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Trigger Warnings, Micro-aggressions and Bullying

Where do we draw the line?

In September, The Atlantic Monthly magazine ran a feature article entitled “The Coddling of the American Mind.” I have been thinking about that article since I read it, and what to make of the (potential for) a new vocabulary for bullying: “trigger warnings,” and “microaggressions.”

I first heard about trigger warnings on NPR in 2014. The Atlantic article prompted me to revisit the topic as it potentially relates to bullying. Trigger warnings are defined as "alerts that professors are expected to issue if something in a course might cause a strong emotional response” (the Atlantic cited F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway as examples of where warnings have been called for). These are literary classics. Without a doubt Lolita, Catcher in the Rye, The Bell Jar, and many others could be added to that list. Wow.

Five years ago, while still a faculty member, I deliberately looked for provocative ways to engage students who, by age 18, seemed blasé (having already been exposed to all manner of sex, violence, and ‘depravities’ via news-stories and popular films). Not only did I regularly screen “A Clockwork Orange,” “The Rapture,” and “Girl, Interrupted,” I had been known to open my Social Problems course with BumFights." The issues raised by each of these offerings always got my student’s attention—generating stunned silences and lively discussion—which was the intended outcome. The agenda of the protagonist in each of these offerings—and the circumstances of the ‘victims’—needs to be digested, questioned, probed, pushed, and responded to. Their content needs to be negotiated—especially if it triggers an emotional response. To my mind, it seemed irresponsible to let students come to these issues (or the films that showcase them) on their own, without the context of a classroom to support engagement with the topics.

But today, showing such films might make me a bully—an insensitive faculty member abusing her power/authority over students. While I would hardly wish to re-traumatize a student, exempting everyone who 'self-identifies' from engaging difficult material—especially if it calls up shame—is troublesome. Trigger material is barely a whisper away from ‘trigger words’—many of which supply the content of ‘micro-aggressions,’ and all of them might ready be placed under the aegis of bullying.

In 2003, Diane Ravitch authored the eye-opening book “The Language Police,” a treatise which pointed to forms of contemporary censorship (aka, in 2015, ‘micro-aggressions). I often paired Ravitch’s writing with Orwell’s 1984—yet these requirements on a syllabus today would likely require a ‘trigger warning’ which would allow students to avoid reading them. Yet while faculty must be ever more scrupulously on guard, pre-teens don’t even need 5 minutes on the web to be exposed to images that would make their parents blush. Sex and violence do not seem to be ‘off-limits’ visually, yet trigger words and concepts that explore the emotional violence underlying many of these images are being banned all around us. (Perhaps calling it a ‘hook up’ functions as a trigger warning for intimacy? What to make of a culture in which words are thought to be capable of creating more trauma than the proverbial one night stand?)
What words are ok to use when racism and prejudice is being taught?

In a culture which looks to ban bullying, we must be very very cautious about what wagons we hitch our ‘cause’ to, lest we become yoked to positions which come to caricature relational aggression, while at the same time skirting the painful emotional issues bullying raises—in victims and bystanders alike.

As we become increasingly multi-cultural and poly-diverse, we increasingly impoverish our language, sanitizing it of an ability to reflect ‘otherness’ (while all the while claiming such otherness to be enriching). This is a thin line to walk (can one still say "Merry Christmas" without risking a micro-aggression?). Stereotyping, as a process, is linked to brain functioning. Yet the concept of micro-aggressions seems to suggest that stereotyping itself is under fire (even though social media is overwhelming, and calls upon our mind to sort and categorize an influx of information at an unprecedented rate). Consider what bullying will look like if the concepts of micro-aggression and trigger words are brandished in middle schools. Our children will be buffeted by ‘bullying,’ and the concept itself will lose all meaning. We need to be capable of expressing and experiencing ‘otherness’ without ‘otherness’ being something that is deviant This does not mean expanding child-centered parenting to the public realm, foisting it upon all authority figures (who may be accused of ‘endangering the welfare of a child’ if they do not tow the line). While sometimes issues need to be over-inflated in order to embed them in culture, conflating bullying with the failure to use trigger warnings, or with and micro-aggressions, will likely cause a backlash against social aggression (as it is currently understood), while failing to help us negotiate the fallout from emotional violence. What is needed is control of the connotations embedded in stereotypes, not the wholesale rejection of differences or past experiences which may elicit difficult emotions (especially one we have already forced underground--shame).