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by Will Wilkinson

My son, Felix, is not yet a year old, so Kerry and I have got a lot of parenting choices ahead of us. For example, should we conspire to make Felix believe in Santa. I think we should, for pretty much the same reasons Pascal-Emanuel Gobry won’t:

If you are a Christian, as I am, you are really shooting yourself in the foot. “No, the thing about the magic flying fat man, that was just a made-up story, but the thing about the magic bearded Jesus, that part, that’s totally true!” That sounds silly, doesn’t it? Mainstream popular culture works hard enough telling people Christianity is unbelievable; we should not join the chorus ourselves.

Well, we’re atheists. I don’t intend to proselytize atheism to my kid, because I’m not interested in getting him to believe anything in particular. What I’m interested in is teaching him how to reason in a way that maximizes his chances of hitting on the truth. Now, one of the most interesting truths about the empirical world is that there are all these powerful systems of myth that are kept afloat by a sort of mass conspiracy, and humans seem disposed to pick one from the ambient culture and take it very seriously. But it can be hard to get your head around the way it all works unless you participate in it. Santa is a perfect and relatively harmless way to introduce your child the socio-psychology of a collective delusion about the supernatural. The disillusionment that comes from the exposure to the truth about Santa breeds a general skepticism about similarly ill-founded popular beliefs in physics-defying creatures. Gobry would rather his children not learn to side-eye well-loved myths in this way, and, given his faith, that seems reasonable.

Rich Cohen puts it really well:

[A]t some point—maybe you’re 7, maybe 10—you discover the truth: There is no Santa. It’s just a story, a polite word for a lie. Worse still: Everyone knew, even your mom. The adults have been involved in a vast, “Matrix”-like conspiracy. You awake in a pod, bald, swimming in goop. You have a keen sense of being laughed at; you picture them all yukking it up. You’re beset by doubt: If Santa is just a story, does that mean everything is just a story? For some, it’s a moment as painful as the more profound moment that might come later, when your inner Nietzsche emerges from the hills to announce, God is dead.


Except Cohen, despite his own youthful experience – (“When I learned the truth—from Todd Johnston, from my sister—I was crushed, changed”) – has become convinced that believing in Santa is actually great practice for believing in a divine Jesus.

According to Fred Edie, an associate professor at Duke Divinity School, children are drawn to Santa because he represents certain aspects of Jesus. “I suspect the story evolved in part along the same lines of other stories of Christian saints and exemplars,” Dr. Edie wrote to me. “In this genre, characters are cast as ‘types’ of Jesus because of the ways their lives reflect dimensions of Jesus’ life. Santa may have been good to children, as was Jesus, which would have constituted a radical, even subversive gesture back in the day when children were considered little more than property.” […]

Fred Edie changed my mind. He convinced me that I had it backward. Santa doesn’t prepare you for disillusionment—he prepares you for belief. He’s a kind of training-wheel Jesus, presenting aspects of faith in a manner that kids can handle.

I don’t buy it, and reading Cohen, I don’t believe he believes it either. In fact, I found Cohen’s otherwise winsome piece awfully puzzling. Cohen is a Jewish guy who believed in Santa as a kid, and then became skeptical of his own religion when he found out there’s no such thing. “For years, I refused to believe anything until I saw proof,” he writes. “It could be from the Gospels, it could be from the Torah—I wasn’t interested unless I could touch it. I came to see Santa as a historic mistake with one function: to hurry kids toward disbelief.” And then Fred Edie changed his mind? Why? As far as I can tell, believing in Santa didn’t bring Rich Cohen around to a late-in-life Christian conversion, unless he’s trying to tell us that in a very coded way, so I’m not sure what’s going on. He became a more steadfast Jew, thanks to Santa? Weird piece.

