Triggers, Metaphoric and Real

Ashley Thorne

Catching up on work-related reading after the long weekend, I found an article on “trigger warnings” on the blog Philanthropy Daily. It opens, “No, this isn’t about a threat to life and limb from guns on campus—thank heavens!” It was posted on Friday, the day before 22-year-old Elliot Rodger took to the streets of Isla Vista, California and shot and killed seven people, including himself, and wounded thirteen others.

It seems a strange irony that the blog article made so blithe a distinction between trigger warnings and actual triggers one day prior to a 22-year-old’s grisly killing spree, which he termed his “day of retribution” for those at UC Santa Barbara and in the town of Isla Vista who he said had shunned him.

Trigger warnings became a new catchphrase this year after Oberlin College changed its policy to include lengthy guidelines for faculty members as to disclaimers they should make before teaching classes with potentially sensitive material.  “Trigger warnings” were originally conceived as a consideration for students’ psychological wellbeing, especially those suffering from ailments such as post-traumatic stress disorder. The idea is that, for example, if a movie that will be shown in class depicts war combat, student veterans—and anyone susceptible to being traumatized by film violence—ought to be warned in advance. But as Cathy Young pointed out in Minding the Campus this spring, trigger warnings have taken on a much broader meaning, and are being applied to course material related to racism, gender stereotypes, and potentially offensive points of view (on college campuses today, almost any point of view is offensive to someone). This opens the door both to endless caveats and to a constant fear of not having enough caveats. It puts a faculty member always on the defensive.

Of the examples provided in Oberlin’s policy, here’s my personal favorite:

If your class is too large to memorize names and pronouns, avoid using gender-specific language whenever possible.  For example, if your instinct is to call on “the guy in the purple shirt,” try instead saying, “you, in the purple shirt.”

Oberlin tabled the policy after it proved controversial and faculty members complained that it had been implemented without their input. But the idea continues to resonate in an age of rampant hate crime hoaxes on college campuses. Last month, I met with a group of about 20 Ohio scholars at Ohio State University to talk about patterns in campus reactions to bias incidents. Such reactions – again Oberlin is a prime example – can be so intense that they provide fresh incentives for fake crimes. At a number of colleges, after some incident supposedly motivated by hate, classes are canceled and deans and students go into crisis mode and act out what I call “staged emergencies,” as well as rituals reestablishing core values of tolerance and diversity. These crises can be “triggered” by something as foolish as a person wrapped in a blanket being mistakenly perceived as a Klan member.

One idea that came out in our discussion at OSU was that a pervasive insistence that anything can be racist (or sexist) is simply not conducive to creating productive conversation.

The metaphor of unintentional offense giving rise to a trigger turned savagely real on Friday. In his 137-page manifesto and 7-minute YouTube video, gunman Elliot Rodger seethed against friends and family members who enraged him by achieving popularity, which was so elusive for him. He told of his hatred for both the women who had rejected him sexually (though he seems not to have ever had much social interaction with women) and the men they had chosen instead. He used the language of “getting what they deserve” and said that he had been deprived of what he deserved. Rodger had enrolled at several community colleges in southern California but had dropped out of each one.

The words in his manifestos, however, showed that he had internalized the lessons of college-propagated politically correct culture.  Three lessons in particular: First is the idea that sex is a right, and that no one goes through college without it. Rodger saw himself as a failure for being a virgin at the end of college: “I’ve been through college for two and a half years…and I’m still a virgin.” In the video he pronounces this line like an accusation. “College is the time when everyone experiences those things such as sex, fun, pleasure. But in those years I’ve had to rot in loneliness. It’s not fair.”

Second, Rodger imagined that his race was a large part of the reason for his rejection. He was half white and half Malaysian and thought that girls looked at him with disdain because he was part Asian. The diversity doctrine teaches that for minorities, all troubles stem from racism. It never occurred to Rodger to look to his own behavior as the obstacle to getting what he wanted. Instead he assumed others were biased against him.

The third lesson is bitterness toward those who have what we don’t have. This is a temptation for all of us, but colleges nurture that vice by insinuating that any inequality is itself unjust. Many of us are never told that resenting can be just as bad as marginalizing. It came as something totally new when someone told me that. I remember being on a high school spring break trip in New York and sulking in the back of the pack as our group toured around the city, the popular girls chatting with each other and not with me. A chaperone sidled up next to me and when I complained to her asked me, “Have you ever thought that maybe you’re excluding them back?” The world teaches us that we deserve happiness while at the same time imparting that those who have what we want really don’t deserve it. The next logical steps are resentment and finding ways to steal others’ happiness.

Not every offense can be anticipated with a warning. Instead of teaching young people that their most powerful weapon is grievance, colleges ought to help them develop virtues of self-possession and maturity in the face of foolishness and even provocation. A 22-year-old with a deep sense of having been wronged felt justified in taking out his anger in violence against others. In his mind, he was triggered.


Image: prickly pear with flowers by Anthony Trumbo // CC BY-NC

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