Trigger Warnings Part 2: It’s not coddling; it’s informed consent.

TW: Mentions of animal abuse (as a trigger, not detailed or visual)

The Coddling of the American Mind argues that trigger warnings are terrible for pretty much the usual reasons: students believe they have a “right not to be offended” and want to pass classes without actually engaging with the material, and besides, bringing up triggers in class isn’t harmful–it’s *exposure therapy.*

However, there is a deeper problem with trigger warnings. According to the most-basic tenets of psychology, the very idea of helping people with anxiety disorders avoid the things they fear is misguided. A person who is trapped in an elevator during a power outage may panic and think she is going to die. That frightening experience can change neural connections in her amygdala, leading to an elevator phobia. If you want this woman to retain her fear for life, you should help her avoid elevators.

But if you want to help her return to normalcy, you should take your cues from Ivan Pavlov and guide her through a process known as exposure therapy. You might start by asking the woman to merely look at an elevator from a distance—standing in a building lobby, perhaps—until her apprehension begins to subside. If nothing bad happens while she’s standing in the lobby—if the fear is not “reinforced”—then she will begin to learn a new association: elevators are not dangerous. (This reduction in fear during exposure is called habituation.) Then, on subsequent days, you might ask her to get closer, and on later days to push the call button, and eventually to step in and go up one floor. This is how the amygdala can get rewired again to associate a previously feared situation with safety or normalcy.

Students who call for trigger warnings may be correct that some of their peers are harboring memories of trauma that could be reactivated by course readings. But they are wrong to try to prevent such reactivations. Students with PTSD should of course get treatment, but they should not try to avoid normal life, with its many opportunities for habituation. Classroom discussions are safe places to be exposed to incidental reminders of trauma (such as the word violate).

First off, the description of exposure therapy is correct, but it doesn’t remotely match up with random exposures to triggers in a class. Since my personal triggers are graphic violence, particularly to children and animals, I’ll use that as an example.  If a course reading contains a graphic depiction of, say, someone killing a dog, being assigned that reading does not include a gradual habituation process where first you read a bland factual summary about the dog being killed, then on another day, you read something with a little more detail, and weeks or months later, you read through the whole description. You just read the whole thing if it’s assigned, or you don’t, and you’re penalized accordingly.  Or, I don’t know, maybe we could have some system of reasonable accommodations for people with disabling mental health issues, or give people a heads up about disturbing material before they encounter it?

Secondly, exposure therapy, like any other ethical medical treatment, is based on informed consent. A key component of the treatment is that the *patient* gets to decide when to stop, with no ill consequences, and that the therapist tells them what will happen before it does. If I have *chosen* to work on my triggers in this manner, and you, my mental health professional, show me images or descriptions of animal abuse, in a situation where I can freely walk away, you’re providing exposure therapy. If you, who are not my mental health provider, email me video footage from a slaughterhouse with the intention of making me “face my fears,” what you’re providing is emotional abuse.  Yes, even if you’re doing it “for my own good.” In the same way, you can’t claim that exposing a student to a trigger in class is “exposure therapy” unless you’ve informed them and gotten their consent ahead of time and ensured they have the ability to opt out without penalty.  Which is…basically what providing trigger warnings does.

Granted, there will be some triggers that you can’t adequately warn for, either because they’re highly individual and not predictable (e.g., someone with PTSD who is triggered by yellow shirts because that’s what their rapist was wearing) or because they’re too central to the subject matter.  I don’t do well with gore, so I would not expect to take a class on horror and be excused from reading that might be triggering (which could be the whole syllabus). But that doesn’t mean, necessarily, that I should also fail a class on 20th Century fiction if I couldn’t stomach reading the end of The Pearl*.

Additionally, a key thing a lot of people overlook with exposure therapy is that “nothing bad happens” is not just physical.  If that were the case, then every misguided “awareness” Facebook post I’ve seen with graphic dog abuse pictures would have desensitized me, and by this point, I’d be able to calmly watch Pitbulls and Parolees without my husband pre-screening and fast-forwarding. And yet, just today, I had to ask him to stop reading me a story from a humor site just because it had the phrase “put the cat in the microwave.” Dude, no, I do not want that mental image. For me to actually be desensitized, I have to go through real exposure therapy, in the appropriate baby steps, with a real medical professional.  Random exposure to triggers is not exposure therapy and it can make things worse.

Having a panic attack, or even hanging out on the edge of one, is a highly unpleasant experience. It is, all by itself, something bad happening.  Having a panic attack in a classroom, witnessed by 10-20 peers who you might like to make a good impression on, and who will definitely tell everyone else as soon as class ends, not to mention a professor you like and respect, has to be a deeply unpleasant experience. And instead of habituating you to the trigger, it could add another layer of bad experience onto your fear of that trigger.

