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Trigger Warnings and Mass Psychogenic Illness

Contrary to the tradition of free inquiry, many college students now demand the suppression of ideas they find offensive. As if to raise the stakes by transforming the issues in play into medical ones, many also claim that such ideas traumatize them. Implying as it does that offensive material doesn’t just insult decency or pollute the public realm but wounds the very psyche of those exposed to it, the term “trauma” as deployed by the critics of free inquiry has indeed taken the argument to a new level. What are we to make of the contention that students are so vulnerable that the syllabus of a lit course should carry a “trigger warning” to the effect that their psyches might suffer damage merely as a result of the reading?

A medical argument calls for a medical reply.

Suppose rumors begin to circulate in a small town that the insulation stuffed into local walls and attics contains a toxic substance. Literally surrounded by toxicity, the residents begin to report symptoms like nausea, headache, dizziness and poor concentration, with each new case producing others in a cascade effect. The Emergency Room overflows. Upon investigation, however, no toxic source can be found. According to the medical literature, we have here a case of mass psychogenic illness (or mass hysteria): a social phenomenon in which people suddenly fall ill, and inspire others to do so as well, in the belief that they have been exposed to a toxic agent, though in fact the belief itself is making them sick. Such an outbreak poses a spurious emergency.

So too, I argue, does the trigger-warning movement. A mass reaction to an imaginary toxin and an over-reaction to the perceived dangers of toxic ideas represent parallel events (except that the threat allegedly posed by toxic ideas lacks the local and limited character of a classical psychogenic incident). Just as the former has the suddenness of a panic, the latter flares up instantly on the slightest provocation, as documented recently by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt in their critique of the trigger-warning movement, The Coddling of the American Mind. In both cases an incident can become an immediate cause célèbre, with ambulances, fire trucks, investigators, and reporters hastening to the scene of a psychogenic outbreak, and the news media, social networks, student populations, and university authorities swept up in a comprehensive reaction to students’ claims of injury.

Schools appear to be the most common venue for psychogenic outbreaks, perhaps because a population concentrated in a tight setting makes an ideal conductor. In a case that took place in 1998, and was analyzed in the New England Journal of Medicine in January 2000,1 a teacher in a Tennessee high school fell ill upon detecting a mysterious petroleum-like smell, whereupon the illness spread through the school like wildfire, with 100 people taken to the Emergency Room on the first day alone, some by ambulance. Despite diligent investigation, no toxic source was ever discovered. The authors of the NEJM article classify the malady in question as psychogenic, distinguished as it was by clusters of symptoms “suggestive of organic illness but without an identified cause in a group of people with shared beliefs about the cause of the symptoms.” A similar dynamic is at work in the trigger-warning movement, which also creates a state of emergency, draws its power from shared beliefs, and blames injurious effects on phantom causes (such as words on the page).

It’s because of the recognized fallacies of hunting for the deep-seated “cause” of our mental ills that the makers of the diagnostic system used to classify psychiatric disorders in the United States—a taxonomy introduced in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1980—specifically refrained from making causal attributions. For the diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (also introduced in 1980) they made an exception, however. By definition, PTSD is caused by a trauma or “stressor.” Over time, and contrary to the intent of the original designers of the diagnosis, the lowering of the diagnostic threshold made it possible to claim that events well within the scope of common experience set off PTSD.

As the chair of the group that drew up the original criteria for PTSD, Nancy Andreasen, noted in 2010, the concept of PTSD following its instatement in the DSM was “steadily broadened by clinicians to include milder stressors that were not intended for inclusion. . . . The diagnosis, assumed to be relatively rare in peacetime, became much more common.” Could those who crafted the diagnosis of PTSD with Vietnam veterans in mind have foreseen the day in 2014 when students at the University of California, Santa Barbara, passed a resolution calling on professors to alert them in advance to material “that may trigger the onset of symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder”? A provocative synonym for “cause,” the verb “trigger” as used here and elsewhere by the movement that adopted it exemplifies the beliefs about causality that drive a psychogenic outbreak.

