Trauma-Informed Discourse in the Age of Incivility: Not Silencing Speech, But Enhancing It

Steph Black headshot
By Steph Black, AU CAS

Everybody has a reaction to trigger warnings. And I get it. The concept has been so wildly blown out of proportion that it is seemingly impossible to find someone who doesn’t have an opinion on the use of them. Right-wing pundits thoroughly lambast them and left-wing activists preach them.

But when we take a step back and look at what trigger warnings are, we might be surprised by what we find. Let’s start from the beginning.

Trigger warnings didn’t stem from social media. They didn’t originate from liberals who didn’t want to see certain things online and they didn’t come from college students who didn’t want to be intellectually challenged.

The concept of trigger warning originated with psychologists who studied Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Those who suffer from PTSD (including survivors of sexual violence, people who experience accidents or freak weather, and combat veterans) can exhibit many symptoms, particularly intrusive memories and reliving the original traumatic events via flashback, recurrent thoughts, and nightmares. These can all be ‘triggered’ or brought on by internal and external stimuli.

Internal stimuli that can cause intrusive thoughts include anger, anxiety, certain memories, feelings of abandonment or frustration, racing heartbeats, pain, and even muscle tension. External stimuli that can cause intrusive thoughts include arguments, seeing news articles related to the traumatic event, witnessing similar traumatic events, certain smells, anniversaries of the incident, places, holidays, or seeing other people who also witnessed the traumatic event.

Constantly reliving these memories is extremely harmful as it creates a response called fear conditioning. Fear conditioning occurs when “these thoughts and images bring traumatic events vividly back to life, accompanied by the intense fear that the events originally evoked. Experiences that recall those early events trigger re-experiencing symptoms through a process that is rapid, unconscious, involuntary and automatic.”

Early usages of trigger warnings stemmed from this understanding and were used to alert traumatized people (people who had experienced trauma such as rape, physical assault, or war) that information that was about to be presented included something that might trigger the memories of their trauma.

Having seen the trigger warning, the traumatized person could use coping strategies they had learned during therapy (grounding, breathing exercises, or other relaxation methods) and avoid experiencing a flashback or other unwanted side effect of PTSD.

Those who are ‘trauma-informed’ have applied this principle to other areas. It’s not uncommon to hear the phrase ‘trauma-informed care’ or ‘trauma-informed advocacy.’

More specifically, a trauma-informed approach:

  • Realizes the widespread impact of trauma and understands potential paths for recovery;
  • Recognizes the signs and symptoms of trauma in clients, families, staff, and others involved with the system;
  • Responds by fully integrating knowledge about trauma into policies, procedures, and practices; and
  • Seeks to actively resist re-traumatization.

And while the connection might not be immediately obvious, the tenets of trauma-informed approached closely mirror the tenets of civil discourse. American University’s cutting-edge Project on Civil Discourse has outlined civil discourse as:

  • Truthful
  • Productive
  • Audience-based
  • About listening and talking
  • Each Speaker’s own responsibility

It is through these guidelines that discourse can be the most productive it can possibly be. When we consciously make the decision to hold conversations according to these tenets, our conversation can become less polarized, less hateful, and more productive.

When both civil discourse and trauma-informed practice come together, the implications of who can be engaged in conversation expands exponentially. Take, for example, the experiences of Amanda Nannarone, a law student at AU who worked for the Project on Civil Discourse. Nannarone, a trauma survivor, said she was caught off guard by a class discussion about a survivor of domestic violence.

“I got very upset during class, and I wasn’t expecting it,” she said in an interview. “Usually, if I can prepare for it, I know what I’m going into where I can make sure I have my stuff with me. For that class, I didn’t have it because I wasn’t expecting it.”

If Nannarone had known that this was going to be a part of the class discussion, perhaps she would have been better equipped to engage with the subject matter. There are countless others who have had similar experiences who would also benefit from classroom discussions, and discussions in general, that are framed with a trauma-informed, civil discourse lens.

