Triggering Me, Triggering You: Making Up Is Hard To Do

15 Jul

by Jack Halberstam

30 Rock - Season 7

I was re-watching 30 Rock the other day (yeah, right after I finished my Monty Python marathon) and I came across the episode where Liz Lemon’s show, TGS, is accused of “hating women.” Liz Lemon is outraged, and reminds her crew that their last episode was all about women – cut to Jenna as Amelia Earhart crashing her plane because “oh no! my period.” And then cut to Jenna as Hilary Clinton messing up a press conference because “my period!” Liz Lemon explains: “that was an ironic appropriation of…oh, I don’t know anymore.” The skit continues with another humorous twist of the screw with which I won’t bore/amuse you but perhaps this is a good place to start: we often don’t know anymore, when something is an ironic appropriation of…and when it is just more of the same.

The responses to my recent Bully Bloggers piece “You’re Triggering Me: The Neo-Liberal Rhetoric of Harm, Danger and Trauma” have pretty much polarized people (at least those who have responded publicly) into camps that break along that kind of division – people who hear humor and irony in the piece and are in favor of “ironic appropriations,” and people who think that the humor is just fancy dressing for odious and hurtful dismissals of real experiences of harm and pain. Obviously the wide range of responses to the post suggests the virality of the topic in the first place and perhaps justifies my attempts to make an intervention. And obviously I wrote a polemic so I cannot claim now to be surprised when the polemic polarizes!

But I was surprised by some mis-readings and dismayed by some of the more vicious responses, and I was very sorry, in particular, that some of my characterizations smacked of a dismissal of disability rights claims or discourse.

Some of the best responses to my piece include:

  • Andrea Smith’s wise “Beyond the Pros and Cons of Trigger Warnings: Collectivized Healing” (not a direct response to me at all) where she asks: “How do we create spaces to experiment with different strategies, as well as spaces to openly assess and change these strategies as they inevitably become co-opted? How do we create movements that make us collectively accountable for healing from individual and collective trauma?”
  •  Another excellent post that did directly respond to mine, and critiqued it, came from Natalia Cecire who offers that I am missing the way that neoliberalism also counsels us to “suck it up” in relation to harm and pain that we may feel. And she usefully points to the ways that the modes of expression that I critique are often associated with the feminine and therefore draw out a sexist response that she associated with my article. Finally, Cecire proposes that it is ridiculous to point to and intensify a generational split, one that older people have in many ways created and exploited and then blame it on a younger generation and all while accusing people of lacking a sense of humor. Fair enough.
  • Julia Serano, the author of the fabulous Whipping Girl, a book I regularly teach, calls my blog a “kitchen sink” piece and reminds us that activism can be messy and difficult but that the quarrels over language and feelings are ultimately worth the effort. She also memorializes her dead parrot while trigger warning the memorialization and joking about her own trigger warning. And she has funny inter titles, and is always worth a read, even if she is ripping you a new one!whipping_girl
  • Finally, Valéria Souza’s excellent blog on “Triggernometry” charts the history of some of these debates and she situates triggering as an almost necessary part of learning and something that we cannot shield ourselves from but that we should not ignore either.
  • You can also read other great posts by Brandy Daniels, and Matthew Nelson.

In response, and quickly because I know people are somewhat sick of this topic by now:

  • warning-humor
    1. I apologize to all those offended by my article. And to those who were not offended, it was not for lack of trying (joke).
    2. In trying to express frustration with some of the ways in which we engage each other in public around safe space, trigger warnings and appellations/pronouns, I realize that I made a straw person out of the environmentally sensitive people who object to perfume in public spaces. On this point, I have been re-reading Anna Mollow’s excellent article “No Safe Place” in Women Studies Quarterly (2011). My point was not to critique people who have environmental allergies  but to question how we make room for each other, or don’t, how we interact in public spaces and how important it is to find ways to communicate our needs without shouting each other down. This is something that I believe disability rights groups have done gracefully  and not simply by yelling at others in spaces fouled up by toxic odors. It may also be a good time to return to Todd Haynes brilliant film, Safe (1995), which managed to situate environmental illness not as a metaphor but as a part of an emergent landscape of differentiated vulnerability to all kinds of social and chemical toxicity. safe
    3. Generational conflict is an important topic. In my book, In a Queer Time and Place back in 2005, I actually wrote about the potential for emergent queer youth groups to pit old and young against each other in queer communities that were not actually organized along generational lines. This kind of conflict, I said then, is organized within Oedipal structures that make one generation see the other as their rivals/replacement. Consequently, these Oedipal structures substitute for other more queer, fluid and entwined relations between young and old, relations moreover that were often intimate and that, in the past, allowed for knowledge (prior to the internet) to be passed on from one generation to another. I still think that some of the impact of queer youth groups comes in the form of Oedipal conflict and I am committed to thinking with others about how to communicate, exchange and theorize beyond that Oedipal frame. I reproduced the framework in my essay for sure, but that is an inevitable consequence of struggling over a term like “tranny” that many people in their 40’s and 50’s use and other younger people often detest.Emperor-Penguins
    4. After reading through many responses to my original piece, I also agree that “censorship” might be too strong a word for the work that trigger warnings do, but censorship can mean not simply preventing someone from speaking but also insisting on what they say when they do speak. Trigger warnings originated in more local contexts and certainly warrant more conversation as and when they move from those contexts to public discourse. On this front, we might want to think about the provincial nature of these trigger warning/safe space debates and their specificity within North America – as several people pointed out in comments to my original blog, perhaps it is worth considering how American the demand for and expectation of safe space really is and whether we should dialogue about the centrality of injury to political claims made here in the US as opposed to elsewhere. But also we might consider how demands for safety in the US all too often come at the expense of others within a security regime.
    5. Julia Serano’s parrot is an important reminder of the stakes in these debates. Serano suggests that while she did lose her parrot in a way that was sad for her, she would not claim “that I was “traumatized” by her death. Nor am I “triggered” these days by watching Monty Python’s “Dead Parrot” sketch. But,” she continues, “do you know what would upset me? If somebody tried to dismiss my feelings about Coby and the grief that I felt after her passing.” I can very well understand that, no one wants their feelings dismissed but we should not confuse sad feelings with uncontrollable grief and so, I want to validate Julia’s feelings about her pet, Coby, and I want to propose that if I was at a play or performance where someone’s parrot became an ex-parrot and it was part of a humorous sketch about our attachment to animals, we should not have to have a town hall meeting about the performance later on account of the fact that it was disrespectful to those who have suffered the loss of said avian companions…if you catch my drift.monty_python_dead_parrot_sketch_by_seekerarmada-d5muzjm
    6. And if you don’t, no worries, to follow in Julia Serano’s footsteps, I will now be known as Whipping Boy or Jock Halberslam or, as my favorite tweet put it, “ the sports dad of queer theory.” Or we could all move on and work harder to understand each other, to trust each other and to believe that even if we cannot shield each other from harm, we can at least make the odd dead parrot joke in good humor and with impunity.67Z94Svt



