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The dilution of trauma

Exaggerating emotional struggles weakens our resilience

Trauma is an emotional response to an event worse than merely upsetting. In previous times, the word “traumatic” would have been applied to a variety of events so devastating they follow us not just after the event but throughout our lives. Layered on top of the event itself is the concept of being “traumatised”. When we are traumatised, such events affect us deeply enough that we struggle to “move on” from said events to a process of healing. 

Today, though, trauma is increasingly being used to describe things that are merely upsetting. As Jonathan Haidt has argued, the word “trauma” is being applied to areas where it was never meant to apply. Diluting this powerful word is dangerous. Overstating the emotional effects of minor incidents, or even genuinely upsetting things, weakens not only ourselves but also our collective social bonds. By being so sensitive, we cut ourselves off from differences and narrow the pool of interactions and relationships we are willing to tolerate. 

One example of this can be found in the latest round of academic sensitivity — this time spreading out of Hamline College in the USA. In one class, on global art history, a historic painting depicting Muhammad was shown, representing the diversity of thought in the Islamic tradition on the subject. The response to this painting caused a furore. One student complained, arguing the experience made her not “feel like I belong” with the historical image causing a reaction of “I’m like, this can’t be real”. 

Living in a pluralist society means tolerating difference

Using language reminiscent of shell shock, exclusion and harm, some of the faculty doubled down with the student instead of explaining the purpose of historical images in art. Nur Mood, the Assistant Director of Social Justice Programmes and Strategic Relations at the university argued, I think we should have started more focused about the healing process.” Just as concerning was the President’s view — dripping in the language of vulnerability, harm and privilege. Rather than addressing the dilemma of individual ethics, morals and an open society, the approach was one of harm reduction, healing and trauma. 

Living in a pluralist society means tolerating difference. In an open society, connections between those who practise “experiments in living”, as Mill said, are essential. Yes, the student’s sensibilities may have been offended — but so what? We all witness everyday things that offend our beliefs. Hell, one would presume that in America the student in question witnesses a great deal of acts and imagery that don’t conform to her faith. Yet, instead of acknowledging the student’s unhappiness and politely telling her to get over it and move on, the administration has mollycoddled this student and done her no favours.

Reading the responses to the incident, you could be forgiven for thinking the student had been assaulted. Language used by some students and administrators — claiming exclusion, harm and healing — invoke an experience of trauma where one simply should not exist. The student expressed discomfort and dislike at seeing something that offended her. That is not trauma; it is a sensation of discomfort that is part and parcel of not just academic learning but life itself. 

We are harming people more than we are helping them

Increasingly, conversations on race, gender and sexuality are intersecting with the notion of “trauma”. One prominent example of this is microaggression. Rather than being labelled as minor, even innocuous acts, microaggressions — “insensitive statements, questions, or assumptions” or those accused of being so — are now framed as causing substantial harm. Some commentators even list all the forms of “harm” that may beget those who are not “privileged”. In essence, the more “harm” you suffer the less privileged you are, and in today’s world, the more privileged you are the more problematic you become. The result of this logic is a toxic dynamic of assigning and pursuing “trauma”, real or imagined to fit into the correct privilege categories. 

The removal of JK Rowling’s name from her own books is a good example of how low the bar has gone when it comes to “harm” and “trauma”. Some perceive erasing Rowling’s name from her work as a brave form of resistance, yet it is little more than cosplaying trauma in a grotesque act of artistic erasure. Such acts do not earn the opprobrium of many — instead they are labelled “brave” and “resilient” in an apparent nod to some kind of woke warrior mindset where the world is constantly battering the self-declared underprivileged. 

By over-emphasising trauma, younger people are made less likely to feel like they can cope with normal emotions. Describing maths as “traumatic” exemplifies this attitude. If you are not strong at a subject or you don’t love a teacher, this is now traumatic as opposed to a grim ritual that all young people go through and have to deal with. Maybe this is one of the reasons why young people are finding life tougher. One in six of British 17-19 year old’s now have a diagnosed mental health condition — with over half of 17-23 year olds experiencing a “deterioration” of their mental health. The deterioration comes in the wake of almost constant discussions about mental health, self-care days, trauma and harm. 

By reducing trauma to an everyday occurrence, we leave people unable to express their emotions in a normal way. The result is a deformed society where trauma is all around and unavoidable events are presented as damaging. It is how teachers get fired, authors’ names get erased, and being bad at a class is categorised as a tragedy that will stalk you for life. It may be seen as a kind, empathetic thing to not diminish someone’s feelings, but we are harming people more than we are helping them. Trauma is a complicated, horrible and necessary part of existence. It is its rarity that provides its power, and that cannot be reduced to mere frustration, sadness and discomfort. That would do the suffering a disservice.

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