Sunday, August 14, 2016

Black Cat Trigger Happy

I was leaning on the balcony of my friends house taking in the view. Though I was concentrating on the steeple, the mountains of the horizon, the clouds migrating across the sky, at some point I looked down into the street out front of the house. And I noticed a black cat crossing the street. I had two thoughts of which I am no longer sure of the order in which they arrived.

One I almost always reflexively recall when seeing a black cat, or any cat, crossing a path was Groucho Marx's 'a black cat crossing your path indicates it is going somewhere' which is what I remind myself of whenever a black cat does cross my path.

The other, much more relevant thought was 'this is why I fucken hate trigger warnings.'

The first time I saw a trigger warning, the impression and execution was not too different from TV-Ratings. If you can remember as far back to when you used to watch TV, the ones that flashed up to say 'The following program contains references to drugs, sex and violence, parental guidance is advised' The emphasis of course is mine, because it's a crucial difference between trigger warnings and TV-ratings. (It's perhaps a useful exercise to contemplate why these two practices are different)

Anyway the actual first time I came across it was in a post by my friend Leah, and I made many snap judgements and formed an impression quite quickly, based on who my friend Leah is, the authority she has and whom I assumed she was attempting to reach.

Because she has written in quite brutal detail, the brutal realities of major depressive episodes. Thus at the time, and still, I would credit her with having the first hand experience to know her triggers - I also assume (though being a verbally coherant assumption, is very much post-hoc compared to the unintelligible impression I actually used) that this novel new pre-text phrase 'trigger warning' was offering people in similar situations to Leah to make the cost benefit analysis of reading this article vs triggering a major depressive episode - quite a costly thing.

I assumed she was speaking to a rarefied audience she has access to, that both has an interest in trauma and extreme sensitivities to it.

So I thought nothing of it.

Then trigger warnings came to be employed by people just throwing articles up on fb that it was much harder for me to believe as being employed in the same way Leah had.

Further more, the 'trigger warnings' began to be predictable.

Ask yourself what is 'trigger warning' going to mean? What isn't it going to mean? Excluding when it is employed for parody/ridicule eg. trigger warning 'avocados' it's not going to foretell a coming mention of avocados. It is going to probably in this order foretell content of rape, assault, suicide, self-mutilation, depression.

Now do you remember room 101 from 1984? The room that contains the worst thing in the world, which for John Smith was rats ready to gnaw his face off? No need to imagine what would be in your personal room 101, imagine instead that for fear of one day walking accidentally walking into your own room 101 you employed your friend Garry to scout ahead. And should he discover you are on a collision course with room 101, he can pop back and silently warn you with a solemn shake of his head.

It sounds like it would work, and here I have to extend the benefit of the doubt to my trigger-warning happy friends, that as far as intention goes they are trying to provide a well-intended service that is sensitive to the realities of others mental health and sparing them unnecessary pain or anguish.

Just what I would bet good money on, is that if Garry did scout ahead for you to see if you were walking into room 101, that Garry and the thought of seeing his solemn face would start to become a proxy 101. His face would start evoking some of the gut wrenching emotions that occur when you think of room 101.

Then something happened to me, about 2 years ago now. I had a panic attack. An unpleasant experience that lacking any real experience of them, was even more so distressing. The thought that I was arousing myself into cardiac arrest did occur to me. It was not unmanageable, but also not an experience I would wish on anybody.

Especially me.

I haven't had one since, and like my magic rock that protects me from bear attacks, I can't really testify that the method I employed to prevent panic attacks actually works, given how rare they are in my life. (I've had 1, possibly 2 in my life) But I did read up, I read a terribly titled book called 'i-brainmap: freeing your brain from stress' but that details (among much acronyms that make me cringe as a marketing graduate) simple and effective methods for dealing with any 'activated' state.

And the activated states are what a person is in when they have been triggered. This book urged it's readers to not invest their effort in avoiding triggers, but in confronting them with curiosity - or more accurately the unpleasant states of activation that result from being triggered. The book claimed to be cutting edge, employing new discoveries about nueroplasticity to say the existent conventional wisdom of identifying triggers in therapy sessions and devising strategies to avoid them was proving to be a load of hooey, albeit an intuitive response to unpleasantness. (My own psychotherapy has never touched on triggers, they weren't why I was there)

And this was perhaps the worst impression the book conveyed to me, because I kind of gave trigger warnings a two-year grace period, dismissing them as naive but well intentioned. The people using them simply weren't up to speed with nueroplasticity. Not understanding that they are in practice reinforcing the triggers and in fact shrinking the space those avoiding triggers can roam online by creating a secondary 'catch-all' trigger in 'trigger warning'.