Much as illness raced through the Tennessee high school not as a result of a toxic exposure but because those affected got swept up in a frenzy of imitation, demands for trigger warnings raced from coast to coast in recent years in a kind of epidemic manner. As noted by the New York Times in 2014, “Colleges across the country this spring have been wrestling with student requests for what are known as ‘trigger warnings,’ explicit alerts that the material they are about to read or see in a classroom might upset them or, as some students assert, cause symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.” As the spread of the phenomenon suggests, we confront here a movement that reproduces its own exaggerations virally. The Times itself illustrates the mechanism of exaggeration in the smooth shift from the statement that material “might upset” some students to the statement that it might clinically traumatize them.

While a trigger warning in theory guards against trauma, it has the actual effect of multiplying claims of trauma by students who are primed to expect it and have a ready-made lexicon to describe both its effects and the outrages that bring it on. Elsewhere I’ve discussed the process of “disease-mongering” by which normal experiences like transient depression come to be defined, diagnosed, treated, popularized, and perhaps even suffered as disorders. (See, for example, The Nocebo Effect: Overdiagnosis and Its Costs [Palgrave Macmillan, 2015].)  The trigger-warning movement brands and propagates “trauma” in the same way, making it possible to portray even a work as non-inflammatory as The Great Gatsby as dangerous to the psyche of the reader. While the distress of the aggrieved students is real, so was the distress of the Tennesseans who found themselves in the ER as a result of exposure to an agent that didn’t exist.

If words on the page have as little power to inflict deep and lasting wounds as an imaginary toxin, then how do they come to be magnified into an existential threat? Possibly the trigger-warning movement itself lends them a virulence they don’t otherwise possess. As students across the land join the movement and mirror one another’s behavior, the bandwagon as a whole gains power that in turn charges the rhetoric of those who ride it. In the sense that its power inflates its claims, which in turn mobilize its members, the trigger-warning movement feeds on itself. And so does a psychogenic outbreak. In the school in question, both the sight and the report of so many people taken ill inspired others to fall ill in the same way. So much duplication of behavior took place that, in the words of the NEJM authors, symptoms seemed to spread by “contagion”—sociological contagion, that is. For what it’s worth, the medical literature refers to the event inciting such an outbreak as a trigger.

*     *     *

In contrast to the Tennessee episode, the confined nature of which seems to have made it all the more intense, the trigger-warning movement isn’t limited to a single locale or moment. And yet, it too is driven by mimesis. Like people producing similar complaints in response to the same imaginary toxin, participants in the movement chant the same grievances and the same formulas of distress, with all this identity serving to unify the troops and attract more believers. Just as the Tennessee episode took place among people “with shared beliefs about the cause of the symptoms,” the members of the trigger-warning movement have strong beliefs about what constitutes a trauma in the first place. One of those beliefs is that belief-systems like racism pose a mortal threat, which is why they want to police opinion, again in stark contrast to the tradition of free inquiry.

While doctors on hand during psychogenic outbreaks tell “war stories” about them and count the costs of the “disruption to the community” (as the NEJM authors put it), the proponents of trigger warnings seek to disrupt the community, just as they aim to impose their own sort of martial law, in which ordinary liberties like respect for the beliefs of others are suspended. In response to the psychogenic outbreak, the Tennessee school shut down temporarily. The study of a literary work can readily be shut down if all students need to do to shut it down is claim to be wounded by it.

Notwithstanding the over-reactions of those caught up in the psychogenic episode on the one hand and those traumatized by their reading on the other, the disturbances that set off their fears are not especially unusual. Among the Tennesseans who thought they had been exposed to toxic fumes the most common symptoms reported were headache, dizziness, nausea and drowsiness—the sort of nonspecific ills that show up in any number of disorders or in no disorder at all, being part of the human lot. The entire list of reported symptoms, including such generic ones as “nervousness,” reads like an anthology of human complaints. To be offended or even disgusted by something you read is also a common event.

In both cases, however, an inflammatory interpretation allows the person undergoing these experiences to construe them as a crisis. With people all around you falling ill after inhaling fumes (and who can avoid breathing?), ills like headache or nervousness suddenly take on ominous meaning and become emergencies. In the midst of the panic in the school in question, the fire alarm was actually sounded. The members of the trigger-warning movement specialize in the rhetoric of alarm, decrying not only “unsafe spaces” but the many who deny their “right to exist.” In the atmosphere of exaggeration created by their own voices, the ordinary feeling of being disturbed or offended by words on the page can swell into the ominous sensation of being menaced. So it is that a movement intended to give students a sense of security has perversely inflamed their fears.