Also, I find it weird that one of the common arguments against trigger warnings in college is that students should be getting real professional help if they have mental health issues, and that teachers shouldn’t be expected to provide it, and yet I frequently see exposure therapy brought up in the same argument.  Look, I agree that teachers aren’t mental health professionals (and even those teachers who are, their students are not their patients), but that means that they also should not be providing exposure therapy.

There were some good points in the article, which I plan to discuss in a future post, like the potential for pre-conditioning someone to respond negatively to a potential trigger, and the problems with a group of people who don’t have the relevant mental illness or mental health experience sitting around trying to come up with lists of potential triggers and casting way too wide a net.  But that’s all for next time.

*I did actually read it in high school. I don’t remember if it was truly triggering or just garden-variety disturbing, but it definitely cemented my deep dislike of Steinbeck as an author.

Donut Rage!

Ariana Grande, a pop singer I’ve never heard of (possibly because I’m old and uncool), is taking some flak for having licked, or possibly pretended to lick, the donuts on display at a donut shop, while proclaiming, “What the f*** is that?” in reaction to an employee walking by with a tray of donuts and “I hate Americans. I hate America.”  Sweetie, that’s a donut.  You’re in a donut shop.  If its presence mortally offends you, maybe go somewhere else? Also, don’t lick food that other people are going to eat. Ew.

She apologized for her behavior, explaining that her horrified reaction to the mere existence of donuts was because she’s “frustrated” by childhood obesity rates.  To me, this is really emblematic of a screwed-up food culture.  We’re so saturated with the “Fat is bad, food is the enemy” message that it made sense in her head to be disgusted and outraged—not that someone ate 10 donuts in a sitting or something (not that that would be her business), but that there were donuts for sale at all.  And it’s also telling that “but childhood obeeeesity!!1!” was the go-to justification for her childish behavior.  That seems to be the Get Out of Jail Free card for all kinds of nonsense. Though, with things like Departments of Education sending home weight report cards, I guess it’s probably the least harmful bad behavior that’s used “childhood obeeeeesity!!!” as an excuse lately.

The innocent donut is kind of the emblematic “bad fatty” food, from Homer Simpson to donut-eating cops stereotyped as fat and lazy.  And yet, ironically, I think way more harm is done by the false dichotomy of good foods and bad foods than by just eating the donut if you want a donut.  Making something forbidden fruit can make it more desirable, or create feelings of panic around it that lead to eating way more of it than is helpful or feels good, what Michelle Alison calls induced food insecurity.

Overall, I just wish everyone would tone down the food judgment.  Hand-wringing over the existence of sweets is not going to help anybody with anything, even if it’s sincere.  My money is actually on “BS after-the-fact justification for childish misbehavior” because if you find a food gross and offensive, licking it is probably the *last* thing you’re going to do.

40 Eye-rolls from a Christian who’s been waving that rainbow flag for years

Kevin DeYoung wrote “40 Questions for Christians Now Waving Rainbow Flags”, because he was apparently *shocked* and *horrified* when a bunch of people rainbowed their profiles in support of same-sex marriage. So, now he needs to reassert the tribal boundaries and point out how we’re not real true Christians. As far as I can tell, the whole article boils down to “I don’t think you’re a real Christian, so I don’t have to take anything you say seriously. Prove to me that you’re a real Christian who can check off the list of appropriate beliefs. Oh, by the way, no matter what you answer, I will still not think you’re a real Christian.”

It reminded me of a conversation I’d had on Facebook on the same topic. When I didn’t suddenly change my carefully thought-out beliefs because he threw some Bible verses at me, he felt the need to give me the third degree about what church I go to and how often I read the Bible. The implication was the same: you’re not a real Christian, so not only do I not have to listen to a thing you say, but it’s my religious duty to browbeat you back into the fold.

There have been responses to the 40 questions, a lot of them really good. I particularly like Matthew Vines 40 questions of his own. Getting straight to the point, there’s also 1 Question for People Who Won’t Wave the Rainbow Flag. That one question is “When are you going to listen to the answers to your questions?” The author points out that it’s arrogant to constantly expect LGBT people and allies to explain, and defend, and justify. Particularly when they’ve answered those questions again and again and had those answers brushed off and ignored every time.

I’m certainly tired of what feels like shouting at the top of my lungs about things like LGBT teens living on the street because their “good Christian” parents kicked them out, or someone sitting in a waiting room while their partner of decades breathes their last because the hospital didn’t want to recognize their relationship. Without fail, that gets brushed off. I’ve never, never, never, been debating gay rights with a supposed “good Christian” who has said “Wow, that is a serious problem,” or “I didn’t know that; that’s awful.” They just literally do not acknowledge it at all, so they can go back to quoting Bible verses at me. Or, like the last guy, they actually have the gall, when I say that if Christianity loved gay people so very much, it would quit hurting them, that “sometimes love hurts” and bring up someone who’s in love with someone they’re not married to. Because unrequited affection is totally the same thing as having your parents disown you and sleeping on a park bench. If I’m fed up just *talking* about it, imagine living it.

