Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt and Foundation for Individual Rights in Education President Greg Lukianoff recently wrote a tour de force of an article entitled, “The Coddling of the American Mind.” In response, Maddy Myers of The Mary Sue wrote an article so petulant it verges on self-parody. Worse yet, it is insulting to the readers’ intelligence, insofar as Myers apparently believes that an article coauthored by a decades-long veteran of studying psychology (Haidt) simply suffers from a failure to understand post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Among the more amusing bits of Myers’ non-response is an admission that she “[doesn’t] have evidence back up [her] claims of how these warnings work,” but does have “a lot of anecdotal stories from friends about how they have trouble predicting what will ‘set off’ their anxiety.” The crux of her argument (to the extent she can be flattered with such a term) seems to be this:
This is just one in a long line of misunderstandings on the part of older college professors who actually just seem angry at the ‘political correctness’ their modern students have begun to demand. They may try to characterize us as literal babies, but they’re the ones who look like babies to me, given the refusal to acknowledge their students’ experiences. They can’t be bothered to make small changes to their own curriculums that might better facilitate conversations among their students about media depictions of violence, rape, assault, war, kidnapping, and so on.
I like the idea of trigger warnings, but I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not sure they do much to protect people from panic attacks. Unfortunately, almost no articles that discuss trigger warnings seem particularly interested in centering the experiences of people with anxiety and PTSD, and how those people might be better served by institutions and classes that they’re paying thousands and thousands of dollars to attend.
In other words, how can you be so cruel as to expect these students to engage with knowledge as it actually exists? They’re just trying to get the degrees they paid for in peace. Leave them alone.
What I am about to write may come off to many people as cruel. As such, I feel it necessary to begin by stating that I write this piece as a victim of childhood abuse who still suffers some degree of PTSD from the experience. I won’t claim it’s nearly as bad as that experienced by, say, combat veterans, although unlike Myers and her “abusive relationship,” I do have a window into PTSD that severe—namely, the very man who abused me: my father.
My Experience With PTSD
You see, my father had severe PTSD from his time as a Green Beret during the Vietnam War. It is probably at least partially because he refused to seek treatment for it that I ended up suffering the same thing to a lesser degree.
My father’s PTSD transformed him into an erratic, explosive, psychologically abusive man who instilled paranoid fantasies in me about everyone, including my own mother, starting when I was at the tender age of five. To make sure I never questioned these ideas, he punished any signs of critical thinking with almost Maoist tactics of repression. He also sweetened his psychological poison pill by alternating his rages and interrogations with grandiose flattery designed to make me even more dependent on his fantasies. Thankfully, my mother kicked him out when I was seven, but to this day I find it difficult to fully trust many people because of the pure paranoia I was forced to experience and embrace at an early age.
I don’t bring this up for pity. I bring it up because I know what it is to be triggered, and to have to fight your way past a psychological gag reflex that you never wanted, but that the dual cruelties of fate and another person’s mental illness imposed on you.
It is because I know this that I must write this article. In the past few years, I have seen the markers of a disorder I have learned to live with cynically twisted into a political cudgel by the radical Left, as well as a number of people I can only believe are still too deluded by their own continued suffering to realize what a mockery and an insult their cause is to their fellow sufferers. I don’t know which of these categories Myers fits into, but, frankly, it doesn’t matter. A snake-oil salesman is a snake-oil salesman, even if she believes the snake oil works.
Leave College If You Can’t Take It
Let’s get back to Myers’ “just let the poor traumatized kids get the degrees they paid for” argument. No, don’t let them get those degrees. The whole point of those degrees is to signify their bearers possess qualities beyond merely the credit rating to take out vast amounts of student loans. The entire reason college degrees are supposed to be valuable is that they signify a capacity to absorb and process specialized knowledge beyond what non-degree-holders have. This is, in fact, the whole purpose of education generally.
This means if some troubled or weak students have allowed their mental illness to preclude them from absorbing such knowledge, the fault lies not with the college, but with them. Such people are as ineducable as an illiterate English major. The solution is not to expel knowledge from the classroom that is disagreeable to these feeble and fragile minds. It is to expel them. Their place is in a psych ward, not a school, and their money (or, more likely, their parents’) is better spent seeking treatment there than spoiling education for everyone else.
I am not exaggerating when I say that the stigma attached to mental illness exists at least partially because “sufferers” exhibit these sorts of cognitive glass jaws. Why should you be willing to spend time around someone prone to breaking down and blaming you at any moment, let alone take responsibility for them as an employer, supervisor, or especially the sort of educator-cum-substitute-parent that many college administrations try to be? In our lawsuit-happy culture, there is no reason for any rational being to want anyone who is mentally ill nearby if their most visible “advocates” are so fragile they want to see a Shakespeare play labeled like a pack of cigarettes.
