A Travelogue of the Interior

faith questions

On Millennials and trigger warnings

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My friend Roxzana, an outstanding English literature teacher, sent me this piece from the National Review and I started thinking about it. I know: take cover, right?

The gist of the article is that the Millennial generation is comprised of a bunch of wusses because they want to attach “trigger warnings” to all forms of public narrative to ensure that those who have been on the receiving end of sexual, emotional, physical or spiritual abuse can avoid any and all public art (including literature) that might remind them of their injury and, presumably, set back their efforts at healing.

Having spent an inordinate amount of time reading commentary, comments, blog posts, etc written by men and women in the Millennial generation, I think the writer of this NR piece is on to something. But, in my opinion, while his instinct is correct, his understanding of the substance of the matter is inadequate; or, perhaps he knows fully well the issues at hand but just wanted to write a sarcastic rant and push as many rhetorical buttons as possible. Either is OK with me, but it is the underlying issues of this piece that interests me.

The central issue is whether the “trigger” warnings that now accompany much of the post-modern discourse among Millennials are necessary or, possibly even, essential. If you don’t know much about trigger warnings, you can start here (the link is in the NR piece as well). Suffice it to say the concept originated out of the post-modern feminist discourse and the intent is to encourage society broadly to create safe, shared space for individuals who have experienced life-altering trauma. As with feminism broadly, the goal is to honor and dignify a plurality of voices, not merely the powerful and privileged ones. This, in my opinion, is a good thing, although I am 100% clear that many people view this agenda as the reason for the downfall of civilization. I was recently told in an indirect way that if the women and gays would just go away, back to their proper places (one at the hearth, the other in the closet), the entire culture would be better off. So, that’s out there.

At face value, it would seem that almost every Millennial woman or gay person has been egregiously abused at some point in their life and hence these trigger warnings proliferate. I suspect some of it is just people wanting to belong, and so being a victim is part of the ethos of the Millennial generation. But more to the point, the post-modern way of viewing the world is complicit: in the absence of anything grounded, absolute, or even remotely approaching a shared narrative for social experience, individuals are left to fend for themselves and create their own story — in fact, to fail to do so is to fail to participate in the cultural moment.

When there is no such thing as an organizing narrative — epic or otherwise (think WWII, eg), the individual story reigns supreme. In my opinion, this is why the “trigger” warnings have become so popular and are seen as so necessary — all narratives are legitimate, even conflicting ones, and one effective strategy to have one’s personal narrative elevated above the noise of competing narratives is to lay claim to victim status — you are, at that point, uncontested in your right to have a voice.

(As an aside: this is one of the reasons why religion is so powerful and why, at least in the Evangelical community, there is such a battle raging for competing interpretations of the Bible. What is at stake is the organizing narrative of the people involved, the shared story against which all individual members are measured and to which all members must submit; to lose the battle is to lose control of the discourse and thus become disenfranchised. I wonder if folks realize the person they are attempting to control here is God … but I digress).

The issue, then, that the NR writer is talking about is central, because what happens when culturally we take aim at the art and literature that forms what is left of the basis of shared experience? If all our works of art are labeled with “trigger warnings” we end up dismantling a critical element of our shared discourse.

In my view, the better approach is to attempt, culturally, to advance the idea that victimhood is not a viable or desirable self-identifier. Survivor — for those who in fact have survived trauma — is an excellent self-identifier. A survivor is an agent in their own lives; a victim is not. A survivor has at their core a strength that is resilient and capable of handling onslaught; a victim does not, and so on. I am not saying there are not real victims out there — they are legion, I’m sure. But the goal ought to be to support victims into a place of wellness and health, through first allowing them to tell their story and be validated, but eventually to emerge as strong and capable, not defined by their trauma, able to contribute to society rather than need society to perpetually prop them up.

This is why the NR piece is ultimately not helpful. In calling out Millennials as “worthless and weak” the author reinforces the penchant for victims to self-identify as such. Shame is a horrible and ineffective way of motivating people to change. In fact, the NYT ran this week an excellent article (pertaining to education in this case) that makes a profound argument for using the precise opposite strategy: if you want people to change, make them believe they are strong, they are achievers, they are capable, that their environment and handicaps and setbacks do not define them.

Believe in a person, and before you know it, they have become more than they ever thought they could.

Author: karen d

Thinker, Dreamer, Traveler. Recovering Pharisee.

17 thoughts on “On Millennials and trigger warnings

  1. Oooh: and just noticed that Alastair posted a link to an article on the same topic (although not by him): http://text-patterns.thenewatlantis.com/2014/05/trigger-warnings-and-trust.html

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    • Oooh, this was a great read! Thanks for introducing me to Alastair! I just commented (omg, sooo long-winded) on this article on his site. Very though provoking!!

