People are calling Stephen Fry’s comments about sex abuse victims “an extraordinary attack,” because he had the temerity to suggest that trigger warnings on literature are bullshit and that self-pity is an ugly, self-defeating emotion.
He stated this bluntly and without the usual hand-wringing and tiptoeing that accompanies discussion of sex abuse in liberal circles. OH NO. WHAT AN EVIL JERK.
Here’s the thing though – he’s right. Trigger warnings amount to nothing but clumsy, amateur “therapy” that can have an adverse effect.
The truth is – and there is a wealth of literature and studies on the subject, really – triggers are random. You’re not going to precisely KNOW what it is that triggers you on a given day, that’s kind of the whole problem of being psychologically vulnerable.
Being triggered can actually be useful, because it helps you understand and potentially expand your boundaries. It can allow for a dynamic process of healing.
And environments that are meant to be safe spaces for victims of abuse work when there are professionals around, when the safe space is part of therapy.
Amateur “safe spaces”, on the other hand, are frequently more stressful than your regular, bunch-of-normal-people-who’ll-occasionally-say-bullshit-to-you spaces. Why? First of all, because everybody’s worried about saying the wrong thing. Interaction is so thoroughly policed that it becomes a maze of potential wrong turns.
I experienced abuse as a child. It destroyed and remade me, and – yeah, it was a terrible thing. You can trust me on this.
But let’s say I had my choice of whom to hang out with: Option 1 is a group of college students who think that it is important to never! say! the wrong! thing! to people like me – and who would accuse me of being a self-hating sell-out should I disagree. Option 2 is some loudmouth who can push my buttons and even – dear God! – call me on my bullshit, i.e. treat me like a fellow human as opposed to a glass vase that will shatter if mishandled.
I’m going to go with Option 2. Option 1 is re-traumatizing.
This goes to Fry’s point about self-pity. Amateur “safe spaces” absolutely foster self-pity. Because the only real power they afford to members is the power to call someone out when they’ve been triggered. Agency depends on their status as victims. Agency = “You triggered me! You said something offensive! How dare you! Asshole!” You can’t exercise that kind of power if you’re generally committed to practicing self-care and living a better sort of life. And your energy doesn’t go towards untangling your own issues, it goes toward reminding everyone that DAMMIT, YOU HAVEN’T MOVED ON.
The notion that these amateur “safe spaces” are liberating is a lie. They just introduce a different hierarchy. The bigger “victim” you are, the more “rights” you get to have in policing others. Interaction as equals is impossible, because someone is always a bit more ravaged/in pain, and that person gets to shut down others. It is a poisonous dynamic. It harms people, because, again, status is derived from pain. Dealing with pain means losing status.
“They can’t bear complexity,” Fry says of advocates of trigger warnings and heavily policed amateur “safe spaces.” I’m sorry, but he’s right. Not only do these people refuse to understand anything about triggers, they also actively disown people and even come after them if they won’t fall in line and adopt their rhetoric. Their ultimate goal is not to alleviate suffering – it’s to experience the thrill of feeling morally superior, of being Good Guys battling Bad Guys.
Their suggestion that college classrooms must be remade into pristine “safe spaces” is ignorant, because learning, by definition, is unsafe. When you learn, you are challenged and provoked. It can be a scary, painful process. It can make you feel very small. Or angry. These emotions suck, but they won’t be the end of you. The greatest minds alive today got there because they tripped over the flaws in the world, including flaws and contradictions in their own schooling. And instead of saying, “I am triggered, it is the end,” they said, “Goddamit, I am going to do something about this.”
Healing and moving on are not linear processes. It’s not about getting from point A to point B. It’s mostly just wandering in the wilderness, because – as Fry had the temerity to suggest – the world is kind of complicated.
I’m just another person wandering in the wilderness, but I can tell you that one of the things that really helped me along the way is making fun of myself.
Here I am, a broke-ass writer in her early 30s who’s thinking that this post is going to make a difference.
I could be doing any number of useful things – alphabetizing my collection of Star Trek gifs, weeping softly over my credit rating – but instead I’m discussing internet outrage surrounding a famous actor, due to a crazy assumption that somebody might find it useful.
That’s pretty funny, right?
The world is complicated – and ridiculous. Fry treats it as such, and he’s right to do so. You’re better off taking a cue from him.
P.S. I’m of course saying all this as someone who used trigger warnings on art in the past and thought I was being super helpful to myself and to others. It took me a while to realize that I was completely misunderstanding the nature of triggers. That realization actually helped me as far as my own issues go.