Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Trigger Warning

“This is triggering,” a young woman has recently been captured crying out on video. I’ll say. This past week on the University of North Carolina campus at Chapel Hill that selfsame young woman was so triggered by an image at a pro-life display that she allegedly hauled off and punched one of the young men staffing the exhibit. I must say “allegedly,” as there is a misdemeanor assault charge to that effect, and until she is proven guilty of it in America one always is careful to say “allegedly,” even when, as in this case, there is video of the event. Still, “allegedly” is the right word within the confines of the American judicial system.

What jumped off the page—or rather jumped out of the video—at me was the fact that she said, even as she was about to hit the fellow she had the presence of mind to exclaim, “this is triggering!” It seemed odd to me that bit, for I had always assumed that the way something triggering had to work would be more subliminal, i.e. something you really couldn’t identify until later, perhaps even through counseling or the like, as having been the triggering factor. But she did indeed identified it even as she, again, allegedly, launched a barrage of punches on the guy who was standing there near the display.

Photo by Doug Kerr

Wow, that’s pretty triggering! And it didn’t take long for me to ponder this and consider that if a mere image on a-frame sign could trigger someone up like that, how much more powerfully words might do so. After all, Socrates didn’t walk around carrying image-rich red-figure or black-figure vases, though both were readily available in the Athens of his day, trying to trigger people up, but he walked around merely equipped with probing words and ideas. Words and ideas meant to keep freedom safe both through instruction, for that was in part what he was about, and by a sense of devotion both to individuals and community at large. His chats were trigger-rich, at least of Plato’s accounts of them are even halfway correct representations of the original events. I imagine Plato wrote the Socratic dialogues more to catch the spirit of that great unpublished philosopher than to try to conjure from memory the exact words, or even to capture Socrates’ own recollection of them that could have been recounted to Plato privately, over a glass of wine or two.

Bust of Socrates, Louvre, Paris

What’s my point? My point is really a question. Is triggering all that bad, especially on a college campus? I mean, when I went to college my professors challenged me to think, to ask questions that made me uncomfortable, to consider issues from angles and vantage points that had hitherto been foreign to my way of thinking. In fact, my best professors were more trigger happy than Billy the Kid, maybe even than Al Capone. One professor, Mary Schweitzer De Grys, who taught an anthropology course I took on South American cultures (quite a large topic), forced me to ask hard questions about class structure and urban development, and in so doing provoked a level of compassion in me for South America’s urban poor (and, synecdochically, with all impoverished people) that I had not hitherto known. Dr. De Grys was, I suppose, what would now be called a triggerer. And, as this is teacher appreciation week, it is appropriate that I, all these years later, thank her for it.

My friend, the philologist whom I mention from time to time, may or may not have been a spy for the United States government, and if he were, then at one point perhaps he was more than a mere triggerer—perhaps he was a triggerman. I’m not entirely sure about that, but nowadays he seems to have all the marks of at least a triggerer, insofar as he is an educator and seems to take his role as one quite seriously. On that note, I shall close these natterings, with the hope that that same friend doesn’t get punched in the face for challenging his students. Yet, now that I think about it, if he should, chances are that he will have deserved it anyway.

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