Fairy tales and trigger warnings

Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already.  Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey.  What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey.  The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination.  What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.  Exactly what the fairy tale does is this: it accustoms him for a series of clear pictures to the idea that these limitless terrors had a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies in the knights of God, that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear.

—G. K. Chesterton, Tremendous Trifles (1909), XVII: “The Red Angel”

I thought of this quote as I read N. D. Wilson’s recent essay “Why I Write Scary Stories for Children.”  Wilson has much the same message, except that in his case, it comes as a product of his own experience as a parent.

I write violent stories. I write dark stories. I write them for my own children, and I write them for yours. And when the topic comes up with a radio host or a mom or a teacher in a hallway, the explanation is simple. Every kid in every classroom, every kid in a bunk bed frantically reading by flashlight, every latchkey kid and every helicoptered kid, every single mortal child is growing into a life story in a world full of dangers and beauties. Every one will have struggles and ultimately, every one will face death and loss.

There is absolutely a time and a place for The Pokey Little Puppy and Barnyard Dance, just like there’s a time and a place for footie pajamas. But as children grow, fear and danger and terror grow with them, courtesy of the world in which we live and the very real existence of shadows. The stories on which their imaginations feed should empower a courage and bravery stronger than whatever they are facing. And if what they are facing is truly and horribly awful (as is the case for too many kids), then fearless sacrificial friends walking their own fantastical (or realistic) dark roads to victory can be a very real inspiration and help. . . .

Overwhelmingly, in my own family and far beyond, the stories that land with the greatest impact are those where darkness, loss, and danger (emotional or physical) is a reality. But the goal isn’t to steer kids into stories of darkness and violence because those are the stories that grip readers. The goal is to put the darkness in its place.

Wilson tells the story of his oldest child, who at the age of 7 was given screaming nightmares by an illustration in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe of the vile creatures that served the White Witch.  Rather than trying to protect his son from his own imagination, he decided (with some trepidation) “to try [to] embolden his subconscious mind.”

I carried my son into my office and downloaded an old version of Quake—a first-person shooter video game with nasty, snarling aliens 10 times worse than anything drawn by Pauline. I put my son on my lap with his finger on the button that fired our pixelated shotgun, and we raced through the first level, blasting every monster and villain away. Then we high-fived, I pitched him a quick story about himself as a monster hunter, and then I prayed with him and tucked him back into bed. A bit bashfully, I admitted to my wife what I had just done—hoping I wouldn’t regret it.

I didn’t. The nightmare never shook him again.

We do no one any favors when we try to protect them from the darkness of this world.  As Wilson says, to try to shelter his son from everything that might scare him “would be facilitating the preservation of his fearfulness.”  We ought to be striving to raise our children (and build up one another) to face the darkness.  We need to teach them a balanced confidence that, by the grace of God and the help of their family and friends, when the worst happens, they will survive—and more than that, they will overcome.

Against this, we have the “safe space” movement in American colleges and universities.  Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt describe it thusly:

A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense.  Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress.  In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia—and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her. . . .

The current movement is largely about emotional well-being. . . .  It presumes an extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche, and therefore elevates the goal of protecting students from psychological harm.  The ultimate aim, it seems, is to turn campuses into “safe spaces” where young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable.  And more than the last, this movement seeks to punish anyone who interferes with that aim, even accidentally.  You might call this impulse vindictive protectiveness.  It is creating a culture in which everyone must think twice before speaking up, lest they face charges of insensitivity, aggression, or worse.

Two terms form the chief weapons of this movement.

Microaggressions are small actions or word choices that seem on their face to have no malicious intent but that are thought of as a kind of violence nonetheless. For example, by some campus guidelines, it is a microaggression to ask an Asian American or Latino American “Where were you born?,” because this implies that he or she is not a real American. Trigger warnings are alerts that professors are expected to issue if something in a course might cause a strong emotional response.

The “safe space” movement has been brilliantly satirized by the Onion; its satire is so effective because it’s so close to the reality of the situation.  Compare this from Lukianoff and Haidt:

In April, at Brandeis University, the Asian American student association sought to raise awareness of microaggressions against Asians through an installation on the steps of an academic hall.  The installation gave examples of microaggressions such as “Aren’t you supposed to be good at math?” and “I’m colorblind! I don’t see race.”  But a backlash arose among other Asian American students, who felt that the display itself was a microaggression.  The association removed the installation, and its president wrote an e-mail to the entire student body apologizing to anyone who was “triggered or hurt by the content of the microaggressions.”

This new climate is slowly being institutionalized, and is affecting what can be said in the classroom, even as a basis for discussion.  During the 2014–15 school year, for instance, the deans and department chairs at the 10 University of California system schools were presented by administrators at faculty leader-training sessions with examples of microaggressions.  The list of offensive statements included:  “America is the land of opportunity” and “I believe the most qualified person should get the job.”

with this from the Onion:

As they have done often over the years, the Stigmores spoke openly about the time their daughter attended a class in which her political science professor “completely ambushed” her with standard course material that did not fit comfortably within her world outlook.  Feeling unsettled, the college student reportedly had no way of coping with the challenging position that did not require her to consider the opinion, analyze its shortcomings, and think of possible counterarguments.

