Conscious Activism and Re-Traumatisation

Written by Gemma-Mae Hartley


Currently, discussions, awareness-raising, and activism regarding Gender-Based Violence (GBV) are on the rise in the popular discourse in South Africa, particularly on social media platforms. Engaging in these acts to keep GBV at the forefront of everyone’s agenda is important. Equally important, however, is that we engage in these acts with survivors close in mind, to avoid any unintentional and harmful potential re-traumatisation.


Trauma lives in the brain and in the body. One PTSD coping mechanism is to compartmentalize: the pain becomes too much for the sympathetic nervous system to bear and, as a result, the brain represses memories so as to protect itself. In this case, survivors who are caught unaware by a flood of social media posts that are similar stories to their own personal experience, this may be triggering – causing the repressed memories to resurface in a wave which is overwhelming. This can have a similar effect on those who are perhaps more aware of their trauma or who have clinically dealt with it. In both cases, it is important to keep in mind that despite one’s good intentions of awareness-raising, this can also result in anxiety, flashbacks, depression, and, in severe cases, suicidal inclinations. Often, survivors aren’t even sure why.


This is not to say that using social media to keep GBV at the forefront of everyone’s attention should be pitted against potentially re-traumatising survivors. Activism and awareness-raising on GBV globally, but particularly in South Africa, are necessary and important for the development of a just society.


Rather, it is to say that how we engage with this activism, the stories we share, when we share them, and how we share them, should must be mindful of the survivors not as anecdotes to get our points across, but as living, healing human beings for whom we are fighting and for whom we wish to minimise any further harm.


Just as the process of re-traumatisation may take many different forms, so too do the potential ways in which we can respond to its threat. One such way is the reintroduction of ‘trigger warnings’ where a clear message is posted before any sensitive GBV content, in order for people to decide if they would like to engage with the oncoming content or not. However, it is important to note that trigger warnings alone are not enough to protect survivors and should not be used as in isolation. In fact, psychologists have found that trigger warnings may not actually decrease the degree of re-traumatisation, but they do play a vital role in respecting and promoting the agency of survivors.


Social media, now more than ever, has come to act as a space for all of us to find connection, offer and receive support, or to simply escape the terrors of reality. By being conscious of how we engage in activism on these platforms through the use of trigger warnings (before and separate to the potentially triggering content), we give survivors the choice to engage.


Therefore, not only engaging in our activism with a necessary degree of sensitivity, but also engaging in an activism that promotes the very agency that was robbed of GBV survivors in the first place.


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