Maybe I’m just cynical because I’m frustrated, but I think the answer to Alise’s “When are you going to listen?” is “Never.” So, at this point, I don’t have the patience for well-reasoned, carefully thought out answers to the 40 questions. I do, however, have snark. Lots and lots of snark. So here’s my deeply sarcastic, eye-rolling take on the 40 questions.

For evangelicals who lament last Friday’s Supreme Court decision, it’s been a hard few days. We aren’t asking for emotional pity, nor do I suspect many people are eager to give us any. Our pain is not sacred. Making legal and theological decisions based on what makes people feel better is part of what got us into this mess in the first place. Nevertheless, it still hurts.

There are many reasons for our lamentation, from fear that religious liberties will be taken away to worries about social ostracism and cultural marginalization. But of all the things that grieve us, perhaps what’s been most difficult is seeing some of our friends, some of our family members, and some of the folks we’ve sat next to in church giving their hearty “Amen” to a practice we still think is a sin and a decision we think is bad for our country. It’s one thing for the whole nation to throw a party we can’t in good conscience attend. It’s quite another to look around for friendly faces to remind us we’re not alone and then find that they are out there jamming on the dance floor. We thought the rainbow was God’s sign (Gen. 9:8-17).

If you consider yourself a Bible-believing Christian, a follower of Jesus whose chief aim is to glorify God and enjoy him forever, there are important questions I hope you will consider before picking up your flag and cheering on the sexual revolution. These questions aren’t meant to be snarky or merely rhetorical. They are sincere, if pointed, questions that I hope will cause my brothers and sisters with the new rainbow themed avatars to slow down and think about the flag you’re flying.

Okay, first off, you’re afraid that religious liberties will be taken away because you define religious liberty as “treating gay people terribly and getting away with it because Jesus.” You want to be able to turn people away from your business because they’re gay, but you’d never stand for it if someone wanted to deny service to Christians. Your church isn’t going to have to marry gay people. Much like the Catholic Church doesn’t have to marry divorcees.

Also, that feeling of isolation, of being alone, of having what you thought were friendly faces not be so friendly? Congratulations, you’ve just experienced a tiny sliver of what it’s like to be a gay Christian. Except that instead of just changing their Facebook profile to something you don’t like, they were saying you should burn in hell, and that if you’re bullied, beaten, and mocked to the point of committing suicide, it’s your own fault.

Also, as far as “slow down and think,” wow, I’m so glad you said that. I totally haven’t read and prayed and considered this for *years.* I just saw that all the cool kids had rainbow profile pictures and I wanted one too.

1. How long have you believed that gay marriage is something to be celebrated?

Most of the last decade. And I’m actually *late* to the party. Take the Quakers, for example. There were Friends meetings affirming same-sex relationships in the *sixties* and *eighties* for Pete’s sake. But, please, continue trying to convince yourself that this is just some wacky thing somebody came up with later.

2. What Bible verses led you to change your mind?

Wow, that’s totally not a loaded question at all. What Bible verses led you to believe same-sex relationships were sinful? And I’m sure you totally read them in isolation and came to that conclusion all on your own, rather than believing same-sex relationships are sinful because it’s what you’ve been taught.

3. How would you make a positive case from Scripture that sexual activity between two persons of the same sex is a blessing to be celebrated?

“Sexual activity.” Way to make love and commitment sound dirty. But you’re totally not trying to dehumanize people by reducing whole lives and relationships to sex acts you find icky.

4. What verses would you use to show that a marriage between two persons of the same sex can adequately depict Christ and the church?

And again with the prooftext game. Never mind that it’s a shallow and simplistic way to read the Bible, let’s just grab some verses out of context to prove a point.

5. Do you think Jesus would have been okay with homosexual behavior between consenting adults in a committed relationship?

Well, he had the opportunity to throw a “Go and sin no more” at the centurion who asked for healing for the servant he may well have had a sexual relationship with (the word pais can translate as “male concubine”). And he didn’t.

6. If so, why did he reassert the Genesis definition of marriage as being one man and one woman?

Okay, since we are playing the proof-text game, how about you show me where he said *anything* about the quantity of wives. Jesus said you couldn’t toss your wife aside to marry someone else, but polygamy was practiced in Israel, and he didn’t say a word against multiple wives.

7. When Jesus spoke against porneia what sins do you think he was forbidding?

If we’re still talking about the same verses, the context makes it pretty clear that we’re talking about cheating on your spouse.

8. If some homosexual behavior is acceptable, how do you understand the sinful “exchange” Paul highlights in Romans 1?

Or, how about you explain to me how you understand Romans 2:3? Was that just tacked on for the heck of it, and the real point of the passage is “don’t be gay”? While we’re at it, let’s totally ignore the fact that people in the first century didn’t know that sexual orientation was a thing that exists, and thought that same-sex sex was the result of an excess of lust.

