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Trigger Warnings

25 August 2015

I want to talk about a particular period in my life, not to evoke sympathy, but to explore through a personal lens an issue that’s recently made headlines. Articles and editorials in the Atlantic and the New York Times have detailed the rise of trigger warnings on college campuses, sometimes called the new rise of “political correctness”. Dan Savage got yelled at by activists at the University of Chicago, my alma mater, for using the word “tranny” in a conversation about the volatility of that word and his decision to stop using it.

I was once someone easily triggered by the mention of certain topics. In my first year of college, any talk of rape or sexual violence would send me into a crying fit or a political tirade (more frequently the latter). As a teenager, I was in a relationship where I had a lot of non-consensual sex. At 18, I learned how to detach my mind from my body and pretend that what was happening, wasn’t. It didn’t happen in a dark alley, nor at a frat party under the influence of drugs, and it wasn’t with a stranger. It was not rape, but it left a few scars. Sex felt like an invasion. I blamed a sex-negative culture and gendered stereotypes for my injuries. When someone brought up the culture of sports teams, fraternities, men-only spaces that encourage rampant sexual activity without caveat or nuance, I would launch into a rant about culture and expectations and stereotypes, because I wanted to communicate the weight of my experience, and use my anecdotal evidence to convince people that conversations and culture needed to change. I was 19. I was angry. I was young.

Maybe one or two of my rants caused someone to rethink sexual norms. Maybe, someone who really cared about me as a person was prompted to think a bit differently about expectations and gender because of the things I said. More likely, a lot of people thought I was part crazy, part femi-nazi, part overemotional teenage girl. Because at that point, I hadn’t learned how to speak the language of my listener. The rants were more for my own catharsis than convincing anyone. For reasons I can’t explain even now, I needed people to know I was damaged. I needed people to know that something painful had happened to me and that it changed the way I thought about the world. I joined the Feminist Majority and I sold c*** cookies and portrayed “the Angry Vagina” in our production of the Vagina Monologues. I wrote a lot of unsent letters to my ex, yelling at him on paper, writing pages upon pages trying to rid him from my bones. And then, one morning, I woke up and I was over it. Not completely – it still took me until I was 20 and six months into a relationship until I was willing to have sex again, and even now there are behaviors that will set my teeth on edge. But I was done ranting and yelling. I was done being triggered by every casual joke and misplaced catcall. I think part of the shift was that I realized that my pain was my responsibility. Or rather, that tending to my injuries was a private act, not a public testimony. And that communicating my experiences in a way that would change perspectives and participate in an adult dialogue required tuning down the emotional outburst and adapting my rhetoric to my audience.

The current movement is largely about emotional well-being. More than the last, it presumes an extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche, and therefore elevates the goal of protecting students from psychological harm.The ultimate aim, it seems, is to turn campuses into “safe spaces” where young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable.” – The Atlantic, September 2015

So this is why the movement toward increasingly sheltered spaces worries me. It doesn’t do young people any good to teach them that the world should bend itself around their pain. Because by and large, it won’t. The world doesn’t care about your pain. Everyone has pain. And by making a big deal out of my pain, I was acting like my pain was bigger and more important than any other type of experience had by anyone else around me. Behind my rants, I was saying, “hey, listen to me, because this thing happened and it hurt me.”

But acting petulant, generally, doesn’t get you anywhere. It’s not a mature adult’s way of being in the world and relating to other humans. The great promise of college campuses is that they will teach you to be a rational adult and relate to other adults intellectually.

“Jeannie Suk’s New Yorker essay described the difficulties of teaching rape law in the age of trigger warnings. Some students, she wrote, have pressured their professors to avoid teaching the subject in order to protect themselves and their classmates from potential distress. Suk compares this to trying to teach ‘a medical student who is training to be a surgeon but who fears that he’ll become distressed if he sees or handles blood.’” – The Atlantic, September 2015

The more we focus on microaggressions, I worry, the less capable we become of dealing with speech and acts that are overtly and blatantly offensive. TBT to campus parties titled “spic n’ span” or frat bros chanting “no means yes, yes means anal”. This kind of speech actually creates real violence. Journalistic and scholarly evidence increasingly demonstrates that fraternities incubate and promulgate rape culture. When men in fraternities are three times more likely to commit a rape, women in sororities are 74% more likely to be raped than other college women, and one in five women is sexually assaulted on campus, pro-rape speech actively contributes to a culture that makes violence more likely, more normal, and therefore more excusable. If universities ban readings of The Color Purple because the description of violence might trigger flashbacks in assault victims, demands to take down pro-rape banners are more likely to be seen as silly overreaction. When colleges treat one individual experiencing emotional discomfort as grounds for a professor’s censure or dismissal, they lose credibility and become less effective in dealing with the actual violence taking place on their campuses.

“But the increased focus on microaggressions coupled with the endorsement of emotional reasoning is a formula for a constant state of outrage, even toward well-meaning speakers trying to engage in genuine discussion.” – The Atlantic, September 2015

I went to an extremely rigorous academic university, and spent nearly all of my time with math majors, which meant that my college experience was dominated by inflexibly rational norms of discourse. By the end of it, I was advocating for an increased acknowledgment of emotions and an occasional nod to the role of participants’ feelings in a discussion – particularly when those participants are your friends and/or girlfriend. But I loved my training in rational discussion. That’s what so much of college was for, for me. One can always learn to tone down the rationality and pay attention to other norms of discourse in other settings. But there aren’t many places aside from a college campus where one can learn to participate effectively in an intensely rigorous intellectual debate. To be an effective scholar and thinker, one needs to learn how to take the personal out of intellectual conversations, debate in the plane of ideas, and assume that most statements are designed to critique ideas, not the individuals voicing them. If one is constantly on the defensive, an effective discussion becomes nearly impossible. If one is constantly outraged by minor slights, one never has time to learn how to engage in a productive debate.

Rather than attempting to prevent anyone from feeling uncomfortable, colleges should encourage their students to recognize, analyze, and work through their discomfort. Instead of censuring professors who spark challenging conversations, universities should work to construct policies that distinguish between any speech that causes negative emotions and that which actively threatens the well-being of others. Otherwise, if this trend of trigger warnings and hypersensitivity continues, universities risk losing their capacity to serve the purposes for which they were created.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Emanuela Alves permalink
    25 August 2015 9:08 am

    Brilliant!!!

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