During last week’s “Introspection,” I briefly referred to microaggressions, any discussion of which leads to trigger warnings, a separate but intricately related issue. A kind reader reminded me of a September 2015 article from The Atlantic, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” that made the round in the academic circles and elsewhere when it came out. I had added that piece by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt to my growing collection of writing on the topic and I returned to it after that comment on my blog.
I struggle with these issues on several levels: as a college instructor who chooses readings that will challenge my students to grapple with difficult concepts, as a writer who may be creating those scenes so many feel warrant trigger warnings, and as an individual who has experienced multiple traumas over the years (note that I abhor the “survivor” label as much as I do “victim”) – not to mention the obvious fact of being female in a male-dominated society. I could take offense at microaggressions all day long if I so desired.
As I started writing this follow-up piece (and jettisoning much of it – or at least filing it away for another time), I realized I’m still working out my thoughts on this terribly complex topic, trying hard to remain compassionate while not losing sight of the personal responsibility to deal with emotions in a reasonable manner, to stop “coddling” ourselves while still addressing necessary self-care.
Two additional articles found their way to my research folder. One by Jim Sleeper offered a scathing indictment of the Lukianoff/Haidt piece with lots of generalized labeling of his own. But Sleeper also makes a number of thought-provoking points as he (apparently) seeks to make the issue more pervasive than is generally recognized.
The second article appeared in the New York Times op-ed pages, written by Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy. His views are much more in line with where my thoughts are leading, stating, “In the long run, though, reformers harm themselves by nurturing an inflated sense of victimization,” which was addressed eloquently in an additional NYT piece by Anemona Hartocollis:
Some critics admire the protesters for this youthful passion, but worry that they are promoting a culture of victimization that sees claims of oppression as a badge of honor. Others say students are vilifying classmates and professors for unintentional racial slights, which could be dealt with more gently. Some say the alienation expressed by black and Hispanic students is experienced by all students in some form when they find themselves at competitive colleges.
Her words echo my fears. I continue to hope that somewhere is all this debate there is found a middle ground, a balanced, nuanced approach which takes into account all the many complexities and sensibilities concerned.
Compassion and understanding work both ways. Angry reaction to what may well be an unintentional albeit thoughtless hurtful comment only gives rise to defensiveness and more anger. Hubby repeatedly encourages me to take the emotion out of my reactions. That’s as much to my benefit as to those with whom I interact.
Part of learning to regain power over my life after repeated traumas means taking responsibility for my emotions and my reactions to others. I’ve excused myself from a writers’ workshop on more than one occasion when the material being shared was more than I could handle at the moment. I didn’t demand the group move on to less uncomfortable work. My anxiety, my issues – my problem.
As Lukianoff and Haidt point out, “According to the most-basic tenets of psychology, helping people with anxiety disorders avoid the things they fear is misguided.” I’ve spent far too many years ignoring, side-stepping, avoiding the residual memories from my difficult past. Anti-depressants helped mask the pain, for a time, while also robbing me of any ability to emotionally connect with those around me, including my young children.
It was not worth the trade-off.
Only when I stopped running, stopped avoiding, stopped “coddling” was I able to truly begin healing. I had to take back the power I had lost to those who hurt me physically, mentally, and emotionally. I had to stop insisting they – and other well-meaning or simply unaware people around me – change to protect me from myself. I had to change me.
Obviously when the offenses are systemic – whether in the realm of criminal justice or academia – personal change only goes so far. Equanimity, while laudable in the moment, does little to change the root causes of the problem. Those issues need a broader, but still nuanced and less emotional, response. As Hubby often points out, macro and micro realties are very different.
In my role as a college instructor, I know I’ve pulled back from sensitive issues because so few of my students are prepared for the kind of introspection I’ve gone through to reach this stage in my life. It’s regrettable but necessary given the constraints of my time in the classroom.
As for my writing, sadly I find myself censoring my work far more heavily than I’d like for fear of offending someone, of being accused of microaggressions myself. My psyche is still fragile; my healing is incomplete. It likely always will be. Life is a journey. So I focus on compassion, for myself and for others.
My journey toward understanding continues. I’ll keep reading, and thinking, and writing.
And I hope society keeps talking – compassionately – as we search for answers together.