How much do warnings help?

Is my skin becoming too thick? Too insensitive to those things I want to feel? Need to feel? Or has it merely developed callus over areas too frequently assailed?

These are questions that I’m beginning to ask as I notice the burgeoning warnings on virtually every television channel that whatever follows may not be suitable for all audiences, or that parental discretion is advised. Curious as to what offence is about to be committed, I find myself more engaged in searching for possible misdemeanours than attending to the substance of the program -a minor diversion, to be sure, but nonetheless a distraction from the evaluating the presentation of the subject matter.

I suppose these warnings are the polite thing to do, although they are certainly missing from the business of everyday life. Still, if there are people out there who feel compelled to guard themselves or their children from strong language, or upsetting scenes of violence, I do not begrudge them that -although I do wonder how they manage it elsewhere in their day.

And I certainly don’t want to see gratuitous savagery in a program purporting to educate me about poverty and how different jurisdictions are managing it. We all have our boundaries, and individual thresholds are sometimes hard to gauge, but perhaps our sights are set rather low on programs whose subject matter should be obvious from their titles. If I choose to watch a crime drama, or a documentary on the ravages of war, I would likely have factored in the probable contents before I tuned in. And if I’m being warned about the content of language I might hear, well, good luck walking past a school at recess, or even along the average city street.

At any rate, I’m beginning to question the motivation for these warnings. Does everything require a warning, or are they mainly hedges against possible lawsuits, or something? And perhaps more importantly, do the warnings actually work? Are there such things as ‘triggers’ whose very presence could cause serious injury unless stringently avoided? And what if I warn, but you do not heed? Would I then be at fault -or would it be you, for not listening…? I wrote about this subject a few years ago: (https://musingsonwomenshealth.com/2016/07/06/the-trigger-warning/) but I’m wondering how much we have learned about these triggers in the intervening years.

More recently, I came across an essay in Aeon that I hoped might shed some new light on the issue. https://aeon.co/ideas/trigger-warnings-dont-help-people-cope-with-distressing-material It was written by Christian Jarrett, a cognitive neuroscientist and a senior editor at Aeon. He too, it seemed, was conflicted about trigger warnings: ‘the use of trigger warnings has since spread… to educational institutions around the world, and further: into theatres, festivals and even news stories. The warnings have become another battlefield in the culture wars, with many seeing them as threatening free speech and the latest sign of ‘political correctness’ gone mad.’

And yet, ‘Ideology aside, one could make a basic ethical case for giving warnings in the sense that it’s the considerate thing to do.’ But is there any proof that a warning is helpful in avoiding psychological damage in people with a history of trauma, or painful memories similar to what is being warned about?

Jarrett cites some evidence that, far from helping those sensitive to the issues because of past traumas, ‘trigger warnings enable survivors of trauma to avoid re-experiencing the negative associated emotions, [and] critics argue that the avoidance of potentially upsetting material is actually a counterproductive approach because it offers no chance to learn to manage one’s emotional reactions. As a result, fears deepen and catastrophic thoughts go unchallenged.’

I don’t think Jarrett is totally convinced of the evidence -much more study is required- but at least there are competing considerations in the management of so-called triggers. In fact, ‘On the question of whether trigger warnings give people the chance to brace themselves emotionally, a spate of recent studies suggest that this simply isn’t how the mind works.’

Fair enough, I guess -although I personally wouldn’t want to upset someone by mistake. However, he goes on to mention the concept of ‘coddling’ -as developed in a book by ‘ the attorney Greg Lukianoff and the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, authors of the book The Coddling of the American Mind (2018) – namely, that these warnings encourage a belief in the vulnerability of people with a history of trauma and, in fact, in people’s vulnerability in general. For instance… Harvard research found that the use of trigger warnings increased participants’ belief in the vulnerability of people with post-traumatic stress disorder – an unwelcome effect that the researchers described as a form of ‘soft stigma’.’ In other words, not being able to talk through issues for fear of upsetting the other person -avoiding the subject altogether, and hence, treating the person ‘differently’.

