Using a Trigger Warning — what of it???

We’re back! Abysmal, relentless winter, work commitments, personal challenges to overcome, and relationships to nurture: these things have occupied us these many weeks. While our fingers may not have been flying and we haven’t pushed the “publish” button, the thoughts have been swirling and there is much to say.

Recently, Trigger Warnings have been under discussion again, with all the predictable vitriol about what it means to use one, need one, or ask for one. It started with this post by a 20-year police officer who wanted to tell us what “real” trauma is like.  It extended into international Facebook discussions about the meaning of trigger, the need for trigger warnings, and why people are so upset by their use. I can tell you that our FB discussions were far more civil than the comments on Hernandez’s original post, which I don’t suggest you read unless you wish to fuel your anger and despair at humanity. Not here, though. As hard as it can be sometimes, we’re going to invite discussion and attempt not to fall into the binary logic trap of “I’m right, you’re wrong.” So here are some thoughts about trigger warnings, something Maury thinks about far too much.

Trigger warnings — short descriptive phrases that give advance notice about content and themes —  seek to recognize the lived experience of community members and offer these members the individual agency to determine when, how, and if they wish to read, view, or engage with content. Many people find their use to be insipid, and they have no qualms about telling others that TWs are evidence of everything that is wrong with contemporary society, challenged as it is by social justice and feminist activism that seeks to give voice to others. But it is patronizing and problematic to assume that someone is weak or inferior because they have been traumatized by their lived experience, and oppressive to assume that they should be able to handle a situation or content simply because you (an author, designer, or fellow audience member) think they should be able to, or should be “over” their situation/symptoms by now. These attitudes also assume that the reactions are completely controllable, which is a fiction. Biologically, trauma intrusions are enacted through the autonomic nervous system and are outside of a person’s control. A person who has been triggered can begin to enact a measure of control over how they handle the reaction after it occurs, but they cannot control whether they will get a reaction at all. Trigger Warnings are one way to give some measure of control back to the reader, viewer, player, audience.

Of course, one of the things someone can do is avoid a situation or content that may be triggering or that they simply don’t want to engage with; and of course, they can only do that with clear descriptions of content, transparency from designers/content creators, such as what might be found in a trigger warning. However, all-too-often trigger warnings become derided as being “unhealthy enablers or avoidance strategies” which almost immediately slides down the slippery slope to “and people are babies who need coddling and obviously can’t handle reality if they need to avoid something.” By giving someone a hard time for asking for a trigger warning or for choosing not to engage with something, these armchair psychiatrists have taken away the agency of an individual by demeaning him/her for making a choice; according to them, to make that choice was an admission of being “inferior” or “needy” or “weak.” Many people, it seems to me, have this one-sided view of trigger warnings as a marker that someone can’t handle life/themselves/their trauma and not as the more nuanced notion of allowing people to make their own informed choices about how they live their life and cope with their prior experiences.

Sometimes content creators use the phrase “trigger warning” or “TW” on purpose to demonstrate that they are thinking about others. To show that they care. To show that this author is considering the potential discomfort or intrusions of viewers or readers. They may get it “wrong” in that their TW is not specific enough or as a result of their concern they begin to overuse the term. This overuse of words such as “trauma” or “trigger” or “phobia” or “PTSD” can lead to trivialization, but those that voluntarily use trigger warnings are trying to show empathy. Tumblr actually has a few blogs that are dedicated to standardizing common trigger warnings so that people can use common language that facilitates content filtering and mutual understanding.

You don’t get to choose what traumatizes you. It is a neurological inscription that can be coped with over time using strategies, but neither trauma, nor subsequent triggering reactions, can be prevented or completely eliminated, despite your diligent efforts. That is not to say that there aren’t those who attempt to weaponize triggering as a way to silence others; however we have no way of knowing whether they are trying to legitimately protect their mental health and we should, with empathy, give them the benefit of the doubt and recognize that their discomfort is real.

