Saturday, May 24, 2014

Stress cards and trigger warnings

The "blues card", aka the "stress card".
Let me ask all the military veterans that stumble onto this post: Do you remember the stories about the Navy’s “stress cards”?

I read about them but they weren’t using them when I was in. If I remember correctly, it was a little yellow card that they gave you. Apparently if things were getting tough for you in basic, you could flash the card and the DI would back off and give you a “break” so you could compose yourself. The standing joke was that the color of the card spoke for itself ... The idea, if I remember right, was heavily criticized (and rightfully so, what are you going to do in real life when the bullets start to fly, pull out the stress card and hope the bad guys stop shooting at you?) and the idea was eventually canned.

This is but one variation reports on the urban legend. In fact, the “stress card”, officially titled the “Blues Card”, was a listing issued in the early 1990s of resources Navy recruits could turn to if they were considering “giving up” or “running away”. Continues author Barbara Mikkleson, “Navy RDCs (Recruit Division Commanders) began reporting that some recruits had taken to raising their cards while being disciplined as a way of signaling for a ‘time out.’ It’s unclear whether any of those enduring basic training really thought that was the purpose of the cards or whether this was just standard armed forces jackassing, but the Navy took no chances and got rid of the cards.”

I was reminded of the “stress cards” by reading Karen Swallow Prior’s Atlantic essay, “‘Empathetically Correct’ Is the New Politically Correct”. Prior, following Neil Postman’s foreword in Amusing Ourselves to Death, contends that trigger warnings follow Aldous Huxley’s vision of “an internal form of control that becomes externalized — empathetic correctness.” The students themselves become the censors.

At face value, current concerns about “trigger warnings” seem to be as overblown as the scuttlebutt about the “stress cards”. Well-written literature draws the reader in; tragedy is meant to evoke in the audience “pity and terror”. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that some scenes in some books can trigger “emotional flashbacks” in people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Claire Fallon argues in HuffPo:

Many have pushed back against trigger warnings due to a fear that they will prevent students from dealing with the harsh realities that lie outside their own experience. Certainly, this is one of the more challenging and vital aspects of studying literature. Yet this ignores the basic function of trigger warnings, which is not to scare naive students away from shocking texts, but to make them accessible to students who are already familiar with certain harsh realities; so familiar, in fact, that reading an unexpected, graphic rape scene might trigger debilitating reminders of their own horrifying assaults.

But Fallon also concedes, “Accommodating every phobia or sensitivity that exists is a futile endeavor, and even for more common afflictions like rape or suicidal thinking, specific triggers can vary. This makes any attempt to mandate trigger warnings for a broader audience particularly tricky.” Not so much tricky as positively mind-numbing, as feminist Jill Filipovic of The Guardian points out:

Trigger warnings, and their cousin the “content note”, are now included for a whole slew of potentially offensive or upsetting content, including but not limited to: misogyny, the death penalty, calories in a food item, terrorism, drunk driving, how much a person weighs, racism, gun violence, Stand Your Ground laws, drones, homophobia, PTSD, slavery, victim-blaming, abuse, swearing, child abuse, self-injury, suicide, talk of drug use, descriptions of medical procedures, corpses, skulls, skeletons, needles, discussion of “isms,” neuroatypical shaming, slurs (including “stupid” or “dumb”), kidnapping, dental trauma, discussions of sex (even consensual), death or dying, spiders, insects, snakes, vomit, pregnancy, childbirth, blood, scarification, Nazi paraphernalia, slimy things, holes and “anything that might inspire intrusive thoughts in people with OCD”.

It’s not even clear that trigger warnings are as useful as their advocates believe. In The New Republic, Jenny Jarvie tells us:

As the list of trigger warning-worthy topics continues to grow, there’s scant research demonstrating how words “trigger” or how warnings might help. Most psychological research on P.T.S.D. suggests that, for those who have experienced trauma, “triggers” can be complex and unpredictable, appearing in many forms, from sounds to smells to weather conditions and times of the year. In this sense, anything can be a trigger — a musky cologne, a ditsy pop song, a footprint in the snow.

You know a suggested course of action is problematic when even its defenders admit people can go too far with it. And yet, Fallon asks, “Aren’t we all, maybe, overreacting a bit, and showing a fondness for the ‘slippery slope’ argument that many commentators find absurd when it comes to, say, gay marriage?”

Recently at Portland State University, a group of fifteen students disrupted and effectively shut down a planned conference at which Kristian Williams, an anarchist author, was among the panelists. Williams recently wrote an essay, “The Politics of Denunciation”, in which he criticized radical feminists’ attempts to “declare certain questions off-limits”, to “effectively claim a monopoly on feminist praxis and exclude other feminist perspectives”, and to silence opposition by denunciation and shaming.

According to Campus Reform, protesters shouted, “You need to be accountable for all the people who feel unsafe by the words that you choose [and say,][1] and the way you cast doubt on people who have survived traumatic issues;” and “It’s not OK, and you shouldn’t be given the space to speak.” This from people who were accusing Williams of trying to silence them.

People who find the “slippery slope” argument absurd simply haven’t been paying attention the last fifty years or so. In some instances, not only are we halfway down, we’re picking up speed. For instance, I remember fairly well legal writer Dahlia Lithwick talking with her dittoheads in her Slate column about how Lawrence v. Texas (2003) could never be used to support same-sex marriage; the ink was barely dry on the majority opinion before the Massachusetts Supreme Court used it to foist gay marriage upon an unwilling Commonwealth.

The protesters’ words I’ve emphasized illustrate the point clearly: like “political correctness” and “hate speech”, “trigger warnings” are Trojan horses, seemingly reasonable concessions that can be twisted into another way to shut out contrarian voices from college education. Eventually you learn that if the extreme left can use a policy to stifle opposition, they’ll try. It’s like Pachelbel’s “Canon in D”: you hear it often enough, you can recognize it in other songs.

At the end of the day, it’s all about control of the debate. Even people and organs presumably progressive-friendly, such as Jennifer Medina at the New York Times, are wary of the potential for mischief “trigger warnings” present. I have no doubt the main bulk of “trigger warning’s” supporters mean well. But, as the legend of the “stress card” reminds us, it only takes a relatively few jackasses to spoil a good idea.

[1] These words were reported in The College Fix’s coverage of the event, which quotes the Campus Reform story and also has video of the fiasco.