But, as Jarrett reiterates, much more study is required to determine the benefits of ‘trigger warnings’. ‘Yet already the results are surprisingly consistent in undermining the specific claim that trigger warnings allow people to marshal some kind of mental defence mechanism. There is also a solid evidence base that avoidance is a harmful coping strategy for people recovering from trauma or dealing with anxiety. The clear message from psychology then is that trigger warnings should come with their own warning – they won’t achieve much, except encourage maladaptive coping and the belief that folk are sensitive and need protecting.’

As my previous essay hinted, I am still undecided about the value of these warnings. I would not knowingly wish to offend anybody, nor traumatize them by something I say, but it can be devilishly difficult to know what might need to be avoided. Every topic is a potential minefield, and yet surely part of the onus is on the recipient to choose -and therefore avoid, or at least warn the offending party- what they find problematic. To be sure, sometimes the extent of effect on them is unpredictable, or a surprise -for both sides- and yet if the subject is presented in a sensitive manner, one would expect much of the damage could be mitigated.

Communication, after all, is the exchange of information, but as much as we might try to soften the blow, it will not always pleasant; to pretend that it will be, is disingenuous, at the very least.

Do you understand why I am confused…?

Like madness, is the glory of this life

My grandmother was old when she died -very old, in fact: she died on the morning after her 100th birthday party. Her congratulatory letter from the Queen -or at least someone official claiming to speak for her highness- came the day before. I’m not so sure it was congratulations, really -more a recognition that a member of the United Kingdom, albethey an émigré, had still remained loyal to her majesty and her dominions for a century.

My grandmother seemed to enjoy the party we held for her -she was all smiles and although she also seemed a bit confused by it all, she was delighted by the letter. It spoke to her of another life, I think -one that whispered the secrets of a little girl growing up in an English seaside town with a shingled beach and an amusement pier that offered tempting glimpses of a world across the sea -a world she couldn’t know would become her own for most of her life.

We all have lives like that -the present we currently occupy pales in depth, in colour, and even in meaning to the worlds we have tasted in our incomparably longer past. It only seems appropriate that when our brains tire of sorting through the tyrannies of the moment, we default to the myriad memories of what we lived. The past can be a comfortable place to rest -familiar, at the very least.

I loved visiting my aging granny -even in the hospital where she spent her final days she was always full of stories, full of wisdom, and full of wonder. And although often confused about current events, or what she’d had for breakfast that morning, her eyes would light up when I asked her to tell me about, say, her train journey across the country when she and grampa first arrived in the boat from England.

She would chuckle when she told me of the pioneer stoves they used to cook their food enroute, and how each time the locomotive stopped to fill the water in its tank, everybody would make a mad dash from the railway coaches to find wood and occasional supplies from the little stations along the way. Her eyes would twinkle as she relived the flavours of whatever food they’d had, and she would laugh at the difficulty of cooking on the ever-moving stoves. She had no trouble remembering how everybody helped each other -she even remembered some of their names after more than eighty years.

So whenever she seemed confused at my visits or flustered by my questions about her health, I would smile and settle in a chair beside her and ask her what she remembered about ‘the old days’ as she decided to call them. After all, I think she lived there most of the time -it seemed a place where she was happy. At any rate, it seemed to calm her, and allow her to speak to me as if she were still in the summer garden she’d loved to show me on my visits years ago to the house she and her husband had built near Vancouver. There seemed to be no disorder in the garden, no anxious  search for a constantly fading identity, nothing forgotten there -just flowers all around us, and birds singing in the bower of trees she’d planted so long ago.

She loved to speak from there, and even then -especially then- I was happy to sit there with her in her past. I lived happily in the two worlds, and she enjoyed meeting me there; like lovers we would float from dream to dream, escaping from the bewildering clatter of a crowded hospital ward. Who would not prefer her floral ‘then’ to her sterile ‘here-and-now’?