Trigger warnings, like any content warning, are informational, rather neutral and boring. The outrage such an innocuous statement provokes speaks volumes about our culture and empathy. People have a right to know whether to engage with content or not. Providing a trigger warning does generally lead to refusal to engage with the material, but its presence affords viewers or players with the means to ready themselves for triggering content. That in this way, being at least mentally prepared for triggering content is far better than being blindsided by triggering content. The solution is not to deny everybody a trigger warning, nor is it to give everyone who wants a warning grief over wanting it. And most certainly we should not get into any attempts to try to divide “legitimate” triggering from “false” triggering from the comfort of one’s armchair. People’s experiences are their own. Respecting those experiences is ours to own. Trigger warnings are an invitational attempt at offering that respect.


Are we having fun yet?

So, if you’ve read the last few posts, you may be wondering what all this talk about privilege and empathy and rhetoric has to do with gaming. At first glance, nothing.  Then, if you think about it, everything. How? Let me give a few ways:

  1. Nerd Entitlement: Aaronson speaks about being a nerdy white male and being less privileged than other white males. Because gamers and gaming is an often stigmatized group (at least in the United States), our subculture is a geekdom and participants are often “nerds” (whether called that in derision or embracing that as an identity). Gamer culture has a proportionally larger number of “lesser privileged males,” who by virtue of their interest in gaming (or their social awkwardness that drives them to seek it out) become part of this group. Thus, Aaronson’s point of view of not recognizing or understanding privilege as a result of his own marginalization and underclass treatment can be a relatively common one in gamer culture. In fact, I’d argue (and I’m pretty sure Ben agrees) that this is the root of certain feminism-resistant groups in gaming culture and their backlash against feminism in gaming. Lots to say here. More to come.
  2. Games are culture: We can learn a lot about ourselves and our culture by looking at the games we play. Play is a simulation of real life, but with differing structures and rules that create new paradigms designed for fun. Roger Caillois notes that play is governed by rules that provide a level playing field for all participants and consists of finding a response to the opponent’s action – or to the play situation – that is free within the limits set by the rules. These rules are socially and culturally constructed by game designers, storytellers, and the players themselves. Even with these game rules and mechanics, out-of-game power structures and representations get replicated, and the empowerment that is possible from games can often be distributed in normative ways rather than allowing and encouraging the liberating possibilities of play. This phenomenon is an ongoing source of inquiry for us and many others.
  3. Privilege exists in games: Games, as a cultural creation, are not immune to the social issues that exist outside of games, privilege included. Some in-game factors such as genre or historical time period call to mind certain representations of gender, race, and class. Yet certain players have power in games, regardless of their character. This power comes from outside of the game and is not fully mitigated through game mechanics. It is the result of out-of-game cultural norms as well as previous personal experience (in- or out-of-game) with specific players. Generally (but not always) at the top of this category are larger or stronger bodied, white, straight, loud-voiced men. By default their character is often deferred to (many times unconsciously) by other characters due to socialization outside the game. Exploring this privilege and how to use empathy to be aware of it and possibly transfer it is the crux of our work at the moment, and the focus of our upcoming presentation at Intercon O.
  4. Games can be safer spaces: Because games are microcosms that have their own explicit rules, a game can facilitate a respectful and tolerant community, a safer space. The injustices, intolerance, and marginalization that occurs outside of a game can be mitigated or upended within it. Many Nordic Larps and American Freeform games explore these opportunities. In addition, a game has the ability to reset the parameters of reality, which also allows awesome opportunities to explore equality. Fantastic settings don’t need patriarchal systems and realism can be reimagined by players, designers and organizers. Gaming communities also have a specific play culture: guidelines, norms, or implicit rules that may not be codified or written into the game rules and mechanics, but are nonetheless expectations of participants and are enforced informally by community members and/or game organizers. It is here that dialog about empathy, equality, and social justice can be translated into felt reality. And what begins to happen in a game or gaming community can begin to happen outside of it. This is what excites us.

These are just a few ways that we believe the discussions about social justice, nerd privilege, feminism, equality, and other -isms come into play with regard to gaming. We plan to explore each of these in more depth here, and we hope you’ll let us know what you think.