Trauma-informed civil discourse is not about ideology. It is not about censoring or enforcing a singular kind of speech or debate. It is about believing that we, people of all backgrounds and experiences, are able to engage deeply with challenging subject matter on an even playing field. Employing the tenets of both trauma-informed practice and civil discourse is our best way forward to achieve that.

Steph is a Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies major at American University. Steph can be found reading next to her cat Goose, writing about feminism and Judaism, or protesting around the city for basic human rights. 

Weekly News Digest, No. 12

Crowd standing in a public square

Welcome to the twelfth installment of the Project on Civil Discourse’s Weekly News Digest, hosted on our Real Talk blog.

On Monday, Marissa Klass reflected on “The Purpose of a Liberal Education,” a recent event hosted by the School of Public Affairs’ Political Theory Institute. Marissa writes: “Challenging conversations generate thoughtful ideas and theories which have the ability to make you reevaluate your most basic values.”

The Project on Civil Discourse was recently featured in The Eagle, American University’s student newspaper. Isabella Goodman interviews Director Lara Schwartz and myself about the impetus behind the Project and the different components we offer.

Free Speech and Discourse in High School

Last week, the Knight Foundation reported findings from a national survey of high school students and their views on free speech. The Knight Foundation found that students express strong support for the First Amendment but support some limits on offensive speech. Students trust the news less, believe social media has a negative effect on free expression, and believe the internet is fueling hate speech, but do not think ‘fake news’ is a threat to democracy. Download the full report here.

In Overland High School in Aurora, CO and in high schools across the country, educators are introducing civil-discourse skills in the classroom and engaging students in challenging discussions. Students are taught to actively listen to their classmates, make evidence-based arguments, and respect others.

Speech on the Internet

On Tuesday, Google CEO Sundar Pichai testified before the House Judiciary Committee on a range of issues, from privacy practices to location tracking to search algorithms. Ali Breland writes for Mother Jones that Congress had an opportunity to question Google on hate speech, the spread of misinformation and their role in radicalizing users. Instead, Republicans chose to press Pichai on Google’s alleged anti-conservative bias.

The Atlantic recently hosted “Free Speech (Un)Limited,” an event covering free speech on campuses, in journalism and tech, and in our political life. Each session is about 20 minutes and can be seen on YouTube.

Speech on Campus

Dr. Cynthia Miller-Idriss and Dr. Jonathan Friedman write that colleges and universities “mistakenly position free speech against hate speech, assuming that protecting free speech means there are constraints on denouncing hate.” Deliberately neutral statements may reflect concerns for avoiding accusations of political bias, but instead make students feel unwelcome and vulnerable. They write that it is possible and essential that “campus leaders strongly condemn hateful incidents and simultaneously affirm the values of free speech and inclusion to their core research and teaching missions.”

Last Monday, UC Berkeley and several conservative campus groups reached a settlement agreement in a 2017 free-speech case. Young America’s Foundation led the lawsuit, which alleged that the university violated the First Amendment by placing prohibitive restrictions on conservative speakers. Berkeleyside reports that both parties consider the settlement a victory

Thanks for reading!

A Reflection on “The Purpose of a Liberal Education”

Marissa Klass headshot
By Marissa Klass, AU SPA

“Are you being challenged in your fundamental beliefs?” asked Dr. Robert George, a political philosopher and American legal scholar at Princeton University. Robert George was accompanied on stage by his ideological rival Dr. Cornel West, a political activist and American philosopher at Harvard University. If you were to see these two intellectuals speak on the news or simply glance at their social media accounts, you would never guess that George, a conservative, and West, a progressive, share the same core values, especially when it comes to the importance of a liberal education. During a discussion moderated by Dr. Tom Merrill, an associate professor within the School of Public Affairs, the men spoke about the importance of making yourself uncomfortable in the process of learning.

