Trigger words and audiences that shut down

Audiences are starting to just shut down at certain words more and more. Just say the word "rape" or "vagina" or "black" and a segment of people shut down. "That's not funny." Not all of 'em, but more of 'em. As another comic I know put it: "It's the same way some audiences don't listen on a joke that has a trigger word and normally crushes and they look at u like a racist..... Like you idiots this joke crushes and black people laugh at it 99% of the time."

The Coddling of the American Mind in The Atlantic touches on trigger words and this attitude. "In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health." (via NB)

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). A discussion of violence is unlikely to be followed by actual violence, so it is a good way to help students change the associations that are causing them discomfort. And they’d better get their habituation done in college, because the world beyond college will be far less willing to accommodate requests for trigger warnings and opt-outs.

The expansive use of trigger warnings may also foster unhealthy mental habits in the vastly larger group of students who do not suffer from PTSD or other anxiety disorders. People acquire their fears not just from their own past experiences, but from social learning as well. If everyone around you acts as though something is dangerous—elevators, certain neighborhoods, novels depicting racism—then you are at risk of acquiring that fear too. The psychiatrist Sarah Roff pointed this out last year in an online article for The Chronicle of Higher Education. “One of my biggest concerns about trigger warnings,” Roff wrote, “is that they will apply not just to those who have experienced trauma, but to all students, creating an atmosphere in which they are encouraged to believe that there is something dangerous or damaging about discussing difficult aspects of our history.”

What I love about comedy is that we can dive into these topics and fears and bring out deeper insights. If we can't even talk about this stuff, we're all going to just get more scared to "go there" and that can't be good. We should be able to discuss racism, sexism, violence or whatever on stage. That's how we can all get to a better place with dealing with these realities. If it's dangerous or damaging, that's great for comedy and for healing and it's a bummer that sorta thing is getting squeezed out of the standup game.


myq said...

I enjoyed reading this, and I think these are excellent points about triggering and trauma, from people who seem concerned both for the well-being of all people AND the desire for people to speak their minds on whatever topics they like.

My only question is for you Matt, when you say "it's a bummer that sorta thing is getting squeezed out of the standup game," where is the evidence that this is happening?

In the recent discussions where Chris Rock said something about not enjoying performing at colleges anymore, that doesn't mean Chris Rock isn't still doing the exact standup he wants to do. It means he IS doing it. And he's doing it where he wants, recording it for specials, and probably having it watched by lots of college students.

Most comedians that I hear saying "things are getting too PC and that's no good!" are saying exactly what they want to say. And if they're not, then stop, comedians.

Who is preventing comedians from saying whatever they want to say?

A sincere question that I'd be happy to have answered. I don't know everything!

Thanks for sharing! We're friends.

Matt Ruby said...

There is a pervasive sense among comics I talk to that audiences are increasingly shutting down at certain words. Where crowds used to give you a chance in order to hear your thoughts on a touchy subject, they are now indicating "we do not want you to address that subject" via silence or overt reactions. And when that happens, many comics who want laughs will steer toward other topics. And I feel like that's bad for the kind of comedy that I love. Others are certainly free to disagree.

myq said...

A couple thoughts that I have in response to what you've said...

One... my impression is that the kind of comedy you love is done by people who don't just "want laughs." They want the laughs that go with the things they want to talk about. And they won't just switch topics all the time when it's challenging to get there. And it's always challenging to get laughs, in general to start with. And if a comic JUST wants laughs and thus steers towards other topics, then number one, who cares, and number two, if you're that comic and don't want to be, then don't be.

Two... most of the comics that I respect the most take an audience reacting negatively as a challenge to be overcome, not something to just complain about. Of course, you can complain AND strive to overcome challenges, but without painting anyone specifically with a broad, negative brush, I would say that I can imagine there being a LOT of comics who write a weak joke that mentions a word that makes an audience shut down, but the real culprit is the weak joke.

Three... of course, sometimes I recognize that a particular audience will react negatively to a certain topic. I have a chunk about pedophiles that generally works very well, and I performed it as part of a set at an outdoor festival where some people heard it through the speakers that weren't there for the show, and they responded vocally and negatively at just hearing the topic. Which I understand... if you're at a show, I encourage people to listen to the whole context, but for the people that weren't at the show on purpose, I get it. And some of the people actively listening also jumped on board the having-a-problem bandwagon, and that wasn't my favorite thing. But I know the joke's intention, the reason I'm telling it, and that in general audiences respond reasonably (though there are always people INITIALLY sensitive... because there certainly are a great number of jokes out there about pedophilia, or sexual assault, or race, which AREN'T the most thoughtful... and I understand that).

