Wednesday, May 21, 2014

More Thoughts on 'Trigger Warnings': At Which Point Some College Students Encounter the Big Bad Right-Wing Bogeyman Named David Horowitz

In yesterday's post on "trigger warnings", I alluded to how some students are encouraged to retreat to intellectual bunkers, safe spaces, and hugs and kisses rooms in order to "process" difficult encounters that may occur in a college or university learning environment.

I would like to briefly follow up on that post.

There, I did not describe or name the bogeyman that sent students into such a distressed emotional state.

Several years ago, I watched students become unhinged and hysterical in response to Right-wing professional bomb thrower David Horowitz. They cried. They shambled about in a confused state. Some of them were taken to special areas for healing and hugs. 

There are religious types who handle snakes, speak in tongues, or have fits of religious ecstasy. As I witnessed it, in the cult of left-leaning political correctness, personal outrage and tear filled histrionics were a sign of being one of "the elect" or "saved" when facing the likes of David Horowitz.

Like the proverbial old man on his lawn cursing the young kids that are tipping over the garbage cans and listening to "race records" while they drive their fancy new horseless carriages, I shook my head at their antics. I even went so far as to tell them that Horowitz has no power over them, save for the power they give to him. Learn his tricks and those of folks like him; expose their intellectual sleight of hand; deny the Horowitzs, Coulters, and Malkins of the world their frat boy and frat girl political antics; or be practical, cut off their money and source of livelihoods.

Sophomore means "learned fool". As sophomores, and other undergraduates too, they deftly recited all manner of rhetoric from their manifesto on "respect" and "safe spaces", as well as how they were "threatened" by "hate speech". I smiled. I too have done the same thing while a college student.

Young people go through various stages of intellectual development that are a function of brain structure, as well as socialization/nurturing. Most college students who are teenagers and young adults exist in a liminal space: they would like to have the freedom of adults but want (and perhaps need) the protection and coddling of their parents, teachers, and other caretakers. Maturity comes with displacing the former with the latter--and making sure that teenagers and young adults are made to feel the consequences for their choices as they mature into adult hood.

Millennials and the Facebook Generation have been fed a poison pill. Their ambitions and desires have been sharpened beyond all reason. But, they will enter a society with diminished resources and economic opportunities. 

Many of them are clinically narcissistic, their egos inflated by parents and others who give them trophies and rewards for failure and mediocrity. 

Social media has created a culture of micro-celebrities where "likes" and "followers" are equated with self-worth, value, and contributing to the Good Society. 

And for too many Americans, political activism in the United States is not measured by one's literal ability or willingness to put skin in the game. Rather, activism and politics are a bar that has been so lowered as to include the easy and pain free symbolic politics of "liking" a cause online or wearing a rubber wristband to show "solidarity". 

I am not expecting the college students of today to be legions of James Merediths, enduring all manner of cruelty, hardships, and challenges in the face of human ugliness, while they try to get an education. 

By extension, I also find the false comparison and fiction created around the "Greatest Generation" mythology of World War 2 to be dishonest and intellectually specious. As others have argued, "the Greatest Generation" was more a reflection of Clinton era American global dominance and the "end of history" after the fall of the Soviet Union, than a cogent claim about the superhero-like abilities of those brave and tough Americans who defeated Nazism. 

One would also be amiss to not call attention to how the (white) "Greatest Generation" was also complicit with white supremacy, Jim and Jane Crow, and benefited from institutional, state sponsored white racism that continues to shape neighborhoods, wealth, income, educational outcomes, and other types of social and political inequality in the Age of Obama.

I wonder. What sort of world will the "trigger generation" of college students create? Excluding those who because of class, race, or other personal circumstances are already navigating its muck and mire, are "the snowflakes" capable of effectively responding to the arbitrary and capricious cruelty and callousness of the "real world"?


logical_hare said...

I was rather put off the first time I encountered "trigger warnings". A handful of years ago I had just joined my university's pro-choice club here in Canada, and the 'Genocide Awareness Project' was coming to town. They're one of the freak groups with traveling displays of images of fetuses juxtaposed with war and genocide photography. The immediate and seemingly default consensus among my group's members was that rather than a true counter-protest against the GAP's terrible and offensive ideas, our response should consist of placing individuals at entrances to the square where the displays sit. These individuals would then ward away their fellow students by warning them of the disturbing and 'triggering' quality of the images 'round the bend. I had a number of questions:

- Since when is it the duty of a campus pro-choice club to defend the general mental health of the campus population?
- What's the psychological basis for such mass trigger warnings? What papers, by whom? Such a concept makes sense when discussing PTSD, but are we really to assume that a large percentage of the campus community suffer uncontrollable, PTSD-like reactions to not only situations or images, but also slogans, or even ideas they find offensive?
- If we're a club trying to articulate and defend a pro-choice political position, does cowering and trying to censor our opponents really speak to the strength of our arguments?
- On a similar though cruder tack: isn't that just terrible PR? Wouldn't a smart, though politically-naive student likely assume that our opponents had some unassailable point we simply didn't want you to learn about?
- Since when (my inner political scientist urgently questioned) did we get to simply declare, in an almost child-like fashion, that the very real horrors of the world (talking generally, not about abortion) are simply too scary and sad to discuss? At a place of higher learning? Holy zombie Jesus.