As the psychogenic incident played out in the Tennessee high school, at some point it became clear to doctors that no toxic source existed and that the complaints they were seeing—compounded of quite ordinary symptoms—had no cause beyond the anxieties of the sufferers, just as in other incidents of this kind. Neither air samples nor the school’s ventilation and plumbing systems nor an aerial survey of the region nor even an investigation of some caves in the vicinity of the school yielded any suspect finding. Blood tests of everyone evaluated in the ER proved normal.

And yet the doctors thought it more expedient to let the incident run its course than to point out to those who had fallen ill that they generated their own illness. “Physicians and others are understandably reluctant to announce that an outbreak of illness is psychogenic, because of the shame and anger that the diagnosis tends to elicit,” write the NEJM authors. Students who claim to be traumatized by the written word might well respond not just with shame and anger but all-out fury to any counselor or therapist who so much as suggested that their suffering is of their own making. Professors for their part seem reluctant to dispute the students’ claimed authority to determine what can and can’t be said in the world around them.

Though a psychogenic outbreak tends to play itself out, its participants may not be able to resume normal life without reassurance from a doctor that their illness was transient and they are now well. And here we come upon yet another suggestive analogy to the trigger-warning movement. If Lukianoff and Haidt are right, the sort of false emergencies the movement generates (and the curtailments of liberty such crises bring) will continue unless and until young people who have been brought up in the belief that they are very delicate beings are reassured about their ability to bear up under the stress and strain of intellectual conflict. Of course, the fact that students demanding the suppression of offending ideas have the best possible psychological alibi for their intolerance—that they are simply acting out their upbringing—excuses them not at all.

 

Stewart Justman taught English and humanities at the University of Montana from 1975 to 2016. He writes on literature and medicine and has received the PEN Award for the Art of the Essay.

Reference:

1 Timothy Jones, Allen Craig, Debbie Hoy et al., “Mass Psychogenic Illness Attributed to Toxic Exposure at a High School,” New England Journal of Medicine 342 (2000): 96-100.

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47 Comments

  1. Holly says

    Excellent piece. I heard a classmate referring to something as “triggering” recently when what they really meant was “it made me mildly uncomfortable,” and that’s just insane. Just as insane as the fact that people are starting to use “PTSD” as a slang word to mean “upsetting” is the fact that many of them aren’t aware that that’s what they’re doing. They honestly believe that they are being traumatized by the banalities of daily life. Out of respect for the fact that Quillette declined my pitch to write about PTSD and trigger warnings from the perspective of someone with actual, professionally-diagnosed PTSD from a genuinely serious trauma, I won’t go on too long–if they wanted me to blather on their site they’d have said yes, right??–but I did want to add that trigger warnings of the sort demanded on campus do LITERALLY NOTHING for people with real PTSD. I have never once needed more of a trigger warning than I got from the syllabus on the first day of class, and like everyone who’s actually trying to get past their past, I dealt with it as privately as possible. In my case, that meant arranging with my therapist to talk about what was going to come up in class in our last session before the scheduled topic, and when the day came I got through it just fine. My professor never knew; nor should she have. You likely had more than one student like me over the years. Not all students are like these blithering idiots.

    • Well, I am appreciative of your perspective and it’s too bad the pitch was not accepted. Maybe they were looking for essays that are in the third person.

      In fact, I’ve thought of similar things before as a person suffering from mental illness as a result of abuse. The last thing I want to do is insulate myself from upsetting things. I want to be tougher than this, move through the world confidently, and never let my abusers win. That comes from stoicism and rational thinking, not from scrutinizing my surroundings for more abuse.

      This may be unfounded but I wonder if the large swath of SJWs in social work educational programs co-opted the language of trauma therapy they learned about in classes and inappropriately applied it to the world at large. The purpose of being aware of triggers and having a safe outlet for reprocessing trauma is precisely so you DON’T have to ask your professors to put it on syllabi and forbid offensive speech by the public. It trains you to function in a world that is not and never will be trigger free.

