Trigger Warnings

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I never encountered the term until a fellow undergrad and frequent poster of feminist articles used it in a Facebook comment, something about sexual assault that “triggered” her. I immediately was dismissive towards its use, which I saw as a new term for being upset by something. Movements often create their own language to describe phenomena which already have names, but by doing so they sort of give new life to a concept. It’s not always a great thing, just something that happens.

It wasn’t until later that I realized its connection to feminists (which I consider myself) and specifically to sexual assault and rape. And then I began to hear discussions about trigger warnings in college syllabi. I thought that was silly like most people. Majority doesn’t make right, but I hadn’t heard a convincing argument for its implementation, and it seemed to be narrow in scope, to sexual assault and rape and,  weirdly enough, animal abuse. Most ridicule trigger warnings as a means of faint hearted, sheltered middle class students avoiding being shook out of their narrow world views. They take the argument ad absurdum, that it would be impossible to create trigger warnings for every possible situation and student, that it was tantamount to censorship. These seem like valid points, but they didn’t satisfy the dilemma for me.

The best case for trigger warnings that I heard was to protect the victims of sexual assault from having to relive the events by encountering it unknowingly in literature. But this is still a weak reason, and I don’t need to take the situation to the extreme in order to dismantle it.

In the Information Age, it seems reasonable that a student for which certain topics are too taboo to deal with, could do some research and choose courses in which these issues would not be brought up. A student averse to reading about violence against blacks might, for instance, not elect to take a class about slavery or early black literature. Of course, that student would miss the opportunity to be enriched by having the mind expanded, but that is their choice. Unless this person is so ignorant of history they don’t know how blacks are and were treated, this would be a reasonable burden to place on the student, which would not require trigger warnings, just a little thought. And if the student were already in a class where controversial material may be brought up, they can read about the books online to make sure they are free of potentially traumatizing stuff.

Another issue is literary work itself. The film and television industry self censors and applies ratings based on certain criteria. These in a way serve as trigger warnings. The question then becomes, do we want this for literature? Should authors include a page in the back which contains a list of potential triggers in the book? If we are going to extend this type of warning signs to college syllabi, then why not to the books themselves?

The reason which I most oppose trigger warnings is because of how narrowly they have been applied, that is, mostly to sexual assault. But why not “regular” violence or crime? A person can be traumatized by being mugged, or even beaten. Should acts of thievery or battery be included among trigger warnings? Or what about soldiers traumatized by war? Should Tim O’Brien’s work come with a trigger warning? What about victims of parental abuse? Should Angela’s Ashes be on a list of potentially traumatizing material? And further, just how can literature, a virtual existence, traumatize a real life? It can’t; only existence can.

The advocates of trigger warnings seem to place sexual assault as the most heinous and traumatizing experience a person can have. I would certainly never argue that it isn’t awful, but I likewise would not deign to suggest that it is worse than anyone else’s traumatic experience. Who would dare tell a soldier that their pain can’t compare, that it is lesser, than a rape victim’s, or vice versa? We cannot measure painful events and decide which ones are more important or worse. I don’t mean to be taken as equivalating all pains and experiences, but I want to show that we shouldn’t being telling other people which ones are worthy of traumatizing or not traumatizing a person, especially since all cases are unique, as are people’s responses. I understand why, for instance, rape jokes are unacceptable because we have a society, though a little better, which has belittled women’s traumas and dismissed them. But in order to finally give recognition to the problem of sexual assault and rape culture, it shouldn’t come at the expense of invalidating other pains. I notice that murder is conspicuously missing from the reasoning for trigger warnings, and yet there are relatives of murder victims who live in a world with literature which is filled with murders. Why is their experience not included in the umbrella of trigger warnings? And very importantly, what about the authors who want their story to be heard?

In this misguided attempt to accommodate, we gag ourselves. Not all people who use the excuse of trigger warnings are victims or survivors. Some just don’t want to be disturbed. But I also always believed that literature had a cathartic value, and that by finding one’s own experiences in the pages of a book, it can help you move beyond the pain. But I may be wrong in all this. We may be making mounds out of molehills. Trigger warnings could truly be useful for the victims of traumatic experiences. But I have to wonder who is calling for their introduction.

