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I've never had the occasion to begin a piece of writing with a trigger warning, and am decidedly ambivalent about the whole phenomenon -- especially since learning from Tressie McMillan Cottom's excellent blog that some universities "are issuing guidelines to help professors consider adding 'trigger warnings' to syllabi for 'racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression,' and to remove triggering material when it doesn’t 'directly' contribute to learning goals.”
Racism, sexism, and the rest are real, and they do damage. But for many on the academic left, activism against them now amounts to policing one another's use of language. Cottom, who is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at Emory University, doesn't categorically reject the trigger warning, but she treats the "triggering" syllabus as a surrender to the student-as-customer model of pedagogy:
"No one should ever be uncomfortable because students do not pay to feel things like confusion or anger. That sounds very rational until we consider how the student-customer model doesn’t silence power so much as it stifles any discourse about how power acts on people…. Yet, no one is arguing for trigger warnings in the routine spaces where symbolic and structural violence are acted on students at the margins. No one, to my knowledge, is affixing trigger warnings to department meetings that WASP-y normative expectations may require you to code switch yourself into oblivion to participate as a full member of the group. Instead, trigger warnings are being encouraged for sites of resistance, not mechanisms of oppression."
No need to issue a caution for Karyn L. Freedman's stunning One Hour in Paris: A True Story of Rape and Recovery (University of Chicago Press).The trigger warning is wired right into the title. The author, now an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Guelph, survived a brutal sexual assault at the hands of a drunken, knife-wielding acquaintance that took place in 1990, when she was 22 years old.
The first and most painful chapter narrates her life up to and including that ordeal. Some of the memories remain extremely vivid -- particularly the instant when the fight-or-flight instinct short-circuited because neither was possible. Other details Freedman can only reconstruct from medical and legal documents; the trauma effectively deleted her memory of them.
The rest of the book (four-fifths of it) traces the consequences of the event. Just a few months after the rape, Freedman declared herself "over it already" and "made a conscious decision to just get on with things, so to speak." That included sexual relationships with men. She told very few people what had happened to her, as is often the case with rape victims. But she also had the much less common opportunity to see her attacker in court in a timely manner, and he died while serving an eight-year prison sentence.
Closure! If only that word meant anything. Neither willpower nor the justice system were enough to overcome what she only much later came to recognize as symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder: fearfulness, insomnia, panic attacks, overwhelming flashbacks, and extreme difficulty in trusting men, among other things.
Most of Freedman's other published work has appeared in journals devoted to the philosophy of science -- "not a discipline that requires much self-awareness," she writes, "at least, not typically. It does not ask philosophers to be attuned to their emotional responses to its subject matter or to have a personal or experiential connection with it." She found relief in being able "to retreat into the safety of a world of logic and reason, a domain wholly external to mine."
While her mind went about its business, her body was still responding to the world as if the rapist could reappear at any time, one hand pulling her hair out of her scalp while the other held a knife to her throat. It was ten years before Freedman began therapy appropriate to treating PTSD; even then, it only reduced her symptoms and taught her to manage the anxiety, rather than curing them.
But in thinking and writing her experience, she worked toward an insight that is in some ways as troubling as the narrative of her attack. Any traumatic event, including highway collisions and natural catastrophes, will leave a mark on someone's neurobiology. But traumatic interpersonal violence goes further: it destroys one's previous understanding of people and the world. Freedman says she grew up thinking of violence as rare and for the most part avoidable by someone who is reasonably careful. Such beliefs could survive learning the statistic that one woman in four will at some point be forced into sex. Becoming one of them destroyed that basic existential confidence.
The rape survivor is left with a "shattered worldview," but also has to face people who prefer an outlook she knows to be untrue. Sexual violence against women and children is not a deviation from the norm; it's much too frequent and commonplace for that. "And because rape is typically experienced in private," Freedman writes, "unlike other traumatic experiences, like combat fighting for war, for instance, the clear evidence of its pervasiveness is obscured from our collective vision." The situation is self-perpetuating.
Before reading One Hour in Paris, I was fairly dubious about the recent proliferation of trigger warnings. But Freedman's memoir makes the level of distress implied by "trigger" much clearer, and empathy trumps cynicism. Still, as a way to reduce PTSD, the warnings seem not much more than a palliative. What they really are, in the end, is a gesture of respect toward everyday suffering that otherwise goes unrecognized.
As for the trigger-warning-equipped syllabus, two brief points that should be obvious. First, the only real beneficiaries will be lackadaisical slackwits, providing them an excuse not to do the assigned reading. And second, it would tend to keep a book like One Hour in Paris out of the classroom. Reading and discussing it will make people extremely uncomfortable, which is, on the whole, a good thing.