A “trigger” word or phrase always invokes a strong reaction in your readers. Psychologically, trigger words actuate, agitate, alarm, and animate readers as if they were battle cries to the Light Brigade. At a minimum, trigger words bestir strong emotional reactions, usually stemming from undesirable previous experiences. If the specific trigger word inflames a traumatic memory, then it morphs from a mere word to a trauma trigger—tap, tap, your brain is on fire.

Dictionary.com defines trigger words: they “initiate a process or course of action.” As always, my focus is on the ethics of writing trigger words, not the craft or skill. If Dictionary.com is right, then it serves as the first ethical norm in writing trigger words: do not use one unless you can reasonably anticipate what course of action you might be unleashing.

This blog is the first of many that will be posted seriatim. Each individual word or phrase in successive blogs will have proven to be trigger words that incite a course of action—sometimes peaceful, sometimes not, but always invoking thought and provoking action.

Today’s trigger word is racist. It was first defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition, 1989, as “[t]he theory that distinctive human characteristics and abilities are determined by race.” The word invokes a common meaning everywhere on the planet—belief in the superiority of a particular race. It’s not a word to be bandied about lightly. It’s no longer just an academic word. It’s a word on the tips of a million tongues, accusing as it creates firestorms. But sadly, it’s also a proud connective, as in white supremacy. If you Google “racist,” you get at least 370,000,000 hits. If you Google “white supremacy culture,” you get 45,000,000 hits. 

Elder writers might use the word racist in engaging in active, overt, discrimination and hate against other people because of race and color. A long-ago deceased racist, Governor Orval Faubus brought in his state’s national guard to prevent racial desegregation.[1] David Duke is the 21st Century equivalent.[2] The names Orval Faubus and David Duke are trigger words.

Back in the 1950s, if you didn’t hate people of color, if you would hire them, if you would date/love/marry them, if you would invite them to your house, if they were your colleagues, co-workers, drinking buddies, fellow soldiers, sailors, or airmen, and you did not see or think of them as “them,” you were not a racist. But today, those quaint standards are insufficient. Not being a racist is not enough in today’s trigger word world. Today you must be anti-racist. That’s a very good thing—we need clarity and transparency. We get closer to that elusive goal by understanding how trigger words work when writing them. That’s the second ethical norm when using trigger words: understand what you’re writing before writing it. Times change—so do words.

We call them “trigger words” because everyone gets the emphasis—pull the trigger. Like bullets striking bodies, trigger words pierce brains. Writers the world over have used body parts to describe emotions. Gut wrenching. Heart breaking. That usage is also an ethical norm. Don’t use words to trigger emotions by using trigger words that harm more than help. 

A recent online essay by Michele Reyes brilliantly poses today’s trigger word reality. Her message is itself an ethical standard we should all emulate. 

“My eyes twinge and a sharp pain reverberates across the back of my head as the artificial light of my computer screen glazes over me. Tiny, black words hang large within its interface, words that I’ve been staring at now for hours, and each glance, each repeated visualization, feels like a knife twisting in my heart. My inbox is cluttered with hate mail, blazing in a sea of fire that screams words like, ‘I’m disappointed in you,’ ‘You’re not a Christian,’ ‘Stop being so liberal,’ and (my favorite insult) ‘You talk like a Democrat.’ Why is it that the very mention of words like ‘racism,’ ‘repentance’ and ‘reparation’ trigger such cruelty? My brown-skinned, brown-haired body feels both wounded and indignant. My vulnerability to speak on broken things—the brokenness of my past and the ways others have sought to break me—are not heard with empathy, but hate. The only thing that seems to be triggered within my seemingly otherwise friendly fellow brothers and sisters in Christ to words like ‘racism’ are anger, hostility and vitriol.”[3]

Two highly regarded writers in the last century understood. Paul Simon said, “All lies and jests, still a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.”[4] Mark Twain said, “It’s no crime to be ignorant, but it is to remain that way.” 

Gary L Stuart

I am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.

If you have an important story you want told, you can commission me to write it for you. Learn how.

[1] https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/arkansas-troops-prevent-desegregation

[2] “David Ernest Duke is an American white supremacist, far-right politician, convicted felon, and former Grand Wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. He has advocated Neo-Nazi and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories like Holocaust denial and Jewish control of academia, the press, and the financial system.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Duke

[3] https://shelovesmagazine.com/2019/word-racism-trigger/

[4] https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/paul_simon_390928#