Fear of serious injury cannot alone justify suppression of free speech and assembly. Men feared witches and burnt women. It is the function of speech to free men from the bondage of irrational fears. — U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis (1856-1941)
For the fourth time in the space of 30 minutes, the sound of a cell-phone text alert interrupted my college class. The professor, a gifted educator with an infectious passion for his subject, had made his no-phones policy clear on many occasions. These repeated infractions were too much for him, and he lost his temper.
He shouted at us about maturity, respect and the convenient proximity of our classroom’s two doors, through which anyone more interested in their phone than his lecture was welcome to depart. One of my classmates said later that the professor had activated his “angry-dad mode.”
Back at home, this professor is raising a house full of boys. He’ll talk professional sports with anyone willing to listen. He regularly shows up with a splint, bandage, or brace—always some injury gained by roughhousing with his sons, in whom he takes obvious pride. I’ve enrolled in every class he teaches. I’ve been alone with him a dozen times. I am not afraid of him, because there’s nothing to fear.
None of that mattered in the moment, because my body reacted only to the fact that I was in the presence of an angry adult male. My brain activated its own agitated mode, a mode I know well from 18 years of repeated childhood trauma: surging adrenaline and cortisol, a spiking heart rate, a sense of psychological disassociation in preparation for violence. I felt the same terror I’d endured while making the trek down the hall to fetch my father’s belt, the one with the unusually large buckle, which would be weaponized if I made too much noise. Like when I was a kid, there was a part of my mind that separated from my body and watched and wondered: Would I gather my things and walk out? Would I humiliate myself by crying?
As my professor’s spasm of anger abated, a classmate shot me a strange look. I realized that my teeth were chattering. I forced myself to stop.
Years ago, when my real angry dad was done with me, I’d end up somewhere on a spectrum between two or three days of wincing pain when I sat down—and the emergency room. Childhood left me with burn scars, chronic-pain injuries from repetitive beatings, and a complex form of PTSD.
After class, I cried in the girls’ bathroom and forced myself to eat lunch. Breathing exercises helped. When that same professor had office hours later that same day, I was there.
Some readers may suspect that I went to confront him about what he’d done, to ask for an apology, or to work out some kind of accommodation—some arrangement whereby I could leave the room the next time he went into angry-dad mode, lest I be triggered once again. But that’s not what happened.
My professor’s anger was hardly unjustified. This was a class full of adults. No one past potty-training deserves so many warnings for the same offence. Even in that state of high dudgeon, he was never a threat to me or anyone else. And it would have been selfish for me to ask that he modify his behaviour to placate me. People lose their temper. They get angry. Sometimes they yell. It’s my job to learn to cope with this reality of the world—just as it is everyone’s job to prevent angry words from spilling over into actual physical violence.
I take responsibility for my own fragility despite the fact that none of my childhood abuse was my fault. I was born into the wrong house and lost the parent lottery. This gives me some specific problems I must overcome in order to lead a good life.
After a question about the approaching mid-term gave way to small talk in the professor’s office, I felt myself getting back on the proverbial horse—reminding myself that I could trust my judgment that this man was safe, that proximity to an authority figure who’d shown me his angry-dad side wouldn’t result in bruises or bleeding. I needed to prove to myself anew that I was an adult who could cope with other people having and expressing feelings, even in ways I didn’t like (and which they might later regret).
* * *
The word “triggered” has become a term of sardonic mockery—a byword for “made mildly uncomfortable—and complaining about it.” Just a few years ago, the term referred unironically to the manifestation of real PTSD symptoms—something akin to my experience in class that day. Because I still have a real need to refer to that clinical concept to describe how I respond to the world, I have to use words that haven’t become corrupted through overuse. Or I use my own invented terms, like “triggered-triggered.”
Language is mutable, and definitions change over time. But what we’ve witnessed in recent years—especially on campuses—is a profound form of concept creep that goes beyond mere language and labels. The ordinary challenges of life now are being reinvented as trauma, and words are conflated with violence. It is all part of our ongoing cultural embrace of the “untruth of fragility: what doesn’t kill you, makes you weaker,” as illuminated by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff in The Coddling of the American Mind. Debates, lectures and even ordinary conversations now can be brought to an end when one party declares checkmate by asserting that this or that argument serves to “deny their humanity” or makes them feel “unsafe.”
As someone who has experienced nine of the 10 most studied Adverse Childhood Experiences, who lives with chronic physical pain from violence-inflicted injuries, who spends three hours a week with a therapist specializing in trauma, I can attest that such claims strike me as dangerous gibberish. Can words do damage? Of course. But the difference between words and violence is that mentally competent adults nearly always have a choice about how much damage words can inflict, whereas the damage caused by my father’s belt—like all physical abuse—didn’t rise or fall depending on my psychological state at the moment of impact.
Our laws, rooted in a wiser age, recognize that only truly vulnerable—not those who merely assert that they feel vulnerable—must be protected from certain very specific kinds of words. Death threats, extortion and shouting fire in a crowded theatre are illegal not because those words are “violent” in their own right, but because they directly invite or foreshadow real physical violence or financial predation, without any possibility of effective psychological intermediation.
