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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finally, an apt hitler comparison

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Hitler, ever the boogeyman of the Western World, is one name that truly suffers from the extreme hyperbole it is subjected to on a daily basis. If someone is strict in some regard they can be a grammar nazi, or the supposed extreme feminists called Feminazis. One partisan propaganda machine is compared to that of Goebbels by the opposite party. If you are extreme left you get called a Nazi, the extreme right you are fascist. Most abusers of language don’t understand the danger that this exaggeration places people in. By removing Nazism from its context and what it was, and shoving it into inane, untenable portmanteaus that serve no purpose other than disparagement, we run the risk of making the terms Hitler, Nazi, and fascism meaningless. We stop seeing the actual dangers of fascism and fascist-like ideologies, and merely understand the words to connote evil or strict.

For once we are actually seeing references to Nazi Germany in an appropriate manner, even if quite a bit of damage has already been done. I noted in myself how weary I am of comparisons to the rise of the Third Reich, but what is happening in Ukraine right now fits the description well. Much like Germany, Russia is using the excuse of protecting Russian interests and ethnic Russians. The former apology is one that has been used very often in American history: The Spanish-American War, almost invading Mexico during their revolution, as well as various occupations of Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and the whole (long) list of supporting coup d’états in order to establish pro-American governments. The latter, however, rings of the Nazi Germany and lebensraum. Russia has no business trying to “protect” people of Russian heritage. As a state, its only duty is to its citizens, which can potentially be of any heritage. There are Russians all over the world, does that mean Russia would occupy a Russian concentrated area in the U.S. to protect ethnic Russians? No, it’s obviously a false pretense, and an excuse to justify their actions.

The recent, increased suppression of homosexuals in Russia also speaks to a historical precedent. Sochi, in hindsight, feels reminiscent of the ’36 Berlin Olympics, as the issue of the recent event was homosexual rights, while the past was noted for how race played into the politics of the games. What Putin is accomplishing here is creating a straw man, blaming homosexuals for the erosion of Russian cultural values and diminishing Russia’s power. The anti-gay laws that were enacted were designed to remove homosexuality from the public sphere. If this trend continues, it will be almost exactly like the methods used against Jews during the Shoah, which marginalized Jews to outside of the rest of the population with rules that singled them out, took away their rights, and with resettlement and ghettos allowed for their elimination almost outside of the public’s eyesight. Much in the way that Hitler was able to use anti-Semitic sentiments to rouse his base, Putin is also consolidated power by demonstrating strength with a military buildup (classic Hitler move), finding a group culpable for the loss of culture, and engaging in imperial expansion under the pretense of aiding Russians outside the country. That is lebensraum, though I don’t know the word for it in Russian. This is all more Third Reich than it is Soviet Union; it is not a return to the cold war, but an imperialist moment in a time when we all thought there would be no more European wars of conquest.

In no way am I advocating that we should go to war with Russia right now. Neville Chamberlain continues to receive posthumous flak for pussyfooting with Hitler, and the result was that Hitler became emboldened, or so the story goes. A lot of American pundits no doubt want to compare Obama to Chamberlain, a typical American-centric view of the world, especially ignorant today as Merkel is by far the most important player other than Putin in this dangerous game. My point though, is that Chamberlain, some have argued, was strategically delaying the war, because Great Britain did not have the necessary force to combat Hitler, especially after the Great Depression. Today we are (supposedly) just leaving our Great Recession, and war may be at our doorsteps. It is true that we have the most formidable military in the world, and would likely have the backing of the EU and maybe even China. But, because not a single shot has been fired yet, it will do the whole world good to work diplomacy to the best that we can. Once the shooting starts there is no guarantee it can be stopped until many bodies have paid the price. Long before that, we should exhaust our diplomatic resources to end this affair as bloodlessly as we can.

 

Oh, did I forget to mention South Ossetia?

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.

Girls, Misogyny

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Recently, at a press junket for the TV show Girls, there was a bit of a kerfuffle when a TV critic asked why Lena Dunham was naked so much, a question which was interpreted as misogynistic, sexist, and above all offensive. Even as the TV critic was trying to explain his question and admitting that he didn’t get it, neither Apatow nor Dunham took the time to simply answer his question or say why it was sexist. It made me think how, in our modern society’s constant state of flux, we don’t really have a grasp of what is proper etiquette. Someone really needs to write a book about how to avoid unintentionally sounding racist, sexist, trans or homophobic because the critic would sound like a chauvinist from their perspective, and based off the critic’s explanation, I don’t think he was trying to.

In order to understand why this appeared to be a sexist question, one needs to look at the fact that Lena Dunham is not considered attractive by many viewers. I think Dunham is aware of this. We can get into how beauty is subjective, and how other people’s opinions don’t matter, and other shit like that, but most people know whether they are attractive or not (though we tend to think ourselves a little more pretty than we are). This is important because, while I am not trying to use this as a value judgment on Dunham, others in society do. There is more pressure on women in the media to be a lot more attractive than the average person. And especially in nude scenes. When Seth Rogen goes bare-assed or bare chested, the humor is implicit because he’s not attractive, so he should be covering up but he isn’t. With women, nudity is highly sexualized in society, as are the women themselves, no matter what they are doing. Let me put this to you: where is the female equivalent of Paul Giamatti? Or Steve Buscemi? Where are there critically acclaimed actresses who are not attractive? [I asked this question once (to a girl) who was a little offended, and it became uncomfortable. I’m not sure why though, because I’ve talked with other people about how Hispanics are heavily underrepresented in Hollywood, and I was not offended (another reason why we need the aforementioned book! For my own sake.) But back to the question,] I think the best answer I received was Frances McDormand, but she is still attractive; she just plays roles that don’t require her to be beautiful. So, being that many might find Lena Dunham unattractive, questioning why she is naked so much on TV sounds a lot like telling her to put her clothes back on because no one wants to see her, which she probably felt based off her answer, “If you are not into me, that’s your problem.”

Though I am no fan of the show Girls, I agree with her that nudity is a part of life (she says this just before) and an authentic expression. And I say that nudity should in no way be the exclusive domain of the beautiful. When nudity and sex serve the plot, I am all for it. If it doesn’t, than it is a huge interruption to the story, and should get cut. From what I’ve heard, Blue Is the Warmest Color is a movie that gets it right, because it’s necessary for the story being told.

That said, Dunham and Apatow should have (please forgive me for using this) made this a teachable moment. Instead of addressing the issue, Apatow started throwing around –isms, which accomplishes nothing. We who want to address racism and sexism and homophobia need to see ourselves like missionaries or evangelicals spreading the good word instead of condemning people for the ignorance. Calling people racist, to me, is like calling someone an infidel. It’s an exclusionary term based on ignorance. Yes, there are some incredibly hateful people are there who deserve the term (Westboro), but to jump on someone for a question and say that it is misogynistic is a terrible way to address a problem. It’s a rather vague term to use, since it means “women hating,” and further, it is never explained to the critic what part was misogynistic (though to be honest we cannot blame them entirely for not explaining all what I have just said in the heat of the moment at a TV interview. Plus it would require Apatow saying Dunham is unattractive.)

Che Guevara, in his “A Child of My Environment” speech, says something that I really liked, which is that we must be revolutionary people. It is not enough to struggle alone. We need to bring as many people together and enlighten one another so that the movement against the evil –isms our age our eliminated by our inclusivity. I do not mean tolerating sexism, I mean, to borrow from Christianity, preaching the gospel. Stop telling people they are wrong, and start showing them how to be right. It is too easy to be filled with righteous fury. we need to educate daily about what is right and what is wrong.

Just as soon as I find a way to do that, though.