When my attention was drawn to an article by Jeet Heer in The New Republic about a supposed connection between post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and the so-called trigger warnings given to students on American campuses, I happened to be reading a short book called A Cadre School Life: Six Chapters, by Yang Jiang, a distinguished Chinese writer and literary scholar who was sent to a reeducation camp during the Cultural Revolution. No contrast could have been better calculated to expose the shallowness and triviality of providing students with warnings that reading Little Dorrit may awaken traumatic memories of having been swindled and Madame Bovary may call to mind an operation gone wrong.
In her book, Yang Jiang hints only obliquely at her suffering. For example, she describes how her son-in-law, also a university teacher, committed suicide rather than provide a list of “unreliable elements” to the Workers’ Propaganda Team that were preparing to “struggle” him. If she doesn’t complain bitterly, it’s because she knows that 20 million others shared her fate, and some a fate far worse—1 million were killed during the Cultural Revolution—and that it would be unseemly to overemphasize her individual suffering, whose horror any reasonably sensitive reader can well imagine. The understated acts more powerfully on the mind than the overstated.
The directness of Yang’s writing contrasts painfully with Heer’s prose in The New Republic, which claims that “the real explanation for our newfound trepidation has to do with the way we process trauma.” As Heer explains:
Over the past few months, some of our sharpest liberal writers have been warning of a resurgent identity politics, a new political correctness that evokes earlier clashes. Many of these writers have been shaped by the political correctness fights of the 1990s—a tangle of arguments about the literary canon, speech codes, and multiculturalism. Indeed, many of the complaints about the new political correctness foreground ’90s campus conflagrations in which they played some small part—giving their writing a peculiarly antique tinge for arguments that are ostensibly about a twenty-first century perversion of popular culture.
It is hardly surprising that someone who writes like this doesn’t think clearly. Heer’s conclusion, after an excursion into the history of PTSD as a nosological entity of doubtful relevance, leaves the reader uncertain what, if anything, he thinks of trigger warnings. Are they merely a curious sociological phenomenon, or are they justified?
It’s easy to caricature the vanguard of the so-called politically correct: to paint them as fanatics who are trying to destroy well-established norms of free speech. But they are not caricatures; they are products of history. Most current college students grew up in the shadow of September 11, with the specter of large-scale terrorism always looming and with a steady stream of soldiers returning home to grapple with their demons. It is no wonder that they feel that they, too, deserve security, even in the precarious and flimsy form of trigger warnings and safe spaces.
In the first place, it might have been worth mentioning that, whatever the validity of PTSD as a diagnosis, most people who experience a traumatic event in life do not suffer from it. As is to be expected of a creature as protean as Man, people respond differently to their experiences. They do not forget the trauma, but its memory does not affect their subsequent lives in any pathological way. I once met an American psychiatrist, John E. Nardini, who had been a prisoner of the Japanese for more than three years, who had seen half his fellow prisoners die of hunger and disease, and who had himself suffered from beriberi, but who felt that the appalling experience, which of course he would have wished on no one, had actually strengthened him. The development of PTSD does not follow from trauma as the night does the day, but depends on many things—no doubt the culture of the traumatized among them.
In any case, PTSD is largely irrelevant to what Heer is writing about. He isn’t writing about post-traumatic stress disorder at all, but rather, a new diagnosis of pre-traumatic stress disorder. I can’t help but recall the case of Mr. Podsnap, in Charles Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend:
A certain institution in Mr. Podsnap’s mind which he called “the young person” may be considered to have been embodied in Miss Podsnap, his daughter. It was an inconvenient and exacting institution, as requiring everything in the universe to be filed down and fitted to it. The question about everything was, would it bring a blush into the cheek of the young person? And the inconvenience of the young person was, that, according to Mr. Podsnap, she seemed always liable to burst into blushes when there was no need at all. There appeared to be no line of demarcation between the young person’s excessive innocence, and another person’s guiltiest knowledge.
What is most interesting from the cultural point of view about the preposterous nonsense of trigger warnings for Victorian books is the obvious thirst or desire for victimization that they express. Victims are the heroes of the politically correct; their victimhood confers unique moral authority upon them ex officio. And since many would like to be a unique moral authority, it follows that they would like to be a victim. The fact soon follows the wish, at least in their own estimation; and this, of course, provides much work and justifies much power for the self-proclaimed protectors of victims. University teachers become the curators of figurines of the finest porcelain, which only they are allowed to touch.
This is a case in which caricature is the best way of capturing truth.
First published in City Journal.