Anyway, I think it’s pretty clear Gobry and I, and Rich Cohen before the unmotivated reversal, are right. Santa is an exercise in losing your religion. So get ready, Felix. Santa’s coming to town!

by Will Wilkinson

I won’t say that this is the greatest thing that I have ever seen, but neither will I say that it is not glorious to behold. Glenn Beck, American, offers a voice of warning … from the future:

Kyle Mantyla of Right Wing Watch (I’d rather watch grass grow) writes:

The best thing about Glenn Beck owning his own network is that he answers to nobody and so there is nothing to stop him from indulging every insane idea that he has, resulting in hour-long programs like last night’s end-of-the-year recap in which a 90-year-old Glenn Beck recorded a dire message from the future about how 2014 was the year in which the whole world fell apart.

Living alone in an abandoned building with only a few tiny candles and a small fire for light and heat, future Beck somehow managed to scrounge up some batteries and video cameras with which to record his message. And even though the world in 2054 is apparently short on food and fuel and energy and everything else, future Beck still somehow managed to obtain stockpiles of footage from news programs that aired forty years earlier and even had the capacity to edit those clips into his dire message about how everything from Ebola, to ISIS, to the Federal Reserve all brought about the complete collapse of capitalism and society starting in 2014.

Glenn Beck, in my opinion the world’s greatest performance artist, has built a fortune on the crackpot credulity of extreme conservative. This video is just delightfully bats. Will Menaker tweets:

It’s like he wants us to know he’s pulling our leg. But then he’s totally not! Glenn Beck is a living magic eye poster. You squint and you see the winking irony, but you try to pull it into focus and it vanishes! All you see is the authentic wild-eyed paranoid ideologue. But then you catch the wink! Agh! The mercury-blooded cipher! I love him so much I wrote down what he said:

Forty years ago, 2014, your history books claim, that was the year of the dawn of progressivism! The dawn of a new beginning! The end of capitalism! I’ll tell you know that it was that. That this new era of equality, and diversity and tolerance … I beg to differ with your history book! Forget your books! I was there! I saw it! I remember 2014, I remember four words that came to me… There was a clash of the “evil” tea partiers. There was a clash on a ranch in the middle of the country. A man said he had a right to his own land. It was at that time that I heard, and I’ll never forget it in my prayers, four words: “And. So. It. Begins.” Over and over again I saw it, over and over again I heard it. I was like Nebuchadnezzar without Daniel… Sorry. You probably don’t even know what that means. Right. I’m not crazy. I was naive, but I was not crazy.

Not crazy … like a fox! So the turning point in American history is the standoff at Cliven Bundy’s ranch? Of course. And the bewhiskered ghost of Glenn Beck future apologizes for his biblical reference because … why? Because the Bureau of Land Management was not brutally overthrown, and so the Bible has become illegal? Who knows! Who cares! This is art, people. Beck’s historical-reenactor-from-the-dystopian-future scenery-chewing raises the bar for avant garde thespians everywhere. In twenty years, when Beck steps out for his bow, I’ll be first in line for the MoMa retrospective celebrating this luminous American original and his mind-bending decades-long post-modern meta-satire of unhinged populist demagoguery. Who needs spineless Hollywood? The bleeding edge of culture is happening at The Blaze.

by Will Wilkinson

Here is one of the most spectacular shifts in public opinion in our lifetime.


What explains this?

Don’t ask the psychologist and social scientists who study political opinion. They don’t know.

One family of influential theories says that our political opinions are “motivated” by certain deep-seated emotional needs. According to one version, the “system justification theory” of Jon Jost, variation in the need to justify the status quo distribution of goods and power in society determines whether one has a broadly liberal or conservative worldview. In other versions of the needs-based theory, our opinions are said to be fixed by the degree to which we are or are not dominated by a need to preserve comforting illusions, or, alternatively, the need to manage uncertainty and fear.

A related line of inquiry posits that variations in political opinion arise from ingrained differences in personality and moral sensibility. Jonathan Haidt’s “moral foundations theory” is probably the best-known. Variation on the six foundations of the moral sense explains whether you have a liberal, conservative, or libertarian cast of mind. All these theories imply that our “values” and corresponding political views reflect idiosyncrasies of personality more than material interests. Indeed, the current consensus view among political psychologists and public-opinion researchers is that, contrary to older tradition in economics and political science, self-interest explains very little about our political alignments and commitments.

