On Trigger Warnings and Censorship

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I’m going to talk a bit about trigger warnings and such, so if you’re in the camp that rails against such things as libtard censorship and thought policing, you may want to either skip this one or dust off your A material.

See what I did there, by the way?

So here’s what a trigger warning is: it’s a statement, included at the beginning of a piece of writing perhaps, or attached to a video description on the internet, or located any number of other places that generally will be seen before the content itself, which alerts the reader or viewer to the fact that it contains potentially distressing material.

Or, as Urban Dictionary has it:

Its purpose is to warn weak minded people who are easily offended that they might find what is being posted offensive in some way due to its content, causing them to overreact or otherwise start acting like a dipshit. Popular on reddit SRS or other places that social justice warriors like to hang out.

Trigger warnings are unnecessary 100% of the time due to the fact that people who are easily offended have no business randomly browsing the internet anyways. As a result of the phrases [sic] irrelevance, most opinions that start out with this phrase tend to be simplistic and dull since they were made by people ridiculous enough to think that the internet is supposed to cater to people who can’t take a joke.

Well, what’s the harm exactly? What I mean is this: if someone out there wants to be warned beforehand that a given piece of content contains, oh I don’t know, rape stuff, does it harm anyone else if we put this has got rape stuffs at the top of it?

Maybe, in that it does seem to elevate certain people’s blood pressure. They see trigger warnings in several ways. Unnecessary for one, but also offensive. Many see them as a politicized attack on free expression.

Is there a case for that? Well … maybe. There are always people who want to tell others “you can’t say that, you can’t do that.” (Further thoughts on that a bit later in the post) But the people who want trigger warnings before potentially objectionable content probably aren’t objecting to the existence of that content. Otherwise, they would be crusading against the content itself, rather than trying to get the various fora to append warnings. Don’t you think?

I want to make this clear right now: I am not in favor of book burning. I am not in favor of banning films. I am not in favor of censorship. Trigger warnings, however, do not bother me in the least.

A long time ago, I knew this real fuckhead who thought it’d be a great idea to set off a bunch of fireworks. Now, I love fireworks way more than you do, but I also love being alive. So I like to set off fireworks, but – unlike my fuckhead acquaintance – I have never set off fireworks in the extreme near vicinity of a sleeping Vietnam veteran.

“…wake up screamin’ like I’m back over there.”                                                                      -Steve Earle, “Copperhead Road”

To be clear: nobody died that time, but it was in fact a very near miss. If someone had captured video of the incident, it might come with a trigger warning: this video contains strong violence.

War fucks with people’s heads. You know this already. The idea of the traumatized Vietnam vet is so ingrained in our national consciousness as to become almost a caricature. More recently, we have people coming home from various war-torn wastelands with PTSD.

I know a couple guys like that. It is not funny. Not fucking remotely. These guys – the ones I personally know all happen to be male – they’re not all the same. Some resist the PTSD label. Some don’t. Some behave just like everyone else. Some do not. Some – like that sleeping Vietnam vet – act completely normal until something sets them off, triggering their traumatic memories.

Some of them enjoy war movies. Even so, I will never, ever show one of my veteran friends a war film without first letting them know it’s got explosions and gun battles in it.

Hypothetical situation: you enter the room and gently wake the sleeping Vietnam veteran. You say, “hey, man, we’re gonna shoot some bottle rockets.” Near-death experience averted.

*

1968 saw the voluntary adoption of the MPAA film rating system.

I used to read that box at the bottom to see if a film contained any of the good stuff I wanted to see, like full frontal nudity and drug use. They call ’em “content advisories,” which is basically what trigger warnings are.

I wasn’t around in 1968, but I imagine many artists – screenwriters and directors – probably preferred this newfangled system to the existing Motion Picture Production Code, commonly known as the Hays Code after MPPDA President and Presbyterian elder Will H. Hays. Enforcement of the Hays Code was, to put it plainly, censorship.

See, under the Hays Code, you couldn’t put certain things in films. You were not allowed to. If you did, your film did not get a certificate of approval and could not be shown in theaters.

You know that scene in Casablanca, the flashback scene of Rick and Ilsa in Paris with the champagne? Yeah, that’s not exactly how the scene was originally written.

Have you seen movies lately? We’ve been putting trigger warnings on them for fifty years. Don’t try to tell me Hollywood is a victim of the censorship thought police.

*

I know a bunch of writers. Their opinions vary.

Some of them hate the idea of trigger warnings. Now, in my opinion, some of this subset are also rabid dickbags. In addition to belonging to the anti-trigger-warning subset of writers, they are also the type of (almost inevitably) guys who rant about “social justice warriors” and how the far Left is destroying everything good and decent and fun.

They actually have a point.

It’s not a great one. It’s overblown. It’s an overreaction. But there has been an undeniable shift in the world of publishing.

