OPINION: An Over-Sensitive Society is Hobbling Writers

Sherry McGuinn

From potential “triggers” to heavy-handed disclaimers, what’s left to write about?

Photo byJoe Perrott

I begin this story, I have to wonder if I need to address that the following material might “trigger” someone’s fragile emotional and mental state or, heaven forbid, be perceived as offensive.

In nearly every other blog post, story, or even, TV series that I set eyes on these days, there is a warning that the content therein may offend sensitive readers or viewers or send them hurtling back to a traumatic event that occurred at some point in their lives, hence the term, “trigger.”

Lest some readers here (all three of you) assume that I am insensitive to personal trauma, that is patently untrue as I’ve experienced my share, much of it that yes, pains me to recall. I cope by pushing these demons into the darkest recesses of my psyche, not the healthiest coping mechanism perhaps, but that’s the only way I can move forward and live my life.

That said, if I read or view something uncomfortably similar to an event in my past, I don’t dissolve into a trembling, incoherent wreck.

I’ve had breast cancer, yet, even though it’s not on my list of favored topics, I can still read articles or watch a character in the throes of this horrible disease in a film or TV show.

OCD and anxiety have been constant companions my whole life yet again, I can take in and absorb the experiences of other individuals who endure the frustrating and often debilitating conditions without becoming anxious or needing to turn my oven on and off precisely twelve times.

Does this make me insensitive?

Domestic abuse. I was an unwilling and unwitting witness to this growing up, but, again, I am able to process the awful reality that this happens routinely in households all over the world. In all manner of horrific ways. When I read about it, or see it recreated by actors in a film, I can deal with it. And, normally a well-crafted synopsis will alert me to what I’m in for.

All the abuse. All the torment. All the fucked-up psyches everywhere we turn. But it’s always been this way, yeah? People are messed up. And it’s because of other people. Welcome to the world we live in.

That said, to me, at least, it feels like the insertion of warnings that such and so may trigger this and that, in literary and entertainment content are relatively new. If I’m mistaken, please tell me.

Why is this? What’s with all of the societal sensitivity? Was there an incident where someone was so negatively affected by what they read or viewed that litigation was the only recourse?

Perhaps that’s it. Creators are afraid of being sued, or worse, unappreciated and left to die on the vine. Kind of like on Medium.Com, where I also write. I say that as the skeptic I am because I just can’t imagine that level of empathy swirling around us like a comfy blankie.

“Oh no, can’t say that! Don’t wanna see that! Stifle yourselves!”

I told you that I’m sensitive and I am. Especially where animals are concerned. As someone who is a monthly contributor to a couple of top-tier animal welfare organizations and a random donator to others, my inbox is routinely filled with horrific stories of animal abuse, with nary a trigger alert to be found. But, as I know what to expect if I read these heartbreaking tales, I normally delete them.

Also, I do appreciate when a broadcast or documentary will include a warning about content for “sensitive viewers,” but this is nothing new.

I referenced this platform, where lately, it feels like censoring writers, muffling them, and even, “disappearing” them, is routine.

Certainly, many of us are aware, from personal encounters that the “perma-offended” on social media platforms as a friend refers to them, carry big sticks, and won’t hesitate to use them if a story or comment gets their undies in a bunch. That’s when they morph from sissies to schoolyard bullies. And it doesn’t take much.

From the vanishing of a few of my friends on Medium who are also excellent writers, I’m guessing that the powers that be there are ultra-sensitive to writers who give voice to their disappointment with the way things have shaken out, here. In fact, I’m certain they’re ultra-sensitive because they don’t take well to criticism. My plummeting status here is a testament to this.

Medium is tanking and every day some random writer emerges from the corner they’ve been stagnating in and writes about it. This warms the crusty cockles of my heart as I’ve become weary of being one of the few Medium members who has expressed their growing dissatisfaction with a platform that dishonors its true scribes by preferring mediocre “content” from mediocre minds to whom original thought is a foreign concept.

“Shadow banning.” That’s what’s going on there. Or, let me back peddle and say that’s what I believe is going on as if I make too strong of a declaration, I could be disappeared, like my buddies. Look it up if you’re unfamiliar with the term. I can’t surmise another reason why my stories don’t garner at least one additional clap in a single day. That’s because no one is seeing them. Because I’m being jerked around, as so many others are. It’s ugly. And it’s wrong.

So, again, to paraphrase my title, where does all this societal sensitivity stem from? Certainly, the advent of social media played a significant role because it gave every asshole and bully a podium from which to spew hate-filled rhetoric. They got their fifteen minutes, by God, and they aren’t giving them up. And, because people were affected in terrible ways, something had to be done.

I don’t know how to feel about all this. About the necessity to warn our fellow human beings that what we put out in the world may unwittingly unleash a torrent of misery from a hurtful and traumatic incident in their past.

The world can be a horrible place. Fuck that. It is a horrible place and navigating our way through while attempting to remain unscathed by it all, has become increasingly difficult, if not impossible.

We’re all used goods. Some of us, used and abused. And if we can’t tell our stories; if we have to tiptoe around the truth so as not to psychically harm or offend another individual; if we have to include warnings and disclaimers as buffers on literary and entertainment vehicles, what, pray tell, happens if we forget? Can we get sued? Ostracized?

Finally, know that I’m not saying this new order, this uber-emphasis on sensitivity is a bad thing, particularly. But I do want to know, “Why now?” And, if we must keep toeing the party line by ensuring that what we say or write or commit to celluloid doesn’t offend or incite the memory of past trauma, then what’s left to talk about? And who’s going to listen?

© Sherry McGuinn, 2023. All Rights Reserved.

Sherry McGuinn is a slightly-twisted, longtime Chicago-area writer and award-winning screenwriter. She is currently pitching her newest screenplay, “The Month We Fell Apart,” a drama with dark, comedic overtones inspired by a true story, as well as “DEAD TIRED,” a female-driven, erotic thriller.

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Chicago, IL

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