You’re Harming People Who Have Real Problems
This stigma is more than just an insult to people who do their best not to permit their mental illnesses to affect their lives. It also permits some senseless and unenlightened policies at universities. Witness Yale University’s policy on mental health, which seems to treat everyone with mental illness—even those who want to do nothing but learn in order to escape the circumstances that led to it—as a potential lawsuit. The result? Anyone who shows signs of mental fragility—even when he doesn’t permit it to affect his coursework—gets quietly suspended as a precautionary measure to avoid liability.
This policy has already led to one suicide by a suspended student and a pervasive culture among Yale students of not reporting their mental-health issues, which should surprise no one. But can we truly say it is irrational if the trigger-warning proponents are right that any mentally ill student who reads “Titus Andronicus” is liable to suffer a panic attack or become suicidal? If that’s true, the only rational response for educators is simply to either avoid contact with the mentally ill, or to shy away from teaching anything that might possibly implicate the darker side of human existence.
This is why colleges like Yale drive their students to suicide rather than risk a lawsuit, and why college professors fear that teaching “triggering” material might prematurely end their careers. In the guise of sensitivity, mental-health “activists” have convinced them that sufferers are ticking time bombs.
I hope that I speak for many, many other people who’ve dealt with mental illness when I say we are not so easily exploded, and many of us, especially those who have been acutely afflicted, resent the hell out of being portrayed that way. I refuse to give people who spread this meme of the easily breakable sufferer even the benefit of praising their noble or empathetic intentions. What they offer is not compassion, but idle, sniveling condescension disguised as such.
Can’t Handle the Heat, Get Out of College
To give one example of just how insulting these coddlers can get, consider the following argument that many proponents of trigger warnings have voiced to me: “Surely,” they say, “you wouldn’t throw spiders at an arachnophobe and claim it’s defensible behavior? How is bombarding people with triggers in a classroom any different?”
Setting aside how infantilizing the logic is, the problem with this logic is its generalization onto the classroom, which comes equipped with a few implicit expectations about your ability to absorb information. Sure, one might not throw spiders at an arachnophobe in a social setting, but when an arachnophobe decides to major in entomology, he forfeits his right to complain about seeing spiders.
Yet this style of argument clearly rings a chord with some people who suffer from mental illness. This is depressing, but also helpful, for it gives us a much clearer sign of who the ineducable and broken among us are. When they lend their support to the professional coddlers masquerading as “activists,” they advertise their presence.
Like it or not, the activists have done us a service in flushing them out, as surely as the exterminator does a service by drawing out termites. The “victims” they hold up as poster children should be the first people that colleges suspend, expel, or forcibly commit to whatever mental-health facilities they retain. This will take the stigma away from most mental-health sufferers and put it firmly where it belongs: with the ones whose inability to hack it in an educational setting is so all-consuming that they can’t stop talking about it.
Sick People Need Treatment, Not Trigger Warnings
Is this cruel? No. What is cruel is leaving people that troubled without treatment, and then expecting them to survive in institutions that are supposed to be dedicated to seeking truth. It is true that some people are so damaged that, in the immortal words of Col. Nathan R. Jessup, they “can’t handle the truth.”
It’s not fair to the colleges or to them to expect them to hack it any more than it’s fair to expect someone with easily broken bones to become a body builder. Either the college will have to dumb its educational mission down to the point of meaninglessness, or the extremely damaged will have to put themselves at risk of interminable mental agony. The first option destroys learning; the second destroys people. Better to keep the people incapable of learning away from it.
I know what it is to be triggered. I also have never resented a professor for not warning me in advance. If anything, I was grateful. For me, something being triggered was a bright flashing arrow indicating precisely what I most needed to work on to be able to live a normal life and cease permitting my painful past to control me. Seeing that truth and your own disorders don’t line up can be frightening or liberating; often both at the same time. Like Plato’s philosopher, whose eyes burn in the light of the sun when he first emerges from the cave, stripping away your own mental illness’ illusions can be very painful. As in Plato, it is also worth it.
But if you can’t brave that light, you don’t deserve it. If you need trigger warnings in order to learn, then the only warning we should hear is a warning against letting you in the classroom. There will always be those who prefer to be lost, but we don’t need to burn maps to accommodate them. To get back to educating students, colleges need to understand that some would prefer to remain lost in a dark wood of error. For those students, there can be only one option, and it is to inscribe above the campus gates the only warning the ineducable deserve to read:
Through me you pass into the city of woe:
Through me you pass into eternal pain:
Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.