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why are some american wars so popular?

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The two most popular wars in American history, just based anecdotally on TV documentaries, books, movies, and video games, are the American Civil War and World War II.  Despite the youth of the country, the land now known as the United States has a long history of warfare. Just based off of this Wikipedia page, there are over well over eighty. I lost track towards the end. A cursory examination would suggest that of course these two wars, of huge significance to the country, would be the most popular and thus best represented in our various mediums And the appeal of the two wars is undeniable. But why the glut? Most consumers of media would agree that World War II content is oversaturated in the market, resulting in some fatigue and backlash, even as the war remains a prominent topic. Couldn’t there be room for a lesser known war to be represented? No, there is not, and due to reasons financial and cultural.

Let’s examine movies. If we look at two very successful American war films, Saving Private Ryan and The Patriot, and compare the international gross with the domestic gross, the result is roughly a 1:1 correlation in both cases. Most blockbusters expect to make the majority of their gross by the international market, which is much larger and therefore more lucrative, than the smaller domestic market. That’s why the studios tend to play to a wide audience, by dumbing down the material and laying in a lot of action. Poor dialogue doesn’t matter when most viewers will read subtitles in their own language. Having a broad audience also means that very “American” movies, that is, movies that deal with our history and therefore less universal, will always gross less. Let’s compare E.T.’s gross with Saving Private Ryan, since both are widely acclaimed Spielberg movies. E.T. made more at the international box office by a 2:1 margin compared to domestic. The latest Amazing Spider-Man likewise made almost double internationally, as did the first Pirates of the Caribbean. Purely on a financial basis, it makes more sense to create films with universal themes and no historical lessons required because you can double your money or at least make 50 percent more.

It must be said, of course, that is a large, domestic audience that will consume American films made for Americans. But these movies tend to be smaller, more family drama, and with far less of a budget. Not nearly enough for a proper war flick. But even if such a movie were to be funded, it is unlikely that it would be made. If you had clicked on the Wikipedia link and perused the list, you might have be a little stunned to see how many Indian wars the U.S. has engaged in. The death throes of a culture systematically wiped out by overwhelming and sophisticated force is hardly the invigorating story that we Americans like to hear. There is no way for us to feel like the victors, even as we are the victors. Likewise, wars that took place on the continent before the birth of the nation are equally unappealing. The Pequot War was one of savagery – on both sides – and unmitigated aggression. The genocide of the Arawaks won’t exactly inspire pride in the Great Explorer. The conquests of the Aztec and Incan empires would not, without a heaping dose of racism, be palatable. The same goes for the Mexican-American War, or the Fiji, Sumatran, or Korean expeditions. We don’t talk about the black ships. These are all wars of territorial conquest and aggression, not noble conflicts against evil. Even the Gulf Wars and Afghanistan have proven ill-fitting in let us put on our American flag pants. The only war that America has “lost” is the Vietnam War (though we did get our asses handed to us in 1812), which, when represented, is a symbol of callous military destruction and cruelty. It shows that war is hell.

World War II and the Civil War, on the other hand, are something to be proud of. In the former we saved the world and destroyed pure evil (Nazism, the Holocaust, and the Soviets are why the European theatre is more popular); we were just. In the latter, the North takes pride in the war fought to preserve the Union and end slavery, while the south feels it to be a noble war lost (perhaps somewhat how leftists feel about the Spanish Civil War), and marked the end of their “aristocratic golden era”, a war waged to preserve its culture. Plus, civil wars are always a topic of great interest in their respective countries.

This leaves one war that seems somehow made for a movie and never has, to my knowledge. The Seven Years’ War, or the French-Indian War in the U.S. The original global conflict, with combat theatres in Europe, North America, Central America, the West African coast, India, and the Philippines. Oh, but we don’t like stories that don’t involve us (or white people), which is why Toussaint Louverture’s story will likely never be told, and if it does then it will for some reason star a white guy. I’m not kidding about the racism; notice the conspicuous absence of blacks in war movies, especially in wars where they were active, like the Civil War and World War II. Glory and Red Tails are all that come to mind, neither of which grossed much at all. It’s why Driving Miss Daisy beat out Do the Right Thing and Glory for an Oscar and grossed almost three times as both films combined. At least at the time it seemed people were more comfortable with blacks in servile roles than in active roles, like killing white people and rioting. But that’s all behind us now, as 12 Years a Slave won an Oscar, which coincidentally had to be made by the British, and was still out grossed by American Hustle despite, in all honesty, being one of the most important films in decades. And belabor to point only a little more, any statistic will show that women, African-Americans, Hispanics, and any other minority (like transgender), are grossly underrepresented in our mainstream media.