When I write short fiction, it generally falls into the category of literary speculative fiction. There are some great magazines that publish this sort of thing, and all the best ones are actively seeking diverse perspectives and stories built around progressive ideas.

Submission guidelines have been updated to reflect this. They encourage writers from diverse backgrounds, i.e. writers who are not heteronormative white males. Often, they discourage or outright forbid certain plot elements.

This trend has given us Ann Leckie and Yoon Ha Lee, so it most surely has its benefits. Further, it absolutely does not mean a white man writing good old fashioned yarns just can’t get them published anymore.

But there are only so many paying markets for short fiction. It is a finite pie, with only so many pieces. When you have a pie, sharing that pie with your neighbor means there’s less pie for you. I don’t want to get off on a tangent here, but you see the same sort of reactionary resistance to a perceived diminishing of available pie whenever people discuss economics, or immigration.

It is good that publishers are buying stories from people like Yoon Ha Lee, a trans man of Korean descent. Ninefox Gambit is one of the weirdest, most difficult to fully understand, and oh-my-gosh amazeballs space opera novels I’ve ever read.

I really enjoyed The Force Awakens, but let’s be honest here: really the only things separating it from A New Hope are Rey being a girl and Finn being black. The People Who Bitch About Things didn’t much like either of those things, and they also didn’t like the fact that TFA was such a tired, fan-service retread of the original. Why can’t they give us something new and different? Except, y’know, not that.

                                                               Two posters for the same film.

They complain about all the reboots and remakes, screaming for something new and different. But when the world’s most beloved franchise strays just slightly out of bounds, they cry foul.

We need new blood. I love Star Wars and I’ll keep shelling out to see the films. I love Star Trek, and I’ll keep watching nu-Trek even though I kind of fucking hate everything it stands for. (Meh, Beyond was a huge improvement, but still…)

I love the Good Old Stuff. I want more like it. But no, I don’t want another Flash Gordon. The last one was unwatchable.

Thank fuck SyFy decided to take a risk with The Expanse instead this time. Because The Expanse is to SyFy’s Flash Gordon series what getting a hummer on your favorite roller coaster on your birthday is to a colonoscopy.

So, anyway, YES. Give me more science fiction written by women, or trans women (or trans men), or even non-gendered persons. Give me more science fiction from Korean or Chinese or Japanese authors (The Three Body Problem; 1Q84). More from African and African-descended creators (Yohance, Robots of Brixton).

If that leaves less space on the shelf for us poor ol’ white boys … then, yes, that’s unfortunate for us. But the alternative is Star Wars Episode XXX – They Built Another Goddamn Death Star. It’s continued stagnation and inevitable irrelevance. Its an ever-shrinking pie, instead of one merely distributed in a fashion less advantageous for yours truly.

*

A couple years ago, I wrote a story called Dreaming the Life. In the story, there is a commercially available memory-erasure app. There is a subplot involving a couple. They use the app to temporarily erase the woman’s memories of their relationship, allowing them to take their rape fantasy to the next level.

Rape fantasies are a real thing. People do that. Not my cup of tea, but you know what they say – if you don’t like guns, don’t buy one.

In real life if you want to play out a rape fantasy, you can only take it so far. I mean, a person can’t actually consent to a non-consensual experience. But with the ability to selectively erase memories and later restore them, this character actually did just that.

The story makes it clear, by the way, that this was a Very Bad Idea with Terrible Consequences.

This subplot was crucial to the overall story and could not be removed. I’m far from perfect, and so is my writing. But that story was one of the best things I’ve ever written. It was tightly plotted, all the pieces fit together very well, the various themes compliment one another and weave a whole that forces you to ponder some really deep, uncomfortable questions, and the ending slaps you in the face with a twist that perfectly meets the requirement of “the inevitability of retrospect.”

If I had written this for a creative writing class, the other students would have hated me forever. The envy would have poisoned their hearts and cast a shadow over their eventual children’s lives.

No one would publish it.

One editor explained why: that one scene, she wrote, seems too much like rape. And we just don’t publish stories with that.

First of all: it seems because it is. That was a scene about rape and the vital nature of continuous consent. It was not at all graphic, as the actual encounter occurs “off-screen” and is being recounted by a third character who was not present at the time. It was not in any way glorified; quite the contrary. It was not gratuitous: without that secondary plot-line, the primary plot doesn’t come together and make any sense.

But we just don’t publish stories with that.

As a writer, I would much rather slap a “trigger warning” at the front of the story than have it rejected outright due to undesirable content. Only one of those is even distantly related to actual censorship.

*

Around the same time, I wrote a different story. Reload also delves into some objectionable ideas. It also deals with characters messing (literally) with each other’s minds. It also poses a difficult moral dilemma centered around consent.

It was snapped up by one of the first editors I sent it to.

So, you see? It is not impossible for a white boy like me to get published. Even if you write about uncomfortable shit.

Is it, then, so much to ask that you warn people before you set off fireworks right outside their bedroom window?

 

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