“My dearest friend’s father went to a residential school for native Indian children. He tells us that he loved it. Why are people not allowed to talk about their positive experiences at these schools?” – Krissy
Oh, Krissy. This question’s a doozie. Not because it’s such a lightening rod that we can’t go there — we’re going there now! — but because it has “trauma” written all over it.
Given the tsunami of testimony about the Catholic Church’s residential schools, you and I can agree that these schools deeply scarred countless Indigenous students who survived them. This doesn’t mean an exception to that rule can’t be discussed. It only means that any positive experience needs to be voiced in a way that takes the trauma of others into account. Because if you don’t, then speaking about the positive experience will be dismissed as trivializing. Worse, it will be misunderstood as excusing genocide.
So what do you do instead? First, here’s what not to do.
Don’t bother issuing a “trigger warning.” Merriam-Webster defines a trigger warning as “a statement cautioning that content” — say, the story of an Indigenous man’s happy years at a residential school — “may be disturbing or upsetting.” Nothing wrong with warning people, right? Right.
Except that trigger warnings are too often seized upon as an“out” from having important conversations. If students worry about feeling triggered, it’s easy for them to demand that a discussion shut down before it even begins.
What’s more, trigger warnings fail those whom they’re meant to help: people whose past includes profoundly painful episodes. A burgeoning body of research shows that trigger warnings reinforce trauma by framing information as harmful and therefore something to fear. Far from alleviating emotional distress, such warnings cement trauma as being integral to one’s identity.
Carleton University professors Amna Khalid and Jeffrey Snyder have posted a smart, short animation that explains why trigger warnings backfire. Watch it here.
Which brings me to my promised answer for what we can — and should — do if we want to exercise our right to speak without becoming confrontational. The key is to remember this principle: Freedom of speech, at its smartest, is exercised with more than just yourself in mind.
An unwise defender of free speech asks himself, “Why shouldn’t I say X if it happens to be true?” By contrast, a savvy defender of free speech asks himself, “How can tell this particular truth in a way that motivates other people to become curious about it?”
If you can get others interested rather than incensed, you’ve created opportunities to have a dialogue about the issue — which translates into more freedom of speech for each of you.
Let’s use the example that you’ve written to me about: the positive experience that your friend’s father had at the residential school that he attended. In light of the collective trauma inflicted by these schools, you don’t want to be blurting out a statement like, “Well, some Indigenous people loved these schools.” That’s too blunt. It doesn’t permit time for the listener to adjust emotionally to your new and, let’s be honest, shocking information.
Rather, you could ease your listener into the reality that you’re about to say something radically different than they expected. What does easing sound like? You could say, “May I ask if you’re open to hearing another perspective that comes from an Indigenous survivor himself?”
To be clear, Krissy, you’re not requesting permission to talk. You’re just preparing the listener and, in so doing, bringing down the listener’s natural defenses. You’re making it easier for them to open their minds.
Antiracism activists often assume that when society doesn’t listen to them, it’s because society is racist. These activists neglect the fact that how they communicate their message ensures they won’t be heard. If you’re demeaning or insulting, you can’t expect people to stick around and learn from you.
Similarly, you’re courting demonization if you barf out, “What about my friend’s dad? He was treated great!” Of course you’re going to get pushback. But that’s not necessarily because the other person hates free speech. It’s more likely because you’ve sprung a counter-factual on them.
Again, your mistake isn’t that you have a counter-factual. It’s that you’re abruptly hurling it and turning what could be an eye-opening dinner party into a mind-closing war. Don’t drop a bomb; set the table.
Being trauma-informed means never having to be trigger-bullied — silenced by those who choose to deny life’s radiant shades of grey.