On Triggers, Boundaries, And Privilege: Respecting the Fences of Our Neighbors

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[trigger warning: abuse culture, rape and rape culture, potentially triggering discussion of boundaries being crossed]

When I was in college, I was staying at my parents’ over a break. It was a Saturday morning and I, being a college student, was sleeping in. I’d arranged to hang out with one of my friends from high school later that day and was looking forward to it. At about 8AM, a college friend showed up at my house unannounced. He was in town, and wanted to take me to breakfast. I was tired, I was in my pajamas, and I already had plans for that day. But suddenly this guy was standing in my bedroom doorway as my mom poked me and told me I needed to get up and go with him. I raised my head, saw who it was, said hi, and told him I wouldn’t be going out with him that day. I then rolled over and put a pillow over my head.

A little rude? Sure. But the boundary of both my parents’ home and my sleeping schedule had been broken. I was sleepy, and I already had plans for later. I did not want to go. My mom later told me it was disrespectful of me to turn down his invitation.

Unfortunately, it seems, this setting of boundaries is seen as an affront to graciousness and good discussion. Setting a boundary is viewed as hostility especially in the Christian world, in ways that I haven’t witnessed elsewhere. I mean, my experience is pretty limited, but there seems to be a particularly insidious hostility to setting a boundary or to having personal space. This goes double when the person setting the boundary is a survivor of abuse.

These violations of boundaries that we set are spiritualized – we are told in the church that loving others means sacrificing of ourselves so that others may see Jesus. In practice, that usually means that the marginalized – those who most need boundaries, those who are survivors of horrors, those who are in literal danger if their boundary is not respected – have to kowtow to the comfort of the privileged.

It looks like this:

If you’re triggered by something someone says, well, maybe you shouldn’t be reading it! Why should I have to adapt how I present my articles?
If you can’t stand the heat of a discussion, then don’t speak! Why engage in a discussion if you can't take negative pushback?!
How DARE you walk away from this discussion! I wasn’t done yet!
It’s so unchristlike that you don’t want that person in a space you consider safe. Forgive and forget!
Saying that I triggered your anxiety and memories of abuse is a low blow and a derailing tactic. It’s like you’re comparing me to Hitler! You just want to silence me.

…I could go on. All too often, I've seen reactions to boundaries and safe space taken as a threat to free speech, an insult to those who don't need the safe space in the first place. The constant and consistent misunderstanding and misconstruing of triggers and trigger warnings - especially within the church - makes me wonder if we really care about helping the abused at all.

Triggers, trigger warnings, and people informing you that they are triggered are not “tactics.” They are not things created out of thin air to get out of an uncomfortable discussion. They are not things people are faking.

Trigger warnings exist for the rape survivor, for the domestic violence survivor, for the person with suicidal tendencies, for the person with a history of disordered eating, for the victims of hate speech, for the victims of racism, transphobia, homophobia, and ableist attacks.

If you are privileged enough to be able to read an article without getting a panic attack, to be able to have a discussion and have it stay simply as a discussion, then trigger warnings do not exist for you. If you’re privileged enough that your boundaries have been respected in the past and that you can reasonably expect them to be respected now, you have absolutely no business disrespecting the boundaries of survivors.

And yet. And yet. Emergent church dudes wail that being called “triggering” is a black mark on their records. Bloggers are mocked for setting boundaries after being triggered. People who run blogs that are supposedly for survivors tell survivors that they should just leave if something is triggering. The tyranny of the majority complains about having to adapt to protect a minority – a distinctly unbiblical message if there ever was one.

The marginalized, the hurting, the survivors want to participate. Many of them want to be at the table. But Christian culture and the behavior of Christians makes that impossible. It is an absurd meme that says having boundaries to protect your psyche means that you’re unloving, or that refusing to engage with a person who behaves in a triggering manner means you’re failing to show Christlike love.

What of the least of these? What of one who cannot eat meat sacrificed to idols? What of the weaker brother? Are these not Gospel? Are these not Christlike? Why, then, is understanding and respecting the boundaries of the marginalized seen as a burden? Why am I the bad guy for requesting that my boundaries get respected, for taking the time to care for myself after I have a panic attack?

Why must the marginalized bow to the powerful? How, then, is that love?