This article is written in response to the following post from Imago’s Facebook page earlier this month. ¹
Within a few hours we received several messages requesting clarification about the apparently mocking use of the emojii and trivialization of the trigger warning.
“I saw a post on the Imago Facebook page tonight that was rather inappropriate, considering the content matter you’ve been discussing in the past couple of weeks.”
In their messages they expressed concern that the post was not respectful to survivors with PTSD (Post-traumatic Stress Disorder) or downplayed the violence experienced by women and transgender people – especially those in the sex-trade, an important part of the conversation in Pig Girl, which closed early last month.
We chose to remove the comment from Facebook, and we thanked everyone who felt this was an important issue to address. In responding to your concerns, we saw there was an important conversation we wanted to have about finding a balance between protecting people from upsetting content and not scaring people away from uncomfortable, yet vital, conversations.
To do this, we felt that it was worth sharing some of our experience with media during Pig Girl and the context behind that comment.
For the past four months, Imago Theatre has been working very closely with sensitive topics – including sexual assault, rape, abduction, femicide, murder, marginalization, racism, substance abuse… If you saw the show, you know what we are referring to.
This included approaching many of the communities affected by those topics, and having discussions about the challenges they face, and inviting them to participate in the discussion in any way they felt comfortable – at talkbacks, via the blog, or through private e-mails.
Pig Girl is not an easy show since its goal is to look unflinchingly at subjects that most people choose to ignore, and to question why these tragedies occur. How can that capacity for inflicting pain exist in people, and how do our attitudes make those events possible?
The play is meant to say, “Look at this. This is wrong. Why are we not doing anything about this?”
It is our opinion that without looking at what’s wrong, you can’t fix it.
One of the e-mails we got said, “Your Facebook post, which was dismissive of “political correctness” undermines the conversation. Its dismissal of content warnings is condescending to those who benefit from them – i.e. those suffering from PTSD and mental illness.”
We were amazed by the responses we got in response to the play, even before it ran. We found that, overall, the people we contacted were willing to engage with us, share their experiences, and talk about the real-world connections of the show.
We did have some people refuse to become involved. This felt like a great loss to the conversation. We completely respected their choice, and it was great to see so many strong emotions associated with Pig Girl’s subject. But in some cases, we never heard the reason why they felt offended or refused to engage, and this made it harder to understand their perspective and learn from their point of view.
In short, it was a challenge to nurture a conversation that had, traditionally, been silenced.
The reason Colleen Murphy wrote this play was to draw attention to a very difficult subject and to help the audience feel for four groups of people who had been marginalized in society by showing the humanity in the victim, the police, the family, and even the killer. Murphy felt the topic was urgent. And so do we. The director, Micheline Chevrier, was asked by Jim Burke of the Montreal Gazette, if she felt it was too soon after the Pickton murders and trial to talk about the events. She answered that she believed it might be too late, given the fact that women continue to disappear and be murdered to this day. Even in our outreach, one organization that deals with the protection and support of sex workers respectfully chose not to participate in the conversation “out of respect for the dead.”
Fair enough. But we maintain that silence in respect for the dead also silences these women’s stories forever.
Respectful silence changes nothing.
“A playwright can talk to the dead. I can make the dead speak” says Colleen Murphy.
By witnessing an event, even a fictionalized representation, the people become real and we feel for them. Through that emotion we are compelled to take action.
So, this was the context behind that post.
When the show closed, the staff at Imago met to discuss the process. We talked about how one of the biggest challenges of putting on this play was the media representation, in particular journalists who chose to sensationalize the subject matter of an already difficult play. Jim Burke of the Montreal Gazette, wrote, “The Dying Woman is protractedly slaughtered throughout the play’s grueling 90 minutes. How can an audience be expected to stomach this? One answer is that it can’t.” This before even seeing the show, and after having been assured that the violent acts would be staged in an evocative way, the goal of the play being to represent the fight in the Dying Woman, not the power of the Killer.
Despite the disturbing and uncomfortable subject, we chose to forego trigger warnings in marketing this show because we knew that what we were presenting was already enough warning. We shared articles, interviews, and quotes from the play. We trusted our audience to be smart enough to decide for themselves whether they wanted to see it based on the information that could easily be found on our website and the web.
Most importantly, we wanted to be transparent about the nature of the show, not scare our audience away before it had a chance to understand what we were talking about.
By making the show Pay What You Decide, we gave the audience the opportunity to take a chance.
Many people who had been scared of coming said they were glad they did in the end, even if many of them found the show troubling and moving. They came to understand its importance and its power.
The comment on Facebook, to be clear, was not meant to mock the very real need for Trigger Warnings .
In fact, we engaged with people who have lived through such events, who have suffered great loss. They understood perfectly well the content of the play and chose not to come. They were, however, glad to see that there was a dialogue with those who may not know or understand what is at stake.
Rather, the post was a commentary on the misguided use of political correctness and trigger warnings. We found it odd that the trigger warning in question was applied to this article by the McGill Daily¹. An article about a play that deals with difficult content. The article itself is a review of the production, and in no way depicts an actual event.
A news article about an ACTUAL experience, yes, by all means, should start with a warning. Even people who are not survivors with PTSD, or any personal connection, might choose not read about such events for a variety of reasons. Some days, you just don’t want to be emotionally ambushed by a horrific account while you’re eating breakfast or at work. As the social media manager during Pig Girl, I know full well the emotional toll of reading daily accounts of missing and murdered women, grieving families, and reports about the murderer.
A good example of a the trigger warning can be found on the Government of Canada’s Indigenous & Northern Affairs page. They included a trigger warning and a helpline number for people suffering from PTSD.
In regards to this usage, the Huffington Post writes:
“Trigger warnings are meant to warn readers about harmful content they’re about to see, such as photos, videos, or descriptions that could create flashbacks to a scarring experience of sexual assault, racial violence, homophobia or transphobia, etc.” ²
But to warn people away from a CONVERSATION about those same issues? How can we expect to confront what’s wrong in the world if any article that hints at discomfort is headed with the promise of a horror story?
That is what the comment was a response to – the overly timid approach of the media. We’re sorry that the levity of the comment made it sound like we disapproved of using trigger warnings.
“Sorry We Can’t Ban Everything that Offends You”
I knew I would be working on this post today, but when I logged into Facebook I was surprised to find something relevant to this conversation. It was a video called “Sorry We Can’t Ban Everything that Offends You” and was created by The Guardian in response to its comment section.
“We are quickly becoming a society in which censorship is becoming the new norm. Banning people from publicly stating their views does not make those views disappear – what it does do is blind us to the existence of the attitude (they) articulate. Let us hear the argument put forward by those with whom we disagree so that we can expand our knowledge and show rational resistance.”
While this video talks about censorship, it is important to note that they are essentially the same. Censorship is used to block a voice, while trigger warnings, if not used in the right context, can scare away a person in need of hearing about what is happening in their own community.
I want to apologize for not making the intent clearer the first time around. I hope this has provided better context and, of course, we welcome your views on the subject.
¹The original article by the McGill Daily – a thorough and engaging article.
² Huffington Post article about Trigger Warnings on the Government of Canada site:
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