The idea of cultural appropriation being offensive (which I discussed in part one of this blog entry) seems to go hand in hand with other recent social movements towards being more aware of the emotional well-being of others. This includes the use of social media to document the pervasiveness of small everyday actions that are a cumulative indication of how pervasive some prejudices are in society. The everyday sexism project has highlighted examples of how women’s daily experiences differ from men’s because of their gender, and there are similar projects to highlight the pervasiveness of racism. These small and often individually minor experiences, particularly in the context of race, are being termed “microaggressions” to denote the harm they cause when considered across a lifetime. I think these projects are helpful because, like the short films ‘Homoworld‘ and ‘Oppressed Majority‘, they humanise concepts that might otherwise be hard to explain, and show the massive quantity of incidents that might each in isolation seem too petty to raise. Without such examples or dramatisations it can be very hard to put ourselves into the perspective of another and to realise that their everyday experience is different to your own. And awareness is the first step towards behaviour change.
This change is happening at both the individual and organisational level. There is an increasing perception that organisations such as businesses, universities, public services and broadcasters having some responsibility for the impact of their content on customers, employees, students or their audience. This means being more aware of how the meaning of various content can impact differently on different people according to their experiences. This includes the use of ‘trigger warnings’ to orient readers/viewers/listeners about the aspects of the content that will follow that may resonate for them in negative ways. This could include mention of rape/sexual assault, violence, trauma, child abuse, racism, hate crimes or other forms of prejudice. The intent is to ensure that any person in the audience who has had traumatic experiences in their past is not re-traumatised by unintended exposure similar material without the option to prepare or opt out of that experience.
Although widely mocked, I think trigger warnings are quite sensible in principle. They aren’t there to molly coddle the delicate sensibilities of a whole generation of students (or social justice warriors) that don’t like being challenged, they are there to protect the small percentage of the population that have had traumatic experiences from post-traumatic symptoms. When I hear people on social media bragging about how they intend to trigger others, it seems like they lack either insight into what this means, basic human empathy, or both.
A trigger is a very specific word for what happens in the brain of people who have experienced serious trauma – normally experiences they have perceived as life-threatening – where the brain becomes sensitised to threat. When similar sensory stimuli to those associated with the event are detected, the amygdala goes into overdrive, and will put the person into a state of high physiological arousal (readiness for fight or flight) and make it harder for them to use brain functions apart from those associated with survival. Because the brain does not encode memories in narrative form very effectively during survival situations (due to much reduced activity in the prefrontal cortex) these sensory links often activate sensory memory fragments from the trauma, causing flashbacks and high levels of distress. This means that certain triggers can cause them to re-experience their trauma later on in their lives. Just as a war veteran might get flashbacks or nightmares about their war experiences, so people who have been seriously abused, raped or tortured experience unwanted intrusive images and memories of what they have been through when they see, hear or feel something similar to something they experienced during the trauma.
This isn’t something that has been made up, or reflects certain people being “sensitive flowers” either innately or by choice. It is a scientifically evidenced change to the brain after trauma. Intrusive images or thoughts, including re-experiencing of trauma is one of the diagnostic features of PTSD, and it is well established that certain experiences trigger these flashbacks. MRI scanners show the limbic brain (eg the amygdala) lighting up faster and brighter to threat signals that would not be perceived as threatening by others without the trauma, and the resulting decreased activity in the prefrontal cortex. Neurochemical analysis (eg from swab tests) have shown that this has a significant effect on the person’s neurochemistry and chemical messengers (like adrenalin and cortisol) are released that prepare the body for fight or flight. In short, this is a serious and well-documented physical response to serious trauma that I have blogged about previously. I’ve worked with lots of traumatised and/or abused children and adults and it is a really horrible thing to go though. It seems like a double dose of adversity for those whose abuse/trauma continues to echo through their life months or years later. It is not something to make light of or mock, and only a truly repugnant person would do so.
But being thoughtful about the impact of content on others, and orienting the audience about what is going to be covered, does not have to equal censorship. We should still talk about the tough stuff, study it, make art about it and even sometimes joke about it. It often makes for the most interesting debates, and it is through engagement with these complex and challenging issues that people learn to analyse the motivation of the writer/speaker and to appraise the context as well as the content of what is said.
As uncomfortable as it can be when people use it to say annoying, idiotic and offensive things, I am a believer in free speech. I don’t think being offended is a reason to silence someone. It is a reason to reply so that others are not persuaded by them, to ignore them, or to deny them their audience (because free speech doesn’t entitle you to a platform, and any website, venue or business can decide not to welcome/endorse somebody). But it isn’t a reason to stop them saying their piece, unless it incites violence or racial hatred and is therefore against the law. As hateful and bigoted as Donald Trump is, for example, the answer to the awful things he says is not to ban him from the UK, it is ignore him and deny him the oxygen of publicity, or simply to laugh at him. Mock his ignorance. Share your disgust. Highlight how hateful and harmful his ideas are, and how he has not earned the right to lead by showing any personal qualities that are admirable. Ensure that he faces legal consequences if he oversteps and breaks the law by inciting racial hatred whilst in the UK. But don’t censor him and allow him to take the role of being oppressed, as it would be counter-productive.
Even President Obama has weighed in to say “Anybody who comes to speak to you and you disagree with, you should have an argument with them. But you shouldn’t silence them by saying, ‘You can’t come because I’m too sensitive to hear what you have to say.’ That’s not the way we learn.” I’m inclined to agree. We are all responsible for this conversation, and in the therapy professions, genuine empathy has to include acknowledging the difference between the client’s perspective (or a colleague’s) and your own.