This rant got me kicked out of the “Creative Writers” Facebook group a few months ago. I seem to make a habit out of being banned from facebook writing groups.
So I’m reading the posts in this group and I come across a member’s post that apparently had comments locked by an admin. Reading the shitstorm that resulted from this post has helped me to realize why I keep getting into fights with so many people on facebook lately. I’m not going to requote the post or comments because I hate drama, but I AM going to talk in more detail and clarity than the OP did, even though many of you will not even bother reading to the end (or you will, but you won’t actually pay attention). This does have to do with authors, so bear with me.
I almost didn’t bother writing this, but I’m posting it anyway, partly because I have first-hand experience with this issue as a content creator and I’m tired of putting up with it, and tired of watching others fall victim to it; partly because posting elsewhere would feel like preaching to the choir, which is just pointless masturbation; partly as an exercise in “not being afraid to speak my mind”, as is the norm on the internet nowadays; and partly to point out how this sort of thing actually affects your audience. For that last point alone, you authors need to read to the end and think about it. Don’t argue: I know a lot of you are already opening the comments box to refute me, but you’re doing it out of anger and not thinking straight. Pretty sure the admins will close comments anyway, to prevent further drama — necessity of the topic notwithstanding. So don’t argue. Just think about it, is all I ask. Have a beer or a spot of tea while you think. If you HAVE to argue, first take a week off to calm down, then message me about it when you’re rational. (Again, coming from first-hand experience here, it really helps if you take a break before responding).
Here’s the topic:
The person in question argued that authors shouldn’t be required to use trigger warnings on their books or posts, nor should they be bullied into it. A ton of people jumped on him and called him a troll for saying this. I don’t know the context outside of that post and its reaction: maybe he had posted incendiary stuff before, or maybe it was his first post in the group on the subject.
The fact is, though, he’s fucking right. It IS ridiculous to expect me to add detailed disclaimers on a regular basis, for the sake of people who (theoretically) need professional help so badly that mere words like “rape” or “suicide” send them into a helpless, sobbing mania. Not just here in this facebook group, but anywhere. And whether he was serious or not, it’s the members’ reactions I’m more concerned about: the sincere and angry argument that it’s the author’s solemn duty to warn the reader of every potential trigger that pops up in their work, and if they don’t they’re an irresponsible asshole who should be ostracised. That is as ridiculous and unreasonable as it is impossible, especially these days.
I am NOT responsible for the mental stability of my readers. Not even on facebook. Argue the contrary all you want, you’re still wrong.
Rating systems like we have with films are more than enough, as unreliable as they are: R means adults only, and therefore all content is fair game, the theory being — flawed as it is — that adults are mature enough to handle things like death, sex, drugs, rape, cursing, etc. If a book isn’t for kids, it is not found in the YA or children’s section, and therefore the content is fair game.
However, the issue goes beyond merely having gruesome content in a work of fiction: trigger warning enthusiasts are championing for the weak and the wounded, worried that the poor dears will fall apart if they read a depiction of something they themselves experienced. If that’s ever the case, it’s because the victim isn’t getting the help they need (or like in a few cases I’ve personally met, because they WANT to feel like victims). In most cases it’s people who have no experience with the trauma in question, which is even more pathetic. In no case is it the author’s fault, nor is it the author’s responsibility to rectify it or pander to it. Nor should that author be crucified for being so insensitive as to include bad things in his adult-oriented story that happen in real life to real adults.
So I did an experiment that panders to the trigger warning demographic. Here’s what the front page of The Helios Legacy would look like if I adhered to this sort of mentality and listed everything I know someone would be offended or triggered by. Because let’s be real, listing one or two wouldn’t be enough if we want this to be a standard practice: we’d have to cover all the bases with a proper disclaimer, and make sure everyone knows exactly what they’re getting into, so nobody feels misrepresented or left out. These are all things that I’ve seen people flip out over. So hold onto your butts.
Trigger Warning: contains depictions of, or references to, the following:
– harsh language
– harsh language around minors
– harsh language by minors
– characters contemplating suicide
– attempted suicide
– attempted suicide by a minor
– sexual abuse
– sexual abuse of a minor
– use of the word “rape”
– use of the word “cunt”
– use of the word “fuck” and all its variants
– use of the word “suicide”
– taking the lord’s name in vain
– racial slurs
– homosexual slurs
– violence against women
– woman protagonist who shows vulnerability
– women who speak of subjects other than women
– unflattering portrayals of radical feminism
– references to and depictions of social anxiety
– references to and depictions of depression
– references to and depictions of wartime PTSD
– unflattering portrayals of radical leftist politics
– lack of trans characters
– scary imagery
I took about two hours making up that list, just to make sure I didn’t leave out any subject worth a safe space visit or an angry email. Now nobody can say I didn’t warn them about the content of the book…though I had to do it at the expense of misrepresenting the content of said book. You read “sexual abuse of a minor” and probably think of seven chapters of wanton kid-rape in excruciating detail, but in fact it’s just a vague reference to the fact that the kid was abused and you don’t actually see anything. I had to mention it as part of the trigger warning, so there it is, context be damned.
Did reading the disclaimer give you second thoughts about reading the book? Good, because that brings me to yet another reason trigger warnings are a stupid practice.
It’s anti-marketing. By scaring potential readers away with an out-of-context list of vague warnings (even if I had only listed rape or suicide), they miss out on a good story with engaging characters they can actually care about. They miss out on the soldier who helps the traumatized boy learn to trust adults again. They miss out on the damaged mom who finds the will to live after a terrible loss. They miss out on a villain who’s actually likable and sympathetic. They miss all the cool little moments between the guilty war hero and the mother of her dead teammate, or the flashbacks of a romance that was meant to be, but ultimately self-destructed. They miss out on the imagery: a nuclear winter city, a passenger train splayed across a snowy wasteland like a dead behemoth. They miss out on a really awesome scene with improvised firearms. They miss out on the surprise of picking up a random indie book they never heard of and actually enjoying it.
They miss out, period.
At some point we as a species need to stop babying each other. I’m very close to people who have actually suffered abuse or serious mental illness. If you told any of them that trigger warnings were essential for anyone, least of all for them, they would think you’re a condescending asshole out to empower yourself at the expense of others, and they’d be right. The world depicted in Demolition Man was intended as a joke, not something to aspire to.
Enforcing this kind of thing isn’t helping anyone. It turns people away from your books for superficial reasons. It empowers the self-righteous and makes people afraid to speak their minds. It forces people to be hypervigilant on a constant basis. It takes those who have actually suffered and paints them like blubbering infants. It ensures that those who THINK they need trigger warnings and safe spaces never fucking recover, and live the rest of their lives with a victim complex. Most of all, it insults your reader’s maturity.
So I urge everyone to drop this practice and start respecting their readers again. That’s ultimately what you’re doing when you include a trigger warning: you’re treating your readers like children. In which case, you’re probably writing in the wrong category.