Guest post by Angriff. Angriff resides in southern California, where he fursuits in the local furry scene as an imperial Prussian officer-bedecked utahraptor or eagle. He is an Army reserve officer, and his ancient Egyptian fantasy film Eye of the Bennu (trailer here, rent/buy here & here) received two awards at the 2013 PollyGrind film Festival in Las Vegas, Nevada. Angriff is on Fur Affinity.
Visit some colleges today and you will see ‘trigger warnings’ on lessons, notifying students the material therein may cause flashbacks to PTSD or other emotional stress. Other professors have simply given up teaching certain subjects lest they ‘trigger’ their pupils (1)(2)(3). Entire public areas on some campuses are designated as ‘safe spaces’ where people can go to escape things that ‘trigger’ them, including arguments that they disagree with. For example, feminist Christina Hoff Sommers spoke at a college where she detailed her objections to certain schools of modern feminism. Afterwards a ‘safe space’ was set up specifically for those who felt ‘harmed’ by her mere arguments, regardless of their merit (4). Yet it is not just institutions of higher learning that are implementing trigger warnings: many websites in various fandoms are doing the same. Some furries are likewise starting to give trigger warnings online, or else informing other furries that certain material ‘triggers’ them.
Given these events, it is likely that soon we as a fandom will have to consider whether or not to put trigger warnings on subject matter at conventions, or else opt to ban certain furry content because it may trigger, or has been accused of triggering, others, in the name of creating a safe and inclusive space for all. It could be an artwork, a fursuit, panel discussion topic, or something else. I would argue, however, that we as a fandom must reject the urge to label or reject furry content on the basis of any claimed ‘trigger’ that up until now has been accepted. People advocating for shielding others from sensitive material do a disservice to the power of human resiliency. According to these advocates, people are fragile beings who are constantly exposed to trauma, and are usually affected by it adversely for the rest of their lives.
Research says otherwise (6): people exposed to severe trauma develop PTSD only about 9% of the time. There are many risk minimizing and protective factors to PTSD such as coping skills and social support that can be learned and acquired. Women are more likely to develop PTSD than men after a traumatic event, especially when it comes to sexual assault; however, of rape survivors, about half recover from PTSD within a mere 3 months of the incident – male and female. People who confront trauma make better and speedier recoveries than those who avoid reminders of the trauma, and those who likewise make their trauma a central part of their identity show less resilience and greater symptoms of PTSD.
At the same time, we find that those who constantly talk about their trauma to psychologists or grievance counselors have a harder time recuperating emotionally than those who “repress” it (7). While this seems counter-intuitive, remember that most human mental processes are subconscious; just because someone is not “expressing themselves” or “opening up” does not mean they are not psychologically processing damaging events in some way. When we do talk about our pain to others (and most people need to do it at least a little), it tends to be close family and friends, rather than grief counselors. For example, counselors were dispatched to New York after the September 11th attacks, as well as after the Asian tsumamis of 2005, but they were largely ignored by people in favor of loved ones (8). The takeaway of all this is that getting over trauma usually just involves living your life unafraid as before, neither trying to relive the events over and over by talking about them to strangers, nor hiding from anything that remotely reminds you of them. Any recovery happens in private such as at home with family or friends. The notion that one’s home should be a safe space is a reasonable one; my issue is extending it to the public sphere. In a furry fandom context, the hotel room is a safe space but the convention floor is not.
This suggests that trigger warnings and safe spaces hurt people’s long term resiliency (measured by susceptibility to PTSD or depression after difficulties, etc.) and well-being, and people who look at life through the lens of their trauma (and perhaps oppression) have a harder time of it. It’s no surprise that the people advocating the former also tend to be the latter.
Beyond the problems with the psychological assumptions underlying trigger warnings, I find them objectionable on the principle of the free exchange of information. After all, the improvement of human knowledge and personal introspection comes from entertaining all ideas and information, not just those that we feel comfortable with. In essence, you cannot have a space that is both safe and allows meaningful discussion of deep subjects to take place. In fact, topics like religion, sexuality, philosophy, and virtue are sensitive precisely because they are so important to us.