If Garry and room 101 didn't do it for you, think back to something else you probably feel queasy about and that is secondary school algebra.

Remember feeling stupid as those math savant kids noticed that if you let z = (2x - c) then suddenly an equation became y = (2z - z^2)/z and seemed that much more solvable and why can't I see that shit?

Well let trigger warning = every most common triggers out there. Such that somebody whose trigger might be 'self-mutilation' now gets that state of activation from reading 'trigger warning' even if the attached link contains no mention of self-mutilation because it causes them to anticipate that their particular trigger is around the corner. Even when it isn't.

Of course, I don't know that this happens, I would simply be willing to bet good money that this turns out to be happening. I don't have any real triggers that knock my hipocampus out of commission and leave the wheels of my frontal lobes spinning with the resultant inability to talk to my more primative brain that processes the fight-flight-freeze response. Thus I can't personally testify from experience.

Anyway, as stated some time passed between when I learned that avoiding triggers is counterproductive to seeing this black cat from my friends balcony.

In the interim I would periodically be reviewing the works of psychiatrist Gordin Livingston who wrote 'confrontation over time makes things better, avoidance makes things worse' and Gabor Mate who in fact sites Eckart Tole when saying 'never run from your fears' and other healers in the addiction industry (the good ones, I feel, being almost universally focused on trauma) repeat this message. Brene Brown's work that went 'viral' via TED is similarly centered around the importance of vulnerability - willing to actually step into the arena and get hurt as being crucial to living 'wholeheartedly' - shame too. I'm struck by how Brene's work is more or less the same as Gabor Mate's narrative by a different name, reaching a different audience (I hope).

And it seems forgotten to me, in the public brains trust that Anxiety, Depression, PTSD... etc are debilitating conditions, that nobody wants to persist. Suffering from anxiety appears to have become normalised in my local culture (making it important to remember that 'normal' is not 'natural') and they are perhaps the one exception to my experience that most people suffering a debilitating condition will only seek a path of 'managing' the condition when beating that condition has been ruled out. (chronic pain, severe clinical depression etc.) Instead anxious people create videos about how life could be altered to suit the needs of socially awkward people. Although I do wish chairs on airplanes were unable to recline, accommodating people who live in fear of feeling awkward is a sentiment that makes me actually want to go to war with the socially anxious (it would be easy).

What little reading I've done on OCD makes me confident that 'exposure response prevention therapy' is a core practice, albeit preventing somebody from unnecessary hand washing is done in a very controlled way and OCD triggers can result from introspection, I've never heard of OCD having the kind of trigger likely to appear in an online article.

So anyway, I began to suspect that perhaps, no real authority had ever recommended that people identify their triggers and then devise strategies to avoid them. This was not a psychotherapy practice widespread enough for it to be the foundation of the online manners known as the 'trigger warning'

So I did the maximum amount of research I will ever do: I looked up trigger warning on 'Know your meme' you can see the results of my research here. Note that my research never extended to actually looking at 'Fuck Yeah Trigger Warnings' tumblr, the one mention in the know-your-meme page of 'necessity of trigger warnings. But as such, it does not appear that 'trigger warning' is indeed formally a form of manners (behavior necessary to maintaining civilized society especially in regard to treatment of strangers) so much as etiquette (behavior necessary to claim membership to an in-group). Etiquette is what gave us 14 forks and different glasses for drinking fortified wine vs. red or white wine vs. sparkling wine and every other different alcoholic beverage, and every other convoluted and expensive system for distinguishing the privileged elite from the unclean masses.

Authority is important as well, as a concept. Most people, like me, are terrible fact checkers. They base their decisions on impressions - I've seen people sign employment contracts in front of me that they haven't read. People go with the flow due to social pressure and perceptions of authority. It's why the government has to regulate that phone contracts are written in plane English and restricts how many pages they can be.

And to paint a subset of my friends with the one brush, there is a kind of people who use trigger warnings. I recently learned of the terms 'progressives' but I've never known a person to identify as one. To me it is a derogatory term, but I could believe somebody may self-identify, it's plausible. More recently I learned of the term 'social justice warrior' or sjw, which is clearly a derogatory term used by the kind of people that are derogatorily referred to as 'trolls' and also 'mras' (all links go to urban dictionary, because all the terms are pejorative and it is a friend of skepticism to see venom injected into what is meant to be a definition). I would not bet money that anybody would self identify as an sjw, except in an ironic sense, and I guess if somebody possessed both the behavioral traits that make somebody a sjw, while having the personal sense of security to own that term, they would be my favorite kind of sjw.