Overall I would say there's not a problem, because the audience DOESN'T get to decide what a comedian talks about. And in general, if jokes are good enough, that can usually be enough to power through audiences that might THINK they don't like the topic. I recognize that I'm an optimist here, and I'm not saying that the issue you're discussing doesn't exist, but you as a comedian have the power to say whatever you want, and so does every other comedian.


Matt Ruby said...

One: I agree. But there's a spectrum here and if crowds start moving toward the uptight end of the spectrum, that still matters. First they came for the rape jokes, and I said nothing...

Two: Yes, weak jokes are weak. But if a joke normally kills it, I think you can start looking at the crowd to see if they might have an attitude problem similar to the students in the linked article.

Three: I want to hear the joke. Sounds fun.

Overall, it's a problem if society moves more and more into a nanny state of mind where certain words trigger a shut down and eliminate conversations that are helpful just because there are unpleasant words, thoughts, and notions along the way. So yes, we have the power but we are also partners with our audience and need to collaborate with them.

Anonymous said...

Do you have a theory as to when this started happening? Is it just the younger audiences or audiences in general? Could a Sam Kinison or Bill Hicks exist on stage today?

Matt Ruby said...

I'd peg it to the rise of social media which seems to have greatly increased the level of tsk-tsking in our society and also "gotcha" moments where people are captured doing things that society can then use to grill 'em. More: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/19/books/review/jon-ronsons-so-youve-been-publicly-shamed.html?_r=0

myq said...

"it's a problem if society moves more and more into a nanny state of mind where certain words trigger a shut down and eliminate conversations that are helpful just because there are unpleasant words, thoughts, and notions along the way. "

I agree that that would be a problem, but I disagree that this is happening on any meaningful large-scale basis. I think you're right about the rise of social media increasing people's engagement and response levels, via blogs and such, but that's not people "shutting down." That's engagement... It's funny to me when a comedian says something on stage, then someone complains about it online, and the response from the comedian is something like "hey, I can say whatever I want, but you can't!" ... heckling and interrupting the show is one thing, but free speech certainly allows for and encourages people to speak their own mind in an appropriate forum... and again, this is the OPPOSITE of shutting down.

And Anonymous, there are certainly people doing work on a level similar to Hicks and Kinison... Stanhope is one of the first people that springs to mind, and he's a great example of a guy who says exactly what he wants, whatever he wants, which might be full of things that some people wouldn't want to hear and would want to complain about, but his fan base exists because he's good and he keeps going and being himself.

"yes, we have the power but we are also partners with our audience and need to collaborate with them."

What do you mean by collaborate with them? Isn't the most powerful, relevant, salient way that the comedian collaborates with the audience... performing? Saying on stage the things that we want to say?

Also, there are so many audiences, and of course, I'm not in front of all of them, so I don't mean to negate anyone's individual experience, but I think we all understand that there are so many reasons a joke might not work, and I feel as though there have ALWAYS been buzz words that people have gotten antsy about... a thing that isn't my favorite, but has always been a part of some minority's reaction to comedy.

"first they came for the rape jokes..."
but don't worry, people continue to tell rape jokes...

We can agree to disagree on how much it's happening, or how much more than before, but can we also agree that there are so many more ways to get your comedy out these days, with more self-produced albums and specials than ever, web series, podcasts, youtube, avenues for releasing content that didn't exist decades ago, where comedians are in complete control of the content that goes out, even more than before, where network gate-keepers were the only option?

I really feel as though people can say way more than they used to, in so many more places, on different TV channels that didn't exist, as well as of course on stage, where that's always been the case and still is.

Matt Ruby said...

"I agree that that would be a problem, but I disagree that this is happening on any meaningful large-scale basis."

Did you read The Atlantic article? Do you believe this is happening on college campuses? If it is a widespread phenomenom there, could you see this extending to audiences at comedy shows? When Jon Ronson (in other piece linked above) writes that we are “creating a world where the smartest way to survive is to be bland,” do you see any parallel in standup?

FYI: When I say shutting down, I don't mean blogging or complaining. I mean the palpable energy of a room that clearly is not going to laugh or "go with you" simply because your joke includes a touchy word or subject.

Also, I believe comedy is a collaboration between performer and audience. I think it is a dialogue in disguise as a monologue.

"don't worry, people continue to tell rape jokes..." Do they really? As frequently? Of course there are still rape jokes out there. But if comics are going there less and less, than that is a sign of something. You are making this an all or nothing thing when I'm saying the needle is moving.

Sure, there are more outlets for distribution out there. But does this negate any of these other points? That's like saying there are more places for teachers to have classes so all this campus sensitivity is a non-issue.