People who work with the elderly or the mentally disabled can be prosecuted for abuse if they berate their patients. Therapists who speak abusively to their clients will find themselves on the wrong side of licensing boards and clinical supervisors. Likewise, a parent can do real damage to a child’s developing brain through sustained and intense verbal abuse. But even a child knows the difference between verbal abuse and real violence. When my parents got angry, and I experienced only a flurry of vicious words, I often felt joyously relieved—because words aren’t violence.
Is the damage from words long-lasting? In the case of adults, that’s usually up to the target. If words cause me a level of harm that I can’t—or won’t—seek to control, then I am implicitly resigning myself to an existence without agency or dignity. I reject this way of living. And I refuse to stand silently by while our culture collectively embraces a spirit of morbid passivity.
Overcoming verbal abuse is hard—like almost everything else worth doing. In moments of failure, frustration or shame, I feel my mother’s or father’s voice ringing in my head, sneering, calling me worthless. But therapy has helped me learn that the power over how much pain these voices can cause is in my hands. I can work to use my rational faculties, reject their post facto assessment of my worth as a human, and move on.
While words are not violence, the media has done a good job blurring the difference. In a 2017 New York Times article, Northeastern University psychology professor Lisa Feldman Barrett argued that chronic stress can cause physical harm, and so speech should sometimes be regarded as violence in verbal form: “What’s bad for your nervous system, in contrast, are long stretches of simmering stress. If you spend a lot of time in a harsh environment worrying about your safety, that’s the kind of stress that brings on illness and remodels your brain…A culture of constant, casual brutality is toxic to the body, and we suffer for it…But we must also halt speech that bullies and torments. From the perspective of our brain cells, the latter is literally a form of violence.”
The science here isn’t wrong. My parents subjected me to chronic stress. Beyond the physical scars and lingering injury, I’ve endured several health conditions that my doctor believes may be linked to my difficult childhood. A developing brain marinating in cortisol is bad news.
But that’s hardly the sort of long-term experience most people are relating to when they talk about being triggered. Many students have become convinced that ordinary life and the “microaggressions” that come with it are sources of acute psychic pain. It even has become common for students to trace debilitating anxiety to the fact that a person they consider loathsome occupies the White House, or that a building on their campus is named after someone whose once-progressive ideas have fallen into disfavor, or that someone has asserted the scientific reality of biological sex.
Only those with the privilege of having led violence-free lives could make such claims with a straight face. If an otherwise mentally healthy person becomes paralyzed by trauma when someone recites political opinions they disagree with, or describes them with the wrong pronoun, the way they react is their choice. If the ordinary unpleasantness of daily life causes traumatic reactions that cannot be alleviated with a spirit of resilience, that is evidence of a serious mental health problem.
Readers of Quillette will be well aware of all the ways in which safe-space culture threatens free speech and precipitates a spirit of competitive victimhood. But the question of how this culture affects personal psychological health is at least as important. Trauma usually cannot be resolved merely by helping someone feel “safe”—since life is unpredictable, and you can’t live in a cocoon. In my experience, the most effective approach has been for a caring and competent therapist to push me to do things that sometimes can feel terrifying and dangerous, until such point as I have worked through the irrational fears that trauma can cause. This is why I began this essay with the words of Justice Brandeis, which bear repetition, since they show how issues of free speech and psychological self-protection have become intermingled: “Fear of serious injury cannot alone justify suppression of free speech and assembly. Men feared witches and burnt women. It is the function of speech to free men from the bondage of irrational fears.”
The sight of a man’s belt used to trigger me. I would avoid the men’s department in clothing stores for this reason. Standing in a line with a man both in front of and behind me would give me physical anxiety symptoms for hours afterward. To resolve this trigger, my therapist told me to buy a man’s belt. I cried in the car and used up a lot of Kleenex in my next therapy session. Then I brought the thing home and hung it on the doorknob of my bedroom door. It hung there like a poisonous viper, giving me nightmares.
Then something beautiful happened. Its power started to fade. After a few weeks, it went from a dark artifact with the power to bring back my traumatic past, to a hunk of leather fashioned to hold up some guy’s pants. The experience made me grateful that my therapist didn’t take his cue from the culture around him. Teaching people to react to words as if they were weapons is teaching them to fetishize their damage—or even to create new damage. How will a generation trained to brew up their own cortisol on any pretext experience life if every off-colour joke knocks the legs out from under them?
When I enrolled at my university as a mature student trying to piece her life back together, I knew there was a chance that I might need some kind of special accommodations. But the university’s disability officer offered me so many accommodations that it was embarrassing. If I wanted to, I could have remained deeply mired in my mental debilitation without even the slightest spur toward recovery.
Self-pity is an addictive drug; and students who come to campus looking for ways to avoid stress, instead of deal with it, will find dealers in every office and classroom. We can’t force students to fight their demons. But at the very least, we shouldn’t be encouraging a policy of immediate surrender.
Alexandra Berryhill is the pseudonym for an over-30 undergraduate student at an American university. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Featured image: “A Husband Beating his Wife with a Stick,” 1405, Artist unknown.