“trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” What is wrong with them??

5 Jan

I suffer from obsessive compulsive disorder. I have probably done so for most of my life. I don’t wish to talk about it here (not for now anyway) but it has had an extremely destructive effect on my life, on my personal relationships, and many other things. It has made me a very difficult person to be around at times and as a result I have behaved in ways that I am really not proud of. I have suspected people of things and been completely unable to shake the doubt that there may be some truth in my bizarre convictions even though I knew what bullshit they were.

If you have OCD there are two parts to the disease, there are obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions are the anxiety provoking thoughts that you can’t stop thinking about. They can be about anything, from thinking that you have left the stove on and that the house is going to burn down, to thinking you are a paedophile and have to avoid walking through parks and avoid all children. While most people experience unpleasant and intrusive thoughts of this kind, no meaning is ascribed to them. Most people simply think “ugh” and forget that they thought about it. And if they have left the stove on or whatever, then they realise it, and turn it off, and then forget about it, they don’t beat themselves up for the rest of the day about how they are a cunt and an idiot who could have killed everyone in the house and should just kill themselves.

Compulsions are the things that you do to stop the anxiety caused by the obsession. They can be mental or physical, like washing your hands, or trying to “reason” with yourself to convince yourself that you are not a paedophile or that you don’t have aids. They can also be behaviours such as seeking reassurance from other people – “i did lock the door/feed the cat/whatever, didn’t i? I did, didn’t I? Are you sure? Are you absolutely sure, can we go back and check” or by simply avoiding the thing that you are worried about. So if you have obsessive thoughts about possibly being a paedophile you will avoid going into places where you might have contact with children or might see a child, you will avoid looking at pictures of other people’s children, and you will go out of your way not to have any contact with them (it will not occur to you that this paranoid behaviour is the exact opposite of a paedo’s behaviour). It can get so bad that you can avoid going outside for fear of harming somebody, or for fear of “contamination”.

As part of the treatment for anxiety, it is recommended that avoidance is tackled first, and part of the way that this is done is something called exposure and response prevention. So if somebody is scared of catching a disease they will have to go for longer and longer periods without washing their hands, and they will have to put their hands on something that they consider dirty for example. Exposure and response prevention is considered the most effective method of treating OCD, and it is also used for other anxiety disorders such as phobias. The aim is to make you comfortable with the thoughts you are worried about or with the objects you are worried about, so that you won’t panic every time you encounter them.

With all this in mind there is a development in the world of left wing politics which I find quite troubling. The idea of a trigger in the context of anxiety disorders, especially PTSD, was, I think, originally a specifically medical warning which aimed to warn when people were going to read something very traumatic which could re-traumatise them, such as something about rape or sexual abuse. I think that this can be useful, because you do not want to tackle something that causes you the most anxiety and distress first, or before you are ready.

However, it is now being used by some of the people in the “privilege politics” circles to refer to anything from long posts about gender identity to anything to do with sex in general. It is being used as a fashion accessory. I find this very objectionable. You don’t want to have a disorder which could destroy your life. You want to recover from it, and not let it rule your life. It is not something to parade around. You don’t want to be in a position where you even have to think about things like trigger warnings, let alone to do it to show how right on you are.

Secondly, attaching a “warning” to anything that people could be worried or distressed by, as well as being offensive does not actually help people suffering from these conditions. If somebody has a phobia of spiders you do not help them by putting say a trigger warning on a post about spiders on the internet, because that will help them to avoid it and avoid eventually becoming comfortable with the object of their fear, and stop it ruling their life to such an extent. If you accommodate a person’s OCD it will simply get worse and take more and more and more and more. I do not want to have people trying to “help” me by actually making the OCD worse and in so doing impeding my ability to have a normal life, I want to get rid of it completely.

I do not think anything can be solved with avoidance, which does not help in a medical setting or a political setting. I wish I could do better but if you want to help me please don’t do it by helping me to avoid stuff, because when I’m eventually confronted with it it will be even worse.

