Trigger Warnings: Used by People Who Enjoy Thinking Clearly – On Stephen Fry, And Why I Am Angry (But Not Offended)

Content Note for discussion of abuse, rape and IPV. This post discusses the recent interview – and subsequent ‘apology’ – by Stephen Fry which has received so much criticism. I urge you to read the powerful and courageous responses by Waitingirl13 and Lubottom, and this open letter to Stephen Fry by Tom Leavesley (Ambassador for Survivors Machester). These similarly come with a content note and trigger warning. 

I also recommend that you read this by Scott Burnett, since Fry’s attack on trigger warnings and ‘infantilism’ was in the first instance focussed on the #RhodesMustFall campaign, which has been repeatedly misrepresented in the media and elsewhere by white British intellectuals and media commentators.

I am angry – it’s the kind of anger that initially flows like burning lava from the volcano and radiates heat for days and weeks afterward. I am angry because people with large media platforms, influence, power and the privilege that affords are repeatedly berating victims and survivors of abuse and rape for using – and requesting the use of – trigger warnings and content notes for written, oral and visual materials that reference abuse and rape. This has been largely directed at university students, but is increasingly common in public discourse and on social media. We are told that to use and request these is to want to be treated like children. We are berated for how they, supposedly, make debate and the free flow of ideas more difficult. We are accused of threatening their free speech.

What I hear is: “You victims are a problem. The way you say you need to manage your lives as a result of this abuse is an issue for us. It’s inconvenient, its troublesome. You are inconvenient – you are troublesome.”

And some of the strongest, most intelligent and generous people I know are having to justify something that they should never have to.

Like many others, I need trigger warnings and content notes. Their existence means I am less likely to experience panic attacks, nausea, migraines, nightmares or night terrors or – conversely – insomnia. All or some of those things happen when I experience flash backs to the abuse that was done to me as a child, or the rape and intimate partner violence I endured at the hands of an ex partner, or the emotional and psychological abuse I experienced during my marriage.

These things are real. They happened – and they had a profound effect on my mental health. Trigger warnings and content notes don’t change the reality of the abuse and violence I have encountered: very simply, they advise me that something I am about to read or see or hear might trigger those effects on my mental health that were the result of the assaults, violence and psychological abuse. Using them means I am more able to, for example, think clearly, unencumbered by panic attacks or nightmares.

They do not tell me I am going to be bloody offended.

Stephen Fry is a national icon. People love him – they love him for his bon viveur, his wit and his intelligence. He’s the host of choice for the BAFTA’s, for all those reasons. He makes intellectualism accessible. He has also been, for three years, the president of MIND, the best known mental health charity in the UK: following his own very public mental health battles, people now look to him as the public face – and voice – of awareness of mental health issues. When Stephen Fry talks about mental health, people trust that what he’s saying is right.

It should therefore be startlingly simple to understand (with a bit of clear thinking), that when Stephen Fry says that the feelings of abuse victims are ‘self pity’ and that ‘self pity’ is an ugly emotion, that a great many people will take on board the idea that victims and survivors are full of self pity and therefore ugly: and that is an outright lie.

One more lie to add the lies and myths about and abuse that we are constantly having to fight: because make no mistake, victims and survivors don’t just have to manage the results of what the abusers did – we have to do so in the face of a society that finds countless and innumerable ways to blame us, shame us, and at the same time, disbelieve us.

Yet understanding what trigger warnings are is not rocket science. Victims and survivors of abuse are not the only ones who need trigger warnings, and trigger warnings come in many forms – a warning about flashing lights before a television programme for example is helpful to those who suffer particular types of seizure.

Fry’s ‘apology’ for his words, therefore, ring hollow because we were not ‘offended’ by what he said. But horrified? Yes – horrified that someone whom the public trust to deliver factual information about mental health should say something which damages public perceptions and understandings of a community of people who already face from society such a lack of understanding and support. Fry’s words were not offensive. They were destructive and damaging.

What amazes me – when I see and hear all these supposedly clever people complain that ‘free speech’ is being attacked or that trigger warnings (and safe spaces) prevent people from being able to think (when the reverse is in fact the truth of the situation) – is that they are apparently not clever enough to find new and different ways to talk and think and grow ideas that do not, in the process, repeatedly re-traumatise victims and survivors.

That’s not too much to ask, is it?