On Trauma and Trigger Warnings, in Three Parts

23 Nov

Lisa Duggan

This is the first of several posts adapted for Bully Bloggers from an October 14, 2014 panel at NYU:

Taking Offense: Trigger Warnings & the Neoliberal Politics of Endangerment

a panel discussion sponsored by the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality with Lisa Duggan, Jack Halberstam, Tavia Nyong’o, Ann Pellegrini, & Avgi Saketopoulou, moderated Karen Shimakawa. 

The panel was planned as a follow up to Jack Halberstam’s July 5 and July 15 posts on the subject of trigger warnings on this blog.  Trigger warnings originated in the feminist and queer blogosphere, but proposals to recommend or require them on college syllabi are now being considered on many campuses, including at UC Santa Barbara, Oberlin, Rutgers, George Washington University and the University of Michigan.  This migration to the college and university setting was the context for the Oct. 14 panel, and for the following series of BB posts.

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Part One: Personal Experience

During the 1990s, my friend Kathleen McHugh and I collaborated on two projects. We co-wrote “The Fem(me)inist Manifesto” (the most fun I ever had with a writing project) and we co-founded a little known entirely mythical underground organization—the Daughters of Irish Drunks. It was all a joke, of course, but a serious joke. At our “meetings” at the local café at the University of Illinois in Urbana, we hatched cartoonish revenge plots against our violent, sexually abusive alcoholic fathers.

This use of sophomoric humor had already become my primary coping strategy, along with a preference for direct confrontation and provocation. When I was 12 years old, I announced I was atheist, communist and a vegetarian at Thanksgiving dinner. I pretty much knew what would happen. My father chased me up the stairs with the carving knife as I ducked into the bathroom and locked the door. I loudly ridiculed him through the door. To me, it was all a Tom and Jerry cartoon. I developed a distinct preference for drawing the violence out, rather than trying to tip toe around it and wait for an eruption. A couple of decades later a therapist in New York asked me if I’d ever tried denial and avoidance? They were, she said, perfectly good defenses (and no doubt safer than provocation).

In 2002-2003 while on fellowship at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, I was seeing another therapist who asked me to color in a family genogram—with different color markers for violence, mental illness, incest and alcoholism. The chart looked like a roaring fire. The therapist wrote “culture of poverty” in the margin. I laughed out loud, crossed her words out, and wrote “cracker melodrama” instead. The therapist leaned in close and said with some intensity, “You do realize this isn’t really funny, don’t you?”

The only PTSD-like symptom I developed during my journey through childhood was the propensity to have a panic attack when I heard a barking dog. It is very very difficult to avoid the sound of barking dogs! Anywhere, any time, I might hear them. So I needed strategies to cope with the panic attacks, which could happen anywhere.

Given these defenses and this symptom, trigger warnings do not appeal to me as a method of coping with trauma. I don’t think it is possible to predict what will induce a PTSD reaction to past trauma—realist representations of trauma are not the reliable triggers people think they are. And I find all protectionist strategies patronizing and condescending. I want to face it all right now, no holds barred. Or at least I usually think I do.

Though the personal is political in many ways, personal experience and preference are actually lousy guides for political organizing and action. So what if this is my experience and these are my preferences and reactions? Other people navigate the world in different ways. In order to generate political action in response to collective experiences of trauma, we do need to do more than reference our own pain and strategies.

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Part Two: Historical Analysis

In my book, Twilight of Equality, I analyze the impact of neoliberal politics and policies on social movements during the 1990s. The general drift of change from the 1970s to the 1990s has been from the utopian to the pragmatic, from the collective to the individual, from transformative to the therapeutic. That is of course an over generalization, there is a wide range of kinds of social movement politics all through this period. We still have utopian, collective transformative activism now, and we had piecemeal, self-directed and individualist politics then. Race, class, gender, nation, religion are all significant defining boundaries for social movements. But to give some examples of the general trend I’m referencing:

*During the 1970s, some feminists exposed the widespread incidence of father-daughter incest in families, as part of their critique of the patriarchal family. During the 1980s, this critique slowly morphed into a moral panic over Satanic child abuse in day care centers (by strangers, outside the family). By the 1990s, the popular media focus was on the individual pedophile, a deranged and monstrous individual who must be tracked down and locked up to keep families safe.