What is often overlooked is that both old-fashioned self-interest theories and new-fangled personality-based theories of political opinion are pretty much useless in accounting for the sort of sea change in opinion captured by the chart above. Was there a wild change in people’s interests between 1996 and now? No. Did the distribution of personality types in the American population undergo a rapid transformation. No. It’s a lot simpler than that. People changed their minds.

Until recently, the prevailing belief in our culture was that homosexuality is a sort of mental illness and that it’s practice threatens the integrity of  the family and, thereby, the integrity of the entire social order. Almost anyone  who has adopted these beliefs, whatever their temperament or interests, is going to want to think that it is in his or her interests, and in the interests of society generally, to officially discourage homosexuality. But when large numbers of people stop believing, as a matter of empirical fact, that there is something unhealthy or socially dangerous about homosexuality, opinion about its “justifiability” – and about the justice of denying equal rights to gay and lesbian couples – changes without any corresponding change in anyone’s underlying psychology or interests. Indeed, support for gay marriage has accelerated and opposition has weakened most rapidly as the old speculative worries are disproven by the anodyne, homey reality of families headed by officially-sanctioned same-sex couples.

Beliefs matter. Public opinion will always reflect factional interest and the range of temperaments. But we have no magical ability to intuit what’s in our interests; we can only ever act on beliefs about our interests. And moral personality may be more or less fixed, but the things that dispositionally conservative or liberal happen to believe change a great deal over time as beliefs about the world change. I’m of the generation that was in young adulthood in 1996, at the start of that Gallup chart, when opposition to gay marriage seemed insurmountable. Over the past two decades I’ve seen conservative-minded friends go from profound moralized disgust about homosexuality to shrugging indifference as their beliefs around the nature and consequences of homosexual behavior have drifted with the cultures. My father’s generation went through something similar with respect to mixed-race relationships. Now it’s true that we are imperfectly rational creatures, and that there is a great deal of “motivated cognition” – a tendency to believe what we find comforting to believe. But I think it’s clear enough that these are frictions that can be overcome, and often are overcome. This is a cause for hope.

One of the great issues of our day is prison reform. America imprisons a larger share of its population than any other country on Earth. The main reason for this is that, over the last few decades, thanks in large part to the War on Drugs, we have changed sentencing guidelines such that more crimes are met with prison sentences, and sentences for most crimes have become longer. It can seem that the American carceral state is so dug in that it is impossible to change it. But I think it is largely a matter of belief. At some point in the past, we came to believe that we were too soft on crime – that punishments were unjustly and dangerously lax – so we made them harsher. To turn things around, we’ve simply got to change our minds again. Punishments are too harsh. Millions of Americans who do not deserve to be put in cages are put in cages, and millions who deserve to put in cages for a time are kept there for far too long, often ruining their entire lives. This is an appalling injustice, even aside from the appallingly unjust racial bias in the system. This should be intolerable for country culturally committed to an ideal of liberty. But we can change it. We’re not locked in by a confluence of interests or by intractable features of the tough-on-crime conservative personality. Americans simply need to believe that such long prisons sentences are wrong. Americans need to believe that crime-rates are at a historic low, that high incarceration rates are not the main reason why, and that they and their children will not be endangered by reforms that restore proportionality, judicial discretion, and justice to sentencing.

Now, some progressives are fixated on the idea that a vague set of systemic social forces they call “neoliberalism” is responsible for the American gulag state – and everything else wrong the world. The implication is that things can’t get better until we throw over neoliberalism (whatever that is) and replace it with a rarely-specified utopia of social justice. This is pernicious nonsense. Rather than move us closer to social justice, the all-or-nothing, everything-is-connected holism of the anti-neoliberals pushes us instead toward fatalistic complacency and impotent shotgun gestures against “the system.” Andrew’s focused, reasoned arguments in favor of gay marriage in time caught on and now Andrew is married. This should be our model. If Andrew and Jon Rauch and all the others who doggedly, patiently, and rationally made the case for gay marriage had instead chosen to rage against the comprehensive injustice of the machine and the cold hypocrisy of the American heart, it never would have happened. You can’t change the system by changing beliefs about the system. You change the system one issue, and one constellation of convictions, at a time.

by Will Wilkinson

The hacking of Sony and the studio’s subsequent decision to halt the release of The Interview is incredibly weird and it’s left me pretty well stumped. First of all, I’m not 100% positive North Korea is the culprit. I’m not aware of dispositive evidence (maybe the government has it) and it’s more than a little surprising that the North Koreans could do anything so competently. I guess they could pay somebody to do it. In any event, the idea that the North Korean dictator gets to decide what Americans are allowed to watch is outrageous. What leaves me baffled and vexed is what to do about it.