Follow Up: Neither empathy nor trauma are zero sum

Following up on Maury’s post, (who I also owe a lot of thanks for helping me edit this cumbersome word vomit into something comprehensible) I’m going to look at some issues that are raised by Scott Aaronson’s blog comment, and try do it responsibly, with sensitivity, and finesse.  Let’s see how it goes.

The first thing that I want to address is that I believe that the guy is sincerely telling us this story from a place of vulnerability and shame, and that lends some credibility to his sincerity. If you really fight me on it, I’d probably have to admit that there’s a strategic time to offer up vulnerability and shame, precisely to leverage believability, but I’m going to work from the assumption, which I believe to be true, that it wasn’t strategic, and that the things he had to say about himself in comment #171 were genuine.

As others have already noted, I think there’s a case to be made for being sensitive to that vulnerability. That the thoughts he brought to his therapy were those of a young man who was suffering, and while there are some rather profoundly problematic elements to those thoughts, going too far on the attack on someone who is sharing “this is what I was thinking” really only teaches others “never share what you were thinking” rather than “let’s talk about how what you were thinking was problematic.”  Here is an admission from Aaronson’s youth that I found particularly troubling:

My recurring fantasy, through this period, was to have been born a woman, or a gay man, or best of all, completely asexual, so that I could simply devote my life to math, like my hero Paul Erdös did. Anything, really, other than the curse of having been born a heterosexual male, which for me, meant being consumed by desires that one couldn’t act on or even admit without running the risk of becoming an objectifier or a stalker or a harasser or some other creature of the darkness.

(For disclosures sake, here’s where I out myself as a white queer cis male, which happened on this blog far sooner than I thought I would, but what can you do, really.)

In the course of narrating his own suffering, Aaronson compares himself to others, making assumptions about women and gay men that are both essentializing and inaccurate. He’s a straight white cis male imagining the life of the Other Other Other Other, and he is imagining that the grass is greener on the Other side. When Aaronson imagines the lives of Others while coping with his own suffering, he really believes that our lives are categorically better:

Alas, as much as I try to understand other people’s perspectives, the first reference to my “male privilege”—my privilege!—is approximately where I get off the train, because it’s so alien to my actual lived experience.

But I suspect the thought that being a nerdy male might not make me “privileged”—that it might even have put me into one of society’s least privileged classes—is completely alien to your way of seeing things.

Because he is so fully engaged with his own suffering, Aaronson cannot acknowledge his own privilege (which may indeed be less than some men) and he cannot acknowledge the suffering of others. In addition to his struggles in his life that I believe are very real suffering, I believe he would be categorically worse off if he were he any combination of Otherness on top of what he already had to deal with.

What I think might be more important though, is that it should not be that surprising that Scott came to that conclusion about his lack of privilege, and that he’s not alone in that kind of thinking in the least. When a person is nearly drowning in their own very real suffering, their ability to consider the suffering of other is compromised.  When white straight cis men who have been bullied, been abused, been harmed, and whose memories of their lives are full of such suffering, is it so hard to imagine that they’d take umbrage when confronted about their privilege?

I believe it’s precisely because of this that it’s so difficult to have a conversation about privilege; that it simply does not compute for those who have led difficult lives. Privilege is an advantage, and when someone is told they have an advantage while their memories of their lives show a distinct lack of advantage, that person is going to feel like they’ve just been falsely accused of a crime. Thus, they will often actively engage in narrating their own version, the one where they are the victim and not the Other.

Aaronson references his awareness of the lack of support and recognition he can expect regarding his difficulties due to being a member of the privileged group.

But let me draw your attention to one difference: the number of academics who study problems like the one I had is approximately zero. There are no task forces devoted to it, no campus rallies in support of the sufferers, no therapists or activists to tell you that you’re not alone or it isn’t your fault. There are only therapists and activists to deliver the opposite message: that you are alone and it is your privileged, entitled, male fault.