      People with issues like ours at times believe that it’s the world that needs to accommodate their unique needs as a mentally ill person rather than taking responsibility for your own recovery. I can see where this might come from. If you are suffering because of abuse you sustained that was not your fault, the idea that it’s YOU who needs to do something about it can be profoundly distressing. But fault and responsibility are not synonyms. Someone needs to tell these kids this.

      So much of the scanning of the world for microaggressions and unconscious bias is a cognitive distortion called Mind Reading. Extremist political groups use many cognitive disortions to describe society. When I was a child who was convinced “everyone hated me” – that was a distortion. Maybe someone did, but not everyone. (Black and White thinking) and do I REALLY know that? ( Mind Reading) etc. You get the idea. “Racism and sexism are everywhere!” And “all white people are racist!” Is the same, manifested on a group level.

      Keep marching on.

  2. Interesting analogy. Besides the hypersensitivity of students, an equally relevant issue is the indulgence of teachers, administrators and parents who themselves historically might actually have ridiculed such over reactions. In other words all this mass psychosis happens in a context.

  3. It’s also a quick and easy way to gain moral high ground and make yourself and your suffering the center of attention. If you have no discernable redeeming qualities by which to engender attention, claiming to be a victim of some thought-bully’s harmful ideas will work in a pinch.

    • Michael Joseph says

      Yes, it’s hard to fathom why intelligent college students would censor their own font of knowledge. But having taught high school for a number of years I’ve had my share of run ins with students, administrators, other teachers, and parents motivated to fill classroom experiences with things other than learning.

  4. Kristina says

    I have wondered whether the rise in claims of sexual assault can be attributed to a mass psychogenic illness–where people believe they have experienced sexual assault because everyone around them is talking about it, even if they have not experienced it.

    • I wouldn’t go so far as to call it psychogenic illness. I would hypothesis it is merely a dopamine craving … that same craving for likes and thumbs up on forums and Twitter when identifying as a victim transferring into real life. It has been around for a while, predating the current societal instantiations. Twenty years ago you’d have people online mentioning being a veteran and getting flooded with “thank you for your service” and the like. That quickly morphed to feeling like 70% of the “online personalities” you’d meet, particular in MMOGs, were all ex Army green beret snipers. Who would have guessed that we’d have so many of that very narrow MOS out there playing video games online! It transferred into real life as the stolen-valor folks, the “i’m a Native American so hire me” types, and others. This has been suggested in the threads about rapid onset gender dysmorphia where outcast youngsters declare themselves transgender to suddenly part of the in-crowd the way the football players and cheerleaders are. It’s “in fashion” like Goth and Emo.

    • Larry Larkin says

      A better example of mass psychogenic illness that you hear a lot about today is the clusters of suddenly transgender children, especially groups of girls.

    • It is easy to go from such mass reports to reframing past experiences as crimes that were really just uncomfortable moments. Just look how “sexual harassment” is often conflated to “sexual assault.”

  5. Morgan says

    As someone has pointed out, the right to speak implies the right to hear.

    So, whenever you come across someone being triggered, ask them who should decide what they have a right to hear. The elected government? A college dean? A secret committee somewhere?

    Via this type of inquiry, I have found that these complainers only do so because they want to deprive others of rights, not because of anything said or done. When they realize that they are advocating the elimination of their own rights, they glitch.

    • Michael Joseph says

      Right, as most issues boil down to “what is the deciding authority?” Restricting the dissemination of information will involve an authority to decide upon the “appropriate ness” of allowable texts. Once you open that can of worms it’s best to quickly reapply the lid.

  6. ccscientist says

    It is a well-known human trait to classify displeasing ideas, people, or customs as unclean or revolting. It takes effort to NOT do so. Throughout history people felt actual revulsion at other people’s foods, clothing, lifestyle, and smells.
    This is being extended now to repulsive ideas. It happens to be too convenient because it frees the people from coming back with counter-arguments. It has become an extreme illness commonly called “Trump Derangement Syndrome” where even if Trump proposes a policy that democrats once espoused (e.g. Bill Clinton once favored secure borders and Obama voted for the marriage act that only recognized a man-woman marriage), they completely lose their minds because of who (Trump) is saying it since he is unclean.
    We can see this “uncleanness” in action when To Kill a Mockingbird is banned even though it is an attack on racism that was ground-breaking in its time. the reason? it uses banned words that were actually used in the historical period in question. These people make nuns look loose and permissive.
    One of the ways these people exaggerate harm from words is to claim that words are violence, that bad ideas erase their identity, deny their agency, violate their right to exist. They must be very insubstantial beings, made of air, for words to have these effects.