Alexis, then a dean’s-list student in her junior year, described spending 40 harrowing minutes of class in a distressed state, forced to look at the world through the eyes of a set of people she disagreed with.

The difference between reality and satire is far more one of tone than of substance.

The “safe space” movement is enabled and abetted by adults who are unwilling to challenge students to face and deal with the darkness of the world.  They make the choice Wilson rejected, to treat students as children who must be protected from everything bad and scary; and just as he saw, they are preserving—and in fact nurturing and feeding—the fearfulness of their students rather than empowering them to rise above it and deal with it as mature individuals.  I don’t really believe they’re doing so out of compassion for students; that may be part of their motivation, but I have no doubt their primary motivation is conflict avoidance.  It doesn’t really matter, however, because whether driven by compassion or not, allowing students to demand and get “safe spaces” is doing them a terrible disservice.

This is the primary point of Lukianoff and Haidt’s article:

Vindictive protectiveness teaches students to think in a very different way. It prepares them poorly for professional life, which often demands intellectual engagement with people and ideas one might find uncongenial or wrong. The harm may be more immediate, too. A campus culture devoted to policing speech and punishing speakers is likely to engender patterns of thought that are surprisingly similar to those long identified by cognitive behavioral therapists as causes of depression and anxiety. The new protectiveness may be teaching students to think pathologically. . . .

We do not mean to imply simple causation, but rates of mental illness in young adults have been rising, both on campus and off, in recent decades. Some portion of the increase is surely due to better diagnosis and greater willingness to seek help, but most experts seem to agree that some portion of the trend is real. Nearly all of the campus mental-health directors surveyed in 2013 by the American College Counseling Association reported that the number of students with severe psychological problems was rising at their schools. The rate of emotional distress reported by students themselves is also high, and rising. In a 2014 survey by the American College Health Association, 54 percent of college students surveyed said that they had “felt overwhelming anxiety” in the past 12 months, up from 49 percent in the same survey just five years earlier. Students seem to be reporting more emotional crises; many seem fragile, and this has surely changed the way university faculty and administrators interact with them. The question is whether some of those changes might be doing more harm than good.

They analyze this from the point of view of cognitive behavioral therapy, which produces some valuable insights.  My own training is in family systems theory, which I believe also has some insight to offer.  Rabbi Edwin Friedman (perhaps the most significant thinker in this field after its founder, Dr. Murray Bowen) noted instances of the sort of behavior Lukianoff and Haidt describe in his last book, A Failure of Nerve:  Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, which was first published posthumously in 1996.  Friedman labeled them “emotional terrorism,” and called them a product of the emotional regression of a society which was increasingly unwilling to honestly deal with its own anxiety.

In the short term, stirring up that anxiety is a quick and easy way for politicians to get elected; if a leader in one party refuses to be captured by the anxiety of the electorate, modeling a non-anxious presence and thus challenging us to set our own anxiety aside and deal with a given problem, it’s easy for a challenger in the other party to pander to that anxiety and turn it into a weapon to tear down their opponent.  This is what happened to President George W. Bush in 2005 when he tried to use his re-election as a mandate to address the coming insolvency of Social Security.  He challenged the American people to confront our anxiety; Democratic leaders played to it, drove him back, and did his administration grave damage.  (I don’t have any illusions that the GOP is any better on this score, believe me; for instance, there was plenty of this sort of anxiety-mongering in the efforts to stop Obamacare.  I do think the Social Security debacle represents the purest example of recent years of a politician being struck down merely for raising an issue, since there was an actual bill and actual votes in the case of Obamacare.)  Our political candidates in both parties are driving the emotional regression of our society for short-term electoral benefit, and no one who stands against this is having any success winning a hearing.

Rising anxiety produces hyper-seriousness and the loss of perspective.  We lose the ability to tell issues that matter and comments that need to be challenged from those that don’t.  We learn to take offense at everything, and to regard even the smallest harm done to us as intolerable damage for which someone must pay dearly.  We lose the ability to distinguish between the stab of the assassin’s knife, the accidental cut of the distracted passerby, and the necessary incision of the surgeon’s scalpel.  We lose the capacity to accept and learn from correction and rebuke.  We need to be honest enough with ourselves and others to admit that sometimes we’re in the wrong—which means we deserve some of the wounds we receive—but when anxiety is high, self-honesty feels too unsafe to risk.

Put another way, rising anxiety makes us afraid to accept blame for those things which are wrong in our lives, and the accompanying loss of perspective allows us to believe that we can displace that blame onto people and organizations around us.  As a consequence, we don’t learn to take responsibility for our own emotional processes, because our negative emotions aren’t our fault, they’re someone else’s fault.  We refuse to regulate ourselves because we refuse to admit that we need to be regulated.  Rather than learning to deal honestly with our feelings and reactions so that we can control ourselves to influence the world around us, we try to deal with them through displacement, by controlling the world around us.  (Thus, as Friedman puts it, “All organisms that lack self-regulation will be perpetually invading the space of their neighbors.”)

