I want to begin with a definition. There are many different varieties of identity politics – by which I don’t mean feminism vs LGBT vs black vs Asian and so forth; differences exist here, but they are functionally identical. Rather, there are distinctive trends in the academic literature, such as it is; serious principled divisions on matters historical, philosophical and so forth (which, tellingly, tend not to add up to much in the ‘real world’). I have not found one I agree with, but some books and academic papers I’ve encountered in this line of things over my long march through the institutions have enlivened things in a seminar room, and others still have at least not left me spitting my own teeth out with rage.
But there’s one particular variant that I’m going to call “bureaucratic sentimentalism” (serendipitously, BS for short), which has two premises: firstly, it is ‘sentimental’ in the sense that political questions are judged in that very American, post-war way, according to the shrink’s question of cliché immemorial – “And how did that make you feel?” The ambiguous old women’s lib slogan, “the personal is political”, is presented in its most absurd form, as a kind of hedonic calculus. Political rectitude consists in being ‘inclusive’ to the most diverse experiences of oppression. As with many things that seem, on the face of things, to be terribly progressive and liberal, this is necessarily bureaucratic – it throws up a need for a kind of police force, to manage what is said and done according to the calculus.
The trigger warning serves this kind of politics right up to you in a sesame bun. For those not in the know, a trigger warning is a kind of puritanical cross between NSFW and one of those comically helpful BBFC summaries (“rated PG for infrequent language and mild threat”). ‘Properly’ used, it goes above an account of some horrific trauma or other potentially disturbing content, with the official purpose being to prevent a ‘trauma trigger’ – a pathological psychological response by somebody who is exceptionally vulnerable to the particular subject.
The problem of trauma triggers is a real one of live interest to those in the psychological and psychiatric line of work, of course. This is a pretty nasty world, in which many people experience more horror in an afternoon than anyone should have to face over their whole life. The human mind’s coping mechanisms, like most of its other mechanisms, are bizarre, and often fail in ways that cannot easily be predicted and require serious and sober academic study, not to say sensitivity and attentiveness on the part of mental health practitioners dealing with traumatised patients.
In the hands of the low-rent bureaucratic sentimentalist blogger, however, the trigger warning is not a serious matter. It is an affectation.
Take, as the classic example, a bureaucratic feminist blog which carries a shock story about some case of sexual violence. The inevitable trigger warning is supposed to warn off traumatised rape victims. Just think about that for a second. Imagine you are a traumatised rape victim, and you happen to be sent into psychological chaos by accounts of rape. The internet, as a whole, is not going to be a friendly place; but just about the worst place you can go is this kind of feminist blog, where it is rape for breakfast, rape culture for lunch and rape denial for tea. In reality, the trauma trigger set are not the audience for accounts of traumatic violence. They know well enough what it is to be a victim. The audience is, in the first place, people who share the BS political outlook in some form, and in the second, those who do not, and thus need to be confronted with their insensitivity.
And such is the audience, equally, of the trigger warning. It is about establishing a shared experience of disgust at the particular horror, with a collective self-affirmation at how seriously everyone is taking things. This frivolous sentimentalism has the bureaucratic impulse as its obverse: the duty to police writing, in the name of an absent third party.