Have you been reading lately about “trigger warnings?” These are alerts to those who find themselves in a college classroom or other public setting, warning them that some of the material they are about to experience may upset them. The idea is that those who have had traumatic episodes—assault, for instance—might experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder if they see or read depictions of powerfully similar and evocative experiences. A piece in the New York Times back in May mentioned The Great Gatsby, Huckleberry Finn, and Greek mythology as possible “trauma triggers” identified by on-campus advocates of “trigger warnings.” The article has by now acquired nearly 1400 comments, and the conversation still seems to be picking up steam.
When I first read about this, I was reminded of my induction into gender politics many years ago. I fell in love with someone who lived in a collective household, so I moved to Portland to live with him. I had been an activist for years, but mostly in other realms—pro-peace, anti-draft, civil rights—where feminism had made incursions but was still insurgent. I’d read some of its primary texts and participated in discussions with other women, influencing my own life, to be sure. But still, nervous at my initial vetting by some of the women of the commune, I made a major faux pas: the word “chick” was still in current use in my corners of San Francisco, but in the commune, when I referred to “this chick,” it dropped like a bomb.
It only took one bomb for me to get the point. Like many children of immigrants, I’m good at picking up and internalizing the customs of the country. So I quickly learned some of them—how to talk and how to dress, things like that. But I balked at others. In a discussion of pre-teenagers, the thought-leader of the household corrected me: I should refer to “junior high school women,” not girls. (I never heard anyone say, “It’s a woman!” upon learning of a baby’s birth, but that doesn’t mean it never happened.)
It turned out I was also good at playing the deadly serious crit/self-crit game then endemic to the left: modeled on Maoist practices, often influenced by William Hinton’s 1966 chronicle of rural land reform in China, Fanshen, the members of a collective would take turns offering self-criticism and denouncing others for their transgressions. But it quickly turned as cruel as the primitive power relations in Lord of the Flies. When I understood that I was capable of the same ideological sadism as anyone else, I opted out.
This tendency of progressives to turn their resentment and critique on those with whom they are aligned has always troubled me, and I know I’m not the only one. The ideological cannibalism of the left has always been one of its worst features. The fact that it is now being packaged as a form of compassion and caring is not an entirely new twist, but the lack of larger awareness currently masquerading as political consciousness has me appalled.
Here’s a bit of Jack Halberstam’s incisive blog about this phenomenon from Bully Bloggers, the blog site he shares with three other academics (which means you have to wade through a bit of the lingo—“futurity,” “performativity”—and a lot of intellectual name-droppings to get to the meat, but worth it, I think):
[I]t is becoming difficult to speak, to perform, to offer up work nowadays without someone, somewhere claiming to feel hurt, or re-traumatized by a cultural event, a painting, a play, a speech, a casual use of slang, a characterization, a caricature and so on whether or not the “damaging” speech/characterization occurs within a complex aesthetic work. At one conference, a play that foregrounded the mutilation of the female body in the 17th century was cast as trans-phobic and became the occasion for multiple public meetings to discuss the damage it wreaked upon trans people present at the performance. Another piece at this performance conference that featured a “fortune teller” character was accused of orientalist stereotyping. At another event I attended that focused on queer masculinities, the organizers were accused of marginalizing queer femininities. And a class I was teaching recently featured a young person who reported feeling worried about potentially “triggering” a transgender student by using incorrect pronouns in relation to a third student who did not seem bothered by it! Another student told me recently that she had been “triggered” in a class on colonialism by the showing of The Battle of Algiers. In many of these cases offended groups demand apologies, and promises are made that future enactments of this or that theater piece will cut out the offensive parts….