9. Do you believe that passages like 1 Corinthians 6:9 and Revelation 21:8 teach that sexual immorality can keep you out of heaven?

Do you believe that Romans 8:39 teaches that *nothing* can separate us from the love of God? Because, you know, that’s what the verse says. While you’re at it, maybe go ahead and explain why you’re so eager to grab verses that condemn something you have no interest in doing but don’t focus on verses like Luke 6:35 and or 1 Peter 3:34. If you’ve ever put on a nice suit for church or said no to someone who wanted to borrow $500, maybe you’re not in a position to judge.

10. What sexual sins do you think they were referring to?

Does it matter what I think? Like, really, I could go on for paragraphs about a consistent sexual ethic of mutual care and consent, and back it up with relevant sections from the Bible, but I’m not going to convince you that every mention of sexual sin ever isn’t referring directly to those icky, icky gays.

11. As you think about the long history of the church and the near universal disapproval of same-sex sexual activity, what do you think you understand about the Bible that Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, and Luther failed to grasp?

Dude, for real? First off, I’m not a “you must not think or do anything unless you can cite chapter and verse to support it” kind of Christian. I’m much more partial to overall themes and ideas. But for starters, Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin and Luther *all* had a pretty deplorable view of women. And yet Jesus pretty clearly taught that women are valuable. So, if their being such awesome Christians couldn’t overcome their culture’s sexism, why would it overcome their culture’s homophobia?

12. What arguments would you use to explain to Christians in Africa, Asia, and South America that their understanding of homosexuality is biblically incorrect and your new understanding of homosexuality is not culturally conditioned?

I never claimed my understanding *wasn’t* culturally conditioned. You’re the one who’s claiming that we know being gay is bad because the church condemned it, even as you presumably condemn things the church approved for 1800 years, like slavery.

13. Do you think Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were motivated by personal animus and bigotry when they, for almost all of their lives, defined marriage as a covenant relationship between one man and one woman?

No, I think that they grew up in a heterosexist culture and somehow, magically, were untouched by that bigotry.

14. Do you think children do best with a mother and a father?

Of course. That’s why we should require divorcees, widows, and single parents to remarry. Also, instead of carefully screening potential adoptive parents, we should pass out kids to random opposite-sex couples.

15. If not, what research would you point to in support of that conclusion?

Let me freaking google that for you.

16. If yes, does the church or the state have any role to play in promoting or privileging the arrangement that puts children with a mom and a dad?

See my answer to question 14. *Obviously* we should push gay people into the closet and convince them to marry people of the opposite-sex. Certainly, those relationships, based on lies and fear, will be perfectly healthy for the resulting children.

17. Does the end and purpose of marriage point to something more than an adult’s emotional and sexual fulfillment?

Of course not. Who needs emotional and sexual fulfillment? Married people should be miserable.

18. How would you define marriage?

As a sacred and divinely ordained relationship between one man and as many women as he can afford to buy from their parents. Or a commitment between two people to love each other and build a family. But that second one isn’t “traditional” so it can’t be right.

19. Do you think close family members should be allowed to get married?

Ooh, we’re getting into the “slippery slope” questions. Awesome! Are you going to ask if I think someone can marry a toaster? Or a tree?

20. Should marriage be limited to only two people?

I can see valid arguments either way, but strangely enough, the Bible doesn’t have anything negative to say about polygamy.

21. On what basis, if any, would you prevent consenting adults of any relation and of any number from getting married

I like how you throw “consenting” in there when talking about incest. Because someone who’s spent their whole life being sexually abused by a parent isn’t under any pressure to consent or anything.

22. Should there be an age requirement in this country for obtaining a marriage license?

Yes. Obviously no one should get married until they hit puberty, as is Biblically ordained.

23. Does equality entail that anyone wanting to be married should be able to have any meaningful relationship defined as marriage?

From a legal point of view, the relationship doesn’t even have to be meaningful. There’s no legal bar to me divorcing my husband, running off to Vegas and marrying the first random man who buys me a drink. So, yeah, equality entails that we not discriminate on the basis of gender when two people get married, whether in a church or by an Elvis impersonator. I’m sorry this is hard for you.

24. If not, why not?

25. Should your brothers and sisters in Christ who disagree with homosexual practice be allowed to exercise their religious beliefs without fear of punishment, retribution, or coercion?

Maybe someday your LGBT brothers and sisters in Christ will be allowed to *exist* without fear of punishment, retribution, or coercion. Or, you know, physical assault. And murder.

And it depends on what you mean by “exercise their religious belief.” Rant on Facebook, attend an anti-gay church? Knock yourself out. Refuse to do their job as a clerk of the court and sign a gay couple’s marriage license? Not so much. Run a business that’s a public accommodation and deny service to members of a protected class based on their membership in that class? How about no.

26. Will you speak up for your fellow Christians when their jobs, their accreditation, their reputation, and their freedoms are threatened because of this issue?