Before I walked through the doors of Constitution Hall, I had little idea of who Dr. Cornel West was, my only understanding being that he holds progressive values. As for Dr. Robert George, I knew nothing about him except that he supposedly held the exact opposite political beliefs of West. I found that my lack of background on the two scholars was essential in allowing me to see the two simply as individuals with opinions rooted in philosophical and political thought. This discussion challenged my beliefs in a way they had not been tested since I arrived at American University.

Cornel West and Robert George spoke of the value of challenging your own existential beliefs in search of truth. It is something that must be endlessly sought after and requires a constant state of learning, questioning, and challenging. George made the audience chuckle by suggesting that us students pay American University a great deal of money to be made uncomfortable. In that quip the law scholar conveyed the value of listening to the opinions of your peers and reflecting on some of the best historical philosophers in order to challenge and rethink your set of beliefs. Learning is a process which encourages the seeking of truth, rather than the gathering of information to compliment an existing perspective. This acquisition of information is not something to be handed over. To gain a true liberal education is to chase after the discomfort in which you feel like your most core beliefs are being constantly challenged.

It is clear to students at American University which political party stands dominant on campus. While this political homogeneity is not uncommon across many liberal arts college campuses, I feel that our university, which sits in the nation’s capital and is ranked the “most politically active,” holds the responsibility of stimulating more uncomfortable discussions in order to really get our money’s worth, as Robert George suggests. In order to be challenged, it is essential that students break out of their comfort zones by engaging with and even befriending peers whose views are different than their own.

In my own experience, I have found this practice to be a successful one. By forming close relationships with people who I disagree with politically, I have been able to gain a better understanding of their perspectives and where they are coming from. Sometimes, I have found the ideas of my peers to be so convincing that I have adopted them as beliefs of my own. We are a campus that preaches inclusion and community, and it only seems just that these values include political affiliation.

The two intellectual voices of West and George offered a call to action: to get uncomfortable, to understand the other, and to challenge yourself until you are shaken to your very core. It is crucial to maintain a level of discomfort in order to have the motivation to continue learning. This ongoing process of learning will spark new ideas and questions. The undertaking of constant truth-seeking allows individuals like you and me to take in new ideas and perspectives in order to understand the other. Challenging conversations generate thoughtful ideas and theories which have the ability to make you reevaluate your most basic values. Cornel West and Robert George have challenged the way I learn and, through this event, have assisted me in grappling with my knowledge in a discovery for the truth.

Marissa Klass is a first-year Political Science and Justice & Law double major at American University. She is a member of the School of Public Affairs Leadership Program and has a passion for civics, racial justice, and criminal justice reform.

Identity, Allyship, and Discourse: A Follow-Up Interview with Ian Madrigal, the Monopoly Man

Amanda Werner dressed as the Monopoly Man at Senate hearing
By Jason Steuerwald, AU SPA 

Editor’s Note: Since speaking at American University, the speaker changed their name to Ian Madrigal.

It seems like every day the news is covering the increasing marginalization of one group or another. One day they’re reporting on the mistreatment of migrants seeking asylum at the border, the next on the possibility of the repeal of protections for LGBTQ+ Americans, and the day after on the continued epidemic of police brutality towards black men. These are only a few examples of the many stories and groups that are being impacted by the particularly hateful climate currently shrouding American politics.

While it can often be hard to find the light in this situation, my discussion with Ian Madrigal, a creative advocate best known for their work as the Monopoly Man, reminded me that times like these can lead us to evolve as communities and individuals. In a follow-up interview after they spoke at American University, Madrigal discussed how different identities can play a role in how we interact with each other, both as activists and simply as human beings.

