Wednesday, January 27, 2016

On Trigger Warnings and Toughening Up

When I first heard about trigger warnings, my reaction was not positive. To me, it seemed as though weak people were demanding to be catered to. People go through terrible things, but so many terrible things happen that the world can't be expected to grind to a halt for every traumatized soul. Trigger warnings struck me as the height of a coddling culture devoted to preventing discomfort. The world is a hard place, and people need to just fucking toughen up and deal with it.

I've been thinking this way for some time now, not really questioning my underlying visceral response. And then today an old remark happened to pop into my head; a simple question, asked years ago, that made me reconsider the whole idea of oversensitivity.


In the first grade, I had just moved to a new neighborhood and was very unhappy about it. On the first day of school, while the class waited outside for the teacher, who was late, some kids started to tease me. I don't know what they said, but I started crying.

Tears are to children what blood is to sharks, and there was a verbal pile on. I panicked and started screaming, "STOP IT,"  which to keep going with the shark analogy, was like when the leg gets bitten off and the blood gushes out, pulling in more sharks until there is a huge feeding frenzy.

With that, my fate was sealed. I was the kid who screamed, and my peers all wanted to try that out for themselves. I was famous for it; people who had never met me would say, "hey, are you that kid that screams?" even when I no longer did.

Of course, some children go through far, far worse, but it still sucked. I avoided people as much as possible, hiding out in the library. I rarely had friends, and some of the few I had eventually turned on me, teasing me to gain traction with the other kids. From my perspective, the truest movie ever made about childhood is Welcome to the Dollhouse, the only movie I ever saw where I wasn't annoyed that the movie's "loser" character had a better childhood than I had.

I worked very hard to not cry and scream. It was a lot of work, it took many years, but by high school I was doing pretty well. Emotions were the enemy and the source of all my troubles, and it felt like a victory every time I managed to feel less and react less.


Decades later, I was talking to someone. I was talking about how fucking oversensitive people are, for example, people I dated. They would get upset about stupid little things. I could make some mild comment and they would just freak out. They needed to toughen up.

And the guy said, "you mean the way you had to toughen up when you were a kid?"

That was a "woah" moment. I was being asked, did I feel other people should tamp down on their emotions, curtail their feelings, so I could be insensitive? And the answer was no.

But it's easy to fall into old mental habits, which is why my first reaction to trigger warnings was still, toughen up, you big babies.


When I was perhaps ten years old, or whatever age it is when parents finally feel they can let their kids wander about on their own (an age that seems to have shifted since I was young), my parents gave me the lordly sum of $5 to spend at the state fair while they went off and did their own thing. I imagined going on a lot of rides, but I was distracted by a ring toss game. I bought three rings for a quarter, and missed three times. The guy running the booth said, don't give up, I'll give you four rings for another quarter. Then 5 rings, then 8, then 12, until I had spent the entire $5. There would be no midway rides for me.

Ashamed and heartbroken, I told my parents what had happened. They could have let that stand as a valuable lesson in the dangers of life, in the need to watch out for people, in the irrevocable nature of our mistakes, but they didn't. Instead, my dad hunted down the guy who managed the arcade and complained. He said it was wrong to take advantage of the naivety of a young child, and the ring toss guy had to give me my money back.

So I didn't learn that people will screw you, life is unfair and you have to accept it. I learned that people don't have the right to screw you, and that if they try, you should make a stink about it.


Toughening is a natural part of life. If you walk barefoot on gravel, your soles will toughen over time. If you don't like shoes, then that toughening is a good thing. It protects you from pain. It allows you to function. That's what toughening up is about; making adjustments that allow you to function.

For many of us, toughening up means growing a thicker skin. It means, in the words of Marge Simpson, that you, "Take all your bad feelings and push them down, all the way down past your knees, until you're almost walking on them."

There's a problem with that sort of toughening, beyond the discomfort of walking on your own feelings. If it is necessary to toughen up because the world sucks, then by toughening up, you are agreeing to the world sucking.

So you toughen up, and when people are mean to you, you laugh it off. If your boss mistreats you, you live with it. Everyone's got problems, there's nothing you can do except to grin and bear it.

When we insist that asking for trigger warnings is a result of being weak and coddled, we are demanding that traumatized people (and very few of us aren't, to some degree, traumatized) be tough.

But perhaps the insistence on trigger warnings is simply a different variety of toughness. Perhaps being tough is demanding that people show sensitivity to your needs. Perhaps you are tough if you refuse to let people make you swallow your feelings.

Some people argue that it's a cold, cruel world, and if we cater to college students now, they'll be in for a shock when they enter an adult life of asshole bosses and vindictive neighbors. What will these coddled kids do in the real world, when they can no longer run to daddy or teacher?

But maybe we have things backward. Perhaps this toughening up is why we are so quick to accept abuse. Perhaps demanding trigger warnings could lead to demanding fair treatment at work and home. Perhaps the assholes of the world rely on all these people who use their toughness to power through all the shit heaped upon them. Perhaps toughened people accept abuse that sheltered people would rebel against. Perhaps encouraging people to toughen up is making the world a safer for assholes.


In the classic Shel Silverstein song, "A Boy Named Sue," famously recorded by Johnny Cash, a father names his son Sue before leaving his family. Sue faces a lot of ridicule and fights back, becoming tough and quick-witted. As an adult, he meets his father, and tries to kill him, at which point dad says the name was to make him tough and he was pleased to see it worked.

The moral Sue took away? Don't fucking give your son a girl's name. Being tough enough to almost kill your dad isn't worth all the pain it takes to get you there.

Toughening up didn't make me a better or happier person. What has made me a better, happier person has been years spent stripping those protective emotional layers away, allowing myself to soften just a little. Still, I always quickly wipe my tears away during a sad movie; letting people see me cry will always feel dangerous.

How would my life have been different if I'd been more coddled? If teachers hadn't watched me being tormented and thought, that's just kids being kids?  If school administrators had tried to stop the bullying instead of writing me off as that kid who screamed because he wanted attention? If a psychiatrist had, instead of putting me on Ritalin (which had no effect because I was sensitive, not fucking hyperactive), admitted that bullying cannot be remedied by medicating the victims of it.

We'll never know, but I'm in favor of coddling a generation and seeing how it turns out.

I'll never be so soft as to need trigger warnings, and I'll probably always feel a visceral dislike of them. Trigger warnings are stupid and the people who insist on them are big fucking babies. And I say to all you big fucking babies, be tough enough to refuse to toughen up. See if it makes a better world.

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