Blog Credo

The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.

H.L. Mencken

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Trigger Warnings, Mental Health and Liberal Education

The University of Chicago sent out a slightly belligerent letter that they would not be having trigger warnings on courses or literature, safe spaces on campus or cancelling controversial speakers.

Trigger warnings, of course, are barely a thing.  Some courses offer them, but as far as I know, no college requires them.  What's more, their efficacy is highly suspect.  If the point of trigger warnings is to protect someone from having a traumatic experience relived, most PTSD treatments are explicitly about reliving the traumatic experience so that you can process it properly.

The problem, therefore, is not with the literature, but with the way we define and treat mental health issues.  If, for instance, a young woman was sexually assaulted at her high school prom and then has to read a book in her freshman lit class where a rape features prominently, then the problem isn't the literature.  The problem is that we have no institutional way to provide the young woman with counselling after her rape, to make sure that she can enjoy a healthier emotional and psychological life afterwards.

We can't change the past for a rape victim, any more than we can for a combat veteran or the victim of a vicious beating.  Those events happened.  Sometimes they come with physical disabilities, but they can also come with psychological scars.  As a society, however, we are still stuck on the "rub some dirt on it" school of toughness.  For some, perhaps, that can work; for others it cannot.  There is no way to know what is happening inside the brain of any one person.

What we need, therefore, is not warnings or safe spaces, but resources available - more than available, it has to be proactive - to allow for someone to process the emotions surrounding the original trauma.

If all we do is protect the mind from exposure to that trauma, then it's no different from wearing a brace for too long.  That limb will atrophy, and the brain and psyche will become stuck in that trauma.  The problem isn't the literature or the educational intent, the problem is that as we understand more and more about the human psychology, we need to make sure that we extend the benefits of that knowledge to more and more people.  The point is not that a student who was abandoned by her mother shouldn't have to read Sophie's Choice, but that we should be able to get her to a place where she can read Sophie's Choice.

And, yeah, on top of it all, we should expect colleges to challenge and confront students. If they want a safe space, then that's what their dorms and student organizations are for.

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