Halberstam aptly characterizes the framework of assumptions that supports the notion of “trigger warnings”:
Claims about being triggered work off literalist notions of emotional pain and cast traumatic events as barely buried hurt that can easily resurface in relation to any kind of representation or association that resembles or even merely represents the theme of the original painful experience. And so, while in the past, we turned to Freud’s mystic writing pad to think of memory as a palimpsest, burying material under layers of inscription, now we see a memory as a live wire sitting in the psyche waiting for a spark. Where once we saw traumatic recall as a set of enigmatic symptoms moving through the body, now people reduce the resurfacing of a painful memory to the catch all term of “trigger,” imagining that emotional pain is somehow similar to a pulled muscle—as something that hurts whenever it is deployed, and as an injury that requires protection.
This notion of trauma seems both reductive and dumb. Halberstam rightly points out its terminal effect on even the hope of humor, which is mostly grounded in transgression. But the thing that I find most disturbing is the notion of entitlement to what this discourse casts as “safety,” to wit, the privilege and ability to exert an extreme degree of control over the presence of disturbing information in one’s environment. When I contemplate eliminating some of the things that tend to excite my own reactivity, my head spins. For instance:
Tender father-daughter advertising moments. Many decades after my father died young, I still tear up at those Hallmark moments where the father reaches tenderly for his little daughter’s hand. My response is obviously rooted in the trauma of having lost my father so early in life. Maybe I can get them to flash a warning before those commercials play?
Wellborn, entitled blonde women in cashmere twinsets and pearls. Having grown up amidst the unAmerican cacophony of a multigenerational, socially marginal household, I have a lingering bruise from not knowing the rules of polite society until I crashed into them. Why I find a casual insult from one such woman more upsetting than anything a man in a bespoke suit might say to me—I suppose it’s because the woman is a living reminder of all I could never be, but let’s just chalk it up to the hidden injuries of class (to borrow Richard Sennett’s phrase). My stomach can still drop when someone who resembles Grace Kelly says or does one of those things that evoke my outsider status. Could they wear bells or carry beacons?
Christmas. For a Jewish kid who grew up in a neighborhood dominated by a Catholic school, Christmas was a long, long day—indeed, it began right around Thanksgiving and continued into the new year. It featured a zillion reminders of not-belonging and a gazillion opportunities to feel that was somehow my bad. By now, I find my own alienation to be one of my most powerful allies, opening a door to empathy and possibility. But even at such a distance from the days I gazed through windows at my neighbors’ candlelit Christmases, December 25th can make it pinch. Hegemony, entitlement, antisemitism and other forms of domination are at the root. Can I get someone to fly me every December to a place where they don’t celebrate Christmas?
If I had the power, would I use it? I can’t make myself want to give up the learning I’ve derived from experiencing these reminders of pain (not to mention the joy of getting past them on particular occasions when titrated exposure led to a lessening of trauma). Nor can I imagine being quite so much in love with my own frailty as to believe I’m entitled to a life without reminders or my own suffering or the suffering of others. Nor do I wish to judge whose suffering takes precedence: Halberstam dissects the contest of traumas (mine is worse than yours) that underlies calls for safety as they are framed in the “trigger warnings” world. They turn the question of safety into a matter of personal preference, ignoring the larger forces that actually threaten our collective safety. “Is this the way the world ends?” he asks. “When groups that share common cause, utopian dreams and a joined mission find fault with each other instead of tearing down the banks and the bankers, the politicians and the parliaments, the university presidents and the CEOs?”
One of Halberstam’s commenters used the apt phrase “culture of umbrage” to characterize this phenomenon. I believe in common courtesy. I once fell out with a friend who refused a simple act I think is essential to civility, to call people by the names they prefer (my former friend wanted me to overlook his racial epithets because knowing him, I should have understood he was not a bigot). Baiting people by purposely rubbing their noses in their own pain is sadism, something I don’t plan to start overlooking anytime soon. But a civil society doesn’t requiring conferring on its members the right to protect themselves from evocations of pain. A culture of umbrage that gives into that demand will surely meet an anorexic end, starved of humor, challenge, and the learning they enable.
A friend recently turned me onto this very interesting French singer, Laika Fatien, the child of a Moroccan Jewish mother and a father from Cote d’Ivoire. Here’s her version of Abbey Lincoln’s great song, “Throw It Away.”