Identity, PTSD, and Trigger Warnings

I am in the middle of a research project right now on the history of psychoanalytic psychological testing. I am taking a broadly historical perspective on the evolution of theories of psychoanalysis and the ways in which our theories of development and psychopathology are mediated by the psychologist’s absorption in the sociocultural milieu. One of my guiding ideas is that individuals who are designated as mentally ill often reveal the dark underside of culture, as they are essentially the casualties of our sociocultural system. After all, built into the very definition of mental disorders in the DSM-5 is the requirement that the ‘mental disorder’ prevents the individuals from adequately functioning according to the standards of the day.

This has led to me try to begin thinking about the current times. A couple of things have jumped out at me in my research. First, I have been trying to come to terms with the emerging trend over the last years for people to be described as “empty”. Now, this idea has always puzzled me. How can a self be empty? What does it mean when individuals seek out psychological treatment citing emptiness as a major symptom? Does emptiness convey a desperate hunger? Does it suggest that the subject hates what s/he sees and thus reports feeling empty, i.e. is emptiness defensive? Does emptiness adequately capture the person’s internal experience? There are many cultural critics who have attempted to address this idea. Philip Cushman has written a cultural history of psychotherapy in the US and has noted the economic underpinnings of emptiness and the ways in which people turn to consumer capitalism to ‘fill up’ this void. Others such as Christopher Lasch decried the terrible narcissism of the 1970’s with its purported obsession with inner discovery. This afternoon I have been reading Lunbeck’s latest text The Americanization of Narcissism, and she casts a critical eye towards to these jeremiad condemnations of the modern American subject. She rightly points out that every younger generation is condemned by the older generation as being spoiled, hedonistic, self-absorbed, etc.

So, I began to think more about what is the current diagnosis of my generation (as someone who is 28). Well, enter the new Atlantic article on the coddling of the American mind ( I assume many of you read it. In it we encounter a long-winded somewhat whining criticism of the current university student in the United States. I want to address some of the issues laid out in the article.

On a broader cultural level, the trigger warning issue suggests to me that our generation’s is trying to address issues of validation, shame, and aggression. Part of the notion of trigger warning is that Person A exposes Person B to phenomena C that ‘triggers’ unpleasant reaction D in Person B. One of the problematic aspects underlying the concept is that Person B’s unpleasant reaction D is wholly created by Person A exposing Person B to phenomena C. It is as if you push a button in Person B then it is your fault for whatever reaction it generates. It strips Person B of agency, decision, or reflection, rendering Person B a machine that is simply activated whenever the controls are adjusted in a certain way. What is fascinating to me is that it is based upon a PTSD-based notion of subjectivity. In other words, a person’s sense of self is organized around certain traumatic events that s/he need to be utterly shielded from stimuli that threaten to fragment the integrity of the self.

Implicit in this notion is a prescription for moralistic behavior (i.e. since we all carry around unresolved issues that can easily be set-off if the individual is exposed to unfavorable circumstances then you should tread lightly). It leads to deep anxiety and undue guilt in Person A, as if Person A is wholly responsible (and thus guilty) for whatever reaction Person B experiences. I hear this type of discourse at my work in a psychiatric hospital. Generally, we hear about how some patient has triggered another patient. The person who has been triggered (traumatized?) then attempts to exert a level of control over others by warning people about this vulnerability. It is based on the notion that someone should never be triggered, as if the person’s vulnerability is everyone else’s responsibility. I think what I am trying to say is that the agency and responsibility of the subject is being undermined with the PTSD-model of subjectivity.

At the same time, I think there are reasons to be critical of the Atlantic article. For instance, the notion that our generation is being coddled (intellectually) while we are being destroyed financially through the overpricing of advanced education seems suspect to me. Furthermore, I think many politically active students have pointed out the particular examples highlighted in the article are skewed in a certain direction. The article generally portrays students as excessively irrational and hypersensitive. The recent racial issues on campuses from Missouri to Yale highlighted these issues. In some examples, the media depicts the students as needlessly sensitive or alternatively as being subjected to intense discrimination. Also, the idea of prescribing to students ‘cognitive behavior therapy’ to make them more rational seems woefully naïve and stupid, almost like thought policing college freshmen. College is about being offended and learning from one another. I am not currently in a university, having graduated two years ago with my doctorate in psychology. I am curious what others thought (both students and professors) about this article. I am personally trying to understand what is going on psychologically and sociologically with the ways in which identity is being expressed and shaped in our current cultural moment. I would also appreciate any suggested readings people have.