The staff told me of the problems with her confusion, and how she would sometimes wander off looking, as she told one of them, ‘for the garden’. And all the while around us, there were often moans and shouts, and irritable reactions to attempts to tame the ward. Sanity lay somewhere in the past -their patients’ past- but the department seemed hastily conceived as a holding area until beds became available in community nursing homes. Hospital was perhaps the wrong place for most of the elders -they were not sick except, perhaps, for home… or for something that reminded them of home, at any rate.

I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised to come across an essay on retrieving the autobiographical memory of demented seniors in Aeon: https://aeon.co/ideas/the-self-in-dementia-is-not-lost-and-can-be-reached-with-care

It was written by Muireann Irish, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Sydney. ‘Our autobiographical memory… seems crucial to weaving a life story that bridges past and present, and permits us to extrapolate how the future might unfold, all within a meaningful and coherent narrative. So what happens when the tapestry of memory begins to fray, and we lose access to defining memories from the past?’

There are many types of neurodegenerative loss -Alzheimer’s among them, of course- and it is progressive. ‘Gradually, as the disease spreads, more distant memories are affected, leading to patchy recall of self-defining events, such as one’s wedding day or the birth of one’s children.’ And without our memories, who are we…? ‘There remains a recalcitrant perception that in parallel with the progressive pathological onslaught in the brain is the inevitable demise of personhood, akin to a ‘living death’.’

But, viewing dementia like that is not only depressing, but incomplete, according to the author. ‘While the illness is devastating, not all memories are obliterated by Alzheimer’s, and much of the person’s general knowledge and recollection of the distant past is retained. There remains a vast repository of life experiences, personal history, stories and fables that endures, even late into the illness. At moderate to severe stages of dementia, activities such as art, dance and music therapy provide important nonverbal means of communicating and fostering social interaction even when, on the surface, many core capabilities might seem to be lost… As the disease progresses and their self-concept becomes more rooted in their past, people with dementia can feel increasingly divorced from their current surroundings, which no longer make sense or feel familiar. This is the catalyst for behaviours that are commonly couched as ‘challenging’, such as agitation, wandering, attempts to leave a care facility to ‘go home’.’

Irish suggests that instead of confronting the dementia with an enforced ‘now’, ‘a positive approach could be to create a ‘memory box’ in anticipation of the days to come. This could form a repository of photographs, keepsakes, newspaper clippings, objects with personal meaning, even fabrics and smells, that resonate with the person and provide an external memory store. Conversations regarding music and songs from the person’s formative years, and the memories that these tunes evoke, could inspire personalised playlists that foster social interaction and the springboard for reminiscence. For care staff, a memory store of this nature would be as important as taking a detailed medical history.’

As for my grandmother, I was happy to sit with her in her garden while she happily regaled me with stories of her past. And I’d like to think that after she received that letter from her queen, she retreated to the garden to read it again and again as her life washed over her like a cooling summer breeze, and the flowers whispered sweet nothings in her ear.

More sinned against than sinning

I’ve already written about the problem of creepiness and fear in another essay,  citing the 2016 study from Knox College in Illinois by the psychologists Francis McAndrew and Sara Koehnke (Can We Forget the Taste of Fear?) but there is another form of creepy that is less -what?- entertaining: when we judge people (usually men) as creepy. What I’m interested in is how that might make us (well, usually women) react. In other words, is it a useful judgement, or merely an impression garnered from the creepy person’s appearance, or social status? Does it help the judger survive, and prosper, or merely prejudice the object of their concerns –‘More sinned against than sinning’ as Shakespeare’s King Lear moans having been thrown out by his own daughters.

First reactions can be mistaken and even harmful, especially if they are misplaced. Not everybody conforms to our expectations of comportment; there are many we may encounter who, through no fault of their own, are dirty, or poorly dressed -people who are beset by mental challenges, or are themselves bereft of social skills.