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      • Just read your comment over there: excellent! AR ‘s Dissertation is due in a little over 2 weeks, so I hope he does circle back because I want to listen in 🙂

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        • He’s a smart and thoughtful fellow — how lovely to find both qualities in the same person! thanks for the tip to head over there … i love having you for a friend!

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  2. It’s sentences like this that make me love your writing, Karen: “This, in my opinion, is a good thing, although I am 100% clear that many people view this agenda as the reason for the downfall of civilization.” You make me laugh and THINK all in the same phrase.

    Thanks for this: helpful and wise. I wondered if you had come across this from Alastair Roberts which has some similar themes: “Why We Shouldn’t Trust our Stories”: http://alastairadversaria.wordpress.com/2014/02/26/why-we-shouldnt-trust-our-stories/

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  3. Simply being alive triggers memories, both desirable and undesirable. It’s not the fault of any writer or reader.

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    • Hey Eric, thanks for commenting. Yeah, the trigger thing can definitely go too far. It is one thing for a writer or artist to offer ‘trigger warnings’ on their own material; quite another to start doing it to someone else’s work.

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  4. Okay, I understand (I think) your point; to a certain extent, I agree. Defining oneself as a “victim” is not healthy. “Survivor” is much better. But shouldn’t we be sensitive to those who are newly victimized and have not yet reached a point where they can call themselves a survivor? I mean, if I’ve just been raped, say, last week, I am NOT going to be healthy enough to handle certain graphic material in a movie/literature/art; that takes time and God-sized healing. It would be good to have a head’s up before I went to that movie or read that book, particularly in the classroom setting. Or, for that matter, in a church setting where one should feel safe. (I haven’t been raped, thank God. But friends/relatives have dealt with sexual assault, and with varying degrees of healing.)

    I tend to think of “trigger warnings” as not just a trauma-related thing. I had an eating disorder in college, and for years, there have been certain things, topics of discussion, etc., that “trigger” that self-destructive behavior. For example, I read a YA novel about a girl with anorexia; even though I’ve been recovered for a long time, I still thought that my review of the novel needed to caution potential readers that this could “trigger” memories or ED-type eating patterns for those who were fighting ED or newly recovered. The book was THAT graphic and descriptive of the anorexic’s issues. (Several other readers agreed.) I’m not saying that there needed to be a warning label on the book itself, but I felt that it would be irresponsible of me as a reviewer not to mention the trigger-factor in my review.

    I do agree with the lack of central organizing narrative being a factor in all of this.

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    • Hi Laura, thanks for commenting! I agree with you that healing takes time and it is the victim’s prerogative to sort out the trajectory and timeline for that healing. I’m so sorry to hear you have wrestled with an eating disorder, and I really appreciate you bringing it up here as an example; triggers are not only pertinent to abusive situations. You make a great point about sensitivity to others, and that when we tell our own stories and allow our experience to shape our voice, we do a good thing for others by creating safe space for them, too, to share their story and realize they are not alone.

      I wonder if there is a difference between an individual saying, “I am going to be sensitive to triggers for others” and a community mandating that all public discourse be earmarked in this way? Humm …

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      • Yeah, I think there is a difference. If it’s out there in community (whether online or not), the sensitive person needs to be responsible for avoiding triggering material (obviously, it’s not always possible) and people need to use their best judgement in what they view/read. (I’ve got a blog scheduled for Friday about a time when I didn’t use my best judgement in what I read and how it served as a trigger for my ED-junk.)

        It’s not necessarily the community’s job to warn about every potential trigger in every single thing. (Though it might be a good thing to have ratings–sort of like movie ratings–on some things. I’ve seen some “fine art” that’s definitely too disturbing for many folks to handle and I’ve wanted to smack a “R” or “PG-13” rating on it. They don’t have to tell me exactly what the content is.)

        As a writer, though, I wrestle with how to best portray some issues in my fiction that might be triggering for people. For example, in my work in progress, my protagonist is a cutter and there are some scenes that are relatively graphic. I’ve wondered how to handle this, because I’m always aware that my words might be read by someone who’s on the brink, and I can push them toward it–or pull them away. And I have to question my intention in including this material, too; am I intending to be provocative (edgy-for-the-sake-of-edginess) or intending to help or intending to show outsiders what it’s like to be raped/cut/etc. (and motivate them to act)?

