I didn’t want to do a critique on this tonight. I really, really didn’t. I was going to eat carrot and lentil soup and binge watch Sherlock looking for homoerotic subtext. Because I’m off work, I’m a goddamn adult and it’s not for you to judge what I do in my spare time. But you people keep posting it on my wall and sending it to me in chat. And I really should log off Facebook and into Netflix. Or even better, clean my bedroom. Because I think that I’m not the only thing living in it any more, and that frightens me slightly.
Nor do I want to write a personal blog about my experience of trauma, because that topic does not lend itself well to the sarcastic, caffeine maddened niche I’ve managed to carve out in my nice little corner of WordPress. So I’m not going to. To be honest, I’ve spent too much time trying to understand and live with my own trauma to devote precious energy to thinking about how others view it. But this bloody piece keeps following me around everywhere. And so it goes, that my first thought on the matter was, “I am horribly disappointed that there are no ‘pulling the trigger’ puns in this very important cultural conversation, despite all the writing that has been done om the subject.” On reflection, having read the actual post over and over again, re-reading my sentences and carefully editing, it was probably worth writing just to get a handle on how the widespread sharing of this piece made me feel. I’m afraid that after the fourth time I saw it, I lost my composure.
Trigger warnings are a hot topic right now, unfortunately. It’s not for me to say whether they should or shouldn’t be. I tend to think of trigger warnings as similar to allergy warning labels on food- they are warning a small proportion of the population that what they are about to consume, view or read may do them harm. People can be allergic to anything, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be warned that their biscuits may contain nuts. I’m not trying to deny that trigger warnings are used in silly ways on the internet- I have seen trigger warnings for everything from misgendering to “bereavement of pets”. They have a familiar predecessor- we’ve all listened to TV announcers warn their viewers that an upcoming programme contains scenes of graphic or sexual violence. If these warnings don’t apply to us, we can ignore them and proceed with our viewing. It is rather unusual for people to be psychologically damaged by foreshadowing of a particular plot point. If the warning does apply to us and today has been a rough one, we can make an informed decision about whether or not we want to watch the programme or not. Or if we want to save it to watch later, when we’re feeling a little better. Slap a trigger warning on a blog post or online newspaper article, however, and the whole practice becomes controversial. A lot of this controversy ferments from profound misunderstandings about the nature of trauma, PTSD, anxiety and mental health in general, as well as a certain amount of confusion as to how writing and discourse on the internet actually works. This occurs on both sides of the oft well intentioned, oft misguided but ultimately ridiculous debate.
Up until now, I have been using the word “debate”, singular. Because of the peculiar nature of the internet, human tendency towards confirmation bias- or if you want it to be positive about it, the amazing diversity of human interest and experience*- we are actually having lots of different debates. At least two. Maybe six. Maybe one hundred and sixty-two. And neither “side” is actually hearing each other. It’s impossible to address “the debate” as a whole, because it doesn’t exist. It’s like a rope ladder, bound tight, each separate piece linked together by a thick rope of Google search terms and recommended content. This is how the internet works. Occasionally, people scramble across this rope bridge and jump to broad conclusions based on limited information before running the hell back to the side that is more familiar to them. And that is perfectly fucking fine, because people can do or say whatever the hell they want on the internet, I suppose, with obvious exceptions such as sharing and viewing child pornography (which should be pretty uncontroversial) or piracy (which, lets be honest, a lot of us do anyway). This is another complication that I may write about later, as I find it darkly amusing that such concern about censorship has emerged from what amounts to a complete and utter lack of it.
At this point, I need to take a deep breath. I would now like you to repeat the following:
“This issue is not about me”
“I am going to stop sharing blogs that make reference to PTSD that I find worthy of ridicule, for the sole purpose of making a social media statement”.
“Mental illnesses, when improperly treated, can breed in your psyche like fucking rabbits”
“I feel better about myself when I’m included”
“I feel less alone when I know that others feel the way I do”
If you felt uncomfortable with the first two statements, wanted to Google the third and identified with the last two sentences, congratulations- you are a human being, most likely a fairly young one, and your certificate is in the post. It’s a great club. Those who suffer from anxiety issues, eating disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and the whole rest of the bloody DSM are also members. Some of us prefer tea, others rhapsodise about coffee on Twitter, some are women, some are queer and some like the colour blue. You probably work with some of us. We’re everywhere, and there’s Something Wrong With Us, and that makes us a little unnerving to you guys, I guess. Don’t worry, a lot of us are more scared of you than you are of us. I always found it weird that so many of my friends had their own history of anxiety until I realised that we had mostly met by hanging around the same quiet corners at parties. Also, there’s quite a lot of us. Don’t forget to take that into account. I mean, we’re still not a majority, and not the most visible minority either, but we comprise a far larger segment of the global population than say, one armed Irish chess players who speak Dutch as a second language**.
When our generation has a problem, we Google it. Thus community support forums were born, and there was much rejoicing. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, a point I will return to in a later post. But on the internet, a blog by a teenager who’s feeling a bit down and lacks the language to properly express herself can gain the status of a worldwide, oft-repeated urban myth. I’m sorry, ladies and gentlemen, the blog by the transethnic otherkin who tells you they feel triggered by the word “cheese” is a strawman, and your hits, shares and chuckles are making you complicit in demeaning the very real suffering of untold millions of people by spreading misinformation. Far more complicit, I would argue, than the fourteen year old who actually wrote the damn thing. I get it, it’s fun to mock the self-righteous, especially if you’re Irish. Some of our most famous authors made a career out of it. We’ve had an awful lot of self-righteous people, absolutely certain in their belief that every problem on earth has a particular moral, religious or ideological cause tell us that we’ve been behaving badly for a very long time, and we’re a bit sick of it at this point. I can see why, as a country, we’re a bit sceptical about theorists- and how to handle social problems in general, if it comes to that.