Which brings me to my next point, that of “safe spaces”. There should not need to be a “space” where people are “safe” from sexual assault, bigotry or whatever, it is running away from the problem, and does not address why the rest of it is unsafe. You do not deal with racism, anti-semitism, sexism etc by setting up a “safe space” where these things are supposed not to happen. You deal with it by challenging it. The very fact that this became such an issue in the occupy movement shows that there is a problem in the wider political culture which cannot be solved by setting aside a small area.

I saw a great quote today on urban75, “In a society which is unsafe there can be no safe spaces”. This sums up my feelings on the matter entirely.


10 Responses to ““trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” What is wrong with them??”

  1. T May 6, 2013 at 2:21 pm #

    So here’s why thinking safer spaces and trigger warnings are bullshit is bullshit, directed at anyone who agrees with the post linked to above. Don’t complain about the length, this is me taking the time to reeeaallly explain it to you so you can’t act clueless about it anymore. It’s always the people less likely to need trigger warnings and enforced safer spaces that complain about them so consider this your education.

    First off – of course exposure therapy helps people like that blogger who has OCD – but it should be done under supervision of a doctor/therapist or at least preplanned by the individual – like when they want to be exposed, how often and how far along the scale of extremity someone wants to have exposure to. Removing all trigger warnings or not letting people know beforehand that a conversation/situation might be triggering does not give them the choice to be exposed to things or the chance to decide if they can handle it right now. Exposure therapy is a gradual thing so trigger warnings help people avoid something that is too big a jump in their recovery, therefore TWs are still valid and useful if you do believe everyone should be doing that.

    Which brings me to my second point – if you do believe everyone should be doing that you’re a total asshole.

    While I understand the blogger has OCD and that this must affect them a lot and make life incredibly difficult – they cannot compare their OCD with other people’s trauma especially from things like rape or drug addiction. They cannot apply their way of dealing with things to everyone else because, even if their OCD is ruining their life on the same scale as how being sexually assaulted or drug dependent has ruined someone elses, their experiences are totally different.

    Also this might be a bit of a shock to those who are convinced people should “get over it” – but exposure therapy is not applicable to every fucking problem under the sun. Do you have any experience of being around people with drug and alcohol addictions? Do you think it’s okay to expose some addicts to the substance they’re addicted to or to talk in detail about how fucked you got on it in front of them? No. So we create safer spaces where drugs are not consumed publicly, we ask first if we can talk about it and we do what we can to prevent causing that little twinge of “maybe I could have one beer/line and it’ll be ok ” in people who we care about but can’t stand to watch destroy themselves anymore.

    Do you think a rape victim should have to see their rapist all the time hanging out in supposedly radical circles where we supposedly challenge sexism and rape culture and interpersonal hierarchies? No? Removing safe spaces policies means this will happen. Do you think a victim should be reminded vividly of the worst experience of their life unless they are ready for that? No? Removing trigger warnings means this will happen.

    We still need these because, guess what asshole, some things are just too painful and will not go away. I cannot stress this point enough. This is fundamentally why we disagree because I understand this fact and you and so many white men (the demographic most sheltered from the trauma of gendered and racial violence might I add) refuse to understand it or are somehow incapable. I mean do you think someone can do exposure therapy to get over the trauma of racism when they’re also experiencing it again and again anyway? Do you think exposure therapy and ‘getting over it’ works for long term trauma for daily oppression just like it works for a one off traumatic experience or for a disorder like OCD? Get real!

    Sometimes it takes years before someone is ready to begin any kind of recovery – so what about protecting them from further damage in the mean time? Sometimes people are too broken down, too exhausted, too changed by trauma to be able to face things head on in this macho way and that’s alright actually.

    It’s okay that we don’t push ourselves to handle what we can’t. It’s okay that some of us might never be able to handle certain things ever again – as long as we are still living and fighting. Some wounds don’t heal fully and all we can do is tend to them for the rest of our lives so they don’t get deeper. This is valid, whatever you say. If you still think everyone should be doing some kind of exposure therapy, you have a long way to go before you’re able to think outside your own experience and understand that people have needs that don’t mirror your own and that these needs are still valid even though they aren’t the same as yours.

