A few words of advice to Trigglypuff--and her teachers

I would not want to be this young woman. By now, five months after the event she attended at the University of Massachusetts Amherst featuring a discussion with Christina Hoff Sommers, Steven Crowder, and Milo Yiannopoulos on the problems besetting university campuses with speech considered "triggering," she has become a favorite meme among those who see such concerns as at best mildly hysterical, at worst a symptom of the total breakdown of our national character (I paraphrase). Audiences at several of Milo's recent talks (which you can see here) have made reference to her, imitating her arm gestures (which I am having a hard time ignoring on the gif as I am writing) and laughing at her expense. Milo, to his credit, has admonished them: "No, we love Trigglypuff! Trigglypuff is wonderful!," while insisting that it is not she, but those who have lied to her about what will make her happy that are to blame. "She is going to be miserable," he has said (again, I paraphrase), "because feminists have taught her to believe that she can be fat without consequence," pointing especially in his talk at Louisiana State University to the health effects of obesity. While, as long-time readers of this blog know, I have had my own struggles with fat shaming, I think he does have a point: it is possible to take "body positivity" too far the other way. Just as it is possible to be too thin, it is also possible to be too fat; we risk young (and old) women's lives suggesting that fitness and size have no effects on their ability to be happy.

But when I look at the full video from which the gif was generated, I see something other than just a young woman who needs to lose weight. I see a young woman who needs training, not only in formal methods of debate (wait for the question and answer period to raise your concerns), but even more fundamentally, in schooling her soul. Here, as Fencing Bear, I would like to give her a few words of advice about how to begin.

First, consider the falcon. This was a meditation that first came to me as I was thinking about my weight and my responses to eating, how hard it seemed to sit with the feelings that constantly threatened to overwhelm me and which, as I learned reading Geneen Roth, I would stifle with food. Milo likes to say: "Fuck your feelings," whenever anyone tries to use his or her sense of being offended to try to shut down debate. Roth, more gently, would say: "Practice sitting with them." Practice sitting with all of the anxieties and fears and doubts that feel like they are going to overwhelm you. Practice feeling your feelings, letting them simply be there, not trying to make them go away, not trying to fight them, just feeling them. Sit with them long enough to realize that they are only feelings, they cannot hurt you, however overwhelming they may seem. This applies to feelings that you have by yourself, when you are alone and wishing you could be with friends; when you are struggling with your schoolwork (more on this in a moment) and your demon is telling you how stupid are; when you are listening to someone speak and he or she says something that you aren't sure about, particularly when it conflicts with things you have previously been taught by your parents, teachers, or friends. Sit with them, let them wash over you, feel them in their full force...and then, over time, realize that they aren't scary anymore. They're just feelings.

Second, develop a skill. Here, your falcon training will serve you well, because one of the greatest barriers (as Fencing Bear knows all too well) to developing a skill is, you guessed it, your feelings. Feelings of envy and pride. Feelings of "should." Feelings of frustration and anger and doubt and impatience. Feelings of all the times someone (e.g. your father or mother) suggested that you didn't have the talent for this or that art. Feelings of the shame that washed over you whenever your mother told you not to "show off." Feelings of wishing you were anyone other than who you are. Again, they are just feelings. They can make you miserable, but they cannot make you happy. What can? As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has argued, skill. More particularly, skill exercised under the appropriate conditions of difficulty, such that you are neither anxious or bored. "Flow," he calls it, as if it is easy. Which it is--but only in concept, almost never in execution. (I, Fencing Bear, am living proof.) Why? Because real happiness comes not from doing things we find easy--or, worse, from following our "passion"--but from confronting challenges and rising to them. Here, competition is our friend because it gives us opportunities in which to exercise our skills, but even more importantly, because it provides real opportunities for failure. We learn nothing when we win, except that our skills were adequate to the task. We learn--and learn big, if having learned to sit with our feelings, we can ignore them and pay attention to what we need to change in our practice.

This, to my mind, as both Fencing Bear and Professor of History, is the real scandal afflicting our university and college campuses today. Not that the students are feeling triggered by the feelings that they experience when confronting ideas or assignments that they do not know how to address, but that we, their teachers, have failed to give them proper challenges because we (and, no, I don't really include myself in this group, but as a teacher, I know I always have room to improve) have become so obsessed with making sure that they never feel bad. Well, to coin a phrase: "Fuck our feelings!" Fuck our discomfort when we ask them a question and they don't know the answer. Fuck our anxieties about whether we are implicitly biased (of course we are, Mrs. Clinton is hardly the first to make this observation--as the Avenue Q puppets put it, "Everyone's a little bit racist!") when we respond to them. Fuck our feelings when we grade their assignments and feel sorry for them because, in all honesty, we cannot give them an A, no matter how hard we know they tried. Fuck our feelings--because, if we don't, we are lying to them, and that is far worse than making them feel a little bad. Why? Because, as teachers, it is our JOB to give them accurate and honest feedback about the work they are doing, the thoughts and opinions that they express, their grammatical and arithmetical skills, their comprehension of the material that we have assigned them and their ability to work with it.

If, as Milo likes to say, "feminism is cancer," grade inflation is heart disease, diabetes, and suicide rolled into one. And not just the kind of grade inflation that everyone talks about, when all the students at Harvard get As. The kind that sucks at your soul because you have never been presented with an actual challenge and so have no idea whatsoever what to do with a novel and difficult task or idea. Political correctness is a symptom, not a cause. It is a symptom of putting students in situations, for whatever well-meaning reason we might give, for which they do not have the skills because they have never been given accurate feedback about how they performed. Of course they are triggered when they encounter professors like Christina Hoff Sommers suggesting that maybe all college-aged men are not rapists or that equality of opportunity is different from equality of outcome, if every time that they have been presented with something that made them mildly uncomfortable--for example, like losing a fencing bout--they have been told that what mattered was their feelings rather than that they learned what they needed to do to improve either their understanding of what the speaker has said or their ability to provide an appropriate answer. This is one of the key elements, as Csikszentmihalyi has shown, of experiencing "flow": immediate and unambiguous feedback, combined with clarity of goals and a concentration on the task at hand, so that one learns from the practice and thus can grow in skill.

By now you will have guessed that I admire Milo greatly for what he is doing in making his tour of our college campuses. He has inspired me to take up some of these difficult issues on my blog, about which I hope to say more over the coming weeks, but above all, the thing that struck me most when I started watching the videos of the talks that he gave last year and has continued to impress me as he makes his current tour, is how he is training our students to understand the difference between emotional outpourings and actual questions, to the latter of which he responds immediately and unambiguously with appropriate facts. If we want our students to stop feeling so triggered, we need to start practicing feeling less triggered ourselves. The Dangerous Faggot Tour, I would submit, is a good place to start.

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