For some, however, trigger warnings hold great practical and symbolic value. Rather than being banned from classrooms, I would argue that they should be used here more than anywhere else. This is not to suggest that students should be exempt from coursework, or discouraged from discussing or disagreeing with the reason from the warning’s inclusion.Think of it as a common courtesy to your fellow human beings, one which may be able to
a) Prevent them from having a panic attack in a public place, which can be humiliating and stressful. Strangely enough, people who have had their agency stripped from them tend not to deal with humiliation very well I still have flashbacks to a flashback I had in a lecture theatre. That’s right folks, it’s psychic and psychosomatic pain-ception. Experiencing the symptoms of my mental illness actually made my mental illness worse for some time. The brain is fun like that. Personally, I’m less likely to react like that to a potential trigger if I’m warned.
b) Help them feel empowered by the fact that a choice is on offer to them. Something that is again rather important to those who were made powerless by circumstances or the action of others, and then had to repeatedly re-live that sense of powerlessness, coupled with the sense that they can’t trust what’s going on in their own brain. Weird shit happens in brains. Yes, even in yours. None of us are as logical or as “sane” as we like to think we are, or as we’d like to be, and we’re prone to forgetting that the concept of common sense is a social construct that varies across the world.
c) Assure them that their experiences are being taken seriously, that even if their classmates are gazing towards the lectern with disconcerting fascination, picking their nails or re-tweeting Simon Pegg while they are re-living some of the most painful moments of their existence, someone gets why it might be a big deal for them to even have gotten out of bed to go to this class.
Empathy- not false concern about the way a person handles themselves in public, but real empathy- is something that’s often remarkable by its absence in debates about traumatic events. This is particularly true when it comes to highly publicised debates around sexual violence, and especially sexual violence towards women. Many of us were quick to weigh in with our disgust or to play devil’s advocate after the events at Stubenville last year, but how many people asked if the girl involved was receiving counselling, or any kind of psychiatric treatment? Everyone had an opinion regarding the guilt or innocence of Woody Allen, but who questioned how Farrow was affected by this memory (real or implanted, it’s irrelevant unless it comes to court) of someone supposedly trustworthy assaulting her?
So, there’s a little bit of a rant about how I think the whole “debate” is misguided in the first place. Twenty hours, seventeen cigarettes and four coffees later, here’s a bit of a critique of the actual piece itself. First of all, I’d like to address the painfully obvious generation gap. Or chasm. I’d prefer not to use the word abyss, if you don’t mind, it’s becoming a bit of a cliché. At this point, I’d like to include a note of gratitude to my feminist foremothers, the thinkers and the activists, the creators of fictional queer and women role models, my actual mother, and the back-up that doesn’t get as much attention- the aunts or surrogate aunts, the older sister, the godmother and the family friends. This may be the place for a gentle reminder that disagreement does not necessary indicate a lack of appreciation. I’m grateful for the work of the suffragettes, for example, even the white supremacist ones.
What do Halberstam et al define themselves in opposition to? Young people blogging about issues that effect them, personally. Queers trying to found real life groups that meet their concerns, as young people, in a public forum. People who want to meet the new challenges of their social reality, and maybe to change it. I am sure that the author does not quibble with the notion of an alcohol fuelled campus rape culture, an arena in which many young people suffer traumatic events daily. Halberstam’s pain may be buried, but some people haven’t had the time to find a shovel yet. Or the money to buy one. Or the vocabulary to ask for one. Or they desperately need a shovel, like now, but they’re still on a waiting list. And it may have been quite a while since Halberstam has been a young queer, but though things have improved, it’s still not exactly a level fucking playing field out there. The game is criticised cleverly, but it’s still being played- your pain can never match mine. Be grateful for that, and shut the hell up unless your planning to agree with me. Here, though, as elsewhere, Halberstam has an advantage- like those who objected to the term “Tranny” being used in the name of a long-running San Francisco club night, she punches for the term while we are left to criticise her tone.
One of the first things I did after reading the article was to check if the author was “the” Jack Halberstam. Raise your hands, all of you who went to a “Big Deal” university, the type your parents brag about you attending. Now raise your hands, all of you who have never felt slightly intimidated by a “Big Deal” professor, the type who has written books that feature on the reading lists of academic institutions around the globe. Now consider whether or not the over-concerned student Halberstam is describing might have felt a little nervous in the presence of an academic powerhouse.
For the length of this post, I’ve mostly been generalising undergraduate students as young people. This, of course, does not reflect reality. Plenty of mature students of all ages study the humanities, especially in Ireland. Plenty of students who grew up while sexual abuse in schools and parochial institutions was common-place and covered up. Plenty of people who grew up during the troubles in Northern Ireland. Plenty of people who lived in Dublin when it was bombed. Not only that, you may be sharing a classroom or lecture theatre with someone who grew up in a war torn country, or a victim of female genital mutilation. I cannot pretend to understand or even have knowledge of the experiences and mental health of these people, and neither can you. Not everyone likes to talk about their trauma. That’s one of the reasons trigger warnings can work so well- they allow for consideration and choice without the uncertainty and pain of disclosure to a tutor or professor who may or may not be sympathetic.
So, in conclusion, I’m asking for a little empathy. Not just in our private conversations, or in our public online posts, but in our institutions. Is that really such a stretch?
* Maniacally optimistic thinking can be fun sometimes. Give it a go and see whether your inner monologue sounds like a therapist, a salesman or an overly enthusiastic primary school teacher.
**The mental health of any one armed Irish chess player who speaks Dutch is of course his or her own business. However, if any are suffering in silence, I do encourage them to seek help.