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Language and Victimhood

     This February, Dr. Jonathan Zimmerman, professor at the University of Pennsylvania, delivered a lecture at Eastern on the current state of social and political discourse on college campuses. Zimmerman’s thesis was that the psychological language (of trauma, injury and safety, for example) that characterizes much of the dialogue on college campuses is actually having a negative effect on the students and the conversations that they enter into.

     An articulate and engaging speaker, Zimmerman was straightforward and balanced, opinionated but not reactionary or extreme as so many who comment on this subject tend to be. He emphasized very clearly that he was not claiming that freedom of speech had been overturned and that no one was being “silenced.” He also acknowledged the seriousness and legitimacy of trigger warnings for victims of sexual assault and other traumas, while criticizing the widespread overuse of trigger warnings for far less serious issues. Certain trigger warnings make sense, of course, but Zimmerman provided some amusing examples of the concept being taken too far. His favorite was a time that a student complained that a class on horror movies played violent movies without offering a trigger warning beforehand.

     “It’s an elective!” he exclaimed. “And it’s about horror movies!”

     Zimmerman also took on the idea of microaggressions and the phenomenon of certain phrases being banned for being inherently “microaggressive.” He also acknowledged how certain subtle comments could actually function as microaggressions, but stressed the importance of contextualizing phrases instead of banning phrases outright, even if they could potentially be interpreted as aggressive and could be seriously damaging in certain situations. Zimmerman clarified: “Let me be clear: I have no doubt that people can be injured by words. I’ve felt it. Everybody has. Who in their youth or their adulthood wasn’t stung by a word at some point? Everybody has been, right? The question is: How do you make a politics on that basis?” In addition to questioning the widespread forbiddance of certain phrases with no regard for the contexts in which they might be used (thus developing a politics based on the potential injurious nature of certain words), Zimmerman had concerns about using the language of injury and safety indiscriminately.

     “The more we talk about that language, the more it teaches us to feel injured,” he said, adding that while feeling is obviously subjective, sociologists know that “the social scripts around us can bias us towards feeling certain ways.” (Zimmerman referenced Arlie Russell Hochschild’s book “The Managed Heart” here.) His worry was that applying this language to more and more scenarios would actually encourage more injury and harm than would have been there in the first place.

     The application of this language of safety and injury to so many things can also minimize real trauma. Zimmerman brought up the example of a scandal at Harvard in 2015, when a vandal put black tape over the mouths on portraits of professors of color in one of the university’s halls. Many students claimed that they had been “personally traumatized” by this incident. Meanwhile, Randall Kennedy, a Black professor teaching at Harvard Law School, whose portrait was vandalized, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times questioning how even he would be truly traumatized by the vandalization.

     “Questioners often seem to assume that I should feel deeply alarmed and hurt. I don’t,” he wrote in the piece. His fear, along with Zimmerman’s, was that using this sort of language was just “nurturing an inflated sense of victimization.”

     “The more you use that word, what happens to the content of it? If everything’s a trauma, what’s a trauma?” Zimmerman asked. “It would be a fantasy to imagine” that our college campuses are free from racism, Zimmerman said, “and yet, we’ve got to be careful about the words we use. Somebody who was ‘traumatized’ by that event at Harvard–I would like to see them go with a straight and unembarrassed face to a Syrian refugee center or a shelter for sexually abused teens…and tell them that they were traumatized too. I don’t think they could.”

     This is the danger of claiming that every experience of micro-aggressions or unsubtle, legitimately injurious verbal insults is traumatic: the language of trauma loses its seriousness. The same is the case with claiming that violent imagery in an elective class on horror movies warrants a trigger warning. Both of these phenomena may also be encouraging the harm that they warn about by so indiscriminately pointing it out everywhere, according to Zimmerman. This perspective, in the age of the administrative university that encourages this sort of radical sensitivity, was very welcome. It was a pleasure to have Zimmerman speak here.

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