On Millennials and trigger warnings

My friend Roxzana, an outstanding English literature teacher, sent me this piece from the National Review and I started thinking about it. I know: take cover, right?

The gist of the article is that the Millennial generation is comprised of a bunch of wusses because they want to attach “trigger warnings” to all forms of public narrative to ensure that those who have been on the receiving end of sexual, emotional, physical or spiritual abuse can avoid any and all public art (including literature) that might remind them of their injury and, presumably, set back their efforts at healing.

Having spent an inordinate amount of time reading commentary, comments, blog posts, etc written by men and women in the Millennial generation, I think the writer of this NR piece is on to something. But, in my opinion, while his instinct is correct, his understanding of the substance of the matter is inadequate; or, perhaps he knows fully well the issues at hand but just wanted to write a sarcastic rant and push as many rhetorical buttons as possible. Either is OK with me, but it is the underlying issues of this piece that interests me.

The central issue is whether the “trigger” warnings that now accompany much of the post-modern discourse among Millennials are necessary or, possibly even, essential. If you don’t know much about trigger warnings, you can start here (the link is in the NR piece as well). Suffice it to say the concept originated out of the post-modern feminist discourse and the intent is to encourage society broadly to create safe, shared space for individuals who have experienced life-altering trauma. As with feminism broadly, the goal is to honor and dignify a plurality of voices, not merely the powerful and privileged ones. This, in my opinion, is a good thing, although I am 100% clear that many people view this agenda as the reason for the downfall of civilization. I was recently told in an indirect way that if the women and gays would just go away, back to their proper places (one at the hearth, the other in the closet), the entire culture would be better off. So, that’s out there.

At face value, it would seem that almost every Millennial woman or gay person has been egregiously abused at some point in their life and hence these trigger warnings proliferate. I suspect some of it is just people wanting to belong, and so being a victim is part of the ethos of the Millennial generation. But more to the point, the post-modern way of viewing the world is complicit: in the absence of anything grounded, absolute, or even remotely approaching a shared narrative for social experience, individuals are left to fend for themselves and create their own story — in fact, to fail to do so is to fail to participate in the cultural moment.

When there is no such thing as an organizing narrative — epic or otherwise (think WWII, eg), the individual story reigns supreme. In my opinion, this is why the “trigger” warnings have become so popular and are seen as so necessary — all narratives are legitimate, even conflicting ones, and one effective strategy to have one’s personal narrative elevated above the noise of competing narratives is to lay claim to victim status — you are, at that point, uncontested in your right to have a voice.

(As an aside: this is one of the reasons why religion is so powerful and why, at least in the Evangelical community, there is such a battle raging for competing interpretations of the Bible. What is at stake is the organizing narrative of the people involved, the shared story against which all individual members are measured and to which all members must submit; to lose the battle is to lose control of the discourse and thus become disenfranchised. I wonder if folks realize the person they are attempting to control here is God … but I digress).

The issue, then, that the NR writer is talking about is central, because what happens when culturally we take aim at the art and literature that forms what is left of the basis of shared experience? If all our works of art are labeled with “trigger warnings” we end up dismantling a critical element of our shared discourse.

In my view, the better approach is to attempt, culturally, to advance the idea that victimhood is not a viable or desirable self-identifier. Survivor — for those who in fact have survived trauma — is an excellent self-identifier. A survivor is an agent in their own lives; a victim is not. A survivor has at their core a strength that is resilient and capable of handling onslaught; a victim does not, and so on. I am not saying there are not real victims out there — they are legion, I’m sure. But the goal ought to be to support victims into a place of wellness and health, through first allowing them to tell their story and be validated, but eventually to emerge as strong and capable, not defined by their trauma, able to contribute to society rather than need society to perpetually prop them up.

This is why the NR piece is ultimately not helpful. In calling out Millennials as “worthless and weak” the author reinforces the penchant for victims to self-identify as such. Shame is a horrible and ineffective way of motivating people to change. In fact, the NYT ran this week an excellent article (pertaining to education in this case) that makes a profound argument for using the precise opposite strategy: if you want people to change, make them believe they are strong, they are achievers, they are capable, that their environment and handicaps and setbacks do not define them.

Believe in a person, and before you know it, they have become more than they ever thought they could.

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