Stephen Fry is right about trigger warnings – he’s especially right about self-pity

People are calling Stephen Fry’s comments about sex abuse victims “an extraordinary attack,” because he had the temerity to suggest that trigger warnings on literature are bullshit and that self-pity is an ugly, self-defeating emotion.

He stated this bluntly and without the usual hand-wringing and tiptoeing that accompanies discussion of sex abuse in liberal circles. OH NO. WHAT AN EVIL JERK.

Here’s the thing though – he’s right. Trigger warnings amount to nothing but clumsy, amateur “therapy” that can have an adverse effect.

The truth is – and there is a wealth of literature and studies on the subject, really – triggers are random. You’re not going to precisely KNOW what it is that triggers you on a given day, that’s kind of the whole problem of being psychologically vulnerable.

Being triggered can actually be useful, because it helps you understand and potentially expand your boundaries. It can allow for a dynamic process of healing.

And environments that are meant to be safe spaces for victims of abuse work when there are professionals around, when the safe space is part of therapy.

Amateur “safe spaces”, on the other hand, are frequently more stressful than your regular, bunch-of-normal-people-who’ll-occasionally-say-bullshit-to-you spaces. Why? First of all, because everybody’s worried about saying the wrong thing. Interaction is so thoroughly policed that it becomes a maze of potential wrong turns.

I experienced abuse as a child. It destroyed and remade me, and – yeah, it was a terrible thing. You can trust me on this.

But let’s say I had my choice of whom to hang out with: Option 1 is a group of college students who think that it is important to never! say! the wrong! thing! to people like me – and who would accuse me of being a self-hating sell-out should I disagree. Option 2 is some loudmouth who can push my buttons and even – dear God! – call me on my bullshit, i.e. treat me like a fellow human as opposed to a glass vase that will shatter if mishandled.

I’m going to go with Option 2. Option 1 is re-traumatizing.

This goes to Fry’s point about self-pity. Amateur “safe spaces” absolutely foster self-pity. Because the only real power they afford to members is the power to call someone out when they’ve been triggered. Agency depends on their status as victims. Agency = “You triggered me! You said something offensive! How dare you! Asshole!” You can’t exercise that kind of power if you’re generally committed to practicing self-care and living a better sort of life. And your energy doesn’t go towards untangling your own issues, it goes toward reminding everyone that DAMMIT, YOU HAVEN’T MOVED ON.

The notion that these amateur “safe spaces” are liberating is a lie. They just introduce a different hierarchy. The bigger “victim” you are, the more “rights” you get to have in policing others. Interaction as equals is impossible, because someone is always a bit more ravaged/in pain, and that person gets to shut down others. It is a poisonous dynamic. It harms people, because, again, status is derived from pain. Dealing with pain means losing status. 

“They can’t bear complexity,” Fry says of advocates of trigger warnings and heavily policed amateur “safe spaces.” I’m sorry, but he’s right. Not only do these people refuse to understand anything about triggers, they also actively disown people and even come after them if they won’t fall in line and adopt their rhetoric. Their ultimate goal is not to alleviate suffering – it’s to experience the thrill of feeling morally superior, of being Good Guys battling Bad Guys.

Their suggestion that college classrooms must be remade into pristine “safe spaces” is ignorant, because learning, by definition, is unsafe. When you learn, you are challenged and provoked. It can be a scary, painful process. It can make you feel very small. Or angry. These emotions suck, but they won’t be the end of you. The greatest minds alive today got there because they tripped over the flaws in the world, including flaws and contradictions in their own schooling. And instead of saying, “I am triggered, it is the end,” they said, “Goddamit, I am going to do something about this.”

Healing and moving on are not linear processes. It’s not about getting from point A to point B. It’s mostly just wandering in the wilderness, because – as Fry had the temerity to suggest – the world is kind of complicated.

I’m just another person wandering in the wilderness, but I can tell you that one of the things that really helped me along the way is making fun of myself.

Here I am, a broke-ass writer in her early 30s who’s thinking that this post is going to make a difference.

I could be doing any number of useful things – alphabetizing my collection of Star Trek gifs, weeping softly over my credit rating – but instead I’m discussing internet outrage surrounding a famous actor, due to a crazy assumption that somebody might find it useful.

That’s pretty funny, right?

The world is complicated – and ridiculous. Fry treats it as such, and he’s right to do so. You’re better off taking a cue from him.

P.S. I’m of course saying all this as someone who used trigger warnings on art in the past and thought I was being super helpful to myself and to others. It took me a while to realize that I was completely misunderstanding the nature of triggers. That realization actually helped me as far as my own issues go.

17 thoughts on “Stephen Fry is right about trigger warnings – he’s especially right about self-pity

  1. I appreciate your strength and your diplomatic understanding. This was a fair post. I understand that the world has become very sensitive in some places, but I do not agree with the way Stephen used abuse victims to demonstrate a point in a subject that has nothing to do with survivors. His conversation was fine until he said what he said about victims and that’s where he lost me. Why is he allowed to be suicidal but others need to grow up?
    I have no problems with your views, just Stephen’s in this particular incident.

  2. Lucy, I totally get your point – I just think his humor here is actually very helpful. I *want* to be laughing more about this stuff. And as much as he discusses his own mental health issues, he also frequently makes fun of himself. So when I read that part about “your uncle touched you, stop being a self-pitying wreck” (to paraphrase), I actually chuckled. Not because I think that abuse itself is a hilarious issue – but our attitudes about it frequently are. But, once again, I totally get your point.