Jonathan Chait wants to the feds to step in and backstop the studios:

The federal government should take financial responsibility. Either Washington should guarantee Sony’s financial liability in the event of an attack, or it should directly reimburse the studio’s projected losses so it can release the movie online for free. The latter solution has the attractive benefit of ensuring a far wider audience for the film than it would otherwise have attracted.

I don’t think this is a bad idea at all, but it’s not clear to me that it gets us far toward solving the problem of the hacker’s veto. What if the Guardians of Peace threaten to blow up Amazon or Netflix server farms, or Comcast HQ, and once again the studio, or the distributors, with perfectly understandable myopic capitalist prudence, capitulate? I mean, when several theaters resolved to show Team America: World Police in the place of The Interview, Paramount said “Nope, shut it down” – a move, in the words of Peter Suderman, that “can really only be described as next-level cowardly bullshit.”

It would seem to me that, in the end, the only real answer is spine. It’s hard not to agree with George Clooney:

We should be in the position right now of going on offense with this. I just talked to Amy an hour ago. She wants to put that movie out. What do I do? My partner Grant Heslov and I had the conversation with her this morning. Bryan and I had the conversation with her last night. Stick it online. Do whatever you can to get this movie out. Not because everybody has to see the movie, but because I’m not going to be told we can’t see the movie. That’s the most important part. We cannot be told we can’t see something by Kim Jong-un, of all f*cking people.

Quite so. But, again, how do you ensure that all the players down the distribution chain don’t get the jitters? As Jonah Golberg notes:

The only problem: At least one cable company preemptively surrendered to North Korean intimidation, too, reportedly saying it would not air the film. Now, even if Sony had a backbone transplant, it couldn’t release the movie.

Sony could still dump it on the Internet and let it spread virally. It would lose ticket sales, but the company would strike a defiant blow nonetheless.

Don’t hold your breath. Sony would rather go the way of appeasement. And so would everyone else, it seems.

Clooney worries, and I think he’s right to worry, that our lack of spine is going to lead to insipid, bland, inoffensive, a political film-making. Freddie de Boer observes that we’ve got that problem already:

What I wonder is why people aren’t a little more put off by a form of censorship that is more insidious, and will likely affect far more movies in the long run: the soft censorship of appealing to the Chinese government in order to reap the Chinese box office. There have been widespread claims that recent blockbuster movies like the latest Transformers have been written so as to appease Chinese censors. There’s nothing wrong with writing movies to reach out to a particularly huge foreign box office– why wouldn’t you want your movie to play to Chinese moviegoers?– but appealing to the Chinese government is a whole other ball of wax. That’s where you  can see genuine self-censorship coming in. And while I imagine that this whole thing will blow over before long, without a great deal of long-term damage, I think the urge to play in China -and for the Chinese government —  will only grow over time.

The problem of willingly selling out to the Chinese reminded me of Ayn Rand, whose bracing moral lessons I’m sure Freddie had in the back of his mind. Rand’s finest novel, The Fountainhead, is an anti-capitalist screed about the spiritual and cultural evil of catering to market demand. Forget the problem of giving the commie censors what they want. It’s wrong to give the free market what it wants, when what it wants is aesthetically debased, which it always is. The architect hero of The Fountainhead, Howard Roark, is the ultimate in spine, the patron saint of never selling out. When one of his perfect, austere modernist buildings is bowdlerized the better to suit the public taste, he blows it up. That’s right, Howard Roark is a terrorist, a jihadi for artistic integrity. Maybe Howard Roark is the answer. Maybe can show us the way. Maybe Sony needs to feel that it is unsafe not to release The Interview. Maybe Seth Rogen needs to blow something up! Or maybe Brian Beutler is on to something, and the best we can do is call on Anonymous to steal the movie and make sure that, in this case at least, market-based American spinelessness can’t put a gag on our precious stoner auteurs.

