Triggered By Some-Thing


zp_audre-lorde-in-berlin_1984_photograph-c2a9-dagmar-schultzMost of the women were young, Black, together women who had come to college now because they’d not been able to get in before…A lot of them were older. They were very streetwise, but they had done very little work with themselves as Black women. They had done it only in relation to, against, whitey. The enemy was always outside. -Audre Lorde explaining a class she taught at John Jay College to Adrienne, Sister Outsider pg. 97-98

A lot of the movements and people I work with every day remind me of these students that Audre Lorde spoke so eloquently about, for they too have done little work with themselves and for them too the enemy has always been outside. Some are young Black women like those students; some are young trans women seeking some modicum of power on the internet; and some are young white men who were promised the world. They are all very different, but they all have one commonality: harm. Maybe greater or lesser, unexpected or brought-on, cyclical or spontaneous, but nevertheless the thread that runs through them remains: harm. 

The phrase trigger warning has become slang for liberal identity politics taken to its extreme. It is framed as the “triggered” extrapolating a relatively harmless turn of phrase into a history of oppression against their people. The disdain for it has been expressed by both the Left and the Right, and the original meaning (a technique developed by a therapist to guide people through their trauma without triggering a dissociative episode) has been lost. There is plenty of blame to go around, and this will not be one of the pieces that doles it out. But in the interest of transparency, and as someone who does suffer from dissociative episodes because of trauma, I will simply say that I have nothing but disdain for the way liberalism has deconstructed the phrase.

However I am also terrified of the implications of a Left that has come to associate our internal harm, and measures to address this harm, merely as liberal identity politics. It has led many to justify harassment, and even death threats, against those they disagree with, especially on the internet. In every example I have seen of this, it was the person making the threat who was hurt. In this framing, it becomes clear that the threat is an unsuccessful way to try to project their fear and hurt onto another, to make the enemy inside the enemy outside. It doesn’t work, and instead simply produces more harm. We do the job of capitalism, patriarchy, and white supremacy for them. Social media has made this even worse by making the projection abstract. Words in a tweet or post are easily made into the enemy outside, regardless of the avatar they reside by. In the quote above, Audre Lorde used the term “whitey” for a reason – it was the abstracted enemy outside, not a white person, but white supremacy personified.

It is important for us to recognize and have empathy with people’s internal harm because capitalism and the state are constructed by the laws to invalidate those harms whose recognition would undermine their system. A good example of this is the Thing Rule, which derives from the case Thing v. La Chusa. In this case, the Defendant ran over the Plaintiff’s child with his car. While Plaintiff did not see the accident happen, she was quickly informed by her daughter and rushed over to the scene where she found her son bloody and unconscious, seemingly dead (fortunately he was not). She sued the Defendant for emotional disturbance, shock, and damage to her nervous system.

Previously I have written about how important duty is as an element of tort law. But of course the encompassing principle, the very reason for tort law is harm. It is ironic then that harm is generally a very simple and straightforward legal analysis, that the plaintiff must have suffered a legally cognizable harm. And while it was not always the case, emotional disturbance is now recognized in every state in some form as a legally cognizable harm. So this case seems not to be jeopardized. The problem though is that most emotional disturbance claims are “parasitic”: their validity depends on some underlying physical injury they suffered (which I assume is why Ms. Thing’s lawyer included the damage to her nervous system).

An exception where a third person not physically harmed can recover for emotional disturbance was carved out by the case Dillon v. Legg. That precedent was then expanded upon to include those not at the scene when the accident occurred but were related to the person who was injured. In the words of the Dillon court “no one can seriously question that fear or grief for one’s child is as likely to cause physical injury as concern over one’s own well-being.”

However, the Court in Thing did and ruled against the Plaintiff. The ruling was largely political: the courts had been expanding the precedent for about two decades, and was too close to being somewhat comprehensive. As it is wont to do, the legal hegemony penned many critiques of Dillon and the subsequent precedent. The Court in Thing felt it had to draw a line in the sand, and so it drew the line at “[they must be] present at the scene of the injury-producing event at the time it occurs.” [emphasis added] While the Court takes time to feign sympathy for the Plaintiff and other family members who go through an experience like hers, this sympathy is upended by the callous dismissal of the damages in the analysis:

Emotional distress is an intangible condition experienced by most persons, even absent negligence, at some time during their lives. Close relatives suffer serious, even debilitating, emotional reactions to the injury, death, serious illness, and evident suffering of loved ones. These reactions occur regardless of the cause of the loved one’s illness, injury, or death. That relatives will have severe emotional distress is an unavoidable aspect of the “human condition.”

You may have a lot of mixed feelings about tort law, and I certainly do as well. But the purported purpose of tort law is to make those wrongfully damaged whole as best as possible. The Court in Thing looked at a mother who had to see her son bloody and unconscious under a car that had hit him because of the negligence of the driver and said that she did not deserve to be made whole, that her harm was not valid, because of the arbitrary distinction that she arrived minutes after the accident rather than witnessing it first hand. They said that her experience, her internal harm, was “an unavoidable aspect of the ‘human condition.'”

If the current bourgeois state and the capitalist economy it serves cannot be trusted to recognize our internal harm, then we must do so ourselves especially when the harm is not from “the enemy outside” but from our comrades and friends. Audre Lorde provides one of the best examples of this in her letter to a radical feminist, Mary Daly, who hurt her:

Mary, I ask that you re-member what is dark and ancient and divine within yourself that aids your speaking. As outsiders, we need each other for support and connection and all the other necessities of living on the borders. But in order to come together we must recognize each other. Yet I feel that since you have so completely un-recognized me, perhaps I have been in error concerning you and no longer recognize you…This letter attempts to break a silence which I had imposed upon myself shortly before that date. I had decided never again to speak to white women about racism. I felt it was wasted energy because of destructive guilt and defensiveness, and because whatever I had to say might better be said by white women to one another at far less emotional cost to the speaker, and probably with a better hearing. But I would like not to destroy you in my consciousness, not to have to. So as a sister Hag, I ask you to speak to my perceptions. Whether or not you do, Mary, again I thank you for what I have learned from you. This letter is in repayment. –Sister Outsider pg. 69-71

The radical vulnerability that Audre Lorde showed, by admitting her fear and the defense mechanism she had used of simply not talking to white women about racism, is a profound alternative to projecting one’s harm onto another. Mary Daly dismissed experiences of Black women, and she responded by showing her intimately what that experience was, letting her know that Lorde’s hurt came from a place of comradeship as lesbian feminists and love.

Contrary to popular belief and to Lorde’s own assertions, Mary Daly did respond to her with her own letter. It was short, and only addressed Lorde’s critique with these passages:

You have made your point very strongly and you most definitely do have a point.  I could speculate on how Gyn/Ecology would have been affected had we corresponded about this before the manuscript went to press, but it doesn’t seem creativity-conducing to look backward.  There is only now and the hope of breaking the barriers between us – of constantly expanding the vision.

It could be endlessly speculated as to why Lorde went ahead and published her own letter and said that she had not received a reply. It could be justified, apologized for, criticized, or even condemned. But all of these potential rationales of Lorde come from the same place: she believed the harm had not been remedied or resolved. When Daly did not share herself as Lorde so deeply shared herself, for whatever reason Lorde decided that the attempt must be seen. I do not look at it as a failure regardless of how Daly responded – for that does not change that Lorde put out love, rather than hate, into her community in response to harm. That is a practice we could all benefit from.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s