I remember that it was an early Saturday morning, but not what set the conversation off. I probably made a silly joke at somebody’s expense. One girl turned to me and told me that what I said triggered her.
I was incredibly alarmed and apologetic for a few seconds, until I realized that she wasn’t, in fact, triggered — as in, having a flashback to a traumatic episode, or feeling overwhelmed by sudden panic, or experiencing an urge to once again engage in a past detrimental behaviour. She just thought she’d pulled the perfect comeback in our verbal repartee.
I told her she shouldn’t throw that word around. She didn’t get it.
So I explained the word “triggered,” and how it wasn’t the best choice for casual conversation, because it alludes to a genuine negative reaction from people with PTSD and anxiety disorders. I pointed out that her sarcastic use was very much like that of the people on the Internet who use it ironically to refer to pointless issues which, intentionally or not, makes a mockery of a very real phenomenon.
Her irked response was that well, she didn’t know, so that made it OK, and she’d keep saying it, too, because what did it matter, if her intention wasn’t to hurt anyone?
Personally, I feel like it matters to people who don’t have the luxury of choosing what does and doesn’t hurt.
I’ve never needed content warnings, so I won’t claim to speak for people who do. But I’m sick of seeing people co-opt others’ pain so they can pepper their speech with “trendy” and “edgy” words. More broadly, I’m sick of people using words they don’t understand.
I’ve watched friends insult politicians and criminals and anyone else they don’t like with the term “cocksucker,” as if performing oral sex is shameful, or being attracted to guys is insulting. I’ve tried to tell people that changing the last couple of letters of the N-word doesn’t transform it into this magical new word of allyship just because they see it done in media, and I’ve been brushed off.
It might be unreasonable for me to have such a visceral response to this. I understand that it’s not always an intentional thing, and I know I’ve been guilty of verbal faux pas in the past myself. But while I don’t want to take any sort of high ground, I do think it’s important to point these things out.
But often, people don’t just brush their actions away — they get offended. It makes sense: even when the intention isn’t to condemn someone morally, it’s easy for the other person to feel like they’re being called out, and I get that. Alternatively, they might bristle against the idea of being “educated,” because the way our education system works here implies a clear power relationship.
Either way, people start to make a point of intentionally labelling themselves “anti-PC,” like it’s woke, like it’s enlightened to feel free to say the R-word freely or to jokingly call Muslims terrorists.
But if you do that, you’re just trivializing what the targets of those words have undergone for your own self-satisfaction.
So do your homework. Don’t toss around slurs like they don’t matter. You can fire blanks in a crowd all you want and say that it’s fine, nobody’s getting hurt, but that doesn’t excuse the fear you put people through.
I often hear that definitions change over time, that words “become OK” after they’re used enough colloquially. But I don’t think that’s up to any one person to decide, and it certainly shouldn’t be up to people who’ve never been burned by those words.
If we want to talk about the wonders of language, then we should really discuss the broadness of it — and the fact that there are myriad ways for you to express what you want to say without being disrespectful of somebody’s past, their orientation, or their race.