10 thoughts on “Identity, PTSD, and Trigger Warnings

  1. I feel there’s a distinction to be made between trigger warnings and academic censorship which isn’t really made in the Atlantic article, nor in so much of the other stuff I’ve read on this topic. As I see it the call for trigger warnings generally isn’t intended as an excuse for students to avoid reading triggering material, it’s rather so that they can go into the material prepared for the psychological difficulties they may encounter when reading it – a very different proposition from the demand that difficult material be removed from syllabi and so on

  2. I’ve never heard my students say micro aggression or demand a trigger warning. I do warn them in advance that I Was Dora Suarez is an incredibly violent and repulsive book, but that’s because I don’t want them to put it down on account of the reactions it necessarily provokes in the reader. I’ve had one student—who was trouble, to say the least, and always insisted on talking about her buttplug—who demanded I tell her in advance of there was ever to be a discussion of sexual violence because she had been raped in the past. I was happy when she stopped coming to class, but by the time she stopped coming to class she had driven away all of the other students. It was my worst teaching experience ever. In Canada, at least, we seem more likely to get talk about settler colonialism than trigger warnings and micro aggressions. Some of the settler talk can be a bit much and I often have trouble connecting it to the issues at hand (yes: relevant when talking about, say, Locke, but not always relevant with the other stuff I teach). My students now are about as much as I remember being when I was an undergraduate: a third don’t care and don’t show up, a third show up but remain little more than warm bodies, and a third get into the material or at least care about their grades. But I teach at a Canadian university and our post-secondary culture is pretty flat: if you can get into one university, you can likely get into all of them and the status hierarchy is pretty weak. Conservative families like Queens and Western, but otherwise we don’t really have the highly stratified system you get in the US—we don’t have a Harvard, Weslayan, or a Berkeley.

  3. I’m with Iain: the idea that trigger warnings are about shielding people from ever having to confront certain ideas is one I’ve heard from people who oppose them, and never from people arguing that there’s a value to them. I warned my students that we’d be talking about issues in class that might be difficult or painful, including sexual violence, food and anti-semitic violence, because I don’t think that surprising people with those issues is a particularly valuable pedagogical approach. I think that the current moral panic around trigger warnings does tell us something pretty interesting about our culture, but I think it’s much more revealing about the people panicking about “over-sensitive” students than it is of students and staff trying to grapple with questions of how to teach issues which are likely to touch on immensely painful experiences in students’ lives.

  4. I have been considering if there is a way in which the demand for trigger warnings can serve the function of placing the responsibility for trauma back in the hands of communities. I suspect there may be value in taking the perspective that hyperbolic reactions toward students airing their traumatic reactions reflects the general discomfort that one can expect to experience when faced with all of the emotional complexity that surrounds trauma. I don’t at all discount that some students are objectively oversensitive and/or disruptive, to no gain; however, most societies have generally tried to suppress and repress those who survive trauma and there is a way in which demanding recognition can be seen as a corrective.

  5. Totally appreciate this post & glad you are exploring.

    Here’s what I appreciate about trigger warnings: they shift the burden of proof away from the sensitive person & onto the less-sensitive person. Our culture demeans & punishes sensitive people, so many of whom are marginalized (lived experience which forces them to become more aware/intuitive/empathetic).

    I think it’s also important to note that trauma has been pathologized into PTSD, CPTSD. But everyone has some trauma, & congealed trauma is a symptom of culture, too. Check out the book Waking the Tiger for an explanation of why most humans carry trauma while animals don’t.

    Also–there’s a way to look at trigger warnings without using the language of blame. It’s not automatically a shield: people who want trigger warnings aren’t saying they don’t want to be triggered. Everything in this world is a trigger. It’s just a heads-up that this is “sensitive material”–a courtesy we offer in media thru rating systems to children, with the understanding that they are sensitive & impressionable. Is it such a stretch to extend this compassion to impressionable young adults who haven’t yet had their sensitivity beaten out of them completely? Best of luck.

  6. I take your point, especially about the pathologization of trauma. I think you’re right that being sensitive and thoughtful does not necessarily lead to blaming or scapegoating. At the same time, I think the Atlantic article highlighted the ways trauma can be weaponized as a means of controlling others and laying guilt at the feet of the others. I can also imagine the phenomena of trigger warning could be seen as an infantilization of young adults, regarding them as vulnerable and sensitive. It’s a complicated topic, undoubtedly.

    I still think the politics around the language of trauma is revealing. You write that everyone suffers trauma. Well, how are you defining trauma? Of course, everyone suffers and experiences hardship. Sometimes psychologists distinguish little ‘t’ trauma from big ‘t’ trauma, an awkward construction in my opinion. At this point in the argument someone will swoop in and claim that trauma is subjective and that there is no standard, etc. I think the issue is important but I worry about the ways in which the term trauma becomes emptied of its significance and depth of meaning.

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