I came across a helpful essay in Aeon by Heidi Matthews, an assistant professor of law at Osgoode Hall in York University, Toronto. https://aeon.co/ideas/what-is-to-be-done-about-the-problem-of-creepy-men

‘Disgust assists us in policing the line between inside and outside our bodies, but also to create and maintain interpersonal and social borders. Physical reactions – such as the shudder response, nausea, and exclamations of ‘ew’, ‘icky’ and ‘gross’ – can be important ways of producing and transmitting commitments to social norms. Signalling disgust helps society maintain the integrity of taboos around sexuality, including paedophilia and incest.’

‘Creepiness is different from disgust in that it refers to a feeling of unease in the face of social liminality… We become uncomfortable when events don’t easily fit our expectations or transgress social rules… Feeling ‘creeped out’ justifies our decision to shut down, rather than undertake the task of analysing ambiguously threatening situations. It is a form of cognitive paralysis indicating that we are unsure how to proceed… Judgments of creepiness, however, are not necessarily reliable. Conventional wisdom tells us to ‘trust our gut’, but researchers say that our gut is concerned more with regulating the boundaries of social mores than keeping us safe.’

‘In a 2017 Canadian study, female undergraduates were shown images of Caucasian male faces from three groups: emotionally neutral faces taken from an image bank; images judged ‘creepy’ in a pilot study; and images of criminals from America’s Most Wanted. They were then asked to rate the faces according to creepiness, trustworthiness and attractiveness… Participants made their creepiness assessments in seconds, and reported high degrees of confidence in their judgments.’ Unfortunately they were often wildly mistaken in their judgments.

Judging someone as ‘creepy’ often is caused by social difference –‘otherness’. I mean, how could anybody reliably assess the risk posed, with only a glance at a face? Just ‘a feeling’ unsubstantiated by any other evidence? As Matthews suggests, ‘When we judge a situation or person creepy, we participate in shunning and social ostracism.’

She goes on to elaborate some of the unfortunate consequences of this faulty assessment, and then writes that ‘what most people intuit to be creepy aligns closely with the attributes of individuals and populations already on or beyond the boundaries of social acceptance. The mentally ill and disabled, the physically deformed, those with ticks or other abnormal movements or facial features, the impoverished and the homeless are all more likely to be judged creepy… [and] the homeless and mentally ill are far more vulnerable to acts of violence than they are threatening to the rest of us. In short, ‘we’ are far more likely to hurt the ‘creepy’ than they us.’

We have to be on our guard, to be sure, but mostly I think, to be open to ‘responding to the odd, the new or the peculiar with curiosity, interest and generosity of spirit.’ This can be hard indeed.

I was sitting on a park bench that, despite its view of the sea, was quite isolated. The solitude had attracted me, but its silence even more. It was almost hidden in a heavily treed area in Vancouver’s Stanley Park -well away from vehicle traffic, and yet perched on a hill overlooking English Bay. Only a single, narrow path led to the bench, so its very existence seemed odd. There were no signs advertising its location, nor any indication that the trail led anywhere but to the cliff edge. I’d discovered it largely by accident. Serendipity…

At any rate, I settled down on it determined to read the book I’d stuffed in my pocket, but I think I must have dozed off in the warmth of the slowly sinking sun. When I opened my eyes again, it was because I had the distinct sense of being observed. I jerked my head off my chest and glanced nervously around at the trees that, only a few minutes ago, had guaranteed me privacy. I thought there was movement somewhere inside the dense collection of trunks and evergreen needles, but the wind was picking up, and I couldn’t be sure. There are deer in Stanley Park, I told myself –and yet I still couldn’t shake the feeling of being watched. The sun was close to setting and shadows were starting their slow stretch for the evening.

It’s hard to read when every sound, arouses suspicion, but I did manage a few pages until the sensation overwhelmed me and I turned around to examine the trees again. I nearly missed him -the shadow standing as still as the tree it was leaning against.