Obama Just Ruined Cuba! Ctd

Will Wilkinson —  Dec 18 2014 @ 3:38pm
by Will Wilkinson

Shep Smith seems to think so:

Responding to that clip, Allahpundit finds that notion entirely fatuous:

This is exactly what it sounds like, a guy seemingly willing to trade away greater prosperity for Cubans if it means Americanizing the island in return for preserving the quaint, simple culture that decades of authoritarianism and economic retardation have produced. It’s basically the “noble savage” view of economics. What doth it profit a Cuban to gain a middle-American depot for cheap building materials if he lose his cheap-rum-making soul? Where are we going to go to watch people riding around in 60-year-old Studebakers now?

Ryan Kearney accuses those afraid of “spoiling” Cuba of fetishizing poverty:

When Americans daydream about visiting Cuba before it’s “spoiled,” they’re implying that the island today is some kind of paradise. I have been there. It is not a paradise.

The buildings in Havana are literally crumbling, many of them held upright by two-by-fours. Even the cleanest bathrooms are fetid, as if the country’s infrastructural bowels might collectively evacuate at any minute. And the streets are riddled with potholes, some large enough to swallow a Russian Lada. The country isn’t so much frozen in time as in a state of perpetual rot, which is exactly what the 1961 embargo was designed to do.

But the cars! Yes, let’s talk about those cars. Cubans don’t drive American antiques because they love American antiques as much as we do, but because they have no choice.

There is, however, a real argument to be made that opening up the Cuban economy could have negative consequences. As Neil Irwin elaborates, “one of the biggest risks might be moving too fast”:

That is a conclusion of some scholars who very much favor economic liberalization of Cuba — but want it done right. Gary Clyde Hufbauer and Barbara Kotschwar, scholars at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, published a book this spring looking at the hard task of reintegrating the two economies as Fidel and Raúl Castro fade from the political scene. Their conclusions suggest it would be foolhardy to imagine a rapid return to the days when American tourists frequented the Tropicana, and the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta had an office in Havana.

There is, they argue, a model for how not to make the transition, a prime example being Russia’s “shock therapy” approach to privatizing industries and introducing democratic government after the demise of the Soviet Union. … Cubans — and Americans wanting to do business there — will be better off if they instead emulate Vietnam and China, two countries that have migrated from Communism to a hybrid system that is nominally Communist but practices free-market capitalism to a large degree. That has allowed them to become more fully integrated into the global economy and helped millions of their citizens escape poverty over the last generation without bloodshed or revolution.

Likewise, Dougherty warns that embracing free markets – which Cuba hasn’t exactly signed on to anyway – won’t magically heal the damage done by half a century of communism:

Law and order can make markets appear. But it is civil society and a culture of social trust that make free markets tolerable. And it is precisely this social trust that communism so effectively destroys. “We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us,” became a de facto motto for the late Soviet Union. Cuba, like East Germany or the Czech Republic, has a memory of a modern civil society before communism. Some even remember when it was a relatively wealthy nation. But the memory is an ever-more distant one. The news of normal diplomatic relations is to be welcomed, as is the end of a useless American policy. But Cuba’s restoration will require something that an army of policy experts cannot provide.

Clive Irving, meanwhile, focuses on the environmental drawbacks of opening up Cuba to more tourism:

[B]efore a new tide of tourists can flow from Miami to Havana, Cuba will need to build more runways. The two airports taking the most tourist traffic, Havana and Varadero, are already at near capacity in peak season with flights from Canada, Europe and Latin America. More runways, more hotels, more roads, more infrastructure? The island faces an environmental challenge of huge proportions. With more than 3,000 miles of coastline, Cuba is the Caribbean’s largest island and the most ecologically diverse. There are six UNESCO biosphere reserves and nine UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Although tough environmental controls were put in place in 2000, enforcement has been haphazard. Surging coastal development has destroyed natural protection—mangroves and wetlands, just at the time when Cuban scientists calculated that climate change would wreak havoc.

