Tuesday, November 06, 2018

Elections should not be traumatic

In June 2007, we were having a typical day at Sather Air Base, adjacent to Baghdad International Airport. I was a computer support technician in charge of tracking the distribution of computer equipment across the base – a bean counter, really. In the late afternoon, a volley of rockets hit our base. This wasn’t the first rocket attack on our base, and it wouldn’t be the last. However, this one stuck out because of two words which came over the radio: “Man down.”

In previous attacks, the enemy would fire a few rockets at the base, kick up some dust, make a lot of noise, but they had never actually hit anyone or anything before. On this day, two airmen who were out having a cigarette were in the path of one of the rockets. They took a lot of shrapnel from the blast (these were tank-busting rockets, albeit WWII-era technology). Thankfully, we had some world-class trauma surgeons on site who were able to save their lives and get them stabilized enough to transport them to a better medical facility.

After we were given the “all clear,” a group of us went to visit the site of the explosion. Soaked into the sand was a pool of blood about ten feet long by five feet wide, at least best as I can remember. I tried to go and eat after that, but I couldn’t, so I just went to bed.

I’m typically hesitant to share that story. For one, it isn’t a particularly pleasant memory. For another, I was a support troop. Many troops had much more horrifying experiences outside the wire: fire fights, road side bombs, clearing houses, the works. I don’t like to seem like I’m comparing my experience to theirs. A lot of guys didn’t make it back, and those guys had friends and colleagues who watched them die.

The reason I chose to share this story is because of an article I saw on Slate, written by Christina Cauterucci, about the “trauma” of the 2016 presidential election and some of the people who had their favorite restaurants ruined for them because they associate it with Trump’s victory. A sample:

I’m not alone in this. While Trump fans might cherish the MAGA hats they wore to 2016’s election watch parties, a friend of mine went so far as to throw out the outfit she was wearing the night Trump was elected. My colleague Josh Keating had recently moved to a new neighborhood as of Election Day 2016, and he and his wife were eating takeout from a new-to-them Indian restaurant while they watched the results come in. “We have never eaten there again,” he said. “Can’t separate that night from the taste of mediocre saag paneer.” Brendan Leonard, a 34-year-old university employee in New York City, used to love making a particular pulled pork recipe in his crockpot. He was eating it over nachos when Trump won the election. “I haven’t made it since and refuse to—at least until the results on Tuesday,” he said. “I want to say that if the Dems take the House, I’ll be able to make pulled pork again, but I’m still very anxious about the whole thing. Maybe if the Dems take the House and Steve King loses, then I can return to making that dish. Or maybe I’ll wait two more years.”

One might read this and think of it as a satire of extremely privileged New York City liberals, akin to the famous Saturday Night Live sketch with Dave Chapelle hanging out with his bougie white liberal friends reacting with horror to the election returns. Alas, this is very real, and it’s an example of something that has bothered me for a few years, now: a tendency for left-leaning journalists and activists to appropriate the language of trauma in self-serving ways to describe their feelings about politics.

In 2017, Teaching and Teacher Education published a study about the trauma students experienced in the wake of the 2016 presidential election. One teacher said, “I held students as they sobbed in my arms. Many of my Hispanic students shared that they were petrified and shook in terror. I comforted more students that day than on September 11th.” Respectfully, if students are processing a presidential election as a traumatic event, teachers would do well to ask what role they had in making it traumatic. For an educator, a presidential election is supposed to be a teaching opportunity, not a national tragedy. Instead, the study proceeds to treat the election of Donald Trump as a traumatic event on par with 9/11, the Kennedy assassination, and Pearl Harbor. Again, this was a presidential election. They happen every four years as a matter of course. If children are processing this as a traumatic event, that’s the fault of the adults in their lives. Adults are supposed to reassure children, not stoke their fears.

The concept of “triggering” directly relates to events which arouse memories associated with a traumatic event. Thanks to the misapplication of it to describe something which makes people uncomfortable because it goes against their worldview, however, people with PTSD can’t talk about things that trigger them (in my case, loud noises and screaming children). The term that they’re reaching for is, of course, “cognitive dissonance.” It’s a normal and uncomfortable feeling people experience when processing new ideas which challenge their previously held beliefs. However, by blanketing their cognitive dissonance in the language of trauma, they not only shield themselves from having to process new ideas, they imply that their discomfort is the fault of people presenting new ideas.

In the case of Cauterucci and her colleagues, it’s a perfect example of privileged liberals who’ve nestled themselves in a cocoon of affirmation. Their only exposure to contrary ideas is the caricatured version they invent in their imaginations. They never experience a persuasive argument against their own beliefs, much less actual physical danger. Thus, when reality comes crashing in for a moment and they realize that there are millions of Americans who do not live or think as they do, the cognitive dissonance is so strong that they process it as a traumatic event.

Unfortunately, I have to live in a world with screaming children, so I have to learn to process these triggers without them ruining my ability to function. So too do Cauterucci and her colleagues have to live in a nation with millions of people who disagree with them on politics. I would suggest that if their desire is to persuade people over to their side, it might be useful for them to expose themselves a bit more to how the other side lives. That’s what good journalists do.

However, I would ask in closing that they stop describing their disappointment in the 2016 election results as trauma. Nowhere in the article was there any hint of how the Trump presidency has impacted their lives the past two years. That’s likely because it hasn’t. They follow politics with the passion of a sports fan, but just like a sports fan, their day to day lives don’t change if their team loses: they just get in a bad mood.

In short, I’d like left-leaning journalists who talk about an election as a traumatic event in their lives to please check their privilege on this. Your “trauma” was caused by extreme cognitive dissonance, not any actual physical danger to your person.

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