A few hour after posting about my problems with apathy, I made the mistake of clicking on a link to an article that absolutely infuriated me. Which just goes to show you should be careful what you wish for. The article in question was one The Atlantic published a month or so ago, titled, “The Coddling of the American Mind: How Trigger Warnings Hurt Mental Health on College Campuses.” Something like that. I’m not going to link to it, because if I look at that smug page one more time I’m going to throw my monitor though the window. You can Google it for yourself, if Google’s new logo doesn’t offend you too much.
The article maddened me so much that I posted a biting comment on the article itself, which I don’t often do. Now it’s two in the morning, and I still can’t stop thinking about it. Yay! I get to rant at length on my blog while listening to 80s German Technopop on Spotify! It’s my favorite thing to do when I’d rather be sleeping the sleep of reason.
Anyway. the article was the usual mishmash of “The kids today!” and “Boo hoo, someone’s asking me to think before speaking!” and “But academic freedom!” combined with an extra dose of “Two different groups of the same minority don’t agree on what constitutes a microagression so they must not exist!” And then, just to prove how serious the issue is, they added a long, long, long, so long explanation of why this kind of “coddling” actually is a detriment to good mental health, complete with cherry-picked quotes from (almost exclusively male) “Mental Health Professionals,” and, I don’t know, I couldn’t get any farther because I was too occupied with yelling, “FUCK YOU, YOU SMUG FUCKWITS!” at my phone.
Neither of the writers, by the way, was a Mental Health Professional (TM). One was the CEO of something called the “Academic Liberty Foundation” (absolutely NO AGENDA THERE) and the other was a journalist of some kind, I think; the red haze before my eyes prevented me from reading his bio fully. And what the article demonstrated to me was that these were two guys who are INCREDIBLY DISTRAUGHT that they might have to take into account the fact that other people’s lived experiences are valid, and that NEWS FLASH! even people who share the same racial heritage might disagree on things because they’ve had DIFFERENT experiences.
I know a lot of academics. I know a lot of people who work in mental health and mental health advocacy, and, more important for this rant, I know a TON of people with various mental health issues. Just this morning I kind of went off on one of them, explaining that trigger warnings are not censorship and are not a wholesale invitation to disengage from discussion, study, the media, and so forth. What they ARE is a courtesy. I doubt there’s a single person in this country who has not watched a news program in which a serious anchor person has announced, “The following segment contains images of a graphic nature. Viewer discretion is advised” before cutting to the next film of a mass murder or exploration of a serial killer’s den. That’s a trigger warning. It tells you something difficult or challenging is coming up, so take care of yourself. Every 4th of July I see a meme about how important it is to be considerate of military veterans when setting off fireworks, because random explosions in the street in the middle of the night DO NOT ENTERTAIN THEM. That’s a kind of trigger warning, too. No one objects to these. But when it comes to college kids saying, “Gee, can I have a heads up if this novel contains a graphic depiction of rape and dismemberment?” everyone goes mad because those lazy kids are looking for ways to avoid the assigned reading.
Unfortunately, the tendency to reject and deride the mental health concerns of young people is nothing new. I, myself, once met with a psychiatrist who responded to the information that I was suicidal and cut myself with a razor blade almost every night with the incredibly dismissive, “You’re trying to get out of doing your homework, so go away and don’t bother me anymore, ‘kay?” And yet suicide is the third leading cause of death in people ages 15 to 24, second leading cause of death in people 25 to 34. CDC chart here. Isn’t it about time we start taking this seriously instead of calling them “over dramatic” and condemning their concerns as “excuses?”
Early on, The Atlantic article informed the reader that “According to the most-basic (sic) tenets of psychology, helping people with anxiety disorders avoid the things they fear is misguided.” They put the statement in a block quote, so you’d be sure to feel its authority. BULL SHIT. For fuck’s sake, I have a degree in psychology and I never heard of any such “most-basic” tenet. When treating an irrational phobia, sometimes a program of gradual desensitization is indicated. GRADUAL. You wouldn’t abandon a person with a snake phobia in the reptile house at the zoo without warning. You’d weigh the pros and cons, examine where the person was in their therapy, make the necessary preparations for them to be safe. You’d allow the person to have boundaries, which would certainly include being able to say “enough” or leave when they got overwhelmed. <<<<<This is the same as giving a trigger warning. Furthermore, in cases of trauma, forcing a person to confront the source of the trauma in any form IS DAMAGING. It doesn’t help them adjust. It doesn’t cause them to say, “Oh, that passage about the rape of Leda in Ovid isn’t so bad; I GET IT NOW!” It re-traumatizes them. It makes things worse.
But, the writers claim, seeking to avoid potentially triggering subject matter leads to what they term a culture of “vindictive protectiveness.” Can’t you just see them sitting around coming up with that term and patting themselves on the back about how cool and profound that is? What they mean is, allowing people to determine their own safety and their own limits encourages them to punish anyone who disagrees with them. This sounds like so much projection to me. “You want me to be considerate? YOU THINK I’M A BAD PERSON!” I don’t know. Or maybe it’s punishment when someone actually calls you on your dismissive treatment of their mental health issues? Or calls you on being sexist, racist, or homophobic? Please, look at yourself first.
After that came the layman’s guide to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which the authors propose as the solution to all this problem of trigger warnings because when you teach people their discomfort and fear is irrational it will miraculously disappear! Yeah, NO. In the first place, this is another way of invalidating a person’s lived experience. In the second, ALL this shit people are now bringing to the attention of the world at large is NOTHING NEW. It’s just that now more people feel empowered to speak up. When you propose CBT in this instance, you’re telling people you don’t want to hear about the experiences they’ve had that make you uncomfortable. And in the third place, CBT is NOT A PANACEA. Yes, it’s useful to learn to examine how your mind works, when you might leap to inaccurate conclusions or assume things that aren’t true. But for fuck’s sake, no one believes they’re in actual danger from reading a rape myth in Ovid. CBT isn’t applicable. And I have news for you: depression and trauma alter your brain. Thinking nice thoughts doesn’t change it back. Thoughts are not emotions. I don’t know a person who has stopped having a mood disorder or a form of PTSD by practicing positive thinking. And that’s not even to mention the everyday trauma that some people suffer just by getting along in the modern world. Where rapists are most often someone you know, women literally do not know when it’s appropriate to be afraid and when it’s not. (Look up the concept of Schrodinger’s Rapist.) People of Color live in a climate of systemic racism. LGBTQ+ people live in real danger of getting beat up and killed. This is not a thing CBT will solve. The least we can do is warn someone who’s already having a difficult time of challenging material.
The icing on the cake was that the whole article was written in a horrible, condescending tone. Like, you more than half expected that when you finished it, someone would pat you on the head and tell you to run along and play now, like a good, compliant child. The men have decided what to do. Don’t you worry your pretty little head about it any more.
I’m sick of this conversation. Yeah, sometimes people misuse and overuse trigger warnings; I’ve been known to complain about it myself. And the same half a dozen anecdotes get trotted out over and cover again, whenever someone wants to complain that “this obsession with social justice has gone too far!” But, you know, while talking heads are MORE than eager to write extensive think pieces and analyses, I have yet to see a single valid study of what effect trigger warnings have. An actual blind study with a control group and a sample of a mixed population. Easy: Throw them into variously triggering situations. Give some of them a heads up ahead of time, and don’t give it to others. Do a survey of emotional states before and after. Until you can cite such a study, you have NO BUSINESS decreeing that trigger warnings are bad for mental health. You have no business dictating college policy, or saying anything about trigger warnings at all. Ever.