He was a tall, powerfully-built man, dressed in a dirty pair of brown, ill-fitting pants, scuffed dark boots with no laces, and a ragged black suit-jacket; he didn’t move when our eyes met. He only frowned -or scowled, it was hard to tell. His hair was messy, but it seemed he had made an effort to tame it with his hand, because it didn’t fly up in the wind.

Uncertain how to react, I smiled, but the gesture may have been misinterpreted because I could see his eyes narrow, and his hands tense where he was grasping the tree. For a while, it seemed a standoff for both of us. He was near enough to the trail that he could easily block my way if I decided to run.

My heart began to pound as I considered my options -I didn’t really have many… any, actually. So I did the only thing I could think of – I said hello.

It seemed to surprise him, because his expression softened and he made a tentative move away from the tree.

I’d heard of a community of men living somewhere in the middle of the park, so I asked him if he lived around here.

He nodded and took a step towards me, his eyes locked on mine, and I could see wariness in them -or was it fear?

He stopped a few feet from the bench and shrugged.

I could see his lips beginning to move, as if they were looking for the right words. “I…” He hesitated and then, as softly as the breeze rustling through the trees, he continued. “That’s where I usually sleep until it gets too cold,” I think I heard.

It was my turn to speak. “I… I’m sorry, sir,” I stammered, embarrassed that he’d had to confess his situation to me. “I didn’t realize…” I continued, awkwardly.

Suddenly he smiled. “You couldn’t know, mister,” he said, slowly, but still softly -as if he was unused to conversations.

He stepped aside as I stood up and headed for the trail. But then I stopped and turned around to face him. I reached in my pocket and found the twenty dollar bill I always carry for emergencies. “Here,” I said, handing him the bill and smiling at him. “In case you need to buy a blanket, or something…” I felt uneasy with my words, but I didn’t know what else to say.

But he accepted my unexpected gift with dignity, and when he touched the back of my hand in thanks, my discomfort vanished. Sometimes, we all need to reach out to one another…

Come, you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here.

‘Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?’ was what Henry II of England reputedly said of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket back in the 12th century. It could be said with equal conviction in the 21st, but this time referring to a different problem, an unusual priest: gender.

Okay, perhaps I’m stretching the analogy a little too far, and yet the concept of gender has been an increasingly uncomfortable thorn in modern societies for a while now -both in its attribution, and in its consequences. Suffice it to say, it has also fostered a common essayistic theme for me over the years.

Sometimes, it’s easier to spot those anomalous things that assume innate differences more dependent on size than sex -pants spring to mind. Maybe shirts (sorry, blouses) as well. But even color has been gendered, although the silliness of the assumption is fortunately being recognized as more of a sales  pitch nowadays.

Some things slip by unnoticed, though -things that are clearly gender-assigned- but since they seem always to have been the way they are, remain unremarked. We habituate to differences if we see them often enough -they normalize through constant repetition, and become invisible. Until they don’t, that is… In fact, I suspect that’s what fashion is all about: it’s the novelty of change that makes us notice. It’s also what makes us buy new things -what makes us think we need them, especially if they seem to fulfil a niche role. A gendered role. Still, it makes me think of that wonderful story by Hans Christian Andersen: the Emperor’s New Clothes.

An essay in the Conversation, by Samantha Brennan, Professor and Dean of the College of Arts at the University of Guelph, helped me to see what only the child in the story could admit: https://theconversation.com/lady-backpacks-and-manly-beeSamanthar-the-folly-of-gendered-products-125373

‘As women started counting steps and walking to work wearing running shoes and fitness trackers, there was one work-related item that had to change: the briefcase. It’s not suited to walking fast and gets in the way of drinking coffee en route to the office. Enter the working women’s backpack. It’s a trend… The sale of women’s backpacks is up by more than 20 per cent in the past year, but the sale of men’s backpacks has flat-lined… The Atlantic headlined their story  “The Rise of the Lady Backpack.” Of course they did, because women can’t just use backpacks. We have to use “lady backpacks.”’

