agents of SHIELD itself, it's more my own thoughts, influenced by the show, that build on my recent blogposts and other articles I've read and topics I want to write about.

In Friday's post on Grief, I mentioned how a renewed grief can be triggered years after the fact. I used the term "triggered" deliberately. By triggering, I mean a rush of vivid emotional memories that can overwhelm a person, or affect their mental equilibrium.

As I described in that post, grief is something that every human being can expect to experience at some point in their life. We all have people that we care about, and we all die eventually. I know that toxic masculinity considers it "cool" to shake off death, pretend not to care. It's one thing to fake such machismo when a person is an adolescent or young adult. It's insensitive to continue that machismo attitude into adulthood, middle age, or older.

I was disappointed to see the United Church of Christ Facebook page post this article [Used with Do Not Link] Life Is Triggering. The Best Literature Should Be, Too. | The New Republic. This reaction sums it up for me:

[Update 6/13/2015: My gratitude to Umair, @umairh, for linking to the original "Ovid needs trigger warnings" article. Also, here is the Geek Feminism Wiki post on Trigger Warnings, which covers a number of things I did not.]

Triggers can take many forms:
  1. Scent. From Psychology Today | Smells Ring Bells: How Smell Triggers Memories and Emotions: Brain anatomy may explain why some smells conjure vivid memories and emotions.
  2. Sight, both stills, video, and live events. From ABC | How to cope with traumatic news - an illustrated guide
  3. Sound. Most notably, fireworks may trigger Veterans. But also, I have written about how degrading words can lead to violence. Particularly after words have been used in a violent act, hearing those words used again is likely to remind people of the attack. (This was pointed out to me on Tumblr, particularly in relation to the GLBT community, and how slurs are often part of bashing.) And then there is music, and please read Karl Paulnack's Welcome Address to The Boston Conservatory, because it is essential to this discussion.
  4. Taste, though tightly coupled with Scent, has its own way of evoking memory.
  5. Touch memory can come in many forms. As part of a Youth Group Advisor training, half of the group was blindfolded, and we had to put our hands on the shoulders of the person in front of us, to walk around a grassy area. After a period of time, we switched. The leaders of the exercise switched the order around periodically, so we were not always following the same person. I could tell when my husband was the one in front of or behind me, through the normal contact.
  6. Time. As discussed in the grief post, the anniversary of events (death, major surgery, birthdays, wedding anniversaries, Estimated Date of Delivery) can remind a person of events that happened on that day, or that would have happened on that day if things had occurred differently.
  7. Place. Returning to the location where events happened tends to bring up memories of those events. This might be a reunion, visiting a grave, or driving past the site of an accident.
  8. Similarity of experience. This might be pregnancy after pregnancy loss, medical situations, etc. In my second martial arts tournament, one of my sparring competitors made solid contact with my chin, and I developed a bruise. Like many of my fellow Kuksoolin, I tried to be proud of it, but because it was in much the same location as I had been bruised before... it brought back memories.
  9. Reading & discussing similar experiences. Now, this can be more variable. In my experience, I find myself less disturbed by reading Edgar Allen Poe's stories, than by watching film interpretations of them. I have read portions of Anne Frank's diary and been affected by them in a learning way, but it was Elie Wiesel's Night that really triggered me. Something he said towards the end, about how it wasn't the violence itself that hurt, but the intentionality & hatred behind the violence... That difference in intent, is why accidental contact in sparring doesn't usually bother me.
  10. Medically, certain sequences of flashing lights may trigger seizures. This is not so much an emotional trigger, but it is something that a human being should be alerted to before they click or scroll down.
Now, in some of the discussions, opponents have argued that there are too many triggers, how would they know to label them all?

For the most part, we are not discussing scent, taste, or touch in these conversations. Most trigger warnings are associated with text and/or imagery, works that one may encounter on the web or in the classroom.

Also, those three senses are so individual. Candles and lotions generally ARE labelled with what the scent is, so one can not buy, return, re-gift, or dispose of a product with a triggering scent.

(Anyway, how likely is it that a non-relative, whether friend or stranger, happens to serve you Aunt May's secret recipe for strawberry pie? If a friend or relative actually had a copy of Aunt May's recipe, they're likely to tell you that's what it is.)

Conversely, people who have experienced trauma also have soothing scents, tastes, and hopefully friends or loved ones whose touch they DO trust.  So these sensory experiences can also be used in self-care, to cope with traumatic memories.

We are left with words, which are usually chosen to have an effect on a person. We are left with imagery. And we are left with text, describing experiences.

The most common traumatic experiences are tied to death and/or violence. Adding a trigger warning does NOT say "don't write it" or "don't publish it."

Adding trigger warnings or content warnings-- on Tumblr allows people to use additional software to hide posts with that content. Anywhere else on the web, it allows people to choose to read or not read an article. It allows people to choose the time, place, and manner in which they read it.

One of the beauties of being an adult, is that sometimes you can set your schedule. When I know that a sensitive time-period is coming up, an anniversary of trauma, I make more time for myself. I do more self-care, and I don't volunteer or commit to additional stress or trauma during that time.

It can also mean waiting to read a different article when one is not waiting at the doctors office or on a lunch break, but instead at home, in one's own space. It may mean putting on soothing music while one reads. Wrapping in a warm blanket, or touching loved ones. Self-care actions that ground one in the present reality where a person is safe and the world is okay, for the moment, while the article reminds you of a place or time when the world was (or is) not okay.

I keep writing about Jenny. After getting her degree from Harvard, Jenny eventually applied to the University of Texas - Austin, to work on a doctorate in psychology. She wanted to take what she had learned, making documentaries. She wanted to use what she knew about the power of stories, of art, to address the traumas of this world.

She's not the only person to have explored that path... but that is getting out of my lane.