I don't dispute many of your points, yet I feel like there are different conversations going on here so perhaps we are talking over each other instead of to each other and THAT OFFENDS ME SO I AM SHUTTING DOWN. There, that solved it, right?

myq said...

I wrote a long response to this but it disappeared!

Here are a few paraphrased points I made:

"if comics are going there less and less..."
I disagree that this is happening. There are so many comics going so many places. And even IF it is happening, that's on the comics the most. We have the most power in the audience/comic equation.

"Sure, there are more outlets for distribution out there. But does this negate any of these other points?"
I honestly think that it mainly does, in a practical way, for the points that are standup-related at least... if an audience one in a while doesn't like a thing you say, that's part of comedy. If audiences do it all the time, maybe it's you. I think because of all the places and venues and opportunities and media for people to produce their own shows and content and find and create their own audiences, that makes the comedy-related worries about this issue a non-issue, practically speaking, for me...

The issue of the rising mental health numbers in young people is disturbing, and bears addressing, but I think that's a side point from the comedy-related portion of the issue.

And as for this...
"Did you read The Atlantic article? Do you believe this is happening on college campuses?"
I asked a 21-year-old comic friend of mine what they thought about this, and here's a link to their posting of this on facebook with many relevant comics and links associated:

And they also had this to say specifically about the article:
"I think it's trash. First of all, it's not even true. Even at a school which would be classified as the "worst of the worst" (radical feminist liberal arts women's college) in terms of "PC culture," there were no trigger warnings. I took a Toni Morrison class in which there was no consideration made for people who have survived rape and incest when the professor decided to read a scene in which a father rapes his child, in full. I was totally wrecked for the rest of the evening and there was nothing I could do about it. I would have been seen as fucking crazy if I had said anything. There's no culture of coddling on campuses, in my experience. In fact, academia is stacked against mentally ill people on every single level."

That is just one person's opinion, but they were in college more recently than you or I, and they were only at one college, but that is one more than we've been to in recent years...

But I do think that this issue is more a separate one than whether audiences shut down sometimes when a comedian says the equivalent of "let's talk about rape"... something that I think is reasonable for an audience (or anyone) to respond to cautiously, until the comedian does the job of saying the funny or interesting or relevant or important thing about the issue.

I agree that it's not an all or nothing thing. But I think that comedians do have almost all the power to do whatever they want, and audiences have always had the capacity to be iffy about certain topics, so while I see what the Atlantic article is talking about with respect to college campuses, I don't see it as really connecting for me to comedy audiences as much as you do, I think.


Matt Ruby said...

fyi, the convo re: this post was based on a discussion with two other comics who both believe strongly in the premise that audiences are changing in this regard. i understand you disagree but just wanted to let you know it’s not you disagreeing with me but with those two as well (and from what i can tell, many other comics who also believe there is a shift taking place).

"if an audience one in a while doesn't like a thing you say, that's part of comedy. If audiences do it all the time, maybe it's you." I think it's people saying that jokes that used to be fine are now being flagged by audience's as not fine and that there is a shift taking place and that this is a bummer to comics who want to go to those places.

Can't read that Facebook post. Link doesn't work. Someone who is "wrecked" by a passage from Toni Morrison and claims "there's no culture of coddling on campuses" (Seriously? Wait until you spend a decade in the real world!) seems like a questionable source though.

It's not just rape jokes. It's talking about race. It's talking about sex. It's talking about anything that is potentially offensive and how crowds are CHANGING in a way that is bad for comedians who like to go to those places. Alas, I don't think this conversation will change your opinion so carry on.

Anyway, we both love Stanhope! Onward!

myq said...

"I think it's people saying that jokes that used to be fine are now being flagged by audiences as not fine"
Honestly, there are so many reasons that jokes that worked in the past don't work later. Cultural references change, there are shifts in society that aren't problems, so many things... I understand you also started this statement with "I think," so I feel like there's a lot of speculation going on. ("from what i can tell, many other comics who believe there is a shift taking place")... I sincerely believe that if a shift is taking place, the hardest place to tell that that is happening from is right in the middle while it's happening... I don't see it personally, but I understand that at least two or three comedians do.

And my overall point is, regardless of whether it is or isn't happening, or how much, you have the power, comedian. If your old joke that used to work doesn't work any more, write new jokes. Talk about this issue on stage. Do you, Matt, disagree that the comedian has more power than the audience to determine what comedy is? No matter whose opinion is closest to accurate, isn't the ideal course of action to just continue to work at being the best comedian you can be?

"I don't think this conversation will change your opinion so carry on."
Same to you!

Matt Ruby said...

Let's just talk about it over some vegan food that tastes like flavorless meat. See you at lunch in 43 minutes.

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