It’s also worth noting that the possible transformation of Cuba into an tourist mecca for Americans may not come about due to the baleful depredations of free-market capitalism, but might just as well come about through centralized state planning. Responding at length to Jeremy Scahill’s tweet that “I’m glad I got to visit several times before US tourists try to turn it into Cancun,” Josh Barro observes:

Cancun isn’t a symbol of free market capitalism, and American tourists didn’t make the place what it is today. An arm of the Mexican central bank did, in perhaps the largest and most successful example of central economic planning in North American history. Cuba should be so lucky as to have made its planned economy work as well as Cancun’s.

Barro’s account of the way Cancun got to be Cancun is fascinating, but it seems he missed Scahill’s gist.

This is point worth taking very seriously. Socialists have a terrible habit of romanticizing the Cuban dictatorship, and whitewashing its crimes. Still, as repressive totalitarian regimes go, the quality of life in Cuba is remarkably high.

According the United Nation’s Human Development Index – which takes into account a life-expectancy, education, and per-capita GDP – Cuba ranks 44th in the world, while Mexico ranks a 61st. 61st isn’t bad (there are 187 countries in the index), but 44th is pretty good! One might reasonably wonder about the credibility of Cuba’s national statistics, but if they’re in the neighborhood of the truth, this level of human development is a remarkable achievement for such a low-income country, a real outlier, and it would be a pity if opening up Cuba led to a reversal health and education. But I’m not too worried. I think I also agree with Scahill about this:

Neoliberal or not, opening up Cuba ought to make it a good deal wealthier. If the Cubans are able to use that extra money to shore up the policies and institutions that already work surprisingly well, then loss of a little undeveloped shoreline, and a little Cancunification, will be a small price to pay.

Dissent Of The Day

Will Wilkinson —  Dec 18 2014 @ 2:17pm
by Will Wilkinson

A reader rebuts me:

Wilkinson’s argument amounts to saying that a president with personal connections in government (via a dynasty for example) would be a good counter to overly independent, unaccountable bureaucracies such as the CIA. The Bush dynasty is the perfect example of the reverse. George HW Bush was the director of the CIA. Before Dick Cheney was George W. Bush’s vice-president and man behind the curtain, he worked in the White House under Nixon and was GWHB’s Secretary of Defense. Does Wilkinson think that Dubya’s personal connections made the CIA more accountable? Probably not. And Dubya would be one more personal connection between Jeb and war crimes. All that would make torture and CIA unaccountability more likely, not less.

He closes with the glib pontification, “And the enormous, deadly, often malign power of the sprawling American security state makes it worth asking whether a decent president who isn’t really in charge is better than an odious one who is.” To which the answer is yes. Of course. I’ll take things not getting better over things actively getting worse any day. As depressing as a Jeb vs. Hillary race may be, the personal connections to the CIA are one of the best reasons there is to vote for anybody but Bush.

At best, Wilkinson could argue that personal connections in government amount to more power (but if that’s what he meant, it’s so obvious it’s trivial). But that only makes it more important to critically examine what those connections are.

These are all great points. As I said, these were speculative thoughts, and I’m not at all happy about where they lead. But I think the possible strengths of dynastic presidents are worth taking seriously.

It had occurred to me that George W. Bush puts a hitch in the argument. With W., I think we have a case of a president who is somewhat oddly idealistic and ideological, given his father’s very realpolitik background, who really believes his own airy nonsense about the axis of evil and the universal desire for democracy, that America really is an agent of providence in history. In his case, I think his starry-eyed softness was exploited by flinty Bush-machine consiglieri, such as Cheney. So it may well be that a slightly oblivious dynastic president, by bringing with him so many well-connected Machiavellian old hands, is more likely than an inexperienced but shrewd newbie, such as Obama, to get played by his team. But Jeb is the smart Bush, right?