When I asked Madrigal about their experience with the ways that identity can interact with advocacy, they pointed out how being trans and queer has allowed them to live their life from a number of different perspectives. Because their identity and expression has developed over time – having a “stint on every letter of the LGBTQ” – they have seen things evolve through more fluid stages rather than the more common interpretation of reality set in distinct steps and categories. They went on to explain how as their transition has progressed, they have had to “straddle the dualities” of people’s perceptions. In certain spaces, they are now sometimes seen as a straight white man, which gives them a certain degree of privilege they had not had before. But other times, such as when their voice is read as being trans, that safety that comes from passability can quickly dissipate as feelings of unease set in.

As a transgender person myself, I have spent a lot of time navigating this phenomenon. For most people, privilege is generally immutable. Your race, your class, your gender, they stay relatively stable. But as trans folks, we often have the unique opportunity to experience a spectrum of gender-related privileges and discrimination alike. This resulting awareness is something pretty unique to the trans community and Madrigal is actively using this awareness to try and effect change.

Specifically, Madrigal talked about how showing up to a hearing dressed as the Monopoly Man gave them access to space in a way they wouldn’t have otherwise had. Madrigal explained that the Monopoly Man, as many of us know, is the “pinnacle of privilege.” He’s a straight white man drowning in money and real estate holdings. Because of this status, even though they were in costume, Madrigal was able to lean into these associations and the resulting confusion to participate in the conversation in a way that an uncostumed Ian would not have been able to.

I asked Madrigal about the role of race in the Kirstjen Nielsen protest they organized and how we can use our different privileges to advocate for groups while also respecting individual boundaries. Most of the protestors were white or white-passing and Madrigal discussed how they believe the event and their interaction with the Secret Service would have gone drastically differently if the group had not been majority white or white-passing. In fact, the Secret Service grabbed the one Latinx member of the group and proceeded to speak mockingly to him in Spanish.

In reflecting on an educational equity course they had taken in college, Madrigal encouraged using privilege rather than giving it up. “Good people should take and hoard privilege and distribute it,” they said. It’s not useful to “reject” privilege because you can’t really reject how another person is going to see and treat you; that just gives the privilege back to people who will use it solely for personal gain. Instead, Madrigal urges people to use their positions by staying aware and putting their necks on the line when others can’t afford to.

In the same vein, I asked Madrigal about allyship, the surrounding discourse, and how to improve each. And though the idea of their answer seems so simple, it really is the largest missing component of allyship practice today: listening and learning. In order to be effective allies, we need to “take our cues from the marginalized folks in the community. And if they’re not there, figure out why that is.” For example, Madrigal talked about the current wave of white supremacy in the United States, saying that many people are thinking “Oh wow, I didn’t know there were actually Nazis in the country. People of color did.” But it’s important to talk about white privilege with other white people too and not always rely on our marginalized friends to walk us through these discussions. On the other hand, Madrigal encourages us as consumers to be skeptical of what people in power say, not automatically believing or disbelieving anyone, but taking it back to a balance of healthy criticism.

Shifting the conversation, I asked Madrigal about the boundaries and definition of civility. Using the context of the Nielsen protest, Madrigal broke it down into two categories: moral and tactical. In terms of morality, they argued that we can go pretty far in situations like that. Because Nielsen was “putting literal babies in prison,” Madrigal said that morally, a lot could be justified. People bring up incivility when cultural norms and etiquette are broken, but these things should get thrown out the window when questions of human rights violations are involved.

Tactically, however, things become a bit more limiting. Though we may have a “radical view of what morals allow,” odds are that not everyone is on the same page as to what this means. It is important to be able to read the culture you are working within and approach the issue effectively, often aiming for harm reduction in cases of social justice and human rights. Because Nielsen and the imprisoned children were at the forefront of the news cycle, the cultural outrage matched the efforts and allowed Madrigal and their fellow protestors to convey the message appropriately. Being aware of these issues and implications allows us as advocates to navigate the complexities of activism and civility.

In speaking with Ian, what stood out to me was their call to harness our identities and privileges to be better advocates for ourselves and those who don’t have as much of a voice yet. And the only way that we can do this is by actively listening to each other using what we hear to effect change. Knowing that there are people like Madrigal who are creating change and empowering the rest of us to join in makes that constant daunting newsreel feel less like a ball and chain dragging us down and more like a match and gasoline igniting a movement.