    • Michael Joseph says

      Oh you mean like when the ACA came out Republicans called it Obama Care and even though it was a version of a health care policy acceptable to many Republicans became reviled not because of its impact on society but because of who produced it.

    • Michael Joseph says

      A bit long winded. Trigger rhetoric is like an out break of mass hysteria. By the way, it happened at this school where someone smelled gas. Victims of “trigger literature” act kind of the same way. Doctors in the original episode chose to do nothing.

      Don’t know if I needed all the extra column inches.

  7. Lynden says

    Latest fashion symptems.. I wonder how often doctors encounter patients with RSI today, 30 years ago it was very common.

    • Larry Larkin says

      These days they are too concerned with diagnosing absolutely normal young children as autistic, ADD, ADHD, transgender, etc to be mass diagnosing something simple like RSI.

  8. “a social phenomenon in which people suddenly fall ill, and inspire others to do so as well, in the belief that they have been exposed to a toxic agent, though in fact the belief itself is making them sick. Such an outbreak poses a spurious emergency.”

    So kind of like the popularity of transgenderism?

  9. “…The recognized fallacies of hunting for the deep-seated “cause” of our mental ills…”

    Really? Recognized by whom? Lazy-minded “professionals” who’d rather drug, shock or lobotomize us?

    • No no diagnosis and no treatable symptoms equals no payment. It’s not hard to figure out.

      • Mark Edward Edens says

        That seems too harsh. The psychological rewards of feeling important and of believing that you’ve helped someone and the seduction of finding your area of expertise applicable to a problem are likely more compelling than mercenary concerns. Of course, you can satisfy all of them at once.

  10. The worst part of this panic is the idea that to oppose it makes one morally reprehensible. When people are just afraid of mold or contrails or sugar one can at least have a debate but in this case if you try to point out the panic you are labeled as deplorable.

    • Michael Joseph says

      I prefer the way the doctors handled the school crisis. Listen, treat the symptoms and let the hysteria run its course. After all, what permanent remedies could you really make?

  11. ShipAhoy says

    I participated in an experimental study on treatment for PTSD. The therapy was for the patient to record the story of the event that caused it and to listen to it repeatedly, in an effort to numb the patient to the cause. Exactly the opposite of current attitudes towards it, especially in the academia, where the idea of “harm” is being treated with preposterous delicacy. They don’t even bother to define it, but simply tell us not to “show harmful images that might make students uncomfortable.” Yet what causes “harm” has become so ridiculously subjective, how is one to know in advance? This, in turn, sets up a trap for the instructor.

    In my own case, it turned out I was going through a truly terrifying experience at the time of my treatment. I had no choice but to show up at work as if nothing was wrong (I was barely surviving financially). The therapist noted that I had found the resolve to function despite my diagnosis. This resolve would be called on again some months later when a black student threatened to knife me for giving him a ‘C’ on his paper, because “white teachers are racists keeping the black man down.” Since then, I have been…”triggered” by any narrative that effects this kind of thinking, and watching it exacerbated over the past few years should have caused me to have a mental breakdown at the very least. I am, literally, “triggered” by it, but have no choice but to soldier on through it. If only my students, who recently told me they are “triggered” by the stereotype that “Asians are good at math” would follow my subversive edict to FIND A WAY TO DEAL WITH IT. I still can’t believe we are being compelled to teach young people to be so incapable of handling life.

    I refuse to participate. I also didn’t listen to the recordings. Necessity being the mother of invention, I just got on with it.

  12. Farris says

    There is something obnoxiously grotesque and disproportionate about comparing the physiological scars from combat and the fear of being killed or maimed with having to hear a speech or read a phrase that may challenge one’s beliefs.

  13. I work for a ministry that addresses PTSD in combat veterans with more than 2000 alumni of our program. We do create a “safe” environment for these vets to be able to openly and completely describe the events leading to their PTSD by only including other combat vets and by having our instructors give their personal testimonies to the students. These testimonies include admitting to being the victim of childhood sexual abuse and describing those circumstances in meaningful detail. By setting this example of transparency, the students come to feel comfortable sharing their own traumatic experiences which often include childhood sexual abuse in addition to horrific combat stories.

