Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Trigger Warnings and Trauma

By now we all know about the law students who begged out of final exams because they were traumatized by events in Ferguson, MO and Staten Island, NY.

Many sentient commentators wondered how these students will ever be able to practice criminal law. Won’t their delicate sensibilities prevent them from digging deeply into the minutiae of a crime? How can they offer the best defense if they refuse to examine the details of what happened?

Now, pretending that they will be traumatized by discussions of rape young law students at places like Harvard Law School have persuaded their teachers not to discuss the topic at all.

Apparently, the thought police have found a new way to suppress speech. These students will be severely traumatized by hearing the word—rape-- or, God forbid, the word-- violate.

But, how will these incipient lawyers ever be able to prosecute a rape case? If this movement gains more traction, we will end up with a group of lawyers that cannot prosecute rapists. Who profits from that piece of idiocy?

Harvard Law Professor Jeannie Suk describes the situation at her law school:

Students seem more anxious about classroom discussion, and about approaching the law of sexual violence in particular, than they have ever been in my eight years as a law professor. Student organizations representing women’s interests now routinely advise students that they should not feel pressured to attend or participate in class sessions that focus on the law of sexual violence, and which might therefore be traumatic. These organizations also ask criminal-law teachers to warn their classes that the rape-law unit might “trigger” traumatic memories. Individual students often ask teachers not to include the law of rape on exams for fear that the material would cause them to perform less well. One teacher I know was recently asked by a student not to use the word “violate” in class—as in “Does this conduct violate the law?”—because the word was triggering. Some students have even suggested that rape law should not be taught because of its potential to cause distress.

The result:

But asking students to challenge each other in discussions of rape law has become so difficult that teachers are starting to give up on the subject. About a dozen new teachers of criminal law at multiple institutions have told me that they are not including rape law in their courses, arguing that it’s not worth the risk of complaints of discomfort by students. Even seasoned teachers of criminal law, at law schools across the country, have confided that they are seriously considering dropping rape law and other topics related to sex and gender violence. Both men and women teachers seem frightened of discussion, because they are afraid of injuring others or being injured themselves. What has made everyone so newly nervous about discussing sexual-assault law in the classroom?

On what grounds are these radical students suppressing classroom instruction into criminal activity?

On the grounds that such discussions will traumatize them. It’s not about the law. It’s about a crackpot theory of mental health.

Suh writes:

For at least some students, the classroom has become a potentially traumatic environment, and they have begun to anticipate the emotional injuries they could suffer or inflict in classroom conversation. They are also more inclined to insist that teachers protect them from causing or experiencing discomfort—and teachers, in turn, are more willing to oblige, because it would be considered injurious for them not to acknowledge a student’s trauma or potential trauma.

Were we to follow the logic of the argument we would immediately run into difficulties. If the word “rape” triggers a traumatic reaction, the same would be true of any word associated with the event.

If a woman was raped on the beach, the word beach or the word ocean might trigger the memory. If her assailant was male the word man might do the same. Unless, of course, he called himself a dude. In that case, the word dude would have to be banned. If he had dark hair or blond hair or red hair, all of these words might be traumatizing. If he was wearing jeans… and so on.

Any teacher who wanted to follow the politically correct rule to the letter would then have to find out which students had suffered which traumas and which words they associated with their traumas.

You would end up with a list of prohibited words, a type of Index.

But that isn’t even the strangest part.

We live in a world where therapy is often conducted according to the principles of cognitive neuroscience. It is well known, or it should be well known that behavioral treatments, especially, try to cure by desensitizing people to traumas and psychic pain… through gradual exposure to the triggering image or word.

Someone who is phobic about spiders will gradually be exposed to spiders. It might begin with the word… it might move on to pictures… and it might arrive at real spiders.

Gradual exposure will desensitize the individual to an object or a threat.

By extension, an individual who religiously avoids all exposure to a threatening object, like a spider, will, upon confronting one, have no defenses, no way to process the information beyond sheer terror. Someone who does not know how to deal with the triggering images or words will be especially vulnerable to any image denoting the threat.

Of course, some people do not believe in the cognitive-behavioral approach to therapy. They prefer the more psychoanalytically inspired approach.

Even there, however, the key to overcoming trauma, pace Freud, is to remember it, to recall it, to recollect it… then to recount it within a coherent narrative.

