Wednesday, April 13, 2016

When Trigger Warnings Aren't Enough

I write on this topic with some reluctance because I could be easily misunderstood and misconstrued. Even so, I think it needs to be said. For the last decade or so, it’s been popular to preface especially intense online tales of physical abuse or blatant psychological cruelty by means of a so-called trigger warning. An issue this crucial, rooted as it is in human frailties and basic shortcomings, shouldn’t have become ideologically polarized between the Right and the Left, but it has anyway. Conservatives hint darkly at a new culture of socially acceptable, whiny victimhood and selfish histrionics. Liberals see the issue as a simple, decent matter of protecting those who have been through traumatic circumstances.

I wish it was as easy as right versus wrong. Raise your voice in an online forum on a controversial topic and let the hate mail begin. Should you be a woman or a minority (or both), expect the floodgates to cascade open and sewage to spew forth. Resolution, in person or online, is difficult enough. Both efficiently and effectively prosecuting those who make anonymous threats, often as dramatic as rape threats and death threats, is much more challenging.

I’ve written in a public setting for several years, and have won my share of criticism, no matter how childishly rendered. One particularly annoying troll left numerous insulting and offensive comments on my personal blog. Not content to stop there, he did much the same thing with most of the 400 or so YouTube videos I have recorded since at least 2007. It takes a perverse, driven work ethic to go such lengths. I do not understand his motivation to be even the score.

Around ten years ago, I filed a restraining order against a former girlfriend. Filing the paperwork required hours of scaling a mountain of bureaucratic red tape, filling out every necessary form, standing in line at the correctly numbered teller window, and many other exasperating delays. I didn’t even get everything done in one day, necessitating that I return later in the week to tidy up that which remained. Following that, I had to plead my case in front of a cynical, weary, overworked judge. She sat in a tiny, dark office, ushering in the latest to speak without much conviction or energy. Her ultimate discretion and say decided which presumptive orders of protection were granted, and which were not. I queued up in line with everyone else, waiting for nearly an hour, only to receive about three minutes’ worth of her honor’s time.

A young black woman, no doubt in shock, told me a horror story about her former boyfriend that was far more vicious than mine. I could have had it much worse, I reflected, but I still had a purpose in being there and I intended to see it through to a conclusion. It is unfortunate that the current legal system, be it state or federally managed, requires indisputable proof of cruelty before the procession can proceed. Metaphorical nail marks must be felt. Priority comes first, skepticism follows second, and validation comes a distant third. In far too many circumstance, women have been unable to prosecute their abusers because they simply weren’t beaten up badly enough.

Violence doesn’t only take physical form. Emotional abuse and psychological cruelty can be as damaging as a right hook to the jaw. And to add insult to injury, the telling and retelling of a painful story makes a bad situation even worse. By the time I was through with the latest account, the most recent run-through, I felt that I was a novice actor performing a memorized part on an illuminated stage. What happened to me before no longer seemed real, as though I was singing a well-known cover song in front of an audience who knew all the words.

We live in a time of evaporating privacy. True safety is increasingly growing rare, even as many claim to the contrary. We like to believe that we inhabit a world that is growing more benevolent and less cruel. Perhaps, perhaps not. It depends on how we define safety. The Internet has emboldened cowards and sadists alike. Law enforcement statutes designed to protect are often insufficient and clumsy, a day late and a dollar short.

As for myself, I had to tell my story at least four times in a row to the uncomprehending before I was at least partially understood. Most of us don’t have the financial means and the time to spend to get the creaky process fumbling towards resolution. I was only able to jump through the hoops in sequence because I was on disability from my job and thus had the free time needed to do it.

This isn’t a popular sentiment, I recognize, but there really aren’t any truly safe spaces out there. I’ve known many people, men and women alike, but usually women, who demand the most ideal circumstance imaginable in every gathering or community. Those raised by alcoholic parents want alcohol-free spaces. Those who grew up in dysfunction of any form want assurances that their immediate environment won't contain these elements. I’d be all for it myself if I believed such spaces even exist.

We’re told that there was a epoch in our collective past where we could leave our doors unlocked and place full trust in our neighbors. Women have every right to ask for adequate protection, but time has taught us many difficult lessons. One of these unfortunate truths is that safety is a fantasy. I live in one of the safest parts of the District of Columbia, but a casual survey of recent police reports reveals routine acts of senseless violence and a few key stabbings a mere mile and a half from my residence.

As I understand it, the rules, the laws, and the guidelines as written are mostly to blame. Trigger warnings are a good first step, but they are insufficient. They are highly cosmetic, but if you believe that they work, far be it for me to discourage you. Safe spaces are really just giant placebos, but, as we know, the placebo effect has always been curiously effective for some. Windows can be broken, alarm systems can be disconnected, cars can be stolen, and privacy is merely an illusion. With greater technological advances to follow the current day, we will no longer have the ability to disappear completely, leaving no footprint behind.

This doesn’t mean that anything goes. Laws only work if citizens agree to abide by them. Unlike a few choice hackers with a little too much time on their hands, I’m not an anarchist. The prevalence of online communication and its increasing importance in our life is going to require brand new strategies to consider and implement in place of what we have now. But in the meantime, I suggest that you regularly rehearse in your bedroom mirror a particularly effective narrative account, directed towards the proper authorities, should you one day be the victim of a crime. Trust in God, but keep your powder dry.

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