Returning to the furry fandom specifically, I think the real danger of trigger warnings and safe spaces is they would inhibit and damage the diverse aesthetics that draws so many to fandom in the first place. Furry is about the human experience filtered and processed through the symbolism of animals (both real and imagined), so any and all aspects of our existence—joyous or horrific—should be fair game. Human cultures and subcultures portray the gamut of experience precisely to integrate it into the understanding of our lives and the world around us. Even more immediate, any good story—be it a movie, comic book, or the written word—requires conflict to drive the plot, and flawed characters that improve themselves and grow. By definition, conflict (and personal growth in general) can be uncomfortable, and in fact the most compelling stories often have strikingly awful things going on. It’s one thing to not read or see art and literature that is not to one’s liking, but it should not prevent others from enjoying the same or even being able to do so without feeling like they are sinning by consuming it.
This works for fursuiting too, perhaps even moreso since fursuits (and the suiters therein) are not just abstract ideas on a page or screen but embodied symbols that are usually expressions of the owner. If anything, trigger warnings and safe spaces are especially dangerous to fursuiters for this very reason. My own fursuit has a sword; others have fake guns or are simply meant to be scary. Given that weapons or blood in the context of costumes have been accused of being triggering by some people with emotional disorders already (5), how long before even one furry finds fake blood, toy guns—or even my toy sword—to be emotionally stressful for whatever reason? At that point you have a contest of preferences: the suiter and his or her fans’ ability to enjoy the suit, and the person claiming to be triggered and their ability to enjoy the convention without feeling unsafe around a fursuit that could pop up at any time. In this case, I would still default to the suiter, not just in the interest of promoting strength of character on the part of those claiming to be triggered, but because in any large enough group, someone is bound to be made uncomfortable by something. If we banned something on the basis of one complaint, furry would be quite bland: excitement sacrificed in the name of comfort, pleasing no one by pleasing everyone.
Furry writer Phil Geusz has also noted that trigger warnings “remove one of a writer’s most profound and important literary devices—surprise—from his toolbox.” While a simple synopsis on the back cover (common to most novels) can hint at what is inside for an audience, trigger warnings would necessarily be far more in depth in what they reveal. Not only would this give away vital plot details, but also lessen the impact of unexpected (and hence profound) actions taken by the characters that help provide a deep, rewarding experience. In essence, trigger warnings would remove much of the enjoyment of consuming entertainment media.
A natural objection is that we judge a society by how it treats its weakest members, hence we must honor someone’s request to remove from a convention or furry space anything that makes even one person uncomfortable in the name of inclusion. I would argue first that there is no support for this theory of ethical inclusion, but also that treating our weakest members well includes taking steps to make them stronger. From this standpoint, fursuiters who are potentially triggering must be allowed in our fandom to help the traumatized bring themselves back to normalcy.
Another defense of trigger warnings is that they support free speech by preparing us to discuss sensitive material. Yet there is no courage in talking about a topic you were going to talk about anyway; trigger warnings only give another excuse to avoid the issue, and of course safe spaces disallow the topic or subject matter entirely. Life events do not come with warnings of their own, so it may be best to prepare individuals for such a life where they must be both mentally resilient and adaptable. Besides, in college especially, the assumption has always been that the students are mature enough to handle difficult, controversial subject matter; why else go to college?
We like to think of trauma and PTSD as something everyone has an equal chance of getting, as if we are standing under hail of arrows being let loose randomly, when in reality this is not the case. It’s also not the case that trauma survivors are forever scarred by the events they experience. The protective factors against PTSD (and their uneven distribution), lend themselves to uncomfortable implications for some in this modern age, but it also means we need not be psychological slaves to the slings and arrows that life inevitably throws at us in quantity. Rejecting trigger warnings and safe spaces to the extent they have lately been popping up in the public sphere is to ultimately help people become stronger human beings. As Nietzsche said, “that which does not kill me makes me stronger”; or if you prefer someone with a bit less edge, recall the Confucian philosopher Zhang Zai who wrote “Riches, honor, good fortune, and abundance shall enrich my life. Poverty, humble station, care, and sorrow shall discipline me to fulfillment.” Amor fati indeed.
7. “One Nation Under Therapy: How the Helping Culture Is Eroding Self-Reliance”, Christina Hoff Sommers and Sally Satel, St. Martins Griffin Press, 2006
Editor’s note: comments have been closed on this article for the time being. Several comments have also been deleted at request of the original commenter.