I suppose it's not suicide until I hit 'post.'

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Title: I suppose it's not suicide until I hit 'post.'
Creator: phoebe_zeitgeist
Date(s): June 22, 2009
Medium: online
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External Links: I suppose it's not suicide until I hit 'post.'; archive link,
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I suppose it's not suicide until I hit 'post.' is a post by phoebe_zeitgeist.

This post was made during Trigger Warning Debate (2009).

The post has 152 comments, many very thoughtful.

Excerpted

Here's the thing: most of the debate that I've seen, at least from the pro-warnings side, seems to come down to a sort of primitive version of cost-benefit analysis. The writer, it is argued, incurs no meaningful cost by including a warning, while a susceptible person who hits a trigger because she wasn't warned for it incurs a very considerable cost. Therefore, it's only reasonable and kind for writers to always make sure they do the warning thing.

(If you've been following the debate, you'll know that this is normally accompanied by a whole lot of emotive language about fairness, and not placing a burden on victims of trauma to go around incurring the additional costs of other methods of protecting themselves* (like not reading anything unless and until they can confirm that if warnings are absent, it's because there's nothing to warn for rather than because the writer in question is working from within a non-warnings culture). But I'm not sure this really adds anything to the underlying analysis. (I'm also not sure how comfortable I am with the language of oppression analysis being used in this particular context, but that's another set of issues.))

I'm not sure the analysis as presented is actually sound, though, even if we accept for the sake of discussion that a cost-benefit analysis is in fact the best way to approach the issue.

First, conceptually at least, this isn't exactly an unusual way to approach an issue of this kind. Some of you may recall that a while ago, there was an argument about putting suicide barriers up on the Golden Gate Bridge. The barriers, it was argued, would save lives -- research showed that people prevented from an impulsive suicide often don't try again, while jumping from the Golden Gate is almost always fatal. Surely it was unkind and unreasonable to quibble about the expense of the barriers when lives were at stake? And on the other side, it was pointed out that the barriers would in fact be expensive, and that the money spent on them would be money that could not be spent on other projects, projects that would also save lives. And beyond that, the cost issue didn't factor in the costs to the community as a whole in diminishing the beauty of the bridge, as the proposed barriers would do.

I don't know how this issue was ultimately resolved. For all I know, they may be arguing about it still. But my point (and I do have one) is that this is the kind of issue that societies confront all the time, and frequently, despite the passions on both sides, neither has a lock on the issue. Costs are going to be borne by somebody, and it only makes sense to acknowledge that rather than to insist that the costs aren't real, or are so trivial they needn't be acknowledged.

Similarly with the great warning debate. The insistence that the costs of warning are negligible misses a number of the actual costs of a mandatory-warning standard. First, and most generally, it completely ignores what we might call diffused costs of mandatory warning. I've seen a certain amount of distress at the idea that mandatory warning for certain currently-agreed triggery subjects would create a classic slippery-slope problem, wherein warnings most or all of us would agree on now morph uncontrollably into demands for mandatory warnings for everything under the sun, moon, and stars. And yet, it seems to me that the issue is a real one. The problem isn't so much with the idea that warning for rape will lead to warning for haircuts, so much as it is that a norm of loud upfront warnings for potentially harmful ideas in written material in general is a troubling thing to contemplate.

I know that the famous marketplace of ideas can be harsh, and that it doesn't always work as perfectly as some theorists would wish. But the clash of ideas is also one of the glories of our world, and one that makes movement toward greater freedom and greater justice possible. Both everyday experience and history teach us that there are many, many ideas that a given person, or a group of people, will find it deeply painful to encounter. And social forces have always struggled to shove those ideas aside, to forbid their expression, or to at least stigmatize their expression and push them behind counters, behind age barriers, behind security firewalls. I am not saying that requiring someone to warn for rape in a YnM story (yeah, pretty redundant, I know) is the equivalent of requiring ID to buy a comic book. But I will say that it contributes to a culture in which that demand for an ID is reasonable and even expected of a decent society, one that pays proper attention to the needs of its most vulnerable members. (Your box of manga got seized by Customs? Well, who can say who might have seen those images, and been triggered by them?)

Second, it ignores the cost to the community as a whole of what we might call the increased genre-fication of fic in general. One of the things that can make fanfic exciting to work with is that it's an area of writing that hasn't really been commodified. Yes, there are genres within fic, and many writers and readers are happy working within their constraints. But it's possible to find and read work that really can't be classified, that's doing something pretty damned new in terms of literary form and total effect (or at least, so it has seemed to me; I don't claim familiarity with every form out there!). Working to reader expectation, to a background of headers classifying everything from romantic or sexual pairings to degree of potential disturbance for a sensitive reader, strikes me as creating pressure -- perhaps mild, subliminal pressure but pressure nevertheless -- in the direction of the conventional, the easily categorized, the easily rated. For those of us who're reading and writing more for the expanded possibilities in the medium than for comfort/familiarity, all pressures that tend to channel the community's creative energy back into conventional places imposes a cost, to us as readers and as writers.

Third, I think it trivializes the cost to the writer who, for whatever reason, doesn't want to do standard warnings. The argument makes an implicit allocation of the writer's efforts, assuming that (1) the story itself will be written in any event; and (2) the entire cost of the warning is in whatever small amount of time it takes the writer to add a standard header when she's finished the story itself.

I'm not sure it's anything like that simple. Writing may be like breathing for some of us, but for many writers it is profoundly difficult work. Work done for pleasure, yes, but work nevertheless. And demands imposed from outside that are contrary to the way the writer thinks and feels are by way of being a tax upon the entire process. The costs, that is, aren't necessarily just those few minutes of header-composing, but are likely to be distributed through the entire process. Further, it's not clear to me that the same work will in fact be produced by a writer who expects to post in her own journal, without further restrictions, under conditions she alone sets out, and a writer who instead is thinking throughout the process of composition about what impact her work might have on a vulnerable reader, and what sorts of ratings and warnings she'll need, and whether she's going to get yelled at over it.

And finally, though this is somewhat tangential, the idea that the cost to the writer is minimal, and the potential harm to a reader very high, elides one clear fact: the writer's the one who has borne all of the cost of writing the story in the first place. Readers' investments are trivial by comparison: indeed, in purely economic terms some readers are complete free riders. Which, it seems to me, makes it somewhat less obvious that we should consider it unfair and too costly for vulnerable readers to bear the costs of ensuring that it's safe for them to read any random un-warned-for fic.

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*I don't mean to be quite as dismissive as that sounds; it does make for a real burden that others don't have to take on. But our world is full of instances where unfair burdens are imposed on individuals, and where we don't as a society attempt to reallocate those burdens. In such cases it isn't necessarily, or even normally, that we don't think that an injustice is being done -- rather, it's that we've decided that this isn't an injustice we're going to try to correct. Or that it isn't an injustice we're going to try to correct right now, because there are other priorities. Or because we don't know how to do it without imposing unacceptable burdens in other directions. Et cetera, et cetera, and on into the next best thing to infinity.

Comments from the Post at the Post

The post has 152 comments. See I suppose it's not suicide until I hit 'post.'; archive link,