13 Responses to “Triggering Me, Triggering You: Making Up Is Hard To Do”

  1. aoifeschatology July 15, 2014 at 3:10 pm #

    Forgive me for linking my own response: as a trans woman who uses TW in a classroom, I wrote about my experience:

    http://aoifeschatology.wordpress.com/2014/07/14/trig-reciprocal-functions-im-a-trans-woman-adjunct-prof-and-i-use-trigger-warnings/

    • bullybloggers July 15, 2014 at 3:57 pm #

      Thank you!!

      • aoifeschatology July 15, 2014 at 4:54 pm #

        Much thanks to you for letting me share the link here.

  2. borderdwelling July 15, 2014 at 9:53 pm #

    the end of the essay is my favorite and i’m obsessed with 30 rock for this very reason.

  3. L.B. July 16, 2014 at 12:33 am #

    “and quickly because I know people are somewhat sick of this topic by now” — no, I don’t think people are sick of the topic by now. Clearly it’s an important thing to talk about. Even *I* literally formed my own blog just so I could write about and follow this idea. Hard topics are hard, so they take a lot of time right? I mean it’s really only been a few days.

  4. Ron Swanson July 20, 2014 at 1:31 pm #

    Funny how this post is using 30 Rock as a starting point because that is the one show I had to stop watching because it did trigger a PTSD episode for me so severe I would never watch the show again. I’m thinking of the episode Tina Fey wrote where viewers are forced into taking the POV of a rapist during the rape.

    http://www.vulture.com/2010/09/30_rock_rape_joke.html

    Further proof how triggers are everywhere. Whenever I see Tina Fey, especially in character as Liz, I start to feel an attack come on.

    • bullybloggers July 20, 2014 at 6:57 pm #

      Hope this is a joke…

  5. Kahlil Chaar-Pérez July 22, 2014 at 11:27 am #

    Thanks for this second post and the first, I have learned immensely from both you and the conversation it has sparked, including the dismissive or more virulent replies. At first, my gut reaction was to condemn the trigger warning movement for potentially opening the door to censorship, but I understand much better now the dynamics at play (even if I still believe that potentiality exists, as another tool of exploitation from higher ed administrators).

    A question that continues to bug me (or is it bully me?) is who establishes–and through what processes–the difference between “sad feelings with uncontrollable grief.” Because of its fluidity, once we start rationalizing affect we enter into risky business. After all, one person’s affective experience of an event is irreducible to another person’s experience. What language can we use to respect that irreducible difference while also respecting the fact that a passing feeling of sadness is not equivalent to the condition of melancholy? Thanks again, for continuing this dialogue.

  6. Alex Mobley July 25, 2014 at 10:56 am #

    “the sports dad of queer theory” – and whatever could possibly be objectionable about such an honorific title? That would be CL Cole in my opinion — unless I haven’t had a chance to read Jock’s work on netball.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Triggering Me, Triggering You: Making Up Is Hard To Do | Bully Bloggers - Queerly Forward - July 16, 2014

    […] Triggering Me, Triggering You: Making Up Is Hard To Do | Bully Bloggers. By Jack Halberstam […]

  2. Wie sinnvoll sind Trigger-Warnungen in Veranstaltungen der Gender und Queer Studies? | feministische studien - January 29, 2015

    […] theory“ eingebracht hat, was ich wiederum ziemlich lustig finde und Halberstam selbst in einem Nachtrag zum ursprünglichen Blogeintrag zitiert. jQuery("#footnote_plugin_tooltip_2").tooltip({ tip: […]

  3. 3620 Podcast | Annenberg School for Communication - February 2, 2015

    […] Jack Halberstam, “Triggering me, Triggering you…” […]

  4. Life of the Law | Trigger Warnings in Academia: What’s Really at Issue? - February 25, 2015

    […] and public musings, writings, lambastings and apologies on the issue. Halberstam, in fact, wrote a follow up to his initial post apologizing for offense and taking into consideration thoughtful point-by-point […]

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