    I understand why the blogger who has a serious disorder might object to seeing people use trigger warnings for things that aren’t linked to that because that is their main association with it – but the fact that people have expanded the use of trigger warnings beyond it’s original medical use is only a useful thing in my eyes.

    This is not appropriating it as a “fashion accessory” or using it to indicate you have a disorder that you want to parade around. This is applying a useful system in a more widespread way so that more people will benefit from having the choice to be exposed to certain things. Maybe online people get over zealous and warn for everything under the sun – but so what? It’s doing the opposite of harming people. Just because fewer people are triggered by something doesn’t mean it’s less valid, doesn’t mean it downgrades the importance of trigger warnings in general (I’d like to reassure the original blogger it doesn’t) and just because something isn’t linked to a diagnosed-by-doctor medical disorder doesn’t mean it doesn’t have the ability to traumatise/upset/trigger someone.

    Think for a moment: If you advocate doing something that potentially harms more people than helps – like ignoring safer spaces and abolishing TWs – and would rather complain about the ways people have tried to help each other then what does that say about you and your outlook on the world and how you relate to other human beings? No really, have a little soul search right about now.

    AND FINALLY the tired old argument of “the world isn’t a safer space anyway”


    People deal with sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia and ableism daily. Sometimes people want a place they can go to where they can have a break from it, organise together with clearer heads. You’ll find political organising goes better when we all stop oppressing each other. We’re not hiding from it – we’re used to real life being utterly shit and full of bigots and face up to it all the time in very real ways. In fact many of us are tougher than you for dealing with systematic oppression the likes of which you’ll never experience. So don’t act like we’re wrong to demand a time and place to have a break from it if we want. Give us the respect we deserve because really you don’t know shit about how real life can be for some people.

    “There should not need to be a “space” where people are “safe” from sexual assault, bigotry or whatever, it is running away from the problem, and does not address why the rest of it is unsafe.” – is the funniest most out of touch bullshit in the whole blog post.

    Unfortunately there does need to be a space where people are safe from assault because that’s the sorry state of the world right now. Welcome to reality – we have to actively enforce a space to gather where we won’t tolerate being raped and oppressed. Also we know full well why the rest is unsafe and suggesting otherwise is completely patronizing. People dedicate a lot of their time thinking about/discussing/fighting against why it’s unsafe. Just because you weren’t there and rarely think about it anyway doesn’t mean those conversations and political actions haven’t happened. We are not running away from the problem if we refuse to associate with rapists and bigots. We’re at least trying to build an alternative here. What are you doing?

    “You do not deal with racism, anti-semitism, sexism etc by setting up a “safe space” where these things are supposed not to happen. You deal with it by challenging it.” This blogger lacks so much insight, this last quote barely makes sense. We are confronting oppression head on by:

    -not allowing such behaviors to appear and thrive in our groups
    -calling out oppressive behavior and trying to educate individuals
    -physically removing harmful racist/sexist etc individuals from the space if needs be
    -physically harming harmful racist/sexist etc individuals if needs be
    -trying to raise and spread consciousness on why these things are wrong to society in general

    Not tolerating all these forms of oppression is the first step to challenging them. No space can be completely safe because even someone with the best intentions can be an asshole unintentionally but it’s not about creating an oppression-less vacuum where we can all hide from the real world, it’s about creating and promoting a culture where people don’t let it go unnoticed and unchallenged and deal with it directly there and then in non-abstract ways.

    • sometimesantisocialalwaysantifascist May 12, 2013 at 10:36 pm #

      with respect you have no idea what my gender is or what my experiences have been. i am not saying that we should not kick those individuals out or anything of the sort, all I’m fuckin saying is that trigger warnings, while they can have their use, can also be damaging. btw i’m female, I’m actually quite offended that because I don’t agree with you you’re assuming that I’m a man.