But mostly, in my world they remain nameless. And just because a term is pejorative or derogatory doesn't mean they aren't descriptive. There's some bedrock under the streams of venom. MRAs for example are bad actuaries, and progressives don't demonstrate epistemic humility. And that's why I don't like trigger warnings, because if my transcribe my personal prejudices, I feel most people in the world value intelligence, and the rest actually feel intelligent. And it's the somewhat intelligent people that value intelligence (perhaps because, they don't feel intelligent) that catch and spread a meme like trigger warnings.

My intuition, is that trigger warnings spread like George Costanza got the denizens of New York eating Donuts and candy with cutlery. I don't have the necessary engineering or physio qualifications to authoritatively say that using cutlery is a dumb way to eat a donut or snickers, but I'm confident that it is. But when George says 'how do you eat yours? with your hands?' with so much derision, that is him establishing etiquette, and though Seinfeld is a sit-com that in its latter seasons got increasingly ridiculous - George's malicious establishing of etiquette to serve his own needs is not so relevant as the ease with which the contagion spreads. People don't fact check in the episode, they simply see others doing it, and driven by their own aspirations adopt the practice themselves.

Similarly, if you use trigger warning primarily because you saw somebody you respect doing it, realise that's probably why they do it. And people who respect you may believe that it is the ethical thing to do, when it could, possibly be at best condescending and at worst counterproductive.

I feel strongly that the primary motivation to use 'trigger warnings' is to claim membership to a group, a community. Driven by an aspiration to stand among perceived intellectuals. It has little basis in fact as regards the intention, or how they are supposed to work.

Suppose they worked though? Have I got to the black cat yet?

I just can't respect the mind that believes setting down the path of creating an online social environment where trauma sufferers are condescendingly imagined to be frail little Lord Fontelroys of our extended social networks whom need to be protected from trigger content of articles people are posting -that people with that mindset are going to change the world for the better.

Because a trigger could be anything, anything could be in room 101 - even after you suspend your disbelief that the communist ideology that couldn't produce chocolate milk, could somehow satisfy the worst fears of any given member of their society - that takes enterprising capitalism baby.

I'm told, by a keynote presentation I cannot presently be bothered sourcing, that something anxious people have trouble doing, is thinking things through to their consequences. So the difference between me and my anxious friends is the difference between 'people are going to notice the mustard stain on my shirt, and then they are going to not care anymore.' and 'people are going to notice the mustard stain on my shirt!' In the same way, seeing a black cat cross my path can bum me out. I can get a feeling of foreboding and have to remind myself of Groucho Marx's views on the matter of black cats crossing paths.

Have those posting 'trigger warning' as pretext to articles where they actively and consciously control the stimulus they produce thought about how to apply this to every other (and hopefully the majority) aspects of their life. How for example to warn people that their cat can roam the streets while they are at work?

It is within the realm of plausibility that the sight of a black cat crossing their path could be a major trigger to some people, activating a panic attack or a depressive episode. Are we to extend our sensitivity to superstition? Eradicate the number 4 because it upsets the Chinese? Is someone that allows their black tabby to roam the streets being insensitive? Should ladder manufacturers make it physically impossible to walk under their wares? Should we start a kickstarter for a smart brolly that cannot be opened in doors? Should women be resolutely banned from playing the didgeridoo?

Triggers can be temporal too, a time of year - trigger warning - August?

More seriously what if someone's assailant wore yellow? Or reeked of Lynx Africa?

At no point do I want to trivialise how horrible activated states can be for those that suffer from debilitating conditions including PTSD, OCD (it's horrific), Generalised Anxiety Disorder, Major clinical depression etc. I just suspect that the people that actually do, for the most part dream of being able to freely interact with this chaotic world, to live a life where the smell of certain anti-perspirants do not send their body into remembering a major trauma - where physiologically they can experience the same detachment that they can rationally - not just their mind but their body knows that because the postman's uniform is yellow doesn't mean the assailant is here and that this is happening again.

Trivial or not though, the challenge before anybody with debilitating triggers is how to live in a world they can't control. My favorite soundbite of Angel Haze, comes at the end of her track 'Black Synagogue' where she says 'it takes something to say fuck it this is reality, and I'm going to deal with it.' I believe, although I have no proof, that the something the articulate Angel Haze can't put her finger on, is the something that people who recover have. I can't articulate that something either.

I will accept, indeed expect there to be dissenting views. For example there are people that identify as addicts that still in 2016 believe addiction to be a disease, or genetic. Despite no evidence to support these theories, the theories persist and were historically probably helpful in de-stigmatising addiction so that sufferers could seek treatment. Equally I could believe that despite a lack of evidence to support trigger warnings, and the presence of evidence to suggest they are counter-productive there will be people that resolutely believe in their necessity.

I don't, and I'm sufficiently confident to try and persuade you out of them.

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