The Internet just about hit a new low for me today. You wouldn’t think this would be a particularly easy job, what with all the YouTube commenters; neo-Nazis; Guardian readers; Irish rugby fans, Alan Jones listeners, anti-vaccinators and Queenslanders out there – and yet!
In a sense I only have myself to blame. I was, after all, browsing Tumblr – noted home of the social justice warrior and aggrieved teenaged activist. Things were going swimmingly at first; fashion, light porn, fandom stuff, general Internet ‘umor, and then, suddenly, a picture of a bee on a finger with a string of text posts below it. Being the inquisitive minded soul I am, I decided to have a look and immediately regretted it.
An anonymous message had been sent to the poster asking her if she could tag the picture with apiphobia, in case this picture was triggering for anyone who had a fear of bees. The poster refused, and thus began a back-and forth in which the anonymous messenger berated the image’s poster for being ‘insensitive,’ a ‘fucking asshole,’ and generally lacking respect for people who ‘need’ trigger warnings.
I’m sure there are people who need trigger warnings out there, people whose mental state is a feather away from collapsing. But they need serious, professional, help that they’re not going to find on the Internet – certainly not on a site like Tumblr.
To an extent, I suppose I can sympathise. My girlfriend has a bizarre, truly surreal, phobia of caterpillars to the point where she has complete panic attacks if she sees one in public – even a picture on the Internet will draw a flood of tears. But she doesn’t throw a tantrum when she sees one; she closes the page and moves on.
While it’s still a far way removed from bookburning for the Internet age, it’s the creeping crypto-fascism that leads down that particular garden path. Should we start putting trigger warnings on the news? Before each story is read, an announcement that ‘this piece will feature x, y, and z, so if you’re triggered by any of these please switch off now?’
Trigger warnings are a way of isolating and internalising fears and phobias. Communities developing of people turning away from all the parts of the world they don’t want to see. Sure, putting a tag doesn’t take much time, but the broader message that we all need to check all content we put out into the world in case it offends or scares someone is hard to take. Illiberalism in the defence of liberalism is no way forward.