our poor, fractured home

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I had a discussion with a friend recently about how highly we regarded cultures that emphasized meals as a gustatory and social event, instead of our own, which commodifies time and makes eating a solitary habit even in the presence of others. The TV dinner comes to mind. T. S. Eliot said, “Television is a medium of entertainment which permits millions of people to listen to the same joke at the same time, and yet remain lonesome.” We sit around one another and learn nothing, say nothing, and most importantly we expose nothing.

I’m not going to give some hackneyed rhetoric against this practice, which no doubt any Westerner has heard (at least of the English speaking world) because more important than targeting it is understanding why it exists, and also because it most certainly has been spotted since its inception.

It’s impossible to address this issue without wondering whether the TV dinner or any other noncommunicative meal is used as a bandage for familial dysfunction. Rather than argue or miscommunicate, it’s much easier to avoid one another with a distraction, or simply avoid the meal altogether. Many families are so busy that neither child nor parent can find time in their schedules that allows for simultaneous dining (and tell me that’s not a symptom of something). But why do families miscommunicate or fail to communicate at all?

For so many reasons: technology, class, education, interests, personality, culture. It would be hard to name all the culprits, nor very productive, because these are all, again, symptoms.

If one were to look at the happier families or groups, one sees shared interests, shared values, shared language (I don’t mean the same as in all speak, say Finnish, but that the words being used are understood by all parties, carrying the same definition. And pay attention to the word “shared”). The Scandinavians are generally considered to be the happiest group of people in the world. If examines them, they will see racial, religious, cultural, and social homogeneity. The more similar we are to one another, the happier we are. I have to warn here that I am not at all advocating any kind of ethnic cleansing or forced conformity. But this dissonance we find in American culture matters (I can only speak for my own country), and it is very evident in all aspects of life.

Just look at the proliferation of articles dealing with how to be a man, or how a man should treat or ask out a woman, or etiquette to hook ups or so many other phenomena; it’s very evident that we don’t really know what to do or say, even within our own social groups. Nothing can be tacit anymore because anything or nothing can be implied, too much is misunderstood or not understood at all. Values and mores are in complete and constant flux, and between generations this gap can be even more pronounced. Increasing the nuclear family is strained, and where before there were strong communities to keep people from falling through the cracks, the advance of the center-less city has decimated such a net. We are constantly segmented into our own age groups and rarely work or interact with people of a different generation. Just look at how segregated bars are according to social groups, with infringement on such environments (i.e. going to a bar you’re your crowd is not welcome at) bringing on greater isolation within those environments.

This all has a great impact not just on how we pass time and eat our meals, but also on our politics. The Scandinavian countries have a strong social democracy, and they believe that they government has a duty to help people and care for them. That’s impossible here because of strong bigotry and distrust in this country. Resentment against other racial or ethnic, groups, genders, or sexual orientations has created the gridlock we face today. One side actively yearns for Scandinavian style social democracy while the other does but can’t get over its prejudices to work for it. That is, as one might hear someone saying, “I don’t want that damned, lazy other group getting my hard earned cash for their special privileges.”

I think this all looks pretty bleak, and it may appear that there is no way forward, but there is, and it is the answer that I have mentioned quite a few times already: communication. We need active discussion between groups. We need dialogue that is not out to prove a point but to foster understanding.  The bigots will always have cotton stuck in their ears, and they may always be around. But ignore them, we need to be speaking to people of all stripes, we need to seek out people who are different from us and talk to them. Get over the awkwardness, because we need to talk about real shit that matters. Talk, talk, talk. And then listen, listen, listen. It is the only thing that will save us.

I see now, how funny it all is, that the only way to end these TV dinners and sort out all these problems is to start talking to each other. How wonderfully straightforward.