Not “if” but “when.” Not fear-mongering at all there, are we? The gay mafia is coming for you! I will defend anybody’s right not to be fired from a job for religious beliefs that don’t adversely affect their ability to do the job. I will defend a priest’s right not to marry a gay couple, in whatever alternate bizarro world that that happens. But if people criticize your beliefs, you’re just going to have to put on your grown-up pants and deal with it.

27. Will you speak out against shaming and bullying of all kinds, whether against gays and lesbians or against Evangelicals and Catholics?

That depends. Are we talking about actual bullying or the fake bullying where Evangelicals don’t get everything they want?

28. Since the evangelical church has often failed to take unbiblical divorces and other sexual sins seriously, what steps will you take to ensure that gay marriages are healthy and accord with Scriptural principles?

I don’t know, but I do know that preaching against divorce keeps people in abusive relationships. So maybe we could stop fixating on everybody else’s sexual sins. Nah, that’s crazy talk.

29. Should gay couples in open relationships be subject to church discipline?

Sure! Because “church discipline” totally isn’t code for an authoritarian church browbeating people into toeing the line.

30. Is it a sin for LGBT persons to engage in sexual activity outside of marriage?

Considering that they weren’t allowed to *get* married until about 10 minutes ago, I’m not going to judge.

31. What will open and affirming churches do to speak prophetically against divorce, fornication, pornography, and adultery wherever they are found?

See previous statement about divorce.

32. If “love wins,” how would you define love?

Love is patient, love is kind. Love is probably *not* trying to push gay people into pretending they’re straight.

33. What verses would you use to establish that definition?

Ooh, we’re back to prooftexting again! Let’s go with 1 Corinthians 13.

34. How should obedience to God’s commands shape our understanding of love?

Oh, I know this one! This is the gotcha where you get to abuse, demean, and discriminate against gay people and call it “love” because you were just warning them about their sins.

35. Do you believe it is possible to love someone and disagree with important decisions they make?

I tend to think yes, but all those people who decided to take food out of the mouths of poor children rather than have them fed by a married gay person would probably disagree.

36. If supporting gay marriage is a change for you, has anything else changed in your understanding of faith?

Well, I no longer try to force all the parts of the Bible that contradict each other into some kind of sense. Nor do I assume that because Paul said it, God ordained it.

37. As an evangelical, how has your support for gay marriage helped you become more passionate about traditional evangelical distinctives like a focus on being born again, the substitutionary sacrifice of Christ on the cross, the total trustworthiness of the Bible, and the urgent need to evangelize the lost?

As a what now? You never said anything about “evangelical.” You said “Christian.” But, let’s move the goal posts a bit, shall we? I hate to break it to you, but running away from evangelicalism was the best thing possible for my spiritual growth and mental health. See previous statement about mental gymnastics to make the Bible not contradict itself. Oh, and living in deep soul-crushing fear of hell, either for myself or for loved ones, that was fun too.

38. What open and affirming churches would you point to where people are being converted to orthodox Christianity, sinners are being warned of judgment and called to repentance, and missionaries are being sent out to plant churches among unreached peoples?

Gee, I don’t know, how about the Episcopalians? Not orthodox enough for you?

39. Do you hope to be more committed to the church, more committed to Christ, and more committed to the Scriptures in the years ahead?

Nah, I’ve decided to become more committed to orgies and recreational drugs. Seriously, thanks for implying that I’m *not* committed to Christ. Way to love those who disagree with you.

40. When Paul at the end of Romans 1 rebukes “those who practice such things” and those who “give approval to those who practice them,” what sins do you think he has in mind?

I think he was making a larger point. Hence Romans 2. But, you know, let’s stop quoting where it’s most convenient.

Baby Diet Purgatory

TW: Dieting and intentional weight loss (no numbers or specifics)

I just spent the last couple weeks on a diet. Which, as committed as I am to FA, feels kind of like saying “Hey, I changed my voter registration to Republican, signed up for an atheist conference, and joined the Justin Bieber fan club.” I’ve been going through fertility treatments, and there’s an arbitrary BMI cut-off for intra-uterine insemination, which I was just barely under at the start of the last cycle.

Now, there may well be perfectly valid medical reasons to not want to do IUIs on patients over a certain weight or body fat percentage, but I stand by my statement that the cut-off is arbitrary because it’s BMI based, and that’s arbitrary by definition. The awesome (not really awesome) thing about these limits is that they encourage either doing risky or harmful things to make sure the weight comes off, or pulling tricks out of the high-school wrestler’s play book in order to “make weight.” (For example, I estimated that my hair weighs 2 ounces, and if I’d been close enough to the cut-off for that to matter, there was definitely a pixie cut in my future. And I was also planning on not eating or drinking the morning of the procedure.)

Fortunately, they *aren’t* actually going to weigh me the day of the procedure and pull the rug out from under me if I’ve gained weight. I wish I’d known that *before* I spent two weeks eating way too many salads and feeling lousy all the time, but I’m sure the weight loss I did get will look good to them. Yay, I’m pretending to be an obedient, compliant fat chick.

