Eating Disorders in the 'New Campus PC,' Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

One of the more unsympathetic responses to eating disorders is that the diseases’ sufferers are too sensitive, too self-absorbed. You’re creating problems where they don’t exist. Get over it.

In fact, that’s been the general tone of critics’ reactions to much of the campus trigger discussion, race, rape, and all.

A few of the responses from our readers to Monday’s post echoed that sentiment, but not all. Here’s one:

It's worthwhile to explore how to integrate consideration for those who have had difficult experiences. It's intellectually dishonest to curtail the teaching of historical fact because the subject matter reveals unpleasant truths. In order to understand history (and art and literature produced during different periods of history), we must understand context.

“Trigger” is a word that can be so expansively defined when it comes to trauma, sickness, prejudice, etc., that if any institution was to try to comprehensively “ban” trigger language, freedom of expression (not speech, NB) would evaporate. We simply can’t contemplate the entire range of human suffering and construct a new language that is sensitive to everyone.

The polarization of today won't be eased by incivility. It won't be eased by banishing history or the complicated legacies of historical figures. We won't get anywhere by disregarding science or statistics or, most importantly, demanding that no one or nothing ever make us feel bad.

I agree with our first reader here that an outright “ban” of all potentially triggering materials probably isn’t the right approach. Trauma aside, overzealously protecting students’ delicate sensibilities is precisely what led libraries to ban wonderful books like the Harry Potter series. How gleeful the rise of “banned books week” in response to that decades-old pearl-clutching.

Our next reader was clearly unimpressed with my hyper-trigger-awareness as a working adult (to which I say, “same”):

All of this makes me wonder how the ideas of personal responsibility came to vanish in the college environment (not to mention the workplace), in what should be a perfect crucible for maturation.

Nobody grows into a mature and capable adult without facing some unpleasantness and learning how to deal with it. Life includes trauma, difficulty, illness, and death. It's not the responsibility of society or educational institutions to provide a perfect trigger-free fairyland. Particularly in the current world where millions of people are facing massive brutality, rape, displacement and forms of genocide diabolical in their cruelty this focus on micro-aggressions, slips and slights seems infantile and embarrassing in its self indulgence.

My question is whether we really are teaching students “how to deal with it.” Lastly, I heard from one person in support of trigger warnings:

I sometimes have episodes of severe anxiety. During those times, I'm anxious nonstop for no real reason, except for when I'm asleep, and I feel generally miserable.

Once they’re over, remembering certain things associated with what I did during an episode can send me right back into that state of mind. It's like coming home after a vacation (except much worse); the familiar setting puts you back into the mindset of everyday life. I've found from experience that waiting a while to stabilize myself before I revisit unpleasant memories has been extremely helpful. The experience seems more distant and easier to think about critically—as just an event that’s passed rather than the end of the world.

I would hope that this is the intention of trigger warnings in universities: to help people who have recently experienced trauma and are especially sensitive to painful memories for a short period of time, not to permanently let people avoid thinking about topics they believe are offensive.

Surely we can find a middle ground here, between telling victims of trauma (or those students whose inner demons aren’t quite kept at bay) to suck it up, babies and censoring syllabi to the point of bubble-wrapping higher education. I can’t help but think it might look a lot like Katy Waldman’s analysis—that is, pointing out dangerous imagery and discussing it in context to help remove some of its outdated agency.

What’s your solution? As always, our inbox welcomes your input.