  2. sometimesantisocialalwaysantifascist May 12, 2013 at 11:09 pm #

    By the way you’ve got absolutely no idea what my life is like, how dare you try to tell me that I don’t get it or whatever. I have experienced sexism and racism you know, i have had to face unwanted sexual behaviour as well. if you bothered to look at my other posts you would realuse that i don’t advocate ignoring these types of people but i also dont think the solution is to stick a trigger warning on anything that might possibly offend someone. And you need to check your own privilege when it comes to mental health problems mate have you ever not been able to go out of your room for a week because of mental health problems, if you knew what you were talking about when it comes to OCD you would not try to tell me that the oppression you face every day is worse than it, it can destroy your life, i hope to fuck you never have to deal with it

  3. sometimesantisocialalwaysantifascist May 12, 2013 at 11:23 pm #

    btw i was also almost once driven to suicide by homophobic bullies at my school, i dont however think that privilege politics and separatism which is not based on an economic analysis of society is the way to deal with it, you said i was patronising and what im saying is out of touch, i dont think it is, organising can also mean dealing with the abusive individuals by adopting a zero tolerance approach, it can also mean engaging with peoples concerns, not just hiding away while never examining your own privilege yourself, which i don’t think youve done at all

    i’m actually quite angry with the way you’ve completely misrepresented my words, which took a lot for me to write

    you really have no idea

    im not a man, i’m a bisexual jewish woman, you are hardly the first person who’s had to deal with the things your on about, i think you show an utter lack of self awareness and forgicve me if i cannot take you seriously if you write stuff like this:

    “I don’t know how I could transition into a life where money is a necessity after living like this as soon as I moved out of my parents. Like paying rent, apart from being a soul destroying concept to me in itself, the pressure of getting that money paid on time would stress me out so much. And full time employment on minimum wage (or less for migrants) and knowing all the hard work you do benefits you the least and what little you do get for it all goes on keeping a roof over your head and food on your table.

    So although people sometimes say to me “it’s really good you can live for nothing” I always admire people for surviving and struggling in the fucked system we have now. Not everyone can drop out if it (or aspects of it) without facing much more violence, discrimination and general hardship than my lil white butt gets. Squatting ain’t easy, just difficult in different ways but people making the best life they can out of what they have is always what inspires me, not whether they pay for stuff or not.”

    Must be so nice to live without money and never have to pay rent and worry about being evicted and always know you can rely on people to help you, never have to worry about work or a shitty boss or whether your benefits will get cut off arbitrarily

    check your own privilege before you have a go at other people

  4. metaSurv May 13, 2013 at 1:43 am #

    I saw this reblogged by a patronising twat over at tumblr. I reblogged it on my personal tumblr with some scathing comments and it has been taken down. I got an apology. I suggested they apologise to you. I’ve deleted my reblog, in fairness

  5. T May 13, 2013 at 2:09 am #

    Apologies for all the things I got wrong, it’s just I’ve literally heard those arguments so many times from men trying to make me feel unsafe so yeah I did see red because of connecting it with those stressful experience. Also I came across your post on the blog of a male leftist and wrongly assumed. I definitely go into victim mode before I think critically and that’s something I need to work on so I will probably give the politics blogging a rest until I am in a better mental state in my real life.

    So I definitely apologise for assuming WAY too much but I still disagree with your view point right now on TWs and stand by my points – although I will reread and rethink after my fuck up has been pointed out. I don’t know how to apologise enough for fucking up the way I went about it and upsetting you. sorry x 1000

    Also it may be a lot to ask when you’re upset at me but I’d appreciate it if you didn’t share my url with any more people on that forum or whatever (also I am not a “she”) it makes me feel really unsafe. I have put up an apology on my own blog and am trying to reassess a lot of things about what I’ve thought and said so yeah I don’t want any trolling from your forum friends or something. thanks.

    • sometimesantisocialalwaysantifascist May 13, 2013 at 2:13 am #

      i’ll take it down, sorry. i’d appreciate it if you did the samr with my link, it made me feel very scared and anxious when you put up the link to my blog and the thing you wrote at the top making out that i was some sex pest. so i’ll take it down but maybe thats something you want to tink about in future.

    • sometimesantisocialalwaysantifascist May 13, 2013 at 2:22 am #

      take care, theres no harm in taking a break btw x thanks for apologising, i do appreciate it.

  6. metaSurv May 13, 2013 at 3:03 am #

    Nice one T. Night all.

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