*1970s feminist organizing for reproductive freedom and justice morphed in the 1980s into a focus on the individual medical consumer’s right to “choose” to have an abortion. Rather than organize to provide support and resources for a full range of reproductive freedoms (including freedom from unwanted sterilization), the overwhelming majority of feminist organizations fought primarily for abortion rights.

*1970s feminist critiques of the culture of violence against women shifted into a focus on police enforcement of laws against domestic violence (supporting the expansion of policing and prisons during the period), and into anti-pornography politics represented by Women Against Pornography in the 1980s (Women Against the Novel makes as much sense). When I attended a WAP slideshow in Times Square during the 1980s, their donor chart on the wall showed their biggest donations coming from those with a stake in gentrifying the area—real estate corporations and the city.

These very sketchy examples are meant to illustrate the dangers involved as social movement politics move into institutions (like the law, the state or the university) with shaping interests of their own. Rod Ferguson’s recent book, The Reorder of Things, provides an extended examination of the university in particular, as social movements moved into programs and centers focused on race, gender and sexuality.

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Part Three: Politics and Policy

So, what are the dangers in the path of trigger warnings as they move from a voluntary practice on feminist blogs and queer and trans tumblr to the university setting, a journey from politics to policy. One salient example for comparison is the career of sexual harassment law and policy. Feminist critiques of the sexualized power dynamics of the school and workplace moved into the arena of law, and were then taken over in the 1990s by corporate lawyers concerned with protecting their clients from liability. The workshops and policies developed at universities became more and more like military anti-fraternization codes. When I was teaching at Brown University from 1992-1994, I received warnings about the dangers of having dinner with students (lawsuits!), and learned about the 3rd party complaint procedure whereby one student could complain about a relationship between another student and a professor that might put her at a competitive disadvantage.

Sexual harassment law and policy ultimately put a process in place that is easily exploitable by lawyers, administrators, reactionaries and stalkers, by gay panic sufferers and jealous competitors.

In the case of trigger warnings, once they become the province of student senates, administrative bodies and university policies, they run the risk of marking and targeting the courses on gender and sexuality, critical race theory, colonial and postcolonial studies. These courses can be marked as the location of materials that endanger student welfare, and administrators may police their content in the name of “protecting” students. Rather than attend to the sources of inequality, conflict and trauma, some students may be motivated to look for triggers in books and films and ask for protection rather than resources and redress. This can apply to anti-gay Christian students who are “triggered” by queer material, as easily as to any others.

I think the strongest argument for trigger warnings comes from the disability justice movement. It does seem that a student with PTSD symptoms should have the same right to request accommodation as any other student with a disability. But this process of medicalization of trauma, in the service of institutional accommodation also has its dangers, as many disability studies scholars have pointed out. Does marking trauma as medicalized disability work like setting aside “disabled rooms” in hotels, allowing the hospitality industry to avoid instituting universal access design? Shouldn’t our classes approach collective trauma with an eye to exposing, critiquing and confronting systematic violence? Rather than singling out experiences in a decontextualizing and ultimately depoliticizing way, by marking representations of them with trigger warnings? Can’t we avoid turning politics into neoliberal policy yet again?

With trigger warnings as university or public policy, what could go wrong? Um, maybe this?

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3 Responses to “On Trauma and Trigger Warnings, in Three Parts”

  1. seymourblogger November 25, 2014 at 11:14 pm #

    Reblogged this on seymourblogger and commented:
    Wonderful.Some sanity at last.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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

    […] nicht genauer eingehen kann; so wird etwa die Forderung nach Trigger-Warnungen innerhalb einer neoliberalen Logik individualisierten Leidens und einer allgemeinen Verschiebung vom Politischen zum Therapeutischen, […]

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

    […] Lisa Duggan, “Trauma and Trigger Warnings in Three Parts” […]

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