This received message of blame and shame for being a white male is again, not uncommon.  If a person thinks their life is worse than that of the Other, then when the Other gets recognition for their struggles, and that person does not, they see the Other as the privileged group, not themselves. When you’re part of a privileged group, you may be unable to realize that someone who is not part of a privileged group but otherwise a lot like you, could be looking at you and thinking “If only I could have that.”  All you can think about is that they don’t know about — and if they did know, they wouldn’t want — your suffering. You just wish for the clear undeniable advantages of being harassed just a little less, being scared just a little less, being Other’d just a little less than you are now. These wishes lead to Aaronson imagining that it is somehow easier to be a woman or to be gay, anything other than the privileged heterosexual white male he is. He doesn’t realize that they are feeling the same way he does.

Aaronson’s not a rape apologist. He appears to be rather starkly liberal, in his own words he’s on board with 97% of feminism. It’s just that he recoils every time he’s expected to acknowledge his white straight cis male privilege because he cannot see it in his life, and apparently cannot even imagine it. He simply continues to hear the message that “you are alone.”

But you’re not alone.

One of the reasons that I’m championing empathy is that empathy is one of the tools by which you find out that you’re not alone.  And I’m going to go out on a limb, one that’s admittedly pretty wobbly, to say that had Aaronson actually felt that he was not alone, his suffering would be significantly less horrible.

It’s through empathy that you can make the calculation, come to the conclusion that the suffering of others might be as bad or worse as that of your own.  That it’s also not your fault that things are this way.  That a lot of the time, even when you recognize that you have privilege, there is absolutely nothing you can do about it.  That it’s non-transferable, non-negotiable, and sometimes even granted to you by an institution that cannot be reasoned with, cannot be mitigated, and should you try to do something about it, you get the Serpico Effect (which was what I thought I’d write about this round, but that will have to wait.)

You can find that there is a difference between your individual suffering in spite of being privileged, and the suffering of the people who are categorically worse off for being Other, and that it doesn’t actually cost you anything to acknowledge that categorical difference, your privilege, when someone speaks about their experience being Othered.  You can find yourself feeling less defensive when others ask you to acknowledge privilege, because what they want from you is not an apology, but just recognition for the way things genuinely are.

After some reflection Scott makes a follow up blog post that’s so close:

The second concession is that, all my life, I’ve benefited from male privilege, white privilege, and straight privilege. I would only add that, for some time, I was about as miserable as it’s possible for a person to be, so that in an instant, I would’ve traded all three privileges for the privilege of not being miserable. And if, as some suggested, there are many women, blacks, and gays who would’ve gladly accepted the other side of that trade—well then, so much the better for all of us, I guess. “Privilege” simply struck me as a pompous, cumbersome way to describe such situations: why not just say that person A’s life stinks in this way, and person B’s stinks in that way? If they’re not actively bothering each other, then why do we also need to spread person A’s stink over to person B and vice versa, by claiming they’re each “privileged” by not having the other one’s?

I think it’s here that we, and Aaronson really, discovered something.  That the idea of privilege isn’t quite so hard to swallow when it’s spelled out.  Yet, being confronted on privilege continues to cause people who are otherwise ideologically aligned with social justice to recoil.  I think that we’re in danger of using “Check your privilege,” to say STFU too often to effectively have any conversations about privilege. When we point out privilege we have to be mindful of what the result is.  Effectively weaponizing it to silence someone that we really ought to have a conversation with is going to bring us closer to the non-communication entrenched partisanship entails, and not the opportunity to listen.  (Maury’s going to address this soon when she examines invitational rhetoric and dominant rhetoric in an upcoming post.)

Engaging with others empathetically, being cautious regarding addressing the problematic thoughts and ideas that someone can have, even while they are being super wrong on the internet, can create better opportunities for getting folks on board with the goals of social justice.  Anger and outrage are necessary responses to a lot of the systemic oppression thrown our way, but I want to make the case that aggressive responses are not the right tool in certain circumstances, specifically ones where patience and understanding, the tools that empathy brings, could achieve a significantly better and more positive result.

It’s not hard to imagine that if Scott Aaronson was met only with contempt, shaming, and ridicule for his post, he would conclude that his assumptions were correct about feminism, activism, and social justice: that they have only one message for him, he’s a monster for being a white straight cis male. He would be lost to us.

