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.
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.
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.