    Oftentimes, you can literally see the weight being lifted from the shoulders of these men as they open up about their experiences. To the extent that a student is completely forthright about their experiences, that student generally improves his condition. In our experience, there really is no other way to overcome this aside from confronting it openly. I suspect that confronting this entire victim industrial complex is the most effective way of negating its pernicious effects.

    http://www.mightyoakswarriorprograms.org

  14. Pingback: Trigger Warnings and Mass Psychogenic Illness by Stewart Justman | RUTHFULLY YOURS

  15. John Lammi PhD says

    Students who have “triggered episodes” should be suspended from school.

  16. Paolo says

    Fair perspective, but the very same point could have been made in 1/10 of the words.

  17. Speaking to a millennial recently about the emotional turmoil arising from a relationship breakup, I told him to be strong, that the anguish would fade with time and that we all go through times like these at some point in our lives.

    He stood there and looked at me, angry as could be, and said with a shocking amount of venom in his voice:

    “I DON’T WANT TO BE STRONG. WHY CAN’T I JUST BE WEAK!”

    If I were to live a thousand years, I cannot imagine ever having that perspective on life.

  18. Gary G says

    I can see the small point that, prior to soldiering on, a person may need/want to experience pain and vulnerability, for a period. A week. A few weeks.
    Similar to “stages of grief”. Not permanent.

    • Colin says

      “I can see the small point that … a person may need/want to experience pain and vulnerability”

      I can’t see that point. Not at any time or place, for any reason, ever.

      • Michael Joseph says

        I think the youngster took the admonition to be strong to mean he shouldn’t express his feelings. There is something to be said for accepting those expressions. However a random college professor may not be the right shoulder to cry on.

  19. Sneed Urn says

    Two things. I don’t consider the trigger-warning micro-aggression safe spaces crowd to be left or progressive. They are more accurately totalitarian in their efforts to make expression conform to NewSpeak and thought to be constrained to their opinion. From Yale to Evergreen those abuses by students must be stopped. It seems there has been a reduction to some degree, or at least there are fewer reported outlandish incidents. I have every hope and expectation that intelligent young students will recognize the excesses and fallacy of that mode of understanding and it will fade as fads do. I am all for civility and accommodating people as much as reasonably possible, but I expect that in return as well.

    An anecdote about a psychiatrist I knew decades ago. A successful middle aged man was on the psychaiatrist’s couch complaining about what, in the scheme of things, were very minor annoyances of daily married life. After 20 minutes of this the psychiatrist abruptly turned to him, interrupting his whining complaints and said sternly, “Buck up, you sniveling worm.” The man took a few beats to gather himself and started sputtering indignantly, “you can’t say that to me” and stalked out. Two days later the psychiatrist got a thank you note from the man for so rapidly getting him out of his self pitying morass.

    There is absolutely a place for empathy and indulgence. But it’s not everyplace.

  20. Heike says

    Click here for the New York Times take on the topic:

    Words can have a powerful effect on your nervous system. Certain types of adversity, even those involving no physical contact, can make you sick, alter your brain – even kill neurons – and shorten your life.

    Your body’s immune system includes little proteins called proinflammatory cytokines that cause inflammation when you’re physically injured. Under certain conditions, however, these cytokines themselves can cause physical illness. What are those conditions? One of them is chronic stress.

    Your body also contains little packets of genetic material that sit on the ends of your chromosomes. They’re called telomeres. Each time your cells divide, their telomeres get a little shorter, and when they become too short, you die. This is normal aging. But guess what else shrinks your telomeres? Chronic stress.

    If words can cause stress, and if prolonged stress can cause physical harm, then it seems that speech – at least certain types of speech – can be a form of violence.

    And there it is: all the justification in the world to put a stop to anyone you don’t want to hear. Anyone speaking inconvenient truths. Anyone committing the moralistic fallacy of concluding that a statement cannot be true if it has unpleasant moral implications.