The approach from Laurie Penny, and the many other folks who reached out in similar ways, I really believed saved the day here, and I thank them sincerely for approaching this very difficult scenario with empathy.

Neither empathy nor trauma are zero sum

As Ben noted yesterday, he and I are wrestling with our approach for our upcoming inaugural talk about empathy in gamer culture. And, as so often can happen once one starts considering a topic, the Internet delivers extra-large portions of food for thought like late-night sesame chicken.

On December 14, 2014, MIT professor Scott Aaronson posted a lengthy comment on his blog in which he candidly narrates his painful experience feeling disenfranchised and depressed as a nerdy heterosexual male in his teens and early twenties. In sharing his own experience of  “crippling, life-destroying anxiety,” Aaronson disavows any societal privilege he has been given as a heterosexual white male since his lived experience as a nerd did not support that. He puts forth an argument that his experience as one of society’s least privileged males absolves him of blame for any feminist shortcomings. While certainly not to the level of a certain type of men’s rights activist, Aaronson does assert that he has “the curse of having been born a heterosexual male,” and he understandably received some pushback on Twitter, his own blog, and others for his views.

However, focusing on pillorying Aaronson for some essentializing statements or for seeming to equate his experience with others (despite his direct disavowals of such) does not foster dialog and mutual respect for a variety of perspectives — one of the goals of this blog and the conundrum about tone and approach that Ben and I are facing as we begin to take our work more public. Not only does attacking Aaronson’s views disallow the courage and honesty he displayed by speaking up about his experience, but it also erases his own lived experience by attempting to replace it with the argument that someone else’s experience is somehow “greater,” “stronger,” or “more important.” Those who would give Aaronson a “good old fashioned blog fisking” and put words into his mouth, re-interpreting his statements through a lens of sarcasm and shame, enact the same kinds of silencing tactics that they decry when used against them.

In attacking Aaronson, and others who narrate their own experiences and perspectives in the only why they can — from their own experience and perspective — these writers and activists enact what Ben has called the Serpico Effect, whereby the one who speaks up gets harassed and threatened. We’ll have much more to say on that in later posts. For now, though, the point is that Aaronson represents a member of the audience we are trying to reach. Someone who both was born with unearned (and perhaps unwanted and unrecognized) privilege and a desire to think about it and talk about it. If we silence him or invalidate his opinions, then we can never bring him to the table to dialog about it.

Refreshingly, Laurie Penny in her New Statesman piece, “On Nerd Entitlement,” does not attack Aaronson or succumb to the  two prevalent ideas that keep dialog polarized: 1. that activists should be outraged and critical and therefore not nice; and 2. that argumentation should take the form of conquering and converting an opponent to your point of view by demonstrating its superiority. Penny recognizes that Aaronson’s experience was painful. She acknowledges what he said and validates both his own trauma and his conviction in sharing it. She takes the opportunity to empathize with him. This is key.

Because if we are going to bring others to the table to dialog about important topics like equality and social justice, we have to invite them to sit down with us. We have to listen to what they have to say and share the food for thought, passing the containers and sampling some new tastes that we may not have had the courage to try before, but out of respect for those gathered at the meal, we will at least allow them their choices and try to understand their preferences. If we want others to practice empathy, we have to display it ourselves.

In the course of empathizing with rather than deriding Aaronson, Penny also brings up her important point that Aaronson’s “very real suffering does not cancel out male privilege, or make it somehow alright. Privilege doesn’t mean you don’t suffer.” There’s a lot more to say about that idea, but a post about non-binary privilege is for another day. For now, Aaronson has responded on his blog with a clarification of his core beliefs, and he reaches out in respect to Penny, whose thoughtful and empathetic response he clearly read and took to heart. Funny how that works — when you don’t feel attacked or invalidated, you have a better opportunity to listen and reflect.

So while I can’t promise Ben and I will order Chinese, we do invite audience members to the table, both here in the blog and at our future sessions. We’ll start with empathic listening, and respect your freedom, autonomy and safety. What we ask for from others, we also give to you.