Imagine if Men’s Rights Activists, Gamergaters, climate change deniers, and garden variety racists all got together, borrowed a page out of Beyoncé’s book and decided to get in a formation of their own. Together. All at once.
That formation has a name—#TheTriggering—and it’s equal parts depressing, confusing, and utterly fascinating. #TheTriggering is also a specific date, March 9th, 2016, where everyone’s apparently supposed to take to Twitter and express their distaste for the type of people who might identify controversial, or sensitive subjects as triggering.
“The hashtag is about triggering easily offended people by stating truths they’d rather want silenced,” a HaggusJFreed, a self-identified Gamergater explained to me via tweet. “I don’t know where it originated from, but given the current fashion of calling ‘opposite opinions’ cyber violence, one can imagine it’s a consequences of being deprived of one’s opinions if it’s not fitting the politically correct spectrum.”
The earliest use of #TheTriggering on Twitter dates back to October 8th, 2014 just as an episode of South Park was drawing to a close. Steven Taranto tweeted his approval of the episode because of the debates it stirred up on Tumblr.
The episode, titled “The Cissy,” focused on the school’s policy regarding the use of bathrooms by trans-identified students. Cartman decides to pretend to be transgender in order to get access to the nicer, cleaner girls’ bathroom.
Disgusted at Cartman’s plot, the girls demand that he not be allowed into their bathroom because he’s not actually transgender.
Ultimately, Principal Victoria capitulates to both groups, giving Cartman exclusive access to a private bathroom all his own. By the end of the episode, Cartman gets his comeuppance in a satisfying way, but the episode was controversial nonetheless.
Like most episodes of South Park, “The Cissy” was complicated because rather than flat-out calling Cartman on his co-opting of trans-identity for personal gain, he spends most of the episode being coddled and praised by the people around him.
Wendy, one of South Park‘s more level-headed characters, is the only one to call Cartman out on his shit, eventually deciding to feign being trans as well, specifically to make the bathroom non-exclusive to Cartman.
The show’s plot was clever, but it’s easy to see how someone might have been offended by it even if they did finish the entire episode. As earnest as the message was, it was couched in a lot same strain of problematic trolling you see in #TheTriggering.
“As an actual trans male, I could not be happier with this episode,” one fan posted to Tumblr. “South Park not only brought an issue that too many people try to ignore to light, but they did it in a way that was easy for people to swallow.”
While #TheTriggering may have started as a South Park reference, it appears it wasn’t until conservative blogger Lauren Southern called upon her following to harass people en masse last fall that the hashtag took on its current meaning.
Pretty quickly, people responded to Southern’s call with enthusiasm, apparently ready to shout offensive things from their digital rooftops for the sheer hell of it. Southern explained that her date of choice, March 9, was imbued with symbolic meaning: it’s the day after International Women’s Day and the day before Osama Bin Laden’s birthday.
“#TheTriggering is one of the many collective efforts to defend what previous little free speech remains online, particularly on social media,” Southern explained to me via e-mail. “There is also a significant threat to freedom of thought and expression offline too; comedians such as Mike Ward are fighting against the Human Rights commission for the right to make jokes, and movements such as these help to bolster their efforts against the authoritarian society we are in today.”
Ward, for the unfamiliar, is a Canadian comic who drew attention to himself after making fun of Jérémy Gabriel, a singer living with Treacher Collins syndrome. Ward argued that he “should be allowed to shock people” during a human rights tribunal hearing earlier this year. Gabriel, in turn, responded with his own testimony describing how Ward’s jokes made life difficult for him and his family.
“It was horrible during all those years to endure, to be a teen, to be a successful artist, with all those comments, with all those laughs,” Gabriel said. “When we make a joke about someone, about a disabled person, we can laugh, we can make comments, but we always have to do that in full respect.”
Southern told me that #TheTriggering is, in fact, meant to be offensive. The bigotry, she said, is fully intended.
“That’s exactly what we’re trying to be, offensive bigots, because that should be allowed,” she said. “When you kill offensive speech, even when you kill hate speech! You kill free speech along with it.”
While Southern and her followers insist that #TheTriggering is meant to provoke some sort of conversation about the “truths” that liberals choose to ignore, the hashtag pretty quickly devolved into a series of sophomoric, bigoted digs at marginalized groups.
For all of its noxious sexism and penchant for harassment, the Gamergate movement has always stuck by its claims that its actually about accountability in videogame journalism. #TheTriggering, though, doesn’t seem to have that sort of cohesion.
It’s difficult to parse what people using #TheTrigger are trying to accomplish other than gathering around a virtual garbage fire and congratulating one another on how mean they can be to people they don’t like. If the idea was to turn today into a day of vitriolic infamy, though, then the #TheTriggering is ultimately a failure.