Good for Brennan! I also felt the need to rail against the princessy-stuff in an essay a few years ago:                                                                                                  ( https://musingsonwomenshealth.com/2013/12/06/nature-versus-princess-nurture/ ) but clearly there was more. As Brennan says, ‘There are lists of needlessly gendered products ranging from girly pink pens to manly blue Q-tips. Such products reinforce the idea that gender is significant in areas where it’s not, they reinforce the gender binary, and they leave out people who don’t fit in either the male or the female category.’ Oh, and forget about the size-thing, too: women have different requirements than men- they’re often smaller than men for a start. ‘Wouldn’t it be easier if backpacks came in sizes to match differently sized people?’

And then there is the issue of bicycles. I had similar experiences to Brennan when I was a child that I took for granted. As she explains, ‘When I was a kid the difference between a boy’s bike and a girl’s bike was the top tube. The one on a girl’s bike slanted down to allow modest access to the bike and ease of riding in skirts.’ I suppose it made sense -all the girls wore skirts or dresses to school then. Mind you, they never seemed  to ride their bikes to school like the boys did -but maybe that was just Winnipeg in the 1950ies. Hip dysplasia hadn’t been invented yet -well, at least not for 12 year olds- so there was obviously no need to market that kind of bike to men.

Age, and Time change things, however: neither our perspectives nor the Zeitgeist are immutable. Men are no longer the default -or shouldn’t be, at any rate. And, with the probable exception  of sundry health and sanitary items, as Brennan writes, ‘a women-specific anything is likely just a bad idea. Humans come in lots of different shapes and sizes. A second, better approach includes a range of shapes and sizes and lets individuals choose.’ Amen.

*

I seldom stand in lines in stores -at least not when there are self-checkout machines available. I suppose I like to pretend I’m on the progressive side of digitality despite the years that have managed to plaque themselves onto my neurons. Sometimes, however, a message gets through to a clear channel, and allows me to bypass habit and embrace the lineup as the quicker route to the door.

I had made a quick and needful trip to one of those all-purpose stores that purport to serve any and all needs that their seductive signs might engender, when I found myself in line behind a father and his young son. I’m not very astute at guessing ages, but he couldn’t have been much more than five or six years of age. He was old enough to have very firm ideas about what he wanted, though. And what he wanted, it seemed, was a pink tee shirt which, when he held it up to show his father- had a series of bright, sparkling blue hearts on it.

“Are you sure you like those colours, Jeffey?” the father whispered to him, embarrassed for some reason.

Jeffey nodded proudly. “You said I could choose, daddy.”

An uneasy smile appeared on his father’s lips. “But, don’t you think pink is a bit….?” He didn’t finish the sentence, but he was clearly uncomfortable with the choice.

Jeffey looked up at his dad, with a genuine smile. “I like the hearts, though, don’t you? They’re blue…” he added, sensing the ambivalence in his father’s face.

His father nodded in obvious agreement, but chanced a sheepish glance at me, so close behind them in the line. “But the hearts have sparkles on them…”

Jeffey’s smile grew even more bigger, and he nodded his head excitedly. “That’s why it’s such a good shirt!”

“You like the pink?”

Jeffey nodded again. “It makes the hearts even brighter, daddy,” he added loudly, as if he was boasting.

His father looked distinctly uncomfortable at the choice, and risked a longer look at me. “What do you think your friends will say?”

Jeffey looked up at his father with all the innocence of youth. “They’ll love it!”

The line seemed to be moving slowly forward -too slowly, I thought, and when I noticed a just-vacated self-checkout machine, I headed over to it. But, as I proceeded to scan my purchase, I glanced quickly at the father, and our eyes met briefly. It was difficult to tell at a distance, but I could swear he was blushing.

We all move through the world at our own speed, though; we can’t all embrace the same Weltanschauung, I suppose.