  3. Hiya Nat. I would add is that trigger warning culture creates harmful/dangerous assumptions about triggers. People assume they can weed out materials that can harm them, creating a false sense of safety – it is shattered when the individual is triggered anyway (you are right that it can be very hard to predict these things, simply writing “trigger warning for rape” does not address the complex ways in which topics and images affect us, let alone set us on a path toward better mental health). Not to mention the fact that “I was triggered” is now shorthand for “I felt upset,” resulting in more misconceptions. It’s bad enough when there are many who give armchair mental health advice like “smile more and your depression will take care of itself.” Now we have post-traumatic stress “experts” coming up with rules for how people should interact with each other as well as with the world. They think they’re helping, but they are not. As an ex-therapist, I am worried by this trend.

  4. Speaking from my experience (PTSD in this case), triggers can come from anywhere and at any time, depending on how your brain is associating with whatever is going on around you. It does no good to try and hide from your past – you have to either try to face and overcome it and attempt to live a semi-normal, reasonably happy life or to cower in a corner. There are things you can do to minimize the effects of a trigger and there are even ways to avoid triggers (counselling helps), but labelling literature with warnings that cover every potential circumstance would take up more space than the novel itself. If nothing else, if you feel a trigger starting, you can stop reading …

  5. Childhood bullying victims, such as myself, can also experience triggers. It can happen without warning and that’s the hard part. Having said that, I have utmost sympathy for those who suffer from occupation-related PTSD, such as fire-fighters.

    Thank you for posting and I will share!

  6. I think there’s certainly a place for this intensifying phenomenon of triggers to be scrutinised and discussed. I’m not convinced Stephen Fry will ever be the person to do it. His staggering pomposity and self-regard will always get in the way.

  7. You’re a boring vanilla white girl who went to Duke and look like a star of cleaning products commercials, so Aryan and pure. But you decided to throw a little fit about trigger warnings like you know what you’re talking about. Even been triggered, spoiled little Aryan? I didn’t think so. Let me guess you want Stephen Fry to star in one of your “plays”. Choke on the privilege. I hope it tastes good.

  8. Oh, but you know what you’re talking about, on the other hand. Yep, no ignorance here. Especially when it comes to the historic drama of “Slav vs. Aryan” (guess your family was privileged to miss out on that – mine wasn’t).

    Seriously, do I need to write another blog post on how “criticizing trigger warnings doesn’t mean you don’t deal with triggers”? I mean, there’s NO WAY I’m critical about trigger warning culture because I have also personally found it unhelpful and re-traumatizing over time? Nope, I’m just running my mouth for the hell of it. Or because I want Fry to star in one of my “plays” (they’re not real plays, they’re fake plays, hence the quotation marks).

    One thing that has really been brought home to me in these last few days is how territorial and downright abusive people are about trigger warning culture. Claiming you care about the mental health of other individuals and then viciously attacking them should they not immediately fall in line says a lot about how mental health is actually prioritized by trigger warning/amateur safe space advocates.

    Because it’s not about mental health. It’s about policing language and establishing new hierarchies.

  9. Some of the new work on PTSD (reviewed in “What if PTSD Is More Physical Than Psychological?” New York Times Magazine By ROBERT F. WORTH, JUNE 10, 2016 describes “a new study that supports what a small group of military researchers has suspected for decades: that modern warfare destroys the brain.”

    Other researchers in cognitive neuroscience have long and convincingly argued that survivor flashbacks etc. from abuse victims are not the same as PTSD. These new autopsy studies described by Worth support this argument.

  10. Hey Breakstuff! Your post is offensive. Where is the trigger warning to your post, you hypocritical troll? Quit attacking victims anonymously!

    Stay strong Natalia and keep sharing your voice!

  11. Fresh breath of air, Natalia. It just opened up my lungs and heart. I haven’t read anything real for a long time.
    ‘Glass vase’ – it just opens up beautifully human characteristics. I would like to know how to treat and look at a person as real and strong even when I know the story. Thank you immensely

  12. Reblogged this on The Optimist's Notebook and commented:
    But let’s say I had my choice of whom to hang out with: Option 1 is a group of college students who think that it is important to never! say! the wrong! thing! to people like me – and who would accuse me of being a self-hating sell-out should I disagree. Option 2 is some loudmouth who can push my buttons and even – dear God! – call me on my bullshit, i.e. treat me like a fellow human as opposed to a glass vase that will shatter if mishandled.

    I’m going to go with Option 2. Option 1 is re-traumatizing.


  13. Yes! Option 2 is definitely what I choose. It is not with abuse but when it comes to my schizophrenia… Triggers are everywhere and not in logical things. I get triggered by soap or the shape of a cake. Triggers are never logical to anyone but the person experiencing them.

    You may not think your post makes a difference but it definitely does, to me anyway! =)

  14. I see what you’re saying and I think your point is well made, but I disagree with it. I blog about my PTSD, which comes from domestic violence. I also work with other survivors, including veterans. You’re right, triggers are everywhere and we’re going to be exposed to them all the time. You’re also right that speaking the truth is important. To me, it’s just a matter of consideration if I’m discussing something that’s an OBVIOUS trigger. Many people will be triggered by descriptions of violence, for example. So I do what I like done for me–give a heads-up that it’s there. I’m still going to tell the truth, and I want the truth told to me. I just really appreciate when that truth telling is tempered by some empathy.

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