Jason Steuerwald is a second-year Justice and Law student at American University. On campus, he is a part of the School of Public Affairs Leadership Program, a member of the executive board of PRIDE, and an overnight library assistant. Outside of school, he is involved in drum corps and got to spend this summer touring the country and competing as a member of the Oregon Crusaders.

Weekly News Digest, No. 11

Crowd standing in a public square

Welcome to the eleventh installment of the Project on Civil Discourse’s Weekly News Digest, hosted on our Real Talk blog.

On Monday, Yazan Hanouneh wrote about the value of bringing speakers to campus in his role as director of the Kennedy Political Union. Yazan writes: “Students constantly get excited about the events KPU hosts and use them as a means for civil conversation. The power of KPU events is not just what students experience at the lecture, but rather the conversations an event will ignite elsewhere on campus.”

Olivia Ivey, associate university librarian at American, was featured in an article on civil discourse by the School of Public Affairs. Ivey discusses the importance of truth in civil discourse and society, saying: “If we can’t agree on a set of facts about what those communities need, then we really are just shouting into the wind. We need pursuit of truth to be part of our civil discourse or it’s not even possible to begin a conversation.”

Upcoming Events

On Thursday, December 6th, Robert George and Cornel West will speak at American University about “The Purpose of a Liberal Education.” George, a conservative legal scholar at Princeton University, and West, a liberal philosophy professor at Harvard University, will discuss free speech, liberal arts education, and truth. The School of Public Affairs’ Political Theory Institute is hosting the lecture, which will be held at 5:30PM in Constitution Hall, East Campus. To learn more or RSVP, visit the event page.

Academic Discourse

Student Jonathan Wolfson recently wrote an opinion piece on rigorous academic discourse for The Eagle, American’s student newspaper. Wolfson specifically wrote about Dinesh D’Souza’s November lecture and the claims he made – claims that Wolfson argues aren’t backed up by facts. He writes: “Academia relies on a process of promoting correct ideas while suppressing wrong ones . . . By allowing people like D’Souza to have a platform in universities, you are allowing the spread of ideas detached from facts.”

After the event, Real Talk featured two posts in response to D’Souza’s lecture: Tom Lebert’s “Debate is Fragile. Dinesh D’Souza Took Advantage of It” and Kate Minium’s response on behalf of Young Americans for Freedom, which hosted the event.

Civil Discourse on Campus

After protests erupted over planned speeches by Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter, the University of California, Berkeley has seen a different style of engagement on campus: actual discussions across ideological lines. Jeremy Bauer-Wolf writes that controversial right-wing figures like Charlie Kirk and Candace Owens have come to campus to engage in discussion with students, rather than rile up or insult the student body. Bauer-Wolf credits this change to new student groups that promote civil dialogue, including BridgeUSA, the Berkeley Conservative Society, and new leadership in the College Republicans.

Discourse on Social Media

Earlier this fall, Twitter announced changes to its “hateful conduct” policy that included a ban on targeted misgendering or deadnaming of transgendered individuals. Parker Molloy writes in The New York Times that this ban promotes free speech, as trans people are more likely to speak if they know they won’t be told they don’t exist. Molloy argues that “the content free-for-all chills speech by allowing the dominant to control the parameters of debate, never letting discussion proceed past the pedantic obsession with names and pronouns.”

Molloy mentions an editorial by Ben Shapiro about the tendency to label President Trump “racist,” using Shapiro’s argument to support Twitter’s ban: “Just as we can’t actually address the merits of any particular policy proposed by Mr. Trump if our focus is solely on the man himself, we can’t address the merits of policies that affect trans people if debate starts from the premise that trans people are and will always be whatever happens to be stamped on our original birth certificates.”

Thanks for reading!