Last week, Washington Post columnist George Will was roundly excoriated for suggesting that victimhood conferred a privileged status on college campuses. Around the same time this was happening, long-time lefty writer and activist Yasmin Nair was saying roughly the same thing on Twitter.
"Everyone's got a fucking trauma boo-boo, and we're all expected to kiss the damn thing," Nair tweeted. "Here's my challenge to the 'Left' 'feminists': Can you organise one panel anywhere where subject of rape does NOT require revelation of same? It's @ the point where I refuse to sit on a fucking panel to talk about 'social justice' because, I HAVE TO CONFESS to be considered legit."
Nair's comments were tangentially related to Al Jazeera journalist Sarah Kendzior. Kendzior set off an inter-leftist Internet flash battle by insisting that linking to her public tweet about getting rape threats was tantamount to encouraging rape threats against her.
Folks across the ideological spectrum pushed back, noting that by Kendzior's logic we should avoid drawing attention to any women writing on sensitive topics. But the more people objected, the higher the rhetorical stakes escalated. Before long, to write critically about Kendzior at all—even in response to unfair and slanderous accusations on her part—was to "endanger her life."
Curiously, writing in defense of Kendzior did no such thing, even in high-profile publications such as Newsweek. Nor did Kendzior's feminist allies object much when Newsweek published a private email in which another female journalist (and Kendzior critic) wrote of being raped. The implication seems to be that there are two standards: one for people writing about rape in an approved way, and one for those on the wrong side of the Twitter mob.
The message, as Freddie de Boer* wrote, is that only some women "deserve" the protection of feminism. Those who fail to fall in line with the left-feminist consensus du jour are branded "bad feminists or, ludicrously, actually misogynists."
The message of this Twitter mob is that feminism means women are not free to form their own opinions, not about the right language to discuss rape and rape threats, not about the public nature of public tweets, not about how to honestly criticize others in a productive way.
De Boer called these attitudes "palpably sexist" in their assumption that women have an obligation to hold any particular viewpoint. But this is what good "male allies" do these days: accept whichever feminist narrative implies the most oppression and then swoop in to parrot the terms and save the day. Nevermind those of us who both consider ourselves feminists and reject prevailing progressive victimhood narratives. Dissenting opinions won't do. Dissenting opinions are violence.
"The mob wants to ensure that a certain experience gives you full control over the language," de Boer wrote. But it's not merely that—there's a trending leftist contingent that wants to ensure certain experiences give you full control over the world.
Hence: the transformation of the trigger warning. What started as a mainstay of feminist blogs and women's studies departments has bubbled over into mainstream academia and pop culture. At colleges from Rhode Island to California, students have been pushing for such warnings on course syllabi (some potentially triggering texts cited have been The Great Gatsby and Mrs. Dalloway). Outside of college campuses, some have called for trigger warnings on news articles and other media.
When trigger warnings first gained traction, advocates had milder ambitions. On early feminist blogs, a trigger warning may appear atop posts about sexual assault or—more frequently in my memory—eating disorders and self harm. Because these blogs operated as tiny, tight-knit communities, norms like the trigger warning seemed reasonable—an easy way to cater to those who wanted to participate in feminist spaces but not frequently revisit particular types of trauma or potentially bad influences. As was often said, these were "safe spaces," carved out by and for feminists to talk to one another openly and semi-privately.
But Twitter is not a safe space (nor a semi-private one). The Internet is not a safe space. And college campuses are meant to prepare students for the world at large. Because the world at large is not a feminist blog comments section, attempting to apply the norms of one to it just doesn't work—nor should it. There's simply no way we can take into account all the ways individuals in society can be traumatized and all the factors that may be triggering.
Because this is the case, some triggers and traumas wind up getting a lot of attention while others are hardly mentioned. Why am I not surprised that people mostly worry over triggering memories of sexual abuse and rape, rather than memories of war and combat?
Old, sexist ideas about men and women's comparative levels of emotionality and resiliency are alive and well in trigger culture. And this is perhaps the most insidious effect of all this excessive empathy.
In the push to legitimize feelings of residual trauma, some have made this trauma both central to the mission of feminism and unassailable when proffered as explanation. And this—what Nair referred to as the "constant drumbeat of trauma"—has an infantilizing effect on perceptions of women, the discourse around them, and the discourse around sexual harassment and assault in general.
The drumbeat of trauma drowns out cultural and systemic issues, encouraging instead a focus on merely reaffirming that people are hurt and scared. It mistakes acknowledgement and accommodation of this hurt—without question, and in the right language—as progress.
But slapping a trigger warning on a book of film doesn't change its content, nor the culture that inspired it. Journalists asking permission before linking to someone's public comments is nice—but it doesn't mean Redditors or 4chan will.
Attempting to inoculate each other from triggers is an ultimately misguided proposition. It merely hides the ugliness and insensitivity of the world at large—an ugliness and insensitivity we all must face squarely if we ever hope to destroy it.
(* de Boer is a good friend of mine.)