I am dismayed to hear about a trend in higher education in which students are expecting to be given “trigger warnings” if a lecture or piece of literature might be upsetting, or in therapy speak – triggering- to them. This will allow them to opt out of learning from content that emotionality challenges them. I believe that protection from things that make us uncomfortable limits learning and growth. There is a great big world out there and much of it will make us uncomfortable. And the only way to get more comfortable with all those different or challenging perspectives? Face them, learn about them, try to understand them.
One reason this makes me very concerned is that we know from studies (recent ones focusing on attitudes about gay marriage) that exposure to difference is the best thing to reduce discrimination and negative beliefs about a different group. It is easy to hold on irrational beliefs about something you have no first hand knowledge of. Being exposed to that which makes us uncomfortable is a huge component of growth, without it we stagnate quickly. The education system should be a series of uncomfortable events, each designed to open us to new ideas and perspectives. We need to face the realities of the world we live in, much of which we might prefer to blissfully ignore.
And that is another reason I don’t support trigger warnings, the world is full of triggers. Getting stronger in the face of them is empowering. Hiding from them is not. I work with clients who struggle with PTSD and part of treatment is to identify triggers, things that send messages to their brain that they are in danger. Once they are identified, we can talk about ways to avoid some of those triggers, sure. And that can be helpful in reducing stress in the short term. But I never guarantee to a client that they will be able to arrange their life such that they can avoid all triggers. That would most likely be a very limited life. Instead we work to build up strength and new responses to triggers, so that they have less power to through someone into fear.
I see the affects, big and small, of people believing they cannot handle things that make them uncomfortable. And I know that the healing for that is, almost always, facing those things and finding that they do not have to damage you. I see the arguments for discrimination and reducing our rights being made on the basis of “I shouldn’t have to be witness to their life/behavior/art/ideas/sexual expression/choices/religious beliefs/ and on and on”. I have seen people not say something that was true and important to them for fear of upsetting a partner and the ways that reduces intimacy and connection. I have seen my own biases and blindspots change as I find myself in brand new territory, even as it scares me.
So let’s commit as conscious sexual selves to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Let’s let it strengthen us and inspire us. Let’s understand our own ability to honor and accept difference without having to let go of our own self. Let’s get excited about the stuff that makes us go, “what the X#*?” or “ick” because it means there is more out there than we can fully grasp, and that is ok. And let’s never let the world convince us that we are not strong enough to face it.
I hope some of you took part in the happy celebrations this past week after the Supreme court ruled to nullify the federal law defining marriage as between a man and a woman and to validate the right of all of us to choose to marry the person we love. There are, last count I saw, 1138 Federal rights given to married couples in the US, so there is a lot at stake for many families, and a lot to celebrate.
It was a tight vote, 5-4, and the court chose to not make their own decision regarding California’s case challenging the state’s federal court decision that banning gay marriage is unconstitutional so they passed up this opportunity to protect the right to gay marriage throughout the country. Still, this is historic and has opened doors to gay and lesbian couples to now have their commitments, families, identities, and love honored in the ways straight people have been able to for hundreds of years.
Another story with less coverage also gave me hope this week and I want you to know about it. Alan Chambers, president of Exodus Christian Ministry group one of the most influential groups in the ex-gay movement, has announced that he has closed Exodus. Not only has he shut down this organization, he has openly spoken out, apologizing for the harm Exodus has done. For 37 years this group, and several others, have been selling people the idea that “reparative therapy”, usually a series of painful and/or shaming aversion techniques, and prayer will turn people straight. In 2009 the American Psychological Association made a clear statement that reparative therapy does not work, is in fact harmful and that being gay is a natural thing and not something that needs to be changed. Still groups like Exodus kept going. For Alan Chambers to come forward now and say he was wrong, that he has caused unnecessary trauma, is powerful. It will not change the horrible experiences that many people went through because of reparative therapy, but Chambers apology may change some minds in the Christian community that looked up to him, the people who Chambers now described as, “imprisoned in a worldview that’s neither honoring toward our fellow human beings, nor biblical”.
To read Chambers full apology go to http://exodusinternational.org/2013/06/i-am-sorry/
So it is a time for celebration. It is also a time to recognize that tides do turn and even our enemies can sometimes hear us if we keep talking to them. As we continue to fight for equality and compassion around the world, it is also perhaps important for us to ask ourselves if our own hatred or fear are getting in the way of us moving forward in the way we know is right. To ask, if we have stopped talking to certain people, if we have given up on people’s ability to change, if we are doing our own demonizing. Maybe Alan Chambers can inspire us to ask ourselves, are we willing to forgive – when appropriate - and start a new era? Are we willing to let our hate change, disappear, make space for something new?