        It seems that some of the trigger warnings ignore what the author’s intention is. I mean, I doubt Woolf wrote Mrs. Dalloway to commend suicide, or Twain wrote Huck FInn to condone racism. In those cases, it does seem silly to post “warning: may disturb you!!” on a work of classic literature. Then again, some of the people wanting trigger warnings all over the place probably don’t think we can know an author’s intent at all.

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        • I love this comment, and I really love that you are writing fiction! I think fiction is a wonderful lens through which to inquire into all sorts of topics, and it sounds like you are doing just that, with sensitivity and care. I can’t wait to read the results!

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  5. I followed Tim’s link to your post, Karen — I think your interpretation is really useful and your last few paragraphs particularly wise. Just to share something: several months ago I was involved in a serious relationship conflict. It had nothing to do with abuse or trauma: I told a close friend my concerns regarding some things she had said to/about people she was angry at. The discussion blew up into a huge (and most likely permanent) rift — and one of her reasons for refusing to reconcile was that I was such a “trigger” for her. Besides the fact that it sounds dehumanizing (like I’m a thing), this seems to be an example of how the trigger principle can operate privately as well as publicly. And the same idea you discuss seems to apply: the “organizing narrative” of our 25+ years of supportive friendship wasn’t sufficient to defuse that trigger effect. So I’m very sad about it — but I’m glad I read your article because it’s helpful to me on the individual as well as societal level.

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    • Hi Jeannie, great to hear from you! I am so sad to hear that your long-term relationship blew up into a rift. I have seen the “you trigger me” approach used as a weapon too many times to count, and it always seems to end in the destruction of relationship. I wonder if part of the problem is that we don’t really learn what healthy boundaries are? So, the “you trigger me” is code for the person setting up a boundary, but many times its not a healthy one. It doesn’t honor the other person and doesn’t acknowledge differing/legitimate points of view — it is, in short, bullying. It sounds like you were on the receiving end of this sort of bullying. The private/public nuance is a good one too — thanks for drawing attention to it! I think I was pondering the issue from the societal/institutional angle and you are reminding me these meta-narratives have real impact in individual lives, and not always for the good.

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  6. Reblogged this on Tim's Blog – Just One Train Wreck After Another and commented:
    I have to admit that being an old curmudgeon predisposes me to view trigger warnings as the bane of modern discourse. My friend Karen takes a more measured and reasonable view of their shortcomings in this excellent post on her blog:

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  7. I have to admit that being an old curmudgeon predisposes me to view trigger warnings as the bane of modern discourse. If one is in what is advertised as a safe forum then I can see their place, but if one is out in the public marketplace of ideas and conversation then trigger warnings lose their legitimacy.

    Your assessment that the underlying issue is the lack of a recognized central narrative is intriguing too, Karen. Everyone’s story is supposedly of equal legitimacy, but I think what many people really mean by that is that the way they want to present their story should be given equal value to all others. That’s where things break down. As people made in the image of God we are all of inestimable value, but that doesn’t mean that everything we say or do – or even experience – is valuable. Some of it’s unadulterated claptrap.

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    • P.S. Re-blogged this at my place.

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    • “Some of it’s unadulterated claptrap.” LOL, I couldn’t agree more — mine (sometimes) included! Having said that, I think this is part of why the Millennials are in the middle of the entire “trigger warning” discourse. It is reflective of their age/development/maturity — and I don’t mean by that to be dismissive or diminishing, only that as you age (she says, from experience) you look back on your 20s and even early 30s and put it all into perspective. I laugh now to think about all the things I was So Convinced Of at 25 that I now see as simply developmental — not wrong, but certainly not Absolutely True either. My naive confidence (then) in my own “correct” thinking and perception, makes me laugh but also cringe. Age and distance and experience have a way of reshaping the narratives we write in the moment, particularly in those early years of real adulthood and even more particularly when that adulthood is developing on a college campus.

      The Millennials have a unique challenge in that they are figuring out adulthood on the Internet. I shiver to think of my 28 year old self “out there” and saying all the blather I said then, and wishing at 40 I could take it all back. The modern requirement to grow up, find one’s adult bearings, and do so with the glare of public, written scrutiny is horrible.

      Point is, how do we give the Millennials the chance to grow through those incredibly-demanding and indeed formative developmental years but at the same time balance out the excesses that seem to be created because of post-modernism imperatives and the fact that everything is said/done on the Internet?

      The answer cannot be to put trigger warnings all over our shared texts. But it cannot be an impatient dismissal either. Culturally we need to offer a way forward that both validates personal stories while inviting individuals into a story that is larger than their own.

      Liked by 1 person

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