My blog of June 23, “Frail And Sensitive Little Bullies,” evoked a number of responses, particularly among Facebook readers. At issue was the concern a female student shared with her instructor about Ovid’s Metamorphoses. She was a rape victim and feared reading the description of Persephone’s abduction might trigger traumatic memories. The teacher appeared to be dismissive of that fear, which caused a student group to pen an essay in the school paper suggesting teachers be trained to handle stress inducing material.
Since trauma is at the core of most literary works, anticipating what will cause stress in a student is a tall order, I admit, but not an insurmountable one. Had the teacher tweaked the presentation of Metamorphoses to include modern sensibilities, he or she might have made an ancient work relevant to the present and acknowledged the student’s feelings.
Constrained for space, as I am in these blogs, other points occurred to me at the time but went unsaid. First, I might have addressed the power of language. When we give a new label to old issues, we tend to imagine the phenomena is new and treat it accordingly. In the past we used words like sensitivity and compassion to call upon our humanity for people caught up in stress situations. Today, particularly if the injured party or parties come from a marginalized segment of society, we call for political correctness. Unfortunately, of late, that turn of phrase has assumed a derogative meaning, particularly when the person speaking uses it as shorthand to refer to people he or she supposes should “pull of their socks and get on with their lives.”
In the case of the teacher and the student, I’m inclined to suspect that kind of impatience was at work. Change the elements of the scene, however, and I wonder if the teacher would have reacted with indifference. What if the assigned material was a history detailing the brutalities of the Iraq war? What if the student was a veteran, a man traumatized by that war? Would talk of a trigger be treated as a weakness as implied in the girl’s case, or would it be recognized for what it was, a symptom of post dramatic stress? (PTSD)
PTSD isn’t the special preserve of returning veterans nor has the condition always been treated with political correctness. It’s had different names over time: shell shock, soldier’s heart or combat fatigue. (“Stress Test,” by Jeet Heer, New Republic, June 2015 pg.) Whatever the affliction was called, it was seldom discussed because victims saw personal shame in it. Not until the 1960s, when Vietnam Veterans returned home to an unappreciative nation, did the soldiers begin to talk among themselves and develop therapies which only later did mental health experts come to acknowledged. Not until the 1980s did the American Psychiatric Association define the condition: experiencing the traumatic event; numbing of responsiveness to, or reduced involvement with the external world, and a variety of autonomic dysphoric and cognitive symptoms. (Ibid pg. 30)
As the definition suggests, PTSD exists beyond the affects of war. Whole geographic areas can be affected, as they were after Hurricane Katrina, after Ferguson, Charleston, and the downing of the World Trade Centers. Most certainly, PTSD can affect rape victims. Triggering events and the need for safe spaces isn’t the baggage of those who have no wish to accept personal responsibility. They are terms and conditions “rooted in genuine, widely accepted science.” (Ibid pg. 31.)
The girl who reached out to her teacher, the veterans who seek counseling are showing courage and they deserve a safe environment in which to heal. They need the support of a country eager to see people made whole. It’s time to revive our compassion and wipe the sneer off what it means to be politically correct.