I have to say, it’s a very weird mental place to be on a diet, while thinking it’s complete BS. There’s an extent to which it’s easier, because I wasn’t shaming myself for being hungry or for “needing” to lose weight, but I also didn’t have all the warm fuzzies of a “positive lifestyle change.” I was actually a lot more successful in sticking to my plan than I’ve been on other diet attempts, which I mostly attribute to a mix of sheer stubbornness and a fixed end date. Kind of like that episode of Voyager where the holographic doctor is being an ass to everyone about their various complaints, and he gives himself a simulated illness to prove that they’re all a bunch of crybabies. He handles it just fine until he reaches what’s supposed to be the end time and he’s still sick. At which point, he loses it. And Kess tells him that she added a couple hours to the simulation because it’s not accurate if he knows when it will end. That was pretty much me on the diet. As long as I knew it was temporary, I could slog through.

And there was still that weird feeling of being “good” when I stepped on the scale and the number was lower, and the lingering thought that maybe I could keep this up indefinitely and lose significant weight. (Yeah, probably not.)

The one real positive of the experience was that giving up diet soda (out of concern that it would lead to more sugar cravings than just “no sweets ever” by itself) dramatically reduced my fibro pain. Note, there’s no scientific evidence that aspartame causes fibromyalgia pain or cutting it out fixes it, just some anecdotal evidence that some people report that it helps. (The third study gets serious side-eye for determining that “aspartame-induced fibromyalgia” is a thing that exists based on a sample size of *two.*) There’s also this one, which sounds like, oh, yes, MSG and aspartame totally cause fibro, but I also can only read the abstract, so I can’t tell if they did anything to rule out the nocebo effect.

I feel better, so I’m not going to look a gift horse in the mouth, but I also don’t want to misrepresent it as some magical cure. Particularly since I’m definitely not “cured.” I still have random pain, and the trigger points are still very much an issue (and my cat Haley is awesome at jumping *right* onto them). But I haven’t had a bad pain day since I stopped drinking diet soda, so I’m going to call that a win. (I had heard the suggestion about cutting out artificial sweeteners for fibromyalgia, so it could totally be psychosomatic, but pain is largely subjective anyway, so what the heck.)

Does That Strength and Dignity Come in a 24?…Some thoughts on ethical fashion.

Recently, I read a guest post on Rachel Held Evans’ blog: “Strength and Dignity are Her Clothing”: Making Ethical Fashion Choices. It’s a really good intro to both the problems with mass-produced clothing and some alternatives. Overall, I like the piece, particularly because it takes a non-judgmental “do what you can” approach. I appreciate how she pointed out that Christian morality can often be really superficial, like the example of Hobby Lobby caring so very much about what their employees do with their health insurance, but not really at all about the health or safety of the people who make their products.

Leah does a good job of summarizing the issue:

The fact of the matter is that the global manufacturing system is broken. In the cutthroat world of retail, consumer demand for low prices paired with increasing raw materials costs means companies are eager to cut costs in the only place with a bit of wiggle room: labor. And it’s easy enough to do because, as people in developing countries leave failing farmland to work in the cities, demand for manufacturing jobs increases, creating fertile ground for exploitation. Laborers take what they can get, ultimately being cornered into wage slavery by distant corporations who pretend not to know what they’re buying into. In the best case scenario, entire families go to work and barely scrape by. In the worst case scenario, such as the tragedy at Rana Plaza on April 24, 2013, over a thousand people die when their workplace collapses.

How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? – 1 John 3:17

I think that Fair Trade in general, not just in clothing, is a hugely important thing for all kinds of reasons. People deserve a living wage and a safe working environment. Additionally, creating a market for clothing manufactured in countries that have stronger worker protections (like the US) is a good thing economically. I try to buy “Made in the USA” when I can, and it’s really disappointing how few options there are for that, particularly in clothing.

However, I’m not sure that buying a certain way, and trying to get other people to buy a certain way, is likely to be enough to fix broken systems. The people who both have the resources to prioritize ethics in their shopping *and* who care enough to do so consistently will probably always be outnumbered by those who fall somewhere on the “can’t/don’t want to” spectrum.

That doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile. The cliched but still kind of heartwarming story of the kid throwing starfish back into the ocean comes to mind. Being one of the customers who helps an ethical company keep running and pay its workers a living wage is a good and valuable thing. I just don’t think changing the way you shop is enough in and of itself.