Even in the Freudian exercise in mental gymnastics, a trauma can only be neutralized by being recalled. To be more precise, the purpose of psychoanalysis is to help the victim accept that he really wanted it to happen.

Thus, the cognitive-behavioral approach works to help people to put their traumas behind them. It claims that sensitivity or oversensitivity to a trauma is more like a bad habit than it is a meaningful statement about who you are or what you want.

Be that as it may, no therapy asserts that shielding people from recollecting trauma is beneficial.

When cognitive therapists developed the concept of triggers, they wanted people to learn how to deal with them, not to run away from them. 

8 comments:

Ares Olympus said...

Humans are curious animals. I agree it isn't a good sign, and perhaps it is "caused" by a therapy culture or whatever, but I can be more curious for wider possible truths here.

For perspective, I've long wondered how surgeon could so "heartless" cut into human flesh without screaming in pain. I mean how do you "do no harm" when you have to cut someone open to help heal them?

Not being one I can't say, but obviously there's some sort of objectification going on. It's not a person, its just an organic system, one that we rationally know from experience, is self-healing, if you give it the right sort of help.

But out empathetic system probably will never accept such "reason", and people who want to study dead bodies are probably evil and deserve some special place in hell for their evil knowledge.

At least a superstious perspective can go there easily - anything I could never do because I'm a good person, but someone else can do, well, something must be wrong with them!

So in order to be a good doctor, you have to suppress an important part of your humanity.

Take away empathy, and we can become Nazi doctors who will dehumanize subjects into objects for medical knowledge. Give them full empathy and they'd rather let a pregnant woman die than cut out the baby.

Trauma is an interesting word, suggesting that a person has hit an experience they can't process. So if you take it slow, we can be desensitized to things.

But when you're not talking about your own actions, or your own experiences, it is strange to imagine how trauma exists. Perhaps it means such "sensitive people" are not reacting directly to the external information, but are reacting to some other hidden trauma?

Or maybe its all stupid imagination, and mass-hypnosis, and suggestability of people in groups?

Maybe its even a psychic field phenomena? When a critical mass of people are overwhelmed by their trauma, their emotional states are "contagious" to others?

I remember after my mom died in my early 20's, I couldn't watch any TV news for over a year, and new of violence hit me the most.

Perhaps in the olden days people were more isolated, and now with mass-media emotional-meme viruses are spreading quickly in large populations?

Its hard to know, or how you might scientifically prove anything. OTOH, we're collecting more data than ever before. Perhaps someone right now is statistically measuring internet hysteria, and even "planting" viral topics to measure how fast it propagates? Perhaps these are the new Nazi doctors, practicing on a blind culture in need of manipulation and proding into the "correct" directions?

Or would that be too conspiratory?

David Foster said...

But plain old murder isn't considered traumatic, I guess...

How about bankruptcy law? There must be millions of people who have been traumatized by personal bankruptcy or by a major loss stemming from business bankruptcy.

I think there's an opportunity for some college to position itself as the non-wimp university: "Our students are expected to have the emotional strength and maturity to participate in a wide range of discussion, and if they can't do that, they shouldn't come here."

I suspect a lot of employers would hire people from such a university in preference to the shrinking violets which appear to be so common in most of today's higher education.

n.n said...

What doesn't break you, will [potentially] make you stronger. It's a principle of physical immunity; of mental immunity; and of wisdom.

Sam L. said...

They refuse to be vaccinated against the ills that could plague them later in life, and face life with no (NO) immunity built up thru exposure to things(and especially) thinks/thoughts that exist in the wild of real life.

Jim Sweeney said...

It's a good thing these candy-asses don't have to hit the beach at Iwo or Normandy. We'd lose. Same with their college profs or admin people. ISIS would have them for lunch. One wonders if the demands arise mainly from the male or female genders? I hope the latter. If not, we're really doomed.

Pogo: I never said I was a diplomat said...

They're not using the word 'trigger' in any clinical sense, but merely for political gain.

They are arguing that women are simultaneously independent, strong, intelligent, sex-positive and delicate hothouse flowers unable to even be in the room when unmentionable topics are broached.

Worse, they demand we also believe this impossible contradiction is true, and blame us when we cannot correctly guess which face they are showing at any one moment.

Sam L. said...

I think Pogo nailed it.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Let's be clear. The concept of mental triggers comes to us from cognitive therapy. It is certainly a clinical concept. Of course, the students who are invoking it to declare their sensitivity are obviously misusing it, even abusing it. That was the point of my post.