Writing Respectfully and Defusing “Triggers”

Summary: Many people are now writing or commenting on spiritual abuse survivor topics. Given the damage to our souls wrought by so-called “discipleship,” it is no surprise that some of what we write demonstrates anger, sarcasm, innuendo, curses, and harsh or vulgar language. However, if this does perhaps help us in our venting about abuse and abusers, it can also prove “triggering” – not edifying – for others who read it. So, in this post, I offer some practical advice on Writing Respectfully and Defusing “Triggers” that I have learned over the years in my research writing on abuse, violence, and social action.

The following is adapted from comments I wrote for a post at The Wartburg Watch (TWW) this month, TWW Request Re: Language Used in Referencing Any Lawsuit/Ministry. This post arose from a previous comment.s someone else put on that blog that was apparently interpreted as threatening by another blogger, and this led to an extended community discussion on blog commenting policies and related language-based issues in the spiritual abuse survivors’ community. I picked up on topics related to what I see as disrespectful labeling or treatment of opponents, and language of abuse, gender, and sexual innuendo that can act as “trauma triggers” for survivors. Be sure to read the TWW post, as it also contains important suggestions and guidelines for writing about narrative accounts dealing with various kinds of abuse, and about navigating public disagreements about such situations.

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I’m glad this discussion is happening … thanks Dee and Deb for hosting it here! We all have different tolerance levels and triggers. And here at TWW we’re so often talking about issues that rattle the core of our being. It’s sometimes hard to stay engaged. How many of us have been desensitized because we’ve been overexposed to being talked to or talked about insensitively? So, if there are ways to reduce the numbness, and consider how best to dialogue about these serious issues in ways that keep the maximum number of people engaged — I’m in!

That said, I’m a linguist and editor by training, and I find language usage difficult in the best of times. But it can be particularly dicey in this realm of crimes and lawsuits involving forms of violence, spiritual abuse, and/or sexual violation and their emotional aftermath.

I’m not sure I have “the” answers, but I have had to wrestle with a lot of questions over the years. Much of this comes from my editing projects dealing with “heavy,” trigger-riddled issues like: domestic violence, child sexual abuse, sexual assault, gender peacemaking instead of misogyny (hatred of women) and misandry (hatred of men), sexual addiction, gender identity disorders, spiritual abuse, dystopian societies, human rights violations, etc.

Many in the audiences for these articles, books, and resource centers are survivors of various kinds of abuse. For a lot of them, their responses to abuse have also led them into destructive behavior patterns and addictions. “Triggers” can affect them all, so I’ve had to find work-arounds that hopefully maximize getting crucial and constructive information across, but minimize the probability of triggers or overloading their tolerance on sensitive topics. In doing this, I’m not a therapist, I’m a research/resource writer and editor. So, here are some things to think about, based on my experiences of talking with people from these various kinds of backgrounds and writing or editing positive recovery materials for them and those who suffer from similar issues. I think it can apply to blog comments as much as to articles/blog posts or books.

* What triggers flashbacks or new episodes of acting out may not be the same for survivors of sexual abuse as for those dealing with sexual addiction. We would do well to consider both groups. Sometimes the topic or details may make it a trigger for one but not the other, or potentially even both at the same time.

* What acts as a trigger is complicated by the fact that different learning styles make us more aware of different details. For instance, not everyone is aroused sexually by visual images that leave little to their imagination; it might just as easily be by words on a page that trigger their imagination.

With that in mind, I would suggest that the probability of something we say or write being a trigger to survivors and/or to those with addictions INCREASES:

* The more detailed the depiction is overall. Even if this description is accurate, does it provide too much of a “picture”?

* The more explicit it is about the sexual activities or violence that took place. Can I state or suggest what happened without getting too graphic?

* The closer the language is to slang or street terms. Can I restate this in more “clinical terms” that accurately label a behavior but don’t make it read like an X-rated/“red band” movie trailer? [There is a potential problem when talking about lawsuits or criminal cases that involve child sexual abuse or other kinds of sexual assault. If the descriptions are "too clean and clinical," it potentially sanitizes and minimizes what often proves to be the most devastating form of personal violation and violation possible. The best balance is probably somewhere in between, with an emphasis geared toward the probable audience. Complacent leaders may need the shock of a more graphic description; victims/survivors in healing may need clear enough language to label what happened to them as abuse but not to sensationalize it.]

* If the comment was intentionally designed to label someone or otherwise be clever, rude, or sarcastic, it may be offensive not necessarily because it is merely a sexual comment, but because it objectifies, demeans, and dehumanizes people. Objectification of people is the core of power lust, and hence spiritual abuse of power, not just pornographic lust. I wonder if anyone gets victimized who was not first objectified … And this kind of language is often meant to be hurtful. For instance, the literal translation of the Greek root words in sarcasm mean to “rip or tear [chasm] flesh [sarx].” Is that really appropriate? Or is there another way to express our genuine/reasonable dislike, disgust, and/or righteous anger without resorting to “the F Bomb,” sexual innuendos, cutting remarks, or any kinds of dehumanizing labels?

On the other topic of lawsuits and cautions, the suggestions Dee gave are stellar. It is important to use “allegedly” and related kinds of terms consistently. Such legitimate caution adds credibility to our writing.

I did have one suggestion to think about. It’s a technique you may have seen me use in writing/commenting about lawsuits. The first time I use a person’s name, I give his/her first and last name. Next time, it generally is Mr. ABC or Ms. XYZ. I use that for everyone — plaintiffs, defendants, witnesses, parents, pastors, congregation members, etc. This is a conventional kind of journalistic practice, but I use it because I find it helps me maintain a more “civil” tone — especially when talking about an alleged or convicted perpetrator of a horrific crime like sexual abuse.

I can’t tell you how often it helps me rein in what might otherwise turn aggressive. I could quickly degenerate into — in the immortal words of the B-level superhero Mr. Furious in the movie *Mystery Men* — “going all Pompei on them!” Certainly we should not be known for anger as our “super power.” I very easily could, and I know it. And this technique helps me keep that tendency in check.

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As a general add-on comment to what I wrote earlier about writing as respectfully as possible: Maybe it’s more for my benefit than for theirs to use Mr. and Ms. with people’s names. It helps diffuse my anger and reminds me to preserve their human dignity, even for people who don’t “deserve” it for their heinous activities. But they still are bearers of God’s image, and it doesn’t help their way to potential repentance when I vilify them and plant the pathway back with so many landmines that their shame is unbearable. It is a tension, though, between leaving the way to Jesus open for all, and yet making the Church and the churches a safe place for all …

The best example of treating people with dignity in the midst of the most inhumane of circumstances comes from Grey is the Colour of Hope — the diary of Irina Ratushinskaya’s first year in the Soviet gulag as a political prisoner for being a human rights activist. She lived in the women political prisoners’ zone, with anywhere from just a few to more than a dozen others, from all across the Soviet Union. Many of the women were from Christian backgrounds that traditionally had severe theological differences that had meant religious division in both Tsarist and Soviet eras: Orthodox and Catholic, Baptist and Pentecostal. And occasionally their camp included women from Jewish or atheist backgrounds as well.

I believe Ratushinskaya’s account of how these women dialogued together and attempted to persuade one another — and yet ultimately allowed for individual determination — shows us how to reason well with people from different backgrounds from our own. The women as a community also demonstrate how human rights activists can “fight fair” when there needs to be “push back” on individual bullies and dehumanizing systems. It’s the only non-fiction book I’ve read 10 times …

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