I’m also a little leery of her assertion that “We have a duty as Christians to protect the poor, the widowed, and the orphan by demanding manufacturing transparency and redirecting our spending to companies and organizations that treat people with the dignity they deserve.” Do Christians have a duty to help the poor, the widowed and the orphan? Yes, of course. But this particular way of meeting that duty isn’t feasible for everyone, and it’s one of countless things people can do to protect those who are vulnerable. I don’t think a Saturday afternoon spent at the thrift store (to avoid buying clothing that supports wage slavery and unsafe conditions) is inherently more valuable than that same Saturday spent volunteering at a food pantry or volunteering with troubled youth. I don’t think she’s claiming it is, necessarily, but I tend to give a little side-eye to any sweeping statements that paint a specific picture what Christian duty looks like.

Granted, I live with an inner perfectionist and a little black yippy dog running around in my head. So part of my discomfort with her framing ethical shopping as a duty might be a mental self-defense mechanism to avoid adding yet another thing to stress myself out over. But at the same time, I don’t think she gives enough consideration to the limitations that make ethical shopping problematic for some people.

I think it’s important to consider that not everybody has the ability to buy fair trade, at least not exclusively. Money is the most obvious limitation, but size is another major one. I like looking at pretty clothes, so I spent some time surfing the links Leah provided, and didn’t find a single thing I could wear. That’s not to say there are *no* ethical plus-size options. Igigi and Kiyonna come to mind right off, and Let’s Be Fair has a great compilation of plus size ethical clothing resources. But putting together a whole wardrobe ethically is a lot harder at a size 14 than at a size 4. And at a size 24 or 34? Yeah…good luck.

The most common answer to financial concerns, or difficulty finding a wide range of ethical clothing in your size, is “We should be buying less anyway.” And that’s true, as far as it goes. But there’s a lot of pressure on women to dress “nicely,” and wearing the same clothes over and over again is a departure from that. You can mitigate that by swapping accessories, but those also cost money and are also subject to all the same ethical concerns as clothing. If you have an office job, where dressing a certain way is part of the unwritten requirements (and where those unwritten requirements are often stricter for women), having a variety of clothes can be an important part of that. Your boss may well consider it part of you “being a professional” and it can definitely have an effect on your career. This is especially tricky for people in lower-paying but customer-facing office jobs, where you’re expected to dress nicer than your paycheck really allows.

I also think that too much focus on ethical buying takes away from the need for political involvement and activism to push for better regulations. As I said earlier, just shopping ethically is important, but not the whole picture. Exploitative business practices will continue as long as they’re profitable. (So even making them illegal isn’t enough—the law still has to be enforced and the consequences have to be stiff enough that the risk isn’t worth it.)

Taking business away from those companies is certainly part of making exploitation less profitable. But as I pointed out earlier, the people who can buy ethically and who care enough to do so are going to be outnumbered by those who can’t afford to, don’t care, or simply don’t have the mental bandwidth to take on one more thing. For that matter, even those people who buy ethically won’t do so perfectly. If 90% of someone’s wardrobe comes from ethical sources, the other 10% of their clothing budget still supports exploitation. Even worse, any given purchase, no matter how ethical, isn’t going to be perfect. Companies may claim more ethical practices than they actually have, or there may be ethical issues further down the supply chain (e.g., good conditions for the workers in the garment factory, less so for those making fabric or notions). It’s not possible as a consumer to fully research and track all of that. At some point you have to settle for good enough.

I agree wholeheartedly with Melissa McEwan’s criticism of “tasking individuals with the solutions to systemic problems.” Can individuals make a difference? Sure. But the idea of voting with your dollar has a lot of flaws. I’m all for tossing the starfish that I see back into the ocean. But most people can’t spend all day on the beach without some other part of their life suffering as a result. And, in this analogy, the tide isn’t a mindless force of nature—it’s businesses who are choosing to put their employees in harm’s way and pay them peanuts, because it’s profitable, and because they can. And to a lesser extent, the businesses who buy from them without paying any attention to the repercussions. The kid on the beach is way at the end of this chain. It’s a good thing for him to do what he can, but he shouldn’t be pressured or guilted to take on responsibility that isn’t his, nor should we act like he can fix the problem on his own.

What would a reasonable religious freedom law look like?

The Federal RFRA was signed for good reasons. One of the causes was that Native Americans were denied unemployment benefits after being fired for using peyote as part of their religious practices. So, people who believed that freedom of religion does actually mean everybody’s religion worked together to get the RFRA passed.  Back in the 90s, bipartisan efforts were still a thing, and this was supported by everybody from the ACLU to the National Association of Evangelicals and approved near-unanimously in both houses of Congress.

But now, religious freedom means something very different to the religious right.  It means the right to compel others to abide by your beliefs, or to deny them services because you don’t approve of their “lifestyle.”  Not only do you get to go to whatever church you want, you should be able to kick them out of your restaurant or not rent to them because they’re gay.  The interpretation of the Federal RFRA has gone way off the rails, and states are passing laws that are *called* RFRAs but are really much broader than that.  And strangely enough, it’s primarily Christians who are benefiting from the license to discriminate.