Thankfully, I was able to talk them into a more traditional counter-protest, which was quite successful. And while the images and their juxtapositions were disgusting and offensive, nobody had any flashbacks or even threw up from looking at them!

Myshkin the Idiot said...

Sorry I missed yesterday's discussion on this. I understand your concerns, but I think we are talking about real lived traumatic experiences.

With the popular revelation that 30% of inner city youth live with a type of PTSD I think it is important to at least give all students a warning that certain classroom content could be more difficult for them to digest and work through than for students without real lived trauma.

There are several people in my family who have been victims of sexual and physical abuse. My grandfather was a pedophile. He molested and sexually assaulted his two step daughters from the time they were aged 12-16. When one of them finally told their mother, the whole experience was swept under the rug, "You leave these girls alone now sir."

In my English 200 level class, we read Lolita. It was hard for me to digest this with the knowledge that my family had lived through similar experiences. I wonder if these family members would have been able to finish that book and do the requisite reflection and class discussion afterward, probably not without a large degree of distress.

If you are teaching a history class, you are definitely going to talk about organized systemic and institutional violence. On days when content gets into the graphic extreme, I think it is important to give a little disclosure, "Today's class is going to view graphic details of victims of..."

I think the idea of a safe space for students to work through these is also important. If you haven't lived through a traumatic experience, then how could you understand what another person is going through?

I also don't think it's about teaching to the lowest or the highest or median subset of students, but reaching out to all students. You cannot lose students who have to work through traumatic experiences, they could drop out and move on with their lives rather than find a way to work through their personal trauma and then contribute to the academic world with their perspective and insights.

From a conversation from Son of Baldwin's facebook page about this: "it's to make the educational system accessible to people who have already been marginalized and have already experienced trauma that for more privileged students, is simply theoretical and academic."

The Sanity Inspector said...

If youth is a fault, it is one which is soon corrected. ~ Goethe

joe manning said...

Its dangerously naive to subscribe to the Panglossian worldview wherein everything happens in this best of all possible worlds out of absolute necessity and for the best. "Trigger warnings" produce a culture of denial, peopled by "bubble babies." Censorship and self deception have caused the mass insensitivity, apathy, anomy, and free floating aggression responsible for our collective demoralization. Consequently, war criminals are able to get away with calling genocide a police action, and referring to torture as enhanced interrogation. Seeing the world through rose colored glasses is an escape from reality that undermines the general morality necessary for a humane social system. How can we address social problems in a world that we perceive as unproblematic?

Myshkin the Idiot said...

I don't know if it's a generational thing or what, it seems like anti-emotional sentiments that I am familiar with just as a dominant cultural force. People carry their emotions with them no matter where they go, you cannot separate the personal from any experience, there is no closet to check your emotions at before you dive into some information that is consumes the soul.

The idea of safe spaces and trigger warnings reminds me of this piece from Black Girl Dangerous: "When someone ... disagrees with a point I am trying to make, they launch a volley of articulate arguments in my direction and my only response is, for the most part, a resounding “go fuck yourself.”I am unable to develop a complex, logical, or persuasive response because I cannot speak the language they use to communicate with me."

I think having a chance to think about a topic in a space where you will be listened to and not mocked is important to developing your thoughts for when you are put into a situation where your ideas and very lived experience might be challenged.

As for white folks "afraid" of confronting racism so as to not induce "white guilt," they already have large mental blocks and structures set up in order to avoid having their feelings hurt. I fail to see how trigger warnings for people with experiences of trauma is related to these types of whiners. Where is the trauma? And the charge that it is loading ammo for the conservative PC narrative: fuck em. Why let oppressive people use your experiences and needs to continue oppressing people?

MomSense said...

I think a lot of the criticism of trigger warnings comes from 1) not understanding how they work 2) long held stigma about people who live with trauma 3) denial of the larger context that so many people on college campuses are dealing with the trauma of sexual assault. If 1 in 5 women has experienced sexual assault and roughly 1/3 of these take place while in college...

SabrinaBee said...

Absolutely agree. Many horrors are hidden behind the desire not to "talk about it." Also, sexual abusers use the ability to silence the victims into shame, as a tool. Sensitivity to the church has kept pedophiles in business for years. The veil of secrecy in business matters, continually leave the public subject to the whims of this or that company. Unsafe and unfair work practices. Destructive environmental mishaps, that could have been avoided, were it not for their ability to hide actions from regulators. Cronyism, sexism, corruption, all hide behind the inability of the masses to fully know what is going on. That is, until it is too late and someone has suffered greatly or died as a result.

chauncey devega said...

Master of quotes, that is a good one.

chauncey devega said...

damn you your empiricism. That is an interesting question though--if everyone has PTSD and is "traumatized" than does anyone really have PTSD and are traumatized? And what is our obligation to them--if anything--as students?

joe manning said...

Yes, credulity and denial open the door to all manner of predator.

joe manning said...

Apparently not soon enough.

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