And what about Obama’s dismal failure to make good on his campaign promises about Guantanamo and the wars and transparency and torture and on and on and on? I don’t think Obama was insincere in those promises. I think he got into office without much of an independent network in place and the doyens of the security state were able to scare him into believing that the only responsible thing to do was what they wanted to do. Now, it may well be that Hillary or Jeb would want to do what the generals and spies want, anyway. But if they don’t, they’ll be in a better position to do it.

by Will Wilkinson

Michelle’s post on the the difficulty of teaching rape law in this, the age of the “trigger warning,” put me in mind of my graying Gen-Xer suspicions that kids these days are entitled precious overdramatic snowflakes too poignantly damaged by their not-very-harsh lives to conduct adult conversations about adult topics, and that this triggering business is bosh.

Trauma is all-too-real, and experiences that throw those who have been traumatized back into painful memories of their trauma are all-too-real. But how common is it, really? How important is it, really, to avoid triggering events? Is not being reminded of a trauma others cannot be reasonably expected to know anything about the sort of thing to which we might be morally entitled? Does anyone have a right not to be triggered, such that we’re all obligated not to do it? Is there any science about this that might help answer these question? It turns out there is! And because it confirms my biases I am eager to share it with you.

According to this useful round-up of the relevant research by Richard J. McNally, a Harvard professor of psychology, here are the main nuggets about triggering. So, most people who have been traumatized don’t develop post-traumatic stress disorder. PTSD is fairly common among victims of sexual assault, though about half of those who have been raped recover from their trauma in a few months. But what about the “triggering” stuff? That’s what I’m most interested in. Here’s McNally:

Trigger warnings are designed to help survivors avoid reminders of their trauma, thereby preventing emotional discomfort. Yet avoidance reinforces PTSD. Conversely, systematic exposure to triggers and the memories they provoke is the most effective means of overcoming the disorder.

Enabling avoidance may make PTSD worse. Sarah Roff, a psychiatrist, has sounded the same note in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

As a psychiatrist, I nonetheless have to question whether trigger warnings are in such students’ best interests. One of the cardinal symptoms of PTSD is avoidance, which can become the most impairing symptom of all. If someone has been so affected by an event in her life that reading a description of a rape in Ovid’s Metamorphoses can trigger nightmares, flashbacks, and panic attacks, she is likely to be functionally impaired in areas of her life well beyond the classroom. The solution is not to help these students dig themselves further into a life of fear and avoidance by allowing them to keep away from upsetting material.

Now, this does not imply that we ought to go around trying to trigger memories of trauma in order to confer upon the traumatized the therapeutic benefits of facing their troubles head-on. That kind of intentional confrontation ought to occur in a controlled, clinical context. But it seems clear enough that catering to avoidance by offering speculative warnings and by tiptoeing around possibly sensitive subjects doesn’t really help, and might even hurt a little. It seems pretty implausible that teachers and writers might have some kind of general obligation to do something that doesn’t really help and might even make things worse, doesn’t it?

Roff goes on to make an interesting point that had not occurred to me. Triggering works through a sometimes unpredictable associative logic, making it very hard to avoid stumbling into potentially triggering territory. She writes:

I am also skeptical that labeling sensitive material with trigger warnings will prevent distress. The scientific literature about trauma teaches us that it seeps into people’s lives by networks of association. Someone who has been raped by a man in a yellow shirt at a bus stop may start avoiding not only men, but bus stops and perhaps even anyone wearing yellow. A soldier who has seen a comrade killed by a roadside explosive device may come to avoid not just parked vehicles, but also civilians who look like the people he or she saw right before the device exploded. Since triggers are a contagious phenomenon, there will never be enough trigger warnings to keep up with them. It should not be the job of college educators to foster this process.

Moreover, it will be a shame, and a deep loss, if our educational culture becomes so painfully sensitive, so leery of any subject that might make anyone feel anxious and uncomfortable, that it becomes impossible to intelligently examine the dark side of the human experience in the classroom. We don’t need the pitiless anti-PC provocation to which some conservatives seem to prone, but we do need a firm, mature insistence that the serious, detailed collective exploration of violence, sex, war, pain, and death is simply too important to defer because of any one person’s troubled autobiography.