First off, I want to acknowledge that there are legitimate situations where a business owner with deeply held beliefs should have the right to refuse service. I can think of two major ones.  The first is being asked to create content that violates your beliefs. If a bakery doesn’t want to write a message they disagree with on a cake or a publisher or an editor doesn’t want to contribute to a book they find distasteful, they shouldn’t be required to.  That’s not just a religious freedom thing, but a free speech one as well.  So, if you’re a baker who believes being gay is a sin, it’s fine for you to refuse to make a glittery rainbow cake that says “Congrats on Your Fabulous Gay Wedding.”  Not fine is refusing to make a white cake with flowers like you’d make for anybody else.

Secondly, I think being required to participate in an event that’s against your religion should be protected against.  If you’re a die-hard Baptist photographer and you feel it would be a sin to photograph a wedding where alcohol is served, even if it’s communion wine, you shouldn’t have to.  But if you’re a die-hard Baptist *florist*, you shouldn’t be able to refuse to make flower arrangements just because you disapprove of the drinking that will happen at the wedding, when you don’t even have to be there.  Nor should you be able to refuse to provide pizzas for a wedding you don’t approve of. (I don’t think dropping off food really constitutes “participating” in an event, though I can see where staying through the reception and serving food could be.)  Likewise, if it’s a location that your beliefs literally forbid you from setting foot in, you shouldn’t have to.  (For example, I think some religions don’t allow their adherents to even go into other religions’ houses of worship.)  *But* if someone says, “Okay, no problem, we’ll pick the food up at your place” or “That’s fine, the bride’s mom lives across the street, we can meet you there,” then I think you need to serve them.

I also think that if you want to enforce a behavior standard in your own private establishment, that’s fine *as long as* the standard is equally applied.  No kicking a gay couple out for PDA when all they did was hold hands when you wouldn’t even speak to a straight couple unless they were swapping spit.

Edit: Snarky comment about pizza for a wedding removed because, as Melissa McEwan pointed out, that’s really classist. And between having grown up solidly blue collar, though not poor, and having panicked about every buck spent on my own wedding, I really should know better.

Thoughts on Trigger Warnings – Part 1, some definitions

A recent open thread at Alas included discussion of trigger warnings in college courses (and more generally). I’ve been meaning to write a post on trigger warnings and hadn’t yet, so now seems like a good time.  I have lots of thoughts, so this may be multiple posts.

First off, let’s start with a definition of terms. As is pretty widely understood, a trigger is something that results in either an adverse mental health event, such as a panic attack or a flashback, or that prompts a relapse of self-harming behaviors (e.g.,  a calorie count for someone with an eating disorder). It’s commonly misunderstood, whether deliberately or not, as anything upsetting or controversial.

Because I like divisions and categories, I want to break triggers down further into three types:  Practically Universal, Common, and Individual.

Practically Universal – Things so disturbing that they’re likely to be triggering by their very nature, even to people without relevant mental illnesses or traumatic life events.  Extremes of graphic violence and torture, for example.

Common – Not likely to be triggering to people without relevant mental illness or traumatic life events, but related to pretty common traumas. Things that many people will find disturbing, to a greater or lesser degree, and that a lot of people with mental health issues or traumatic life events would find traumatic. Violence, rape, abuse, etc.  These might vary between groups.  For example, diet talk is a much more common trigger in fat acceptance spaces than in the general public, because a larger percentage of the readership includes people with or recovering from eating disorders, or people with histories of trauma or even abuse related to dieting.

Individual – Pretty much anything else.  Highly specific triggers that affect one individual with, say, PTSD, but not another. Things that might seem completely innocuous to most people, and are only triggering because they’re linked to some trauma.

One of the ways discussions of trigger warnings get side-tracked is when people assume that if common or practically universal triggers are warned for, that’s a slippery slope to including not only the individual triggers of anyone with a mental illness who might come anywhere near the conversation, but also anything remotely controversial or upsetting. It’s not possible to warn for every possible trigger, the argument goes, so there’s no point warning for any of them.  To me, that’s extremely illogical.  Just because you can’t do something perfectly doesn’t mean it’s not worth bothering to do at all.  Also, it isn’t as if trigger warnings are some strange and onerous thing. We warn for triggers in all sorts of contexts, though we usually don’t call it that.  TV and movies come with ratings, and shows with content that’s likely to be disturbing are often preceded by a summary of the type of content and “Viewer Discretion Advised.”  Trigger warnings as such seem to come up primarily in contexts that don’t have the normal mechanisms of describing (and even warning about content). Like blogs, where one post might be about cute puppies and the next might be about rape or murder.  Or college courses, where potential topics are pretty much limitless.

Another common fallacy is the equation of trigger warnings with censorship.  For something to be censored implies that it can’t be shown or discussed at all, or that controversial parts are cut out.  Simply informing someone about the content of a reading assignment or blog entry isn’t censorship. Is it possible for trigger warnings to lead to censorship? Sure, if those warnings are used to ban content or require it to be altered.  But that’s a separate decision.