When those attempts at control are challenged by others, it’s a threat to our emotions that we don’t know how to handle.  This, I think, is why so many people in America feel themselves threatened by the mere fact that someone else disagrees with them.  Emerson once wrote in his journal,

Let me never fall into the vulgar mistake of dreaming that I am persecuted whenever I am contradicted.

What he correctly identified as a vulgar mistake is now cultural orthodoxy in much of this country.  When our opinions are disputed or our desires are challenged, our culture teaches us to take that as an existential threat.

There are two major casualties of this catastrophic loss of perspective:  insight and humor.  Both require of us the ability to learn, and to learn, we must be able to say, “I’m wrong.”  Those who won’t take responsibility for their own emotional processes foreclose that possibility; they cannot or will not admit that they might be wrong, or in the wrong, on anything of importance.  This is why Friedman says, “Organisms that are unable to self-regulate cannot learn from their experience, which is why the unmotivated are impervious to insight.”  (One might add “unwilling” to “unable.”)  The hyper-seriousness induced by high anxiety locks us in position; we cannot move, for to move is to risk, and anxiety renders the thought of risk intolerable.

That hyper-seriousness also rules out humor—though there’s one saving grace here:  hyper-seriousness is brittle enough that it can sometimes be shattered by the right sort of humor, bringing a return of perspective.  Anxiety blows up issues, but humor deflates them.  Humor tells us that we’re not as important as we think we are, and neither are a lot of the things that are getting us all worked up.  As such, those who are using the rising tide of anxiety to float their own agendas will be fanatically opposed to humor, and so will all those who follow them; left unchallenged, a few good jokes could drop the anxiety level and shipwreck all their plans.

As John Cleese puts it in a brilliant little video, “all humor is critical.”

Note some of Cleese’s comments:

  • “[The renowned London psychiatrist] Robin Skynner said something very interesting to me. He said, ‘If people can’t control their own emotions, then they have to start trying to control other people’s behavior.’  And when you’re around super-sensitive people, you cannot relax and be spontaneous because you have no idea what’s going to upset them next.”
  • “I’ve been warned recently don’t go to most university campuses because the political correctness has been taken . . . to the point where any kind of criticism [of] any individual or group could be labeled cruel.  And the whole point about humor, the whole point about comedy (and believe you me I’ve thought about this) is that all comedy is critical.”
  • “If you start to say, ‘Oooh, we mustn’t, we mustn’t, criticize or offend them,’ then humor is gone.  With humor goes a sense of proportion.”

To be a really good comedian—and Cleese has been a great one for a long time—you have to be a really good intuitive psychologist; I think he demonstrates that here.  He’s far from alone in making this point about universities.  Lukianoff and Haidt note that a number of other prominent comedians have raised the same concern.  Perhaps most telling, however, is the experience of comedians who are trying to make a living on the college circuit.  Caitlin Flanagan writes,

The students’ taste in entertainment was uniform. They . . . wanted comedy that was 100 percent risk-free, comedy that could not trigger or upset or mildly trouble a single student. They wanted comedy so thoroughly scrubbed of barb and aggression that if the most hypersensitive weirdo on campus mistakenly wandered into a performance, the words he would hear would fall on him like a soft rain, producing a gentle chuckle and encouraging him to toddle back to his dorm, tuck himself in, and commence a dreamless sleep—not text Mom and Dad that some monster had upset him with a joke.

There’s a sad irony here.  If confronted with the view that women must be protected by men from the challenges and dangers of the world because they’re too weak and fragile to handle them, today’s college students would roundly reject it as sexist and demeaning—yet many of them are demanding exactly that protection for exactly that reason.  In Friedman’s terms, they’re being encouraged to regress emotionally; instead of growing in strength by facing and dealing with challenges, they’re being protected from growth.

The complaints of comedians like Cleese, Chris Rock, and Jerry Seinfeld that today’s college students with their expectation of “safe spaces” can’t take a joke is no small thing.  The increasing tendency among them to take offense and respond with violence, even if it’s only rhetorical, is a warning that we’re turning our colleges and universities into places of enervation rather than education.  Whenever you see someone whose response to a joke is violence, you’re seeing the response of weakness to strength.  Chesterton was right:

Moderate strength is shown in violence, supreme strength is shown in levity.

The bottom line is simple.  We don’t do anyone any favors by trying to make life easy for them.  In all of life as in athletics, strength is only built by overcoming resistance.  While we need to be careful not to add unnecessarily to the weight of anyone’s life, we also need to resist the temptation to take some of it from them.  The former is brutal and can crush the soul, but the latter is patronizing and can cause the soul to atrophy.  As Paul tells the Galatians, we should help one another carry the extraordinary burdens of life, but when it comes to the normal load, we each need to carry it for ourselves.

We can’t really protect anyone from the darkness of life.  All our efforts at protection can do is ensure that they’ll be unprepared to face it when it finally breaks through.  Let’s stop teaching our kids to pretend the darkness isn’t there, and teach them instead to put it in its place.


Kings’ Fairy Tale,” 1909, Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis.

Posted in Books, Children, Culture and society, Fantasy/science fiction, Humor, Quotes, Video.

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