Deborah Hill Cone
Deborah Hill Cone is a Herald columnist

Deborah Hill Cone: Sometimes it's good to be offended

By Deborah Hill Cone

No matter how many warnings we put on things, we can’t protect our children from pain, rejection, anxiety, fear or frustration.
The move towards feeling you have a right never to be offended by triggers such as Game of Thrones isn't helpful. Photo / HBO
The move towards feeling you have a right never to be offended by triggers such as Game of Thrones isn't helpful. Photo / HBO

I've been studying psychology. Before one tutorial, the lecturer made a careful point of being solicitous of the emotional welfare of anyone who might be triggered by the upcoming discussion about IPV (intimate partner violence.)

That was fine. But then blah, blah, turn right onto gender constructs, via genetic engineering, blah blah and all of a sudden she arrived at the statement that babies produced by IVF could be less than human.

Jeez! I did six cycles of IVF, thank you very much. Frankly, I thought I could get rather offended by her comment, if I'd wanted to, since she had put the idea of getting "triggered" into my head.

Uncharacteristically for me, I just seethed quietly, drew a doodle of the lecturer with a volcano coming out her butt, and filed the incident away as an illustration of the fraught notion of trying never to offend anyone.

In recent times there has been an exponential growth in what is known as "trigger warnings", particularly on university campuses.

In an article in Inside Higher Ed, seven humanities professors complained that when students come to expect trigger warnings for any material that makes them uncomfortable, the easiest way for the faculty to stay out of trouble is to avoid material that might upset the poppets.

Robust debate ahoy! Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt and lawyer Greg Lukianoff , in their essay The Coddling of America" say there is an aim to turn campuses into "safe spaces" where young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable.

It is generally considered unacceptable - blaming the victim - to question the reasonableness (let alone the sincerity) of someone's emotional state, particularly if those emotions are linked to one's group identity.

In that way "I'm offended" becomes an unbeatable trump card. This leads to a kind of offendedness sweepstakes: "I'm more offended than you!"

I have highly sensitive children, I've been in therapy for seven years, I can't bear to watch Game of Thrones but even me, fragile ninny that I am, do not think this current move towards feeling you have a right never to be offended is helpful.

In fact it is counter-productive.

Granted, it is gratifying to see that underlying the idea of trigger warnings is a compassionate approach, trying to protect young people from psychological harm.

Hooray for progress. Being gentle is a lot better than the old "kick 'er in the guts Trev" days when we walloped kids for eating with their mouth open and Prince Charles greeted his mother by shaking her hand. But it is still missing the bloody point.

No matter how many warnings we put on things, it is impossible to protect our children from pain, rejection, anxiety, fear, frustration or getting served pasta with the wrong kind of cheese.

Yes, as I write this, I'm painfully aware of the incongruity of this coming from me, given I am someone who wanted the school to ban the cross-country.

I might hate compulsory sport, but even so I can acknowledge we can't protect children and young people from heartache and pain. Or even coming last on the cross-country.

But this is not to say we should return to the bad old days of bigotry and brutality. What we can do is teach kids better ways to manage the inevitable sadness, loss and disappointment they will experience in their lives.

Rather than trying to avoid discomfort, the best way out is always through (Robert Frost).

That means rather than trying to shield kids from anything they might find uncomfortable we would be better off teaching them how to manage their feelings if they are triggered.

Haidt and Lukianoff's solution is that university students should be taught Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).

I am not a fan of CBT, which few people seem to realise is actually not recommended for trauma survivors, and in my view often amounts to little more than "think happy thoughts".

CBT essentially teaches that you should stop feeling what you feel, and instead think differently. In my experience suppressing feelings doesn't work, and when you carry on feeling bad, it only makes you feel more stink that there is yet another thing at which you have failed.

Instead, I suggest a Kierkegaardian approach: "Anxiety is freedom."

Let's encourage young people to be able to be present for their negative emotions. At one time or another we all try to silence painful emotions but in feeling nothing we lose the only means we have of knowing what hurts us and why.

In my experience healing comes from being curious about feelings rather than controlling them.

Maybe true empowerment comes from not from avoiding discomfort but from learning that we can live through it and most importantly, we can actually choose whether or not to be offended.

But I do hope no one has found this column triggering.

- NZ Herald

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