  21. David Norman says

    Yes, I agree it is absurd that the notion of PTSD has become stretched so that it is applied to the possibility that students may be upset by some of their course material. My daughter covered this territory in her undergraduate thesis and didn’t get particularly good marks partly, I suspect, because the criticisms of trigger warnings she articulated were viewed as controversial.

    Of course lecturers have warned students that they may find certain material upsetting since long before the term ‘trigger warnings’ was coined and it is perfectly sensible to do so. It seems to me that it is the institutionalising of trigger warnings that is problematic. Once a policy is adopted that they should be given where necessary, the precautionary principle takes over with the result that in practice they are given in every case where it is conceivable that a student may be upset. So the end result is that they are given when they are unnecessary.

    I think this explains such absurdities as warnings about The Great Gatsby. On that basis warnings would need to be given in relation to virtually every great work of literature that has ever been written.

    • Something like this: “Warning: you are entering literature class. All great stories are about love and death, and frequently display their shadows, sex and violence.”

      • Michael Joseph says

        Warning: you are entering literature class and although all great literature is not depressing and nihilistic, we only teach those books because otherwise you would never read them.

    • Dave Bowman says

      “On that basis warnings would need to be given in relation to virtually every great work of literature that has ever been written”

      Quite right. My own personal favourite example is the great and timeless Joseph Conrad novel “The Nigger of the Narcissus”, once a standard text for almost every English Literature course in the western world.. But that title, now deemed utterly verboten due solely to a simple word which was commonplace a hundred years ago, has given the millennial snowflakes and deranged, mentally-disordered SJW’s ammunition enough to change the course of academic history in a generation. I thank God that I still proudly own my own “safe”, unedited copy of the masterpiece from 40-odd years ago, as I’m completely sure it is long since permanently out of print.

      I’m afraid that, much as I’d like to be, I can’t be as sanguine as the other commenters here. I believe that if we don’t actually do something very drastic, deliberate, extreme and ruthless in the very near future, these “passing fads” will in a very short time become institutionalised, standard behaviours and conventions for the long term future. At that point, the entire sphere of education, and its associated civilising, humanising qualities of intelligence, open-mindedness and balanced judgement – and thereby forward human advancement in a challenging world – are doomed.

  22. vince says

    Yes my son suffers real PTSD after a terrible accident involving loss of life. Unless these people are waking up with night terrors, have anxiety, panic attacks and are under the care of a psychiatrist then I guess they just mean uncomfortable feelings. My sons condition seems permanent, (been six years now) and no joke. There’s triggering, like being forced into a confined space which reminds you of being trapped in a squashed car for three hours, or there’s triggering as in university student version. Running out of bean milk is triggering for some of those snowflakes. It’s getting so ridiculous on campus I’d never encourage my children to attend if they were that age again. A trade at TAFE all the way.

  23. annaerishkigal says

    This whole “triggered” dialogue makes me furious!!! Saying some minor social event is “triggering” is grossly disrespectful of REAL victims of PTSD, victims of violent crime and soldiers coming back from war. I had two uncles, growing up, who suffered from “shell shock,” one who was a tail-gunner in a B-17 flying fortress in WWII who got shot down — twice — and was once taken as a prisoner of war, and another who saw the worst fighting in Vietnam.

    Methinks these spoiled millennials need to experience some REAL “triggering” events. It’s way past time we brought back the draft.

    • Michael Joseph says

      Yes, let’s start a war to teach those ungrateful brats what life is really like.

  24. As a ‘mature’ person, looking back I see four (4) clear mass hysteria incidents that reached international status, including the present one. They appear every 15 years or so. I’m always surprised no-one who studies these things has studied this.

    My examples are: 1963 – 66 Beatlemania (where mainly young women wept, screamed, fainted, etc, over four young men from Liverpool. In 1989 – 91, mainly young women ‘remembered’ Satanic worship with them as the sacrifice at their daycares years before. In 2001 – 2005, mainly young women all over the Western world starved themselves (Anorexia), and today, where mainly young women are screaming, weeping, and fainting over events or ideas that are in no way out of the ordinary.

    I’m sure there are many minor, local, events as in the article but there are also bigger examples.

  25. tony jackson says

    I agree the trigger business has gone too far; but to me this essay stretches ‘mass psychogenic illness’ as a concept in just the way that the